This piece first featured on SabotageTimes.com (Link)
After 14 very strange, eventful and long months, the pictures of Jack Wilshere training with the Arsenal first team again were a huge cause for excitement for the fans. He is set to play an hour against West Bromwich Albion’s under 21 squad on Monday evening, but it may take him some time to be ready to start in the main eleven, and potentially even longer for him to replicate the brilliant levels of performance he showed in the 2010/11 season. Even when he is ready to return, he may struggle to break back into the team.
When he broke through, he was playing a deep midfield pair alongside Alex Song in a 4-2-3-1. This was in Song’s phase of actually being a defensive midfielder (or at least more so than last season), so Wilshere had a lot of freedom to roam forward and impose himself on the game offensively. He was nothing short of a revelation. If he is to assume the same role, the man he will be challenging for a place will be Abou Diaby, while Mikel Arteta and Santi Cazorla have seemingly rendered themselves all-but undroppable.
The Frenchman also had an injury-ravaged 11/12 season, but has made a strong start this season, topped off by his supreme showing in the 2-0 win at Anfield. He has always been one of the most frustrating players, on account of his extraordinary ability combined with his maddening inconsistency, and in these first 5 games we have seen both sides of Diaby. There was the aforementioned Anfield version, followed by the variation who showed himself in the second half against Montpellier. He was bordering on being a liability at points, constantly losing possession and looking extremely lethargic. Wilshere, in comparison, was remarkably consistent, despite his youth, rarely putting in anything resembling a poor performance.
Like Diaby, Wilshere offers a drive and creativity in the box-to-box role. With lingering concerns over the fitnesses of both, rotation between the pair depending on the game will hopefully see the pair remain fresh and allow them to play to their respective strengths. Diaby offers far, far more as a physical presence than his counterpart, where Wilshere is more creative and hence is a greater asset in the more closed off games, of which Arsenal will have more. In the matches in which Arsenal will look to absorb pressure and play on the counter attack, Diaby will be the preferable option.
The other challengers for that position in the midfield are Aaron Ramsey and to a somewhat lesser extent, Francis Coquelin, who is more likely to act as cover for Arteta, but will still be in consideration for the box-to-box role. Ramsey has looked impressive thus far and while Wilshere is still recovering he must be considered to be ahead of him in the pecking order, and should he continue it there is no reason for Wilshere to jump straight back ahead of him. Wilshere will have to go his way to proving himself worthy of a place again, which can only be a good thing for both him and the club.
Some have suggested the option of playing Wilshere in behind the centre forward and pushing Cazorla to the right-hand side, but this fails to take into account that he was in no way ready to play as a ‘number 10’ before his injury. The few times he did take the position he looked lost and unable to influence the game. He was not ready then, he will only be less so now.
However, it is worth noting that when Wilshere emerged with the reserves, he was playing wide on the right hand side, cutting in onto his favoured left foot. Ramsey played in a similar way to this against Manchester City, based on the right but spending a lot of time infield, with greater creative influence (although unlike Wilshere he is right-footed), showing there is an opening for such a player in that area in this Arsenal side. Cazorla’s aptitude out wide could also see him develop an understanding with either of those two players, drifting wide as they go central, as he does on the side with Lukas Podolski.
Relying on Arteta for a full season, with only Coquelin and Frimpong as his backup would unfair on the Spaniard and a recipe for disaster. Arsène Wenger is said to envisage Diaby to be a holding midfielder in the long term and he did partner Wilshere on a number of occasions in the 10/11 season; most notably in the infamous 4-4 draw with Newcastle. For the 48 minutes before Diaby received his red card, the midfield trio of himself, Wilshere and Cesc Fàbregas looked outstanding, with the former two operating as a perfectly balanced midfield pivot. The idea of a Diaby-Wilshere-Cazorla midfield is one that, fitness permitting, will grow and grow through the season.
The plethora of options in Arsenal’s midfield (it has been many years since one could legitimately say that) means that there is no need to rush Wilshere back into first team proceedings, nor play him every week when he is fit. Part of the cause of his original injury was his being overused through the domestic season, due to the fact that there was very little depth and what little backup there was – Diaby and Ramsey – spent much of it injured. Their fitness, beside the emergences of Coquelin and Frimpong remove any strain from Wilshere almost entirely in the short term. But when he does return (in time), expect him to slot back into the box-to-box role in intermittent games, sharing duties with Diaby and Wilshere, as well as more of Diaby in the position Arteta has made his own. There are most definitely openings on both flanks, with no option really having nailed down a place – I fully anticipate that he will be used on the right and if he re-adapts to it quickly, he may even find most of his playing time this season to be there.
