Around a month ago, Serie A was a very different place to the one it is now. Napoli were finally looking as though they were putting together some sort of legitimate challenge to Juventus for the Scudetto which would, if nothing else, assure both of the top two spots in the table; AC Milan, newly equipped with Mario Balotelli, were continuing their fantastic recovery from their awful start to the season, flying towards the Champions League places, just as Inter’s dip took on a new toll as their only true ‘number 9’ Diego Milito was (shockingly) ruled out for the remainder of the season. Lazio had suffered a similar fate, losing Miroslav Klose for a few months, leaving them without a goalscorer, which has seen them recede in their charge for Champions League football.
In the meantime, sixth-placed Fiorentina, fresh from a 2-1 away loss to Bologna, appeared to be relying on all three of those teams to collapse and they to be pretty great themselves if they were to make the top three. It had been an inconsistent year, but in the first full season of Vincenzo Montella’s new project, this was of not representative of any great crisis, but did present a worry as to the future of their best player. A month on, they sit in fourth, just three points behind Milan and five from Napoli, whose own collapse has been quite something to behold.
Their rise up the table has had its roots in Stevan Jovetić’s return to form. Like the team as a whole, he has had a patchy season thus far. It started strongly, with him scoring 5 in his first 7 league games, all of which came with him playing in a two-striker system. With Luca Toni and Mounir El Hamdaoui he was very much the ‘number 10’ and it was then where the goals flowed most. By contrast, with Adem Ljajić, who is usually somewhere between an attacking midfielder and a winger, they played in a more rotatory manner, with both capable of playing deeper and further forward. Mostly, however, this saw Jovetić, the far stronger in front of goal, sit further up while Ljajić got to grips with the position. This led to Jovetić pushed further away from the play, reflected by his generally low goalscoring alongside the Serbian in the first half of the season. At the time, it was a relationship that greatly benefitted neither party.
The number 10 role is widely regarded as the position in which Jovetć is most comfortable. Much of his career has been divided between there and time on the left wing, which has allowed him to develop his creative tendencies and hone his ability to beat players. This year looked as if it was to be the breakthrough campaign for his goalscoring which has been solid, if not prolific, through his time in Tuscany.
He missed six weeks from early November after picking up a thigh injury, but he still managed to score a few goals either side of the injury. There is a misconception where Jovetić is concerned that he is an injury-prone player, thanks to the cruciate knee ligament tear in 2010 which ruled him out of the 10/11 season. He had a few minor muscular problems across the 11/12 season, but these are commonplace for players recovering from long-term injuries. Otherwise, the aforementioned thigh issue has very much been an outlier this year.
In more recent weeks, he has been used at the centre of a three striker system, as a ‘9.5’ style of centre forward, in the mould of both Robin van Persie and Karim Benzema last season, respectively, when the former was used in a more creative capacity by Arsenal and when the latter remembered how to be good at football. This sort of system is difficult for a team to adjust to, as it requires the whole side to be accustomed to having their striker spend most of his time closer to the midfield than the penalty area, as well as said striker having a strong understanding with his wingers, who are needed to operate more centrally, and the key creators behind them.
Jovetić and Ljajić very steadily established a strong partnership during their time played as a pair, and their respective moves into positions that, it could be argued, suit them better has seen them both flourish to a greater degree. Jovetić has maintained his total positional freedom, only now he has more space to use it. Not reflected in the stats is that he is visibly learning his new role as he goes, but is picking it up quickly. The only struggles he appears to be having with it is trying to be close to the main midfield creators David Pizzaro, Alberto Aquilani and Borja Valero (or whichever one, two or even three of which are on at any given point), all of whom are deeper-lying playmakers rather than classic number 10s.
So Jovetić is occasionally forced to sit deeper than even most ‘false 9s’, but this is becoming less and less of a problem as his understanding develops with the aforementioned midfielders. One stat that does bear this out is the fact that they have scored 9 goals in the 4 games in which Jovetić has been used at centre forward.
The mention of Van Persie gains more credence with a comparison between the two players. Both came through as number 10s who were comfortable on the wings; both are extraordinarily technically blessed and with a outstanding ability to manipulate space. With Thomas Müller, Jovetić is the closest thing to the Dutchman outside of the man himself. The Montenegrin’s movement is similarly brilliant outside the penalty area and he shares his excellent vision, creativity and ability to bring his teammates into play. Jovetić, however, is more able to beat players, while the former Feyenoord man remains stronger (at least at the moment) in most other departments.
Van Persie did not adapt instantly to the centre forward role and in his early days there; he assisted far more than he scored. His deep movement was as brilliant as ever it was, but it took him a while to crack where to place himself in the area. Once he did, the goals arrived. And, at first wonderfully and now most irritatingly, they have barely stopped. The same is currently, and will certainly become true of Jovetić. His goals have almost all come from outside of the 18-yard box across his career and when he combines this with the poacher’s instincts, which he is more than clever enough to learn, he will be near-unstoppable, and it will reflect in his goal record.
