After that statement, we knew that this was coming. But with it comes a bitterness and anger that should be completely unnecessary, but is, in fact, very much warranted. Had the 29 year old kept quiet before his sale, not forcing the club to let him go – and in doing so showing the club and manager that made him a complete lack of respect – and not betrayed them by going to one of their greatest rivals, Arsenal fans would remember him fondly. He had been at the club for eight years and with 132 goals and 95 assists in 277 games, could have earned himself a place as a club legend. Though unfortunately, his actions in the lead up to this move have rendered that impossible.
In his spell at Arsenal he won, as has been much-noted, just one FA Cup, wherein he scored of one the penalties in the shootout. When his Arsenal career is recalled, the prevailing memories are his injuries. Only in his final season did he manage to play in more than 30 league games, and he rewarded the faith shown in him by Arsene Wenger in the process, producing 37 goals in 47 games in all competitions, dragging the team to a fifteenth consecutive top four finish, as well as providing 10 assists. He finally became the world class forward Arsenal fans always knew he could be. His record shows that this was far from being his ‘only good season’, but it was the one which opened the eyes of those outside Arsenal to his extraordinary talents. At the start of said season he was awarded the captaincy; he has since been widely regarded as the best man to wear the armband at the club since Patrick Vieira. Though it would seem that the added importance went to his head somewhat.
He was an outstanding leader, fitting all the English-made captaincy clichés brilliantly. He became an Adonis around the Emirates, adored by the fans on a similar level to Cesc Fàbregas in the 2009/10 season. He was not just loved, but desperately needed, at Arsenal. The extremely flawed, yet very telling, stat that has been sent the way of many Arsenal fans by opposition supporters who think they are funny and insightful is that without his goals, they would have 16th in the season. It is a greatly misleading and, forgive me, idiotic piece of information, but it does illustrate just how important he was to the team last season. There was a phenomenal amount of goodwill and affection, built up since his arrival – but expanded hugely in his final year – for him, which he managed to vapourise in just over 300 words.
The statement. What is most probable is that he told the club that he had no desire to sign a new contract, yet they replied that they would then simply hold him to the final year of his current deal. As a fan of both the player (formerly) and the Arsenal (still, of course), it was disappointing in the extreme. After witnessing the snide runt that is Samir Nasri and his – for want of a stronger word – acrimonious parting, followed by his fittingly scornful and classless remarks through the season, there was a perception that the former number 10 was different, having grown up as a follower of the club and someone who always appeared to respect and appreciate the traditions and philosophy of Arsenal. Alas, those of us who thought that were sadly mistaken.
There are so many aspects of the statement which inspire animosity and enmity that it is difficult to know where to begin. The actual publishing of it was clear in its cynicism, but operated under the patronising illusion that the club was in the wrong, rather than the writer himself. The title in itself was despicable: ‘Update for the Fans’ – it was no update for fans, but potential suitors, and it was timed and designed in such a way as to make his position untenable, forcing the North Londoners to sell and in doing so, reducing his price and damaging the club further. The fact that he went behind the club’s back to do it, giving them no prior warning, only adds to the sordid element of it all. The first part that stuck out was his claim that financial terms were “not his priority”. Although this did not stop him allegedly agreeing wages of £220,000 per week with his new club. The next paragraph was one which resonated self-regarding disrespect more than any other, as he claimed that in spite of his “huge respect” for Arsène Wenger, he disagreed “on the way Arsenal FC should move forward”. While this may be the case, his stating it so openly was extremely poor form on his part; with regard to the attempted demonisation of Arsène Wenger, attempting to polarise the fans against him, painting himself as the damaged party. The regular ‘I will always love this club’ lip-service followed, before a straight lie about Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis being on a two-week holiday in the United States. Disappointing and infuriating in just about every way possible.
Sensible Arsenal fans would not have begrudge his desire to move – or move abroad, anyway; he served the club well and after carrying the team in what was arguably the manager’s most important season, one could sympathise with a player of his talent’s wish to see his career render silverware, but to go about it like this leaves not so much a bitter taste in the mouth, but the taste of a strong coffee topped off with a nice, healthy kilogram of salt. The way he was going, he could have earned himself an immortalisation on the Emirates Stadium concourse, but now his chapter will be cast aside and forcibly forgotten by the majority of the support. The manner of the departure and the destination mean he will not be remembered with anything close to a smile. He chose not to leave with dignity, but in this fashion, to one of the club’s biggest historical enemies. He is no longer anything but ‘BLANK’, in my mind. Arsenal will be fine without him, but now the question arises as to whether he will be the same without Arsenal.