In order to succeed in football, you will always need some degree of luck. When August 31st 2011 arrived, Arsène Wenger was running low on it. He had been given the news that Jack Wilshere would be out until at least the start of 2012 and Abou Diaby out indefinitely; in searching for a replacement, he called Everton, enquiring about Marouane Fellaini. Bill Kenwright quoted £30 million, claiming that he would “be lynched” if he sold the Belgian. So Arsenal followed up by asking about Mikel Arteta and eventually, a £10 million deal was finalised.
Those who had watched Arteta knew that he would not take the place of the departed Cesc Fàbregas, but play deeper, with a more defensive mindset. And alongside Alex Song, defending would very much be the primary element of his game (as analysed in this), but his partnership with Song was an oddly imbalanced pivot, with Song’s indiscipline meaning that Arteta was often remaning deep to cover for him. After the Cameroonian’s sale, Arteta was entrusted by the manager to play as Arsenal’s primary holding midfielder.
This was seen by many as a risk. Arteta stands at 5’9″ and is not exactly a great physical presence; nor is he a Javier Mascherano-esque tenacious chaser. His holding qualities lie in his intelligence and his discipline. He is rarely, if ever, caught out of position. You will not see him throwing himself into tackles, charging ill-advisedly around the field like Napoleon into Russia, purely because he has no need to. As Xabi Alonso once said on the English concept of tackling (specifically slide tackling) as a quality: “Tackling is not really a quality, it’s more something you are forced to resort to when you don’t have the ball. I can’t get into my head that footballing development would educate tackling as a quality.”
This is a mere freckle on the face of English football’s ideological flaws – which is another issue for another time – but it illustrates that Arteta comes from a different school of thought, with regard to defending as a whole. Arteta has acted as an extremely secure defensive midfielder, partnered by Diaby for four of this season’s five games, as the foundations of a successful partnership looking as though they are being formed. With more definition in the midfield roles, the whole team looks to be stronger defensively; the shielding midfield pair are doing more shielding than they have done in years past and hence the back four are better protected look much stronger for it.
He has averaged 94.5 passes per game this season, with a success rate of 93.1%. His style has fitted perfectly with the club’s possession-based philosophy, and he has become one of the most important presences at the club. He provides stability in the most critical area of the pitch. His defensive ability has left many, myself included, very pleasantly surprised. Like his colleague Per Mertesacker, he does not get caught for pace because he knows where to stand.
He also gives Arsenal more tactical versatility. The reason many thought he was replacing Fàbregas when he arrived were his thus far minimally used creative abilities. When playing alongside Diaby, Aaron Ramsey and eventually Wilshere (when he returns), he will sit deeper but next to the more defensive figures Francis Coquelin and perhaps Emmanuel Frimpong, he has the chance to harness his creativity, while also aiding further back if needs be. This was seen in Arsenal’s 6-1 win over Southampton, wherein Coquelin played closer to the defence, while Arteta cut a somewhat more creatively influential figure. His adaptability and importance have seen him become one of the most vital players at the club.
Aaron Ramsey may turn out to be the player who benefits most from the Spaniard’s shift. He did well in patches last season when deployed in the ‘number 10’ role, behind the centre forward, but struggled greatly in a deeper position after Arteta’s injury towards the end of the season. This was not helped in the slightest by Song’s complete neglecting of his responsibilities, throwing Ramsey to the proverbial sharks, as he has never played as a true holding player. He was lost in the role with no one to guide him through it.
Now Santi Cazorla has arrived and put the advanced midfield position in his inside coat pocket where no others can take it from him, the Wales captain will find opportunities there limited. He is physically very strong, he has a good range of passing, impressive dribbling and a tireless, dynamic element to his game – on paper, he fits the box-to-box position well. Next to a disciplined holding player, Ramsey could be given the freedom to operate deeper but with less defensive responsibility, and even to sit back in a holding role, in years to come, when he has learned the position better.