The similarities with Van Persie go their way to further explaining Arsenal’s apparent interest in him. His ability further back also make him ideal for Manchester City’s and Juventus’ (the two other seemingly interested parties) preferred two-striker systems.
For Arsenal he would play a role similar to his new one for La Viola, only with the main playmakers closer to him. He would combine extremely well with Santi Cazorla who himself has shown great improvement in his finishing and positioning in the area in recent weeks, as well as Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski, as wingers who prefer the inside track to providing pure width themselves.
For City, assuming Roberto Mancini is still in charge, and Juventus, he would fit in very easily, but would not be utilised as the key goalscorer. Rather, he would be used in the more creative role. At City, a combination of David Silva and he switching between going wide and moving centrally within games could be marvellous to behold. In Turin, he would play as a better alternative to or replacement for Sebastian Giovinco, with the similar penchant for making play from wide areas.
Any move to either (the former being far more likely than the latter given the history between Juventus and Fiorentina) would probably be negative for his development as a ‘9.5’, but would not damage him overall: he is far too good not to get the playing time required to excel at whichever, should he make the move.
He is not, at this point, a 30-goal a season striker: he is in the process of becoming one. He could become the archetype of the modern, complete centre forward, capable of scoring and assisting in equal measure. He may still remain in Florence – which would be more likely should they achieve Champions League football – but whichever teams he does end up at will have a magnificent player. Fiorentina appear to be demanding €30million for him. Should any pay that, it could be the best €30million they ever spent.
This was written for and first featured on WeAreTheNorthBank.com (link) before the Swansea game.
No one lets you down quite like Arsenal. Before the match I had hoped for nothing more than to come away with some pride, and such is the Arsenal way, I got exactly that – and far greater than expected – but still felt deflated when the final whistle came around.
There were similarities with the two legs against AC Milan last year: we spent the first leg both being outdone and outdoing ourselves, but conceded one goal too many and could not overcome the semi-self-inflicted deficit. When the time came to really push in the second leg, both Milan and Bayern played the less literal game – and the referee – a lot better than we did. Although that did not lose us the tie, it did not help with trying to get back into it.
It’s tough to come to any great conclusions off the strength of some games but the match itself did not tell us anything that we didn’t already know; if anything all it did is remind us of things we may have forgotten, or go some way to confirming certain suspicions that have been held for some time.
First, there are the goalkeepers: Wojciech Szczesny’s dip has not exactly been a short term phenomena. He had a few good games but has struggled greatly with consistency since around January 2012. He is clearly exceptionally talented and inconsistency is to be expected from a 22-year-old, but he has progressed worryingly little over the last year or so, and has given many an error over that time. Arsène Wenger has said in the past that Lukasz Fabianski is the most talented keeper at the club, but he is not as mentally strong as his compatriot.
Trusting him to the extent of giving him a start away against Europe’s second best side should be very good for his confidence, as should his strong display – and public support from vice captain, Mikel Arteta. There is no reason to drop Fabianski for Swansea, and less reason to reinstate Szczesny. Should Fabianski keep his place, it will be his first run of games in the side since September-December in 2010, in which the short of memory appear to have forgotten he was excellent. He will have to impress greatly to present himself as any sort of long-term solution, but if he does well enough to reclaim his place, the club will have an interesting call to make as to whether to renew his contract.
It was one of Arsenal’s best, if not the best, defensive performance of the season, battling the away game against Manchester City for the title. The identical personnel in the backline for the two games is no coincidence. Carl Jenkinson was another who performed well, and has done in the majority of games he has played, the red card at Sunderland excepted. It would seem Bacary Sagna will be on his way this summer and whoever comes in will have good competition for a place with Jenkinson behind them, just as the two left backs do.
It was Kieran Gibbs’ first game back in six weeks and with that in mind he did very well, although did leave space behind him at points and allowed Philipp Lahm and Thomas Müller space infield to create. He highly understandably looked a little rusty, as is to be expected, and with no concerns over Nacho Monreal, Wenger is right not to rush Gibbs back this weekend.
Both Per Mertesacker and especially Laurent Koscielny, were excellent. The Frenchman has had a patchy year, but is deserving of a place in the side, both on this performance and on Thomas Vermaelen’s poor form. Had the Belgian not been named club captain, he might have been easier to drop earlier on, but now he has been and the two who took his place did so well. Like Szczesny, there is no reason to give Vermaelen his place back.
In the absence of Jack Wilshere, the midfield looked more stable and balanced, but we struggled to create clear chances all game. This can be attributed more to Tomáš Rosický’s relatively poor performance in just his fourth start of the season and Santi Cazorla being crowded out so effectively for most of it.
It does not need saying what an excellent player Wilshere is but he still has a lot to learn, and at this point he does not have a position: in the deeper midfield role, he pushes too high up and leaves too much space behind him, which leaves the defensive midfielder open to being attacked – and Arteta was never the best at covering ground. His end product is still lacking and in more closed-off games he has struggled to have any great influence on proceedings when being further away from the play. But at the same time he is far too good to drop, so until he develops further as a creator, Arsenal and he are stuck. His injury could go its way to seeing us become more solid defensively, but we may miss the influence he has in attacks.
