Arsenal is back to being predictable

I feel like there’s an MC Skat Kat reference here for all us barely millennials, but it’d also be misplaced, and not just because the reference is old as hell. But between winning at Manchester City and losing today at White Hart Lane, Arsène Wenger and Arsenal do seem to be offsetting their two steps forward with two steps back. From a certain point of view (one that’s used to Arsenal taking full points from Spurs), today’s 2-1 loss at White Hart Lane gave back the ground Arsenal took from the Etihad.

But the MC Skat Kat Theory (currently being peer reviewed) may imply too much flexibility on Wenger’s part. While on one hand it’s encouraging that the Gunners are not persisting with a possession-based approach that’d become predictable and naive, their new willingness to sit off the ball has already become, well, predictable.

At least, that’s one explanation why Arsenal fell to its rivals today. The other would be Harry Kane, but let’s not put too much weight on mere outcomes. Instead, let’s consider some other descriptors. Like 45.8 percent possession, being outshot 23 to seven, giving up 10 corner kicks and needing David Ospina to make six saves, even if Arsenal actually needed seven. Visiting a team that could prove their chief rival for fourth place, Arsenal played exactly as we all thought they might. In the face of that predictability, every preparation Mauricio Pochettino made over the last seven days probably paid off.

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Granted, part of those lopsided numbers was the result of an early goal, with Mesut Özil scoring after 10 minutes. Props to the mercurial German for hitting his annual stretch of goodness, but the goal may have fostered a false sense of security. After playing on the counter in a 2-0 win at City, Arsenal may falsely believe that’s the way they need to play going forward. On Saturday, the approach gave Pochettino’s team 79 minutes to take them apart.

That didn’t happen until after halftime, but even over the first period’s final half-hour, Tottenham had shown every hint of coming back. When Arsenal finally started making changes, they weren’t significant tweaks. Tomas Rosicky came on in a like-for-like with Santi Cazorla in the 68th minute, after Kane had already equalized. Theo Walcott replaced Danny Welbeck 10 minutes later. Aside from a brief spell of possession after Tottenham’s first goal, Arsenal showed no hints that it could change gears.

Tottenham Hotspur v Arsenal - Premier League

From one point of view, the approach was understandable. Not only did it work at Manchester City, but against a team that’s averaging 56.1 percent possession per game, there may have been the hope of absorbing pressure and isolating Federico Fazio and Eric Dier on counters. There is some defensibility there.

But that ignores a couple of major qualms. The approach was going to put a lot of emphasis on defensive midfielder Francis Coquelin’s performance – probably not the make or break you want to ride in a big game. Against a Spurs team that’s less talented than Manchester City, there may not have been the need to make the wager. Why couldn’t a team with Ozil, Aaron Ramsey, Cazorla and Olivier Giroud play to its strengths against a team lower in the standings? Add in the predictability problem, and there are a number of reasons to at least question Wenger’s approach.

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That the approach was so predictable, though, may be the bigger, potentially lingering problem. Games against City and Spurs aren’t enough to draw conclusions, but it’s worth watching. Has Arsenal seemingly traded one problem, the limits of Approach A, for another, the limits of Approach B? Is the real problem the inability to adapt between kickoff and final whistle?

Any indictment along these lines is likely to sell Spurs short. We’ve seen what Tottenham can do. We saw how it tore Chelsea apart. A win over Arsenal at home is almost expected for that team, at this point.

No, the problem for Arsenal wasn’t the result as much as how it happened. Two steps forward and two steps back would actually be a decent outcome, given trips to City and Spurs. That Arsenal may be swapping one set of shortcomings for another is the more troublesome part.

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