So much has and will be written about Robin van Persie this summer and I myself on this blog am as guilty as the next Arsenal fan. We are also guilty collectively, and not surprisingly, or moaning about not winning a trophy for 7 whole years. Where the heck if he going with this they say? Well this is not one of my tactics and formations pieces (well just a bit), nor is it one of my using statistics to argue my cases pieces. No this is a gut feeling from the heart sort of a piece, but it does have a thread that binds the two opening sentences. So why is us worrying about the decision of our talismanic skipper and our distinct lack of silverware inextricably linked?
Something has been nagging at me for a while and I will try and argue this coherently but first here is the controversial statement: ‘Arsenal don’t produce trophy winning sides when they build the team around one man.’ The last trophy we won was in 2005 but it was already going wrong by then.
Something had changed after the 49 game unbeaten run had end at old Trafford and looking back for me it was that the emphasis shifted slightly away from the brilliant well-oiled machine that has won the league unbeaten a year earlier and towards one man, Thierry Henry. Such that when Henry was unavailable injured for the 2005 Cup Final instead of just playing the usual side and playing Reyes or van Persie alongside Bergkamp we saw the first use of a 4,5,1 and Ljungberg was dropped to the bench to accommodate Pires moving to the right and Reyes playing on the left. A whole team changed just because we had lost one focal point. The result was a complete embarrassment and the first time under Wenger we defended for the whole game and played for a draw. (Our last trophy!)
Beginning of the end FA Cup & sale of Paddy?
The selling of Vieira that summer was the beginning of the end because we lost our leader and he was replaced by Thierry Henry as club captain. Two things happened. One was the introduction of a 5 man midfield on a more consistent basis but the result was that without the influential Vieira the whole team began to revolve around one man, Henry. We had a brilliant young Dutchman in our ranks called van Persie and he only got 13 starts in the Premier League in 05/06 as the team was increasingly set up to feed the talent that was Henry. Yes he scored an incredible 27 goal in 32 EPL matches but the goals but at what price. We won nothing and Pires and Ljungberg who had hit 18 in 2 years earlier hit 8 between them. Thierry Henry still reigned as the King of Highbury but the team had ceased to function in the same fluid fashion. A memorable run to the Champions League Final papered the cracks and again a team set up to counter attack and free Henry, failed when he missed 2 chances to seal the game. 2006/07 was worse as Henry was struggling with a bad back but rather than rest him and play RVP and Adebayor we soldiered on with a team built to service Henry. No Pires and a fading Freddie and then that summer no Thierry Henry.
Cesc Fabregas was the new star of the Arsenal team but in 2007/08 the side was functioning with him pulling the strings but it was not built around him. Now Henry had gone Wenger had reverted to the formation that bought him all is glory. A conventional 442, with one central midfielder, Cesc, given more licence, with Flamini sitting deeper. Just as we had with Manu and Vieira and Gilberto and Vieira. Either side were Rosicky and Hleb taking on the Pires and Ljungberg roles, with RVP, Adebayor and the newly arrived Eduardo rotating as 2 strikers. This was the one season we should have won the league since 2004. We were the best team, playing the best football in our old familiar style, and not just functioning to support one supreme striker. Sadly we had 2 bad breaks with bad injuries to first Rosicky and then Eduardo, having already losing RVP. This was the turning point as we only had one fit centre forward. Wenger opted to bring another centre midfielder in and move Fabregas closer to Adebayor. The marked the end of the winning 442 at Arsenal, and the start of the team being fashioned again around the talent and brilliance of one man.
End of 442 & beginning of team set up for Cesc
So in 2008/9 we made the young Spaniard skipper and set up the team with 2 deeper midfielders and 2 wingers and let him dictate the play. Of course dictate it he did to a degree, but the fluency of our football relied solely on him. The previous season, when we were so close to the title Cesc had hit 13 goals and had 24 assists in all competitions operating in a two man centre midfield. In 08/09 with the team built to suit his attacking and creative prowess we finished lower in the league and whilst the formation worked as he created 19 goals for his team mates he stopped scoring, netting only 4 times. This new formation also meant that a returning Eduardo had no place to play but on the wing. RVP, Bendtner and Adebayor shared sole striker duties, but RVP or Bendtner often found themselves out wide to accommodate the new single striker system. The phrase ‘square pegs, round holes springs to mind.’