Given Diaby’s time on the sidelines, it will be asking a lot of him to play two games a week. Chances will come for both Ramsey and Coquelin, but for games in which Wenger’s men will set up to attack – most games – Ramsey will probably be the preferred option. He was put under a huge amount of pressure last season and the strain began to show on him in the second half of the year. All going to plan he will not be needed nearly as much this season, so will have the energy to present his better qualities, in a role that suits him perfectly.
Not even the man who signed Arteta could have predicted what a success he would be, nor the change he would undergo. He is the centre of the team, the link between defence and attack. He was certainly not top of Arsenal’s desired list of options, but he has defied expectations. Luck was on Wenger’s side when Arteta’s lesser-known qualities showed themselves. If there is any success in Highbury this year, he will be at the centre of it. The greatest of all the panic buys.
Amid another rather frantic summer at Arsenal, Andrey Arshavin’s remaining at the club went largely unnoticed, as many expected him to be another on the list of departures. This was not for want of trying on Arsenal’s part, but it was seemingly Arshavin himself who asserted his desire to remain in North London. His career at the club looked long dead after his loan to Zenit St. Petersburg and the circumstances surrounding it, but having him around may prove itself to be far more blessing than curse for Arsène Wenger.
Expectations were monumentally high upon his arrival, and with good cause. He shone at EURO 2008 with Russia and at £15,000,000, he was the club’s most expensive purchase ever. He entered a team in dire need of a creative outlet, with Cesc Fabregas in the midst of a long-term injury. In the month of February, Arsenal were unable to mustre a single league goal. His early performances were encouraging, but ultimately fruitless, as Arsenal fans were subjected to four of the dullest games ever seen in world football. Really. Any who also remember the 0-0 draw at home to Fulham will know that is no exaggeration. It was not until March that Arshavin really started to have a great effect on the games. His first assist came in a 3-1 triumph over West Brom, as he came ever closer to getting a goal of his own, but it was his performance in the 4-0 win against Blackburn that stands out in the memory as the game in which the Russian truly ‘announced his arrival’ to the Premier League. The Dubious Goals Committee took the first strike of that day from him, judging it instead to be an Andre Ooijer own goal, but there was no arguing with who converted his magnificent second one. He burned past Rovers right back Danny Simpson and curled it past Paul Robinson from an extremely tight angle in marvellous fashion. He would later set up Emmanuel Eboué for their third. It was the kind of performance that the fans were eagerly awaiting after his signing.
He turned more provider than scorer in the following matches, providing three vital assists and just one goal in his next four starts, at which point the most memorable performance of his Arsenal career arrived. With fourth place all-but secured, Arsenal were coming up against a Liverpool side who were still in search of their first league title since 1990. Arshavin started after his somewhat mystifying demotion to the bench for the previous game, which was an FA Cup semi final loss to Chelsea. The home side were by far the better side right through the first half, but it was Arsenal who took the lead shortly before the break, through a short-range Arshavin finish off the crossbar, after some intelligent play by Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas. Some truly abysmal defending allowed Fernando Torres and Yossi Benayoun to put Liverpool ahead, but further slack defending, this time from the hosts allowed Arshavin to add a stunning second and then his smash in his third. Fernando Torres capitalised on being in a ground duel with Mickael Silvestre to bring them back to 3-3 and as they searched for a winner, Theo Walcott and the Russian managed to counterattack, leaving Arshavin to slam his fourth past Pepe Reina, in a style similar to Mario Balotelli’s second goal against Germany at EURO 2012. Another Benayoun goal meant that the scores ended level, but the game was all about Arshavin. Funnily, he was probably one of the poorest players in the pitch. His passing was abysmal and in custom fashion, he rarely gave any defensive help, but he produced four individual moments of brilliance. The whole Arsenal side had just four shots on target all evening – all Arshavin’s and all of them goals.
This game was the benchmark he set for himself, and the style in which he continued, though to a lesser extent. He was never a hard worker but he was the ultimate highlights player: capable of seemingly doing absolutely nothing for 90 minutes and then when the highlights are viewed, he looked like every attack’s most lively player. He was different from what Arsenal had at the time: he was all end product. His lack of effort was compensated for in his attacking contribution. At the start of the 2009/10 season, Wenger spoke some words about the forward which now, with hindsight, are more a sad eulogy to his lost potential. “The Premier League needs a star like Arshavin now that Cristiano Ronaldo has gone… Arshavin stands for all that we love in football.” It was no great overstatement at the time, he truly was at that level. The 09/10 season was a mixed one for him.
