Monday Morning Quarterback: Soft underbelly undermines Wenger’s attacking refit

Daniel Storey breaks down the weekend’s big talking points...

Monday Morning Quarterback: Soft underbelly undermines Wenger’s attacking refit

New attack, but same old Arsenal

You can hardly blame Arsene Wenger for trying to turn Arsenal into a counter-attacking team. He now has the perfect ingredients for that attacking strategy: a wonderful creator in Mesut Ozil, central midfielders desperate to join the attack in Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere and two attackers who were used to playing in such a style at a previous club in Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Against Everton, they were lightning quick and ruthless when possession was turned over.

Yet the actual attacking part is only half of the counter-attacking battle. Arsenal cannot rely on it as a viable tactic if their defence cannot soak up pressure without allowing the opposition five or six presentable chances. In their away games this season, the defending has been relegation standard. They have fewer points per game on the road than Bournemouth, Watford, Leicester and Burnley.

The scoreline may have been close against Tottenham, but the pattern of the game was not. Having abandoned their early rampage in favour of measured control, Tottenham simply waited for Arsenal’s defence to abandon positional discipline or to leave a man free around the penalty area. You never have to wait long.

Only when the defence and defensive midfield is improved can Arsenal truly call themselves a successful counter-attacking team.

Pochettino has a defensive question to answer

Tottenham last used a central defensive three against West Brom in November, abandoning it having dropped two points in that game and having lost two of their previous three league matches. Yet the decision was largely made for him by Toby Alderweireld’s injury. Eric Dier just didn’t do the same job effectively enough, and was needed in central midfield anyway with Victor Wanyama out.

Yet with Alderweireld now returning to full fitness, Pochettino has a dilemma.

Having won eight and drawn three of their last 12 games with a back four, it would be brave (or perhaps stupid) to return to the old plan. But keeping this formation means that one of Davinson Sanchez, Jan Vertonghen and Alderweireld will be left out of the team.

Logic suggests that it will be Sanchez who misses out, but that would be tough on a defender who has acclimatised to the Premier League with remarkable ease at such a young age and in his first season.

Puel’s tactical switch the strangest weekend decision

Leicester were hardly dominant during the first half at the Etihad, but who is? They had only 31.4% possession and managed only one shot, but were level at half-time thanks to Jamie Vardy’s continued efficiency against the best teams in the league. More on that later.

So quite why Claude Puel decided to change formation at half-time is beyond any reasonable observer. Adrien Silva may well have picked up an injury and therefore had to be withdrawn at the break, but bringing on Danny Simpson rather than Vicente Iborra and changing the shape left Leicester looking lost and City able to take full advantage.

It allowed Pep Guardiola’s team to play through the middle, whereas in the first half they had been forced to go wide and cross the ball, something Leicester’s central defenders will always be comfortable dealing with. Add in Kasper Schmeichel’s horror show, and away supporters will have left the ground wondering why their team shot themselves so obviously in the foot.

Burnley’s season quickly being downgraded

Sean Dyche deserves to have the 2017/18 season assessed at its end. Even if Burnley finish 14th, his achievement will deserve plenty of praise.

The problem is that we have already fallen over each other to pile the accolades on Dyche after Burnley’s astonishing autumn. Over the course of the winter, their season is being downgraded from great to good.

Perhaps this was always likely with a squad that is low on depth playing in a high-intensity style, but Burnley have not won in exactly two months, a run of 11 matches in all competitions. That includes defeats to Swansea and Crystal Palace and draws against Southampton, Huddersfield, Brighton and Newcastle. That’s six of the Premier League’s bottom eight covered.

It seems farcical to discuss Burnley’s decline when they are seventh in the Premier League, testament to their fantastic improvement under Dyche. But the manager will be disturbed by this miserable run, and be acutely aware that memories are short.

Vardy keeps on upsetting the apple cart

Jamie Vardy turned 31 last week. His game is based on regular high-intensity sprints and his goals often come from him chasing down lost causes and generally making a nuisance of himself, so you’d forgive him for slowing down slightly.

Not a bit of it. On Saturday against Manchester City, Vardy became the first player in Premier League history to score against Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham in the same season. That is an extraordinary record given that Leicester have won once and drawn twice in ten matches against those same teams this season.

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