This was to continue for the next 2 seasons, moving players around to fit the 4,2,3.1 system created for Fabregas. Diaby as a defensive midfielder in 09/10 is a perfect example. Bendtner, an out and out centre forward on the wings. Rosicky and attacking centre midfielder or wide player in a 442 yes but a winger no. Perhaps the biggest crime was buying one of the world’s best second strikers in Arshavin and sticking him on the left wing. All these players are quality footballers and could adapt but the point is we suffered. Whilst the team was set up to get the best from one man, which it did, the overall performance level was just not quite enough to take us to silverware. The legacy of this is that the one player has now left and we have a formation which requires a player as good as Cesc to make it work.
Ironically the one season it looked as if it might work was 2010/11 because even though we still had players like Nasri, Walcott and Arshavin all playing away from where they wanted to be, it has finally clicked again. Why because a fully fit again van Persie was on the same wave length as Fabregas and Walcott. Just when it seemed the plan was again coming together Fabregas got injured just before the Carling Cup Final. The game that might have changed everything and proved pivotal ended ultimately in disaster.
So have we learned the lesson, or has Wenger learned it. I am not sure but I hope so because we are at another cross roads. This past season we have maintained the same formation without Cesc and again we have fallen short. Why because to make the 4231 formation work the central attacking midfielder has to be a special player and the sole striker has to be a special player. Briefly in 201/11 from December to February we had both in Fabregas and van Persie but this past season we have struggled. Neither Ramsey of Rosicky, whilst both excellent players are not of Cesc’s calibre. We are in danger of building the current team around the talents of one man again, Robin van Persie and the last 7 years have surely told us this is a doomed path.
So what has prompted me to pen these thoughts now? Well the circumstances now seem perfect to me for us to build a TEAM again full of talented individuals all playing at the top of their game and all contributing. There were times last season when we were so close but ultimately the strength in dept cost us on the run in due to injuries and we limped home. Also we have the RVP will he or won’t he sign question? Either way whether to convince him to stay or to build for a future without him this is the summer to build a squad capable of all contributing and not to focus on a supply line from or to one player. Our great sides had multiple attacking contributors and this is what we should be aiming for again.
An excellent way to make my point is to take in my mind the greatest season under Wenger of 2002 and see the gradual shift away from the team contribution and yes inconceivably I do include 2003/4 in the decline. To do this we can look arguably the most influential players in terms of attacking play:
The shift towards the team playing for one individual is evident but it also demonstrates that titles are won with multiple attacking contributions.
So the lesson must be learned and the conclusion inescapable. Arsenal if they are to challenge in 2012/13 cannot rely on the brilliance of one player and cannot set up their team to suit that one player. Successful Arsenal sides under Wenger have always had 3 or more players in double figures for goals and assists across a season. Last season we had 3 players with double digit assists in RVP, Walcott and Song but only van Persie scoring over 10. Okay so he scored 30 and won a pack of individual awards but the team won nothing. Even when Henry was scoring at a similar rate to RVP others were contributing. Indeed I have not even included our Old Trafford hero of 02, Sylvain Wiltord who also hit 10 in the league. In fact across all competitions in 2002 we had 5 players scoring more than 10 and in 2004 only 2. There I have said it the decline had begun during the ‘Invincibles’ year. We were too reliant on Thierry Henry as we are too reliant on Robin van Persie now. In 05 and 06 Henry was still scoring but the support from others had dried up because of the way the team began to play. It was the same with Ian Wright in the last 2 seasons under George Graham.
Additional goal threat
So the challenge for us to win silverware in 2013 is to produce a team that has creativity,goals and assist threat from multiple avenues and the addition of Podolski is a fine start, but others will need to step up to the plate. 2011/12 must be the last season that the great institution that is Arsenal FC is built around the brilliance of one man. We failed with Henry at the end and Fabregas so let us not fail with van Persie.
Until next time thanks for reading
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