LONDON — Arsenal have won one of their last 12 games in all competitions and are in freefall.
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Interim head coach Freddie Ljungberg hasn’t been told if he will be in charge until the end of the season, while there is no indiciation that a new manager will arrive anytime soon.
It is a colossal mess, as the Gunners are as close to the Premier League relegation zone as they are the top four. With so much going wrong on and off the pitch, where on earth do they start to fix things?
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Here are five things they need to focus on first.
STICK WITH FREDDIE OR HIRE A NEW GUY
This is the biggest thing to sort out first. What direction are the club going in? Should the players prepare for a new manager in the next week or so? Or will they at least have the comfort of knowing Ljungberg will be in charge until the end of the season? Either way, it needs sorting. Now. Arsenal are still, somehow, in the top four hunt and are just seven points back. But they are also just seven points from the drop zone.
“As I’ve said to the club, for me it is a great, great honor to do this. Of course, Per [Mertesacker] is the academy manager and he’s doing two jobs in one go and I said I think it needs to be cleared up, to make a decision so everybody knows,” Ljungberg said. “That is something I’ve said but it is totally up to the club. I am very honored and I’m trying to do things as good as I can. I think it would be good to make a decision, regardless of what it is.”
Ljungberg is spot on. One way or another Arsenal’s players, staff and fans need some direction, at least in the short term. The easy option will be to give Ljungberg and his assistant coach Per Mertesacker the job until the end of the season then evaluate who is available. Sorting out who the manager will be until May could well settle things down, and Arsenal badly need that to happen. The way the fans were just disappointed rather than angry against Man City, plus left their seats at half time and just stuck around to watch City rather than their own team was a damning indictment as to how bad things have become. The ownership have a lot to answer for and making a firm and swift decision on the managerial situation will help everything else move forward.
FOCUS ON MIDFIELD SHAPE
Matteo Guendouzi was totally overrun in central midfield on Sunday and Arsenal’s decision to play a 4-2-3-1 didn’t work out. Lucas Torreira had a torrid outing and the duo who promised so much last season seem totally out of their depth this campaign. Finding a midfield shape which works and sticking with it is the way to go as Arsenal need more numbers in the middle, either with a 4-1-4-1 formation or a 3-5-2. There isn’t enough protection for their error-strewn defense and pragmatism should now be the focus if they’re going to get back on track and secure wins way at Everton and Bournemouth to put themselves back in the top four battle. With Chelsea and Man United the next two up after that, Arsenal can still salvage their season if they bring more structure to their entire team, and especially their midfield.
This will give them extra defensive solidity and their defenders who are actually fit will get extra cover. It has to happen. Going forward it will also allow Aubameyang and Lacazette to play together centrally, while Ozil could float about in the hole ahead of two more defensive minded central midfielders. With injuries to full backs, there could be issues out wide but Saka and Maitland-Niles (the only two fit options at full back) would be better suited to being allowed to push forward. 3-5-2 should be the switch.
GO FOR EXPERIENCE OVER YOUTH
At times like this it is time for experience to come into the team. Ljungberg pointed to Arsenal’s fans being proud of the young players on the pitch at the end of the game as five players 20 years old or younger (including three teenagers) were on show. Arsenal have to get their most experienced players on the pitch to grind out results. David Luiz and Alexandre Lacazette need to come in and the Gunners simply have to get as many players on the pitch who have handled this kind of situation before. The younger players are talented but they need to be eased into the team. This pressurized situation is far from ideal for them to make progress and it could damage them for the future. It is time for Arsenal’s more experienced players to stand tall, but first of all they need to be put on the pitch.
FINDING A ROLE FOR OZIL
He divides opinion but if Ljungberg wants Arsenal to be a fluid, attacking team, then Ozil needs to play a central role going forward. Ozil has started every PL game since Ljungberg arrived and that shows the faith the Swede has in him. Playing Ozil in the hole will be key and encouraging him to drop deeper and try to set the tempo for their attack is what needs to happen. Ozil was frustrated to be brought off against Man City, and rightly so. He didn’t feature that much going forward and Arsenal just couldn’t keep hold of the ball. Against teams like Everton and Bournemouth coming up, he has the quality to unlock opposition defenses. He should be given the chance to dig Arsenal out of this horrible situation.