x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Wenger's tactical warfare unorthodox but works for Arsenal

The manager has a knack of defying conventional wisdom, says Richard Jolly.

Gervinho repaid the faith shown in him by his coach Arsene Wenger by scoring a brace against Southampton.
Gervinho repaid the faith shown in him by his coach Arsene Wenger by scoring a brace against Southampton.

There is footballing orthodoxy and then there is the Arsene Wenger way.

When conventional wisdom dictates the Arsenal manager should adopt one approach, he tends to do the exact opposite. When the demand is for experience, he often promotes youth. When the call is for heavy spending, he often responds with cut-price signings or by focusing on home-grown players.

Wenger can seem one of life's dissenters, forever in the minority.

The difference is that the Arsenal manager is in a position to put left-field ideas into practice.

When Saturday's team sheet was submitted, there was something wonderfully illogical about it.

In what was once Robin van Persie's place, as Arsenal's centre-forward, was Gervinho. Rather than the most prolific scorer in the Premier League last season, he had been one of the most profligate.

It worked. Gervinho scored twice in the 6-1 thrashing of Southampton and led their defenders a merry dance. An unorthodox choice is an unconventional striker. While the Ivorian has plenty of pace, he certainly is not a target man, partly because he does not stand still for long enough to provide a target.

Wonderful movement was a feature of his debut campaign in England but, after he got into dangerous positions, so was his capacity to miss. The former Lille man had 40 attempts on goal.

Only four went in.

Equipped with a new signing who was the top scorer in France's Ligue 1 last season, the more obvious move would have been for Wenger to select Olivier Giroud, not least because the visit of Southampton offered an ideal opportunity for the Frenchman to score his first Arsenal goal.

Yet of late, Wenger's stubbornness has been an inspired form of obstinacy.

There were audible groans from the fans in the summer when he declared that he did not need to sign the France international Yann M'Vila because, among others, he had Abou Diaby.

Plenty had written off the midfielder, assuming he would never realise his early potential.

Indeed, a frequent criticism of Wenger is that he is too slow to recognise that his promising young players are no longer either promising or young.

Yet Diaby delivered a powerful performance in the 2-0 win at Liverpool two weeks ago.

At a stroke, the failure to replace the sold Alex Song no longer looked a mistake.

Twice in successive games, there are signs Wenger's patience with his underperforming players is being rewarded.

A path to redemption is being laid and, if the trend continues, Johan Djourou could be the next to tread it. Wenger is a staunch admirer of the Swiss but, once again, very few others are.

If Gervinho is an unlikely role model, he can follow in famous footsteps. While it will take more than two goals against the team with the division's most porous defence for his move from the left wing into the middle of the attack to be a success, there are precedents.

If the cliche is true and scoring is the hardest part of football, it explains why many a manager will take a goalscorer and add other elements to his game. Wenger operates the other way around, transforming talented wingers into a guarantee of goals.

First, Thierry Henry and then Van Persie served an apprenticeship on the flanks before Gervinho's switch.

"We transform all wingers into strikers," Wenger said in jest.

Gervinho lacks the ice-cool temperament that enabled Henry and Van Persie to finish so calmly but anyone with his ability to evade defenders has a priceless attribute.

And Arsenal have a choice. To use Wenger's word, they have "diversified".

Whereas their game was based around Van Persie, now there are three very different options in attack: Giroud, Gervinho and Lukas Podolski. Unless, that is Wenger takes another quick winger whose wastefulness has frustrated fans and makes Theo Walcott another centre-forward.

Because much as reinforcements, Santi Cazorla and Podolski in particular, have brought Arsenal optimism, it is the way the underachievers are reinventing themselves that is most encouraging.


One of the game's great truisms is that the league table takes shape after 10 games. Nevertheless, that does not mean the standings are universally ignored. But one thing the embryonic rankings show is how significant the fixture list is at this stage of the season.

Consider the three teams in the relegation zone. Southampton's four opponents have included both Manchester clubs and Arsenal. Both Queens Park Rangers and Reading have taken on Chelsea, with QPR also facing Manchester City and Reading beaten by Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday.

As Reading have also had one match, at Sunderland, postponed, one interpretation is that they have had a solitary winnable game, a 1-1 draw with Stoke City.

Southampton and QPR can attribute their position to one damaging - in one case disastrous - home result.

Southampton were beaten 2-0 at St Mary's by Wigan Athletic while Rangers got themselves off to the falsest of starts by losing 5-0 to Swansea City.

While Southampton and Reading, in particular, may be pencilled in for lengthy stays in the drop zone, the reality is that both would have done very well if they were not in the bottom three right now.


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