He started excellently, continuing his form from the end of the previous season, but after long-term injuries to their only two senior strikers, Robin van Persie and Nicklas Bendtner, meant that desperate plans were needed. This led to Arshavin playing as a lone centre forward (or an early ‘false 9’, even) between November and February. This affected his productivity but he played the role admirably. He picked up a season ending injury in April, at which point Arsenal were still very much in the running for the title, but with him, Fàbregas, van Persie, William Gallas and Thomas Vermaelen all absent towards the season’s end, the championship hunt ended rather meekly. He did not retain the fantastic form he showed in glimpses through the year, on account of his unfortunate-but-necessary being played out of position, but he was an important player for them and it is no coincidence that their form wavered badly in his absence.
The next season was one that promised much but delivered little for Arsenal. Arshavin began the season as a regular starter but as the season wore on, Samir Nasri’s and Theo Walcott’s respective form meant that he was shunted to the bench on various occasions when all players were fit. Though regular injuries to Cesc Fabregas meant that he was by no means bereft of starts. His offering became less pronounced, but was no less significant. In fact, his record of having contributed to 28 goals (10 goals and an excellent 18 assists) was an improvement on both his 09/10 form (18 – 11 goals, 6 assists) and his brief 08/09 total (13 – 6 goals, 7 assists), but beyond the pure stats, he seemed a far more subdued player, lacking in his usual panache and verve, but was still an extremely useful asset. It was evident to see that he was slowly drifting outside of Arsène Wenger’s immediate plans, but from the bench and occasionally starting, he should have been a very convenient option.
Within the 10/11 season he provided what was, for myself and many others, his most memorable moment (so far) and one of the club’s greatest in recent years, scoring the winner in the victory over Barcelona. He was introduced from the bench and clipped in a lovely curling shot 12 minutes from time to give the fans a truly spectacular moment.
The heights he had reached were confined to memory by the time the 11/12 season came around. To say Arsenal were in disarray would be a grand understatement. Although he was the scorer in their first league win with the strangest of goals in the 1-0 win over Swansea. He was to make very little impact over the rest of the season, which really hit its nadir in the hateful game against Manchester United, when he was booed on by a moronic yet vocal section of his own fans. From there, it seemed he could not really recover his Arsenal career. What looked to be his final action in an Arsenal shirt was one which showed that he had not lost his ability to create from very little, providing the cross for Thierry Henry to score his last goal for the club, away at Sunderland.
The criticisms that he has ‘never played in his natural position’, and that this was the reasons for his tailing off are lazy and misguided. Anyone who has watched Arsenal will know that a player who does not look to collect the ball from deep is completely unable to play in the ‘number 10’ position for the club and in order for Arshavin to play in this preferred role, the team would have to play to his tempo, with everything based around him. This team was not built for Arshavin, but did shift in its style somewhat to accommodate and aid him. He played well for Russia at the EUROs, but not in his ‘natural position’. Moreover, he was playing down the left hand side. It showed that it was never talent that was absent for him, nor ability to play on the wing; Arshavin had simply lost his motivation to play for Arsenal.
He was loaned to Zenit St. Petersburg in order for him to gain playing time ahead of EURO 2012. This looked to be the end but according to Zenit, he refused the move, with their general director Maxim Mitrofanov citing a clause only known to Arshavin himself as the stumbling block. If the former Russian captain can show his willingness to fight for a place, as looks to be the case with his refusal to move on, Arsenal still have an extraordinarily talented player. He has been nothing close to being a ‘flop’. His record currently stands at a 65 goals and assists (combined, not each) in 131 games, and pre-11/12 contribution cannot be undervalued.
As things are, Arsenal fans will feel that they never quite saw the best of him. The player who was so instrumental and brilliant in the early part of his Arsenal career has not disappeared; nor has the less spectacular but just as efficient Arshavin of 10/11. The genius is still there, but who knows whether he will truly show himself for Arsenal again.
For Arsenal, given what occurred a year ago, and the season that followed, the summer that has passed seems almost normal. A repeat of the débacle that took place in 2011 looked as though it would be avoided: Champions League qualification had been sorted back in May; the signings of Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski were completed in June, meaning that they were insured when Robin van Persie did what the little boy inside him told him he must; the foundations of a good squad were in place, and the club seemed to have learned its lessons from the year before. Oh dear.