New Arsenal signings are almost always a nice thing. Unless Mickaël Silvestre is involved. But so far this summer there have been three (!) of them, all of them well-known, highly regarded and extremely exciting. They have addressed Arsenal’s forward going weaknesses, as well as acting as basic insurance should the captain have his well documented desire to move fulfilled. Although these were serious problems within the team, it would still appear as though the team’s conceding 49 league goals last term has been overlooked, signings-wise.
Of course, there were some extenuating circumstances: the terrible start did not help, especially before the signings of Per Mertesacker, André Santos and Mikel Arteta, while Thomas Vermaelen and Kieran Gibbs were injured and Alex Song and Emmanuel Frimpong were suspended. It was also not aided by having no natural full backs between early December and late January, a spell which saw Laurent Koscielny, Johan Djourou, Vermaelen, Francis Coquelin, Nico Yennaris and Ignasi Miquel play at left and or right back, despite none having the roles as their favoured positions. Through the league season Arsenal were forced to play 22 back four combinations, meaning there was little chance for a settled four to gain a great deal of understanding.
Be this as it may, it simply made a bad case worse (or a lot worse). There can be no denying, even from the most staunch defender of all things Arsenal, that there were many instances of truly shocking defending during the 2011/12 season. Many of them were individual errors from players well capable of playing far better – Vermaelen is one who springs to mind, as does the Wojciech Szczęsny who took over goalkeeping duties in the second half of the year. The real Szczęsny is welcome to stand up. One problem picked up on by many was that the problem lay in Arsenal’s poor defending as a whole team. Any look at their defensive options will show in seconds that they are not bad players, by any means, but they were susceptible to conceding goals.
One player who grew into an extraordinarily valued and needed one last season was Mikel Arteta, so much so that in the 9 league games in which Arsenal were without him (including the three before he was signed), they won just one, the oh so laboured 3-2 final day victory over West Brom. In their games without him they conceded 21 of the full 49 that went past them – in just 9 games. Meaning that their record with him as 28 conceded in 29, which is a fairly respectable total. On the face of these stats, one would assume that Arteta is the difference between all successes and failures for Arsenal, but a further look is illuminating: last season Arsenal only had four midfielders who made more than six league appearances in a midfield three (Francis Coquelin made 10, but only four were in midfield, the rest at full back) – Arteta, Alex Song, Aaron Ramsey and Tomas Rosicky. In the games without Arteta the midfield partnerships in the deeper two were:
1. Newcastle away, 0-0 – Song-Rosicky.
2. Liverpool home, 0-2 – Frimpong-Ramsey (Until 72′, at which point it was 0-0); (72′-90′) Lansbury-Ramsey.
3. Manchester United away, 2-8 – Coquelin-Ramsey (Until 62′, 1-3); (62′-83′, 2-7) Ramsey-Rosicky; (83′-90′) Ramsey-Lansbury.
4. Swansea away, 2-3 – Song-Ramsey
5. Manchester United home, 1-2 – Song-Ramsey.
6. Chelsea home, 0-0 – Song-Ramsey.
7. Stoke away, 1-1 – Song-Ramsey.
8. Norwich home, 3-3 – Song-Ramsey (Until 63′, 1-2); (63′-90′) Song-Oxlade-Chamberlain.
9. West Brom away, 3-2 – Song-Coquelin.
What this information shows is that short of Song, Arteta and Coquelin (who spent much of the year injured), they were without a fit player who was particularly adept at playing in a deeper midfield pair. Neither Abou Diaby nor Jack Wilshere started a game all season, with the former appearing five times from the bench and the latter not featuring at all. Ramsey was thrown into the role at various junctures and was on the receiving end of mounds of criticism for some poor performances there. Some of it fair, most far from it.
The departures of Cesc Fábregas and Samir Nasri and their lack of adequate replacements left Arsenal with no top class creative player. Ramsey’s first half of the season in the classic ‘number 10’ role was strong, as was the rejuvenated Rosicky’s second half of the year there. But replacing a player as good as Fábregas is an exceptionally difficult task. Rosicky and Ramsey took on some creative duties during their respective spells in the first eleven. The rest had to be spread throughout the team. Robin van Persie often dropped deeper even more to aid his fellows and there was more strain placed on the wingers, as well as more creative responsibility for Alex Song.
