How Arsene Wenger can reinvent himself at Arsenal - starting against Man City this weekend

JJ Bull

Arsene Wenger's desire to "reinvent" himself will concern the hardcore Wenger Out brigade and elicit shrugs from even his biggest fans.

For 20 years Arsenal's style has barely changed. They play nice football, they falter when the pressure builds, the same thing happens the following season.

What could Wenger possibly do to reinvent himself if he hasn't altered much - if anything - during his extraordinarily long reign? 

Arsenal's brief foray into the counter-attack 

Since the start of the Arsenal revolution in 1996, Wenger has fielded a 4-4-2 side, using Dennis Bergkamp dropping behind the striker, a 4-3-3 with Cesc Fabregas the heartbeat of the team, to the current 4-2-3-1, with three central attacking midfielders behind a striker.

This is how they lined up in the opening game of the season against Liverpool, a 4-3 defeat:

Average touch positions (0 min)

And here it is in the more recent 3-1 defeat to Liverpool:

Average touch positions (0 min)

In the second Liverpool example, Granit Xhaka and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played further forward than their replacements in the first match, but other than that it's identical.

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Pick almost any Arsenal average position map, and it is the same. The defensive line is high, the wing-backs are exposed to counter-attacks, one midfield player is left to defend most of the pitch on his own... no matter what formation Arsenal use, the system and style of play is identical. 

Wenger's players are given freedom to roam, are trusted to know when to attack and defend and are encouraged to improvise lovely little passages of play that open up a defence - when it works, it produces moments of magic like Jack Wilshere's multi-pass goal against Norwich in 2014.

Credit: AP

But as splendid as all that passing is, rival managers know how to frustrate Arsenal. When the football doesn't flow or they run into a well-drilled defence, as happened against West Brom in a 3-1 defeat, Arsenal come unstuck. Wenger's team are good enough to beat inferior sets of players but when they come up against a strong side they struggle. Bayern Munich humiliated them.

The biggest criticism of Wenger The Manager is that he does not adapt to the opposition. With 10 men, Arsenal kept looking for a goal against Bayern Munich in their first leg tie when the most sensible thing to do was to shut up shop and attack in the second leg.

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The first leg finished 5-1 to the Germans - an insurmountable lead for anyone (except Barcelona). Former Champions League winner Owen Hargreaves, speaking on BT Sport, couldn't believe Arsenal's approach and response to Laurent Koscielny's red card:

"Bayern are at a completely different level and take into account you're playing with one less player... but you have to manage the game. Bayern were happy with 3-1 but were gifted two other goals. At that point the game was over."

But there was a moment in recent history where it seemed like the penny had finally dropped.

Credit: REUTERS

Against Man City in January 2015 Arsenal kept it tight in a 4-1-4-1 and looked to hit City on the break. A draw against a title rival would have been a decent result anyway, but as it was, Arsenal's superior organisation and better-performing players were able to dismantle Manuel Pellegrini's team twice to record a 2-0 win

After that game, Henry Winter wrote:

This felt the moment when Arsene Wenger finally tempered his purist principles to devise a balanced game-plan making his team more compact and defensively resilient and bringing spectacular, deserved rewards. Winning at the home of the champions is not what Arsenal usually do.

Only time will tell whether Wenger continues with this mixture of silk and steel, whether a manager seemingly committed to football as an art-form will stick with this plan of stationing more bouncers outside the gallery.

The sun set. The next day, Bill Murray awoke to another 6am alarm and again, nothing had actually changed.

Arsenal finished third, City in second, and Chelsea steamrolled their way to 87 points and the Premier League title. 

A new Wenger would be one who adapts his team to the opposition; a proactive manager who solves problems before the game kicks-off instead of one who can explain in details why it went wrong this time. Again.

Changing the mentality

Arsenal's routine season collapse around the time of the last-16 Champions League ties has bred a familiarity with failure which Wenger must address. The celebrations that followed a title-race-killing draw with Bournemouth or last year's misleading win over eventual champions Leicester are not those of a team focused on the bigger goal. 

By creating Arsenal in his own image Wenger has established an entertaining brand of football but one with serious character flaws. Arsenal and Arsene Wenger are hard to separate - how can he change that mentality without undergoing a full personality transplant?

Rebuilding the core of the team

Wenger has been able to plan and construct his teams for longer than some of his biggest critics have been alive but hasn't been able to graft the mentality which title-winning teams need.

Sir Alex Ferguson used to rip up a successful team to ensure complacency couldn't seep in; treating the first team like a business, he didn't allow personal relationships or emotional attachment to cloud his judgement. 

Credit: PA

Ferguson's group of Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Gary Neville and Nicky Butt fulfilled their potential. Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey, Kieran Gibbs, Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have not, yet Wenger persists in the hope that one day it will work. There is a growing feeling around the Emirates that this day was, unfortunately, some time in the last few years.

There are indications that Wenger realises this now - only several years too late - with his willingness to let Next Big Thing Jack Wilshere go out on loan. Others may follow, with Oxlade-Chamberlain said to be considering a move in the summer.

