This column is being written with a depressing opening afternoon defeat fresh in the memory. Part of me wished I had submitted something earlier but discussing the humbling defeat to West Ham, at least to some degree, is unavoidable.
Arsenal looked slow, lethargic and devoid of ideas to break down a superbly well organised West Ham team. Whilst Wenger has blamed the opposition’s advanced fitness levels, the truth may well lie equally in the team selection and resulting balance.
Without Sanchez against Chelsea and the Hammers, the Frenchman moved Cazorla ostensibly to the left to accommodate Ramsey back in the centre. This allowed him also to play a fit a rejuvenated Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right, where he won the man of the match award and scored the winner at Wembley. Against West Ham in the first half too I felt that Ox carried Arsenal’s biggest (only?) threat.
The simple fact is that the team has better balance with Chamberlain on the right and he remains the player most likely to give Arsenal true width, continually willing to attack the left back, get in behind and deliver balls into the box. Walcott can do it but lacks the defensive abilities and work rate. This is even more crucial for balance as whoever we play on the left will be right-footed and unwilling to do the same on the opposite flank.
When Cazorla or Ozil are asked to play on the left they both want to come back in and tend to get in each other’s way and each other’s space. This was very evident against a well organised Hammers and nullifying their threat was easy. We have to remember that this is about the team and not about individual favourites of course, but I am also certain none of us have any doubt that Sanchez will come back in on the left, if not against Palace, certainly for the Liverpool match.
My views on the Cazorla/Coquelin axis are on record and for me at present it is difficult to envisage either being dropped for Ramsey in the short term, not until the Welshman adds discipline and ball retention to his attacking attributes and work rate.
I hope this does not mean that Wenger reverts to playing Ramsey on the right and leaving the Ox out, as for me this disrupts the balance that was so telling last season in numerous key games. Indeed we should recall that the manager’s decision to bring Ramsey in on the right only happened when Chamberlain was injured in March after destroying Man United in the first half of the FA Cup quarter-final.
It was pointed out to me yesterday after the defeat that our superb form at the end of last season and the FA Cup glory coincided with Ramsey being accommodated on the right. Well far be it for me to spoil a good theory with facts but I will. The first game with Ramsey on the right was against Liverpool and it worked very well, against a team expected and willing to come out and play against us. The next three outings, against organised teams, intent on nullifying any attack, saw us scrape a 1-0 vs Burnley, very nearly lose an FA Cup semi-final vs a Championship side and a record stalemate with Chelsea.
After a better display against a woeful Hull fighting for their Premier League existence, the same setup saw us lose to Swansea at home, play out a goalless draw with an awful Sunderland side and draw with United. The final home league game we hit four past WBA, but in that game we changed the striker and Wilshere started on the right and not Ramsey.
Only in the cup final itself nearly two months after the 4-1 display over Liverpool did we see that system that allowed Wenger to play Ramsey, Cazorla, Ozil and Sanchez seem to work well again. So I ask the question of Wenger again – and I know I am not alone in this – please don’t try and fit square pegs in round holes and select the team that gives us balance and variety.
With Ramsey on the right and Alexis on the left we are playing with two players out wide both looking to cut inside meaning there is no width left at all. I know Ox can be frustrating but his pace and two-footedness terrifies defenders and in the Community Shield he made the best left-back in the Premier League look ordinary. Between November and March he featured in 16 games, starting 12, and we won 11 of them. These included the memorable wins at City and at Old Trafford, the draw at Anfield and the destruction of Galatasaray and Newcastle. These results and this period turned our season around and Chamberlain was very much part of it.
Unleash the Ox!