When Arsenal won the 2003-04 Premier League title, they were one of the strongest teams in England, rightfully earning the title of ‘Invincibles’. With an attack led by Thierry Henry and a defence manned by Sol Campbell, the Gunners managed 26 wins and 12 draws in their 38 league matches. However, a big key to their success was the presence of Patrick Vieira.
The Frenchman, who was also skipper for the side, was the perfect defensive cover for Arsene Wenger’s team, and he guarded the midfield with aplomb. His importance to the side was especially evident during the October and November of 03-04 when, with Vieira injured, they conceded more goals than usual.
Playing in the 4-4-2 formation gave the wingers Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg a chance to move forward, while Dennis Bergkamp moved back and partnered with Gilberto Silva if necessary. Arsenal is missing this kind of dedication in the middle of the park and it has brought about their steady downfall.
An empty Arsenal
With two losses in two games, the misery has piled on Mikel Arteta after Project Restart marked a disastrous beginning for the North London club. While a loss to second-placed Manchester City is somewhat forgivable given the history of the fixture, fans were fuming at home after the shock loss to Brighton and Hove Albion, especially after going one up.
The ire of the fans was tested right from the beginning of the match, with their in-form goalkeeper Bernd Leno getting blatantly fouled by Neal Maupay before the French striker added injury to insult with an injury-time winner. However, the problem in Arteta’s team lies deeper than the defensive line; it’s the lack of solidity in the middle of the park.
Flanked by pacy wingers like Bukayo Saka and Nicolas Pepe, Arsenal have not had a player capable of manning the midfield since the days of Vieira. Players like Mathieu Flamini, Francis Coquelin, Mohamed Elneny, and Mikel Arteta himself, have all been tried, but the Arsenal defensive problems are seemingly everpresent. And among the current crop, Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi just aren’t cutting it.
As the Granit crumbles
Granit Xhaka was the closest to emulating their former French star and had seemingly found his best patch of form under Arteta before the suspension of the league. However, with an injury picked up early on in the match against Manchester City, it looks increasingly unlikely that the Swiss international will play for Arsenal again this season, leaving the remaining options of Torreira, Guendouzi, Joe Willock, Dani Ceballos and an outside shot for Mesut Ozil.
The new Spanish head coach reverted to Arsenal’s formation during the 2003-04 season while taking on Brighton, and it was seemingly working. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was playing just behind Alexandre Lacazette, and the wingers were making the overlapping runs perfectly. The midfield duties were handed to Ceballos and Guendouzi, with the former expected to attack while the latter would sit back.
The plan seemed to work in the first half; Guendouzi was responsible for two important interceptions in the opening minutes while landing quick balls to the flanks for Pepe and Saka. However, his work rate declined massively towards the second half, especially after Pepe opened the lead with a beautiful curler. Of his six interceptions, five were in the first half, while he lost possession thrice in the second half, including twice in his own half.
Partey time ahead for Arsenal
While the team looks in shambles currently, Arteta already knew the repercussions of taking the Arsenal job while at Manchester City itself. Approaching his first summer transfer window, it is imperative that Arsenal close the deal for the highly-linked Thomas Partey, who will add plenty of experience to the Arsenal squad.
Although the drop in the fortunes of the side will need to be arrested soon, the few differences in the team from before the suspension of the league is quite evident, and only time will tell whether Arteta's Arsenal can turn a tide. Although European football is a far off dream currently, the new times speak of a new future at the club
Feature image courtesy: AFP / Ian Kington
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