Wenger has expected too much of a talented but limited group and they have fallen short of the elite status he hopes they would achieve. Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil have carried the vulnerable homegrown Arsenal core for two seasons now, and it's a heavy weight. Even Petr Cech is struggling under it.

Credit: GETTY

Ramsey in particular symobolises the weakness in Wenger's Arsenal teams. A huge talent, an exciting, technically gifted player, he should have become a brilliant all-round central midfielder by now, but his lack of positional discipline has never been fixed, his tactical understanding hasn't improved, and even though it has happened a hundred times, he is still caught out on the counter-attack for title-destroying goals against the run of play. 

Wenger refuses to sign the defensive midfielder that could become the yang to Ramsey's ying because, as he has said, they are either too expensive or unavailable. So Ramsey continues to exist in that purgatory between great and good that many an Arsenal player has occupied.

Credit: REX

Francis Coquelin is another emblem of the Wenger era. A youth academy graduate plucked from anonymity to fix an injury crisis and avoid lavish spending, the initial excitement around his discovery has dimmed as it becomes more apparent he is the individual at fault for silly goals far too frequently. Coquelin is a tidy player but not of the quality or steel necessary to control a midfield in a Champions League final - something Wenger hasn't had since Gilberto Silva and the bar he must aim to reach.

A change in tactics

Jurgen Klopp and Antonio Conte have brought an all-energy attacking game to the league which both excites and gets results, Leicester have enjoyed success with their unique, retro style, Barcelona have moved from Guardiola's tiki-taka to counter-attack football and back in Luis Enrique's short time in charge - Wenger hasn't brought anything new to the table in years.

Perhaps now is the time for him to take influence from his younger contemporaries?

Credit: AFP

Atletico Madrid are a defensively solid team who squeeze the maximum out of brilliant creative players when the team affords them time to do so. The stars of the show like Antoine Griezmann, Saul and Koke have a reliable platform from which to work, with a safety net behind them. Arsenal give their creative players the freedom of the pitch and the soft underbelly is exposed - without strong defensive foundations, attacking players cannot excel.

Diego Simeone, linked with the Arsenal manager job once Wenger decides to leave/has it pried from his cold fingers, gets the results that Arsenal need playing in a totally different way and this is something that Wenger will be only too aware of.

If he really is going to reinvent himself, the most obvious thing he could do is make Arsenal play more like the team he inherited from George Graham in the first place, defending deep and allowing only attacking players the freedom to burst forward.

Focusing on the result

Wenger's love for free-flowing football is, in an ideal world, what every coach should strive for. This is, after all, supposed to be an entertainment business. But against less attractive sides this style requires plenty to go in Arsenal's favour if it is to work. For too long Arsenal's players have been encouraged to express themselves on the pitch to show that they can, rather than follow set instructions and only improvise when necessary. 

Credit: PA

Pep Guardiola's Barcelona wonder-team will always be remembered for the stunning tiki-taka possession football they played, but at its core the team was led by Carles Puyol snapping at strikers and leading with his head held high. There was bite to balance the beauty.

Wenger's greatest Wenger's Invincibles was similar. Then he had Martin Keown kicking people when he needed to and Patrick Vieira controlling the match.

Now Wenger has a team of artists without a plan, always looking to someone else to lead the way; a kind of work environment where meetings are arranged to discuss the possibility of more meetings and where nothing actually gets done. It is a scenario in which a direct player like Alexis Sanchez has grown increasingly frustrated.

Credit: PA

The grand artistic vision Wenger once had has become muddled over time and average players have diluted the original plan. Where he wanted the magnificent cathedral, he's ended up with an above average church.

The process can begin on Sunday. Man City will look for holes in the Arsenal defence which will leave all the space a Mesut Ozil could eat, playing into their hands.

If Arsenal play as normal and things go their way, those wonderful creative players will produce, score, and keep it tight to get the result. But this has always been Wenger's problem; he cannot control the variables which decide whether things go Arsenal's way. 

Wenger focuses on making his team play as well as they can, with confidence that this alone will be enough to see them through.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger and his assistant Steve Bould during the Premier League match at The Hawthorns, West Bromwich

It is the opposite approach to a match taken by Guardiola, who meticulously analyses his opponent until he finds the one weakness he knows he can exploit. The last time these two teams met Man City won 2-1.

Perhaps the new Arsenal dawn will begin with a defensive 4-1-4-1, just like the one which promised a brighter future back in 2015. Back then it really did seem like Wenger had finally rediscovered the secret to success - perhaps a new Wenger can do it once more.

Or maybe the right thing to do on this occasion is nothing.

If Arsenal win it will validate Wenger's belief in the system he has made synonymous with the club. Then, maybe, he can just keep trying that same thing in the next game, since it worked so well in the one before. And so on.

It isn't that Wenger doesn't want to change. At this stage the problem might be that he doesn't know how to. 

Run-in

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