Van Persie made his statement in early July. It was evident that he would not be a part of the new team, but no worry – Podolski and Giroud ready and able to go their way to filling the void. A plan was formulated for life without him. And far from looking bleak it was more akin to a sunny day with a subtle yet strong breeze, only one wherein you had forgotten a jumper. Not ideal, although easily rectified. The deficiencies in the squad were plain to see; both lay in the midfield: they required more creativity and more destruction. The latter was far more pressing than the former.
The lack of creativity was addressed with the stunningly cheap arrival of Santi Cazorla. After missing out on him for reasons mysterious a year before, this time they pursued him with a new-found ruthlessness, which yielded results. Now there was a squad capable of challenging. It would be risky relying on Alex Song to play as an actual defensive midfielder, while relying on the fitnesses of Abou Diaby and Jack Wilshere, respectively, but gambles that could be afforded for the time being.
Van Persie was sold. It was the only course of action, but the destination was far from satisfactory. After various training ground incidents, Arsène Wenger decided to get rid of Song. With two weeks remaining, there was plenty of time to replace him. Two weeks later, the window closed. No signings had been made. Song would have to be replaced internally. This left a positionally converted Mikel Arteta as Arsenal’s only holder, with Francis Coquelin as his backup, and Diaby, Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as the defined options for the other midfield role, with Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky and potentially Aaron Ramsey (a player I will cover in another article) being able to cover in times of need. In theory, this should be fine. Arteta showed the discipline and intelligence to be a holding midielder last year (and early this); Diaby is more than capable of replacing Song; Wilshere returning will be “like a new signing” or ‘LANS’ and Coquelin and Chamberlain have shown great promise in their positions.
‘In theory’ is a wonderful domain.
More realistically, depending on Wilshere, Diaby and Rosicky for fitness is insane. Coquelin has shown wild inconsistency, while it is likely that Chamberlain – whose performances have also fluctuated wildly – will be used out wide. This leaves them an Arteta injury away from a potential disaster. Diaby and Arteta is an excellent working partership, but at this stage, behind them is only Coquelin (fnar!) and Chamberlain, who is more likely to be used as a more forward-going option. If Diaby stays fit, there is no problem. If. If Wilshere can do likewise and hit the ground running when he returns, the problems also diminish. Realism, thy name is Arsenal.
Safe to say, they are light in midfield. And, it can be argued, in attack. Giroud and Podolski are new to the Premier League; adapting will take time for both of them. Especially Podolski, whom Wenger sees as a centre forward, although he has never played there before (much as Van Persie had not done so before the 2009/10 season). Then there is the man harder to remove than food stains on a bright carpet: Marouane Chamakh. His ability is not lacking, but the Chamakh of August-December 2010 is all but confined to the deepest recesses of memory. For now, Giroud is the only recognised central striker.
In quite the departure from the norm, the foundations for any success from this Arsenal team may be located in the defence. With Kieran Gibbs they have an adept and underrated left back, Bacary Sagna – arguably the finest right back in the league and three very good centre backs in Laurent Koscielny, Thomas Vermaelen and Per Mertesacker. There is a worry with the backup for Sagna: Carl Jenkinson has potential but remains occasionally erratic and inexperienced, and Coquelin similar, with the added factor of not being a natural right back, while André Santos too can be somewhat eccentric on the other side. Under the tutelage of Steve Bould and Neil Banfield they appear to be working as a more solid unit, with Wojciech Szczęsny having made the number one shirt his own (literally, this summer).
If Arsenal are blessed with the luck that has so noticeably abandoned them in recent years, there is no reason as to why this season cannot be a success. Success, of course, is circumstantial. Trailing a summer in which Van Persie has been lost and Song sold and not replaced, I would define success as a comfortable, Champions League-earning finish coupled with a victory in a cup competition (preferably not the League Cup but 8 years down the line, you take what you can get). If luck, with regard to injuries and refereeing decisions deserts them again, a top four finish should still be on the cards, mainly due to the other chasers of said place.
A future without Van Persie is a source of extreme irritation; as is the possible situation in the midfield. But if it goes the way Arsenal fans hope, they will surprise many. If the team can gain more cohesion and not succumb to a raft of ridiculous injuries, there is much cause for excitement. They have an extremely talented team, which desperately needs fortune to favour them.