The Song-Arteta axis is a strange, but on the whole effective one. Song’s creative ability – which saw him make 11 league assists – was harnessed, sacrificing some of his defensive work, much of which was left to Arteta. A typical pair of midfielders operating behind a more attacking colleague in a triad will consist of a regista and a ‘destroyer’. Song and Arteta, between them, were both and neither. The typical ‘destroyer’ breaks up opposition play and recycles possession, while the regista makes play from deep (as explored in this); they shared these duties. Song averaged more tackles per game (2.9, compared to Arteta’s 2.5 – league only), where the Spaniard was the expert in possession, completing an average of 76.9 passes per game, but giving just two assists to Song’s 11 (while the Cameroonian averaged 66.1 passes per game). When it worked well, it was excellent: their two styles complemented each other. Both tasked with breaking up play (to differing extents), Song, being more direct, would be more inclined to drive forward, in contrast to Arteta who, evidently, was more prone to build on the foundation of possession.
With Wilshere and Diaby still unreliable in the extreme in fitness terms, a signing is of the essence. But who? Ideally, a player who can work alongside both. Earlier in the transfer window there was much talk about a possible move for Yann M’Vila. He is capable of playing as a true holder, as well as more of a box-to-box player and could be ideal. A pairing involving him and Song could work very well; both have outstanding qualities as box-to-box and holding midfielders and they could form a strong defensive unit, protecting the back line. Also, if ever partnered with Arteta, M’Vila or a similar holder/box-to-box hybrid could similarly allow Arteta to be more attack-minded, but the rumours concerning M’Vila have rapidly subsided of late.
Since, there has been numerous substantial stories concerning a potential loan for Nuri Sahin. He is highly adept at playing in a midfield triumvirate, both as a forward playmaker and primarily as a regista. With new signing Santi Cazorla ahead of him, he (or a similar regista-type player) would take on a secondary creative role, next to a stronger holder. This would entail one of Song or Arteta being more defensive to allow said player to flourish. Arteta has shown himself to be content with more defensive work, however many have expressed concerns about Song.
There are two incarnations of the number 17. On the one hand there is Alex Dmitri Song Billong: he wins the ball: plays it short (doesn’t overcomplicate); Alex Dmitri Song Billong: nothing flash, he cannot shoot (he’s got dreadlocks!); Alex Dmitri Song Billong: plays the holding role; scores the occasional goal. (Incidentally, that’s one of my favourite ever Arsenal songs. Could you tell?!) On the other end there is the man Arsenal fans have taken to calling ‘Songinho’. His desire to roam forward appeared to override his judgement at times. Though this was rarely a problem in seasons past. He may prefer to run around the pitch like some sort of over-excited puppy, but he is well-capable of playing the role of disciplined defensive midfielder and perhaps it will be better for the team for him to play this less thrilling of positions; much like Sergio Busquets for Barcelona (though to a much, much lesser level). He does not exercise his full creative potential, instead playing in a more subdued fashion. Song’s weapons could still be used in desperate times, or in certain tighter games, but with more creativity in the side, there could be greater need for Song to be more restricted.
Many of Song’s performances have seen a complacent player with little competition. This was partly born out of the injuries but there is a case to be made that it is worth bringing in a defensive midfielder of similar quality with the aim of creating a stronger squad with more motivated players. A signing is essential, but there is a big call as to whether to make it a regista or a ‘destroyer’. In an ideal world, they would be able to get both, but with squad and monetary restrictions, it is most unlikely – not impossible, but assuming only one can be bought, a decision must be made as to which can be brought in.
Personally I would elect for a natural regista. With Song, Arteta and the excellent prospect that is Coquelin well capable of playing as holders and all ready to compete with each other for places in the team and hopefully bring the best out of one other, the promise of less goals with the likely departure of van Persie means more and more creativity is required, so those replacing him in the form of goals must receive more in the way of chances. Even on the off chance that he does stay, a central midfield pairing with Song, Arteta, Coquelin and a new deep lying playmaker provides more in the way of tactical versatility, with Diaby and Wilshere potentially adding more, but they cannot be used at all in future planning.