The game did confirm that this side certainly does have the ability and spirit to climb back to the Champions League places, even if Bayern were below-par and without their best player. Some credit must go to the manager for the more than welcome return of his ruthlessness with the underperformers, as well as how well we were set-up as a unit. Concerns, however, do remain as to the minimal – yet easily accounted for – creativity and chances made.
It should act as a lift for the team after the results that have been. Now what was left of the perennial Champions League dream has died, the focus must unfortunately be turned to getting a way back into it. Five points from Chelsea and seven from Sp*rs (on whom we have a game in hand) with 10 games remaining are certainly possible to overcome and both will drop at least that many points in the games ahead, and it will be on Arsenal to take advantage. Then again, we have never been ones to make life easy for ourselves…
I have a general policy where Arsenal-related matters are concerned to never discuss the team of 2007/08. There has never been a greater case of ‘what could have been’, or even should have been. The stars of old had been moved on, the new wave was crashing past all in its path. The midfield was the standout area of the team. Cesc Fàbregas was the centre of operations, adding more productivity to his already excellent play, flanked by Mathieu Flamini, who covered the ‘dirty work’ (which is not to understate his own technical talent), with Tomáš Rosický and Aliaksandr Hleb on the wings.
Close friends off the pitch, the four together were perfectly balanced on it, protecting their defence well and creating enough that by mid-February, they sat atop the table, having scored a league high 54 goals in 26 games, losing just one game all season. They created enough that even Emmanuel Adebayor managed a 30-goal season. Then February 23rd happened and the rest needs no further documenting. With that, and the injustice at Anfield two months later, the season was over. The potential remained for something truly incredible. But then came the first of the rebuilding summers for Arsenal, as two major departures set the project back a further year. And so, the side that could have been the best Premier League side of its generation was no more.
The first of those departures was Flamini, on a free transfer, to AC Milan: the first of a number of contractual issues. The second was Hleb. He had been a frustrating figure in his first two seasons, his lack of really meaningful attacking play and apparent fear of ever having a shot (reflected in his goal record) forever negating his wonderful dribbling and ball retaining abilities. He was clearly talented, but ranked among the most infuriating players to have played for the club over the last decade. He had suffered greatly in the shadow of the domineering Thierry Henry, who is alleged to have been rather harsh in his treatment of the Belarussian. Free of this pressure he, like Fàbregas, had discovered productivity in the 07/08 season. His improvement saw a number of suitors come calling. The famous ice cream offer from Massimo Moratti when Arsenal were in Milan sticks in the mind, but it was Barcelona who eventually paid €17million for him in the summer.
To replace him, Arsenal signed Samir Nasri for £12million. It was a like-for-like move: both players are comfortable on either wing, if stronger on the right, and capable of playing as a number 10. Nasri not only filled part of the wide creativity void that Hleb’s move had left, but he filled the position of ‘frustrating but extremely talented dribbler’, too. Nasri’s next three years bore remarkable similarities to Hleb’s own three in North London. Hleb, however, would become a tale of warning. One to which Nasri should have listened.
The Frenchman started well at Arsenal, immediately taking a starting role, mostly on the left hand side thanks to Rosický’s long-term injury. His first goal came four minutes into his début, a close range finish at home to West Brom, and his second would come just weeks later, in the 4-0 win over Twente. He was inconsistent, as was to be expected of a 21 year old in a new league, especially one without a really fixed position. His best game was the 2-1 victory against Manchester United, in which he scored both goals and most perhaps most significantly, got the better of an admittedly ageing Gary Neville. One of few memories more painful to Arsenal fans than the destruction of the 07/08 side is the ‘50th game’, and within it, Gary Neville’s destruction of José Antonio Reyes. Nasri’s overcoming him was a testament to his being made of ‘stronger stuff’ than the Andalusian.
His inconsistency took over after Christmas or, more specifically, after Fàbregas’ long-term injury acquired in a 1-1 draw with Liverpool – a match in which Nasri made a quite brilliant assist for Robin van Persie. His dip in the second half of the season is testament to Fàbregas’ abilities to make his teammates better, as well as a mark of the fact that after the arrival of Andrey Arshavin, most of Arsenal’s play went down the left hand side, which he had made his own. A patchy, but overall promising first season.
Hleb’s 08/09 was significantly less successful, if not on paper, as Barcelona completed their famous treble. Hleb himself may have gained three extra medals, but his contribution was minimal. It is generally preferable not to have to resort to stats when evaluating a player’s performance, but with Hleb’s time at Barcelona, there is little to look at beyond them. Across the three competitions, he made just 19 starts, completing the full 90 minutes in just 10 of them. Only three of those full matches were in La Liga – namely, the final three, at which point the title had already been secured.
In the Champions League, his only starts (four) came in the group stages. He made three further substitute appearances in the competition: the longest one of which was 12 minutes; in the only one of the three games in which they needed an impact on the scoreline (the first leg of the semi final against Chelsea) he was given all of three minutes to do it. Despite featuring in every round, if not both legs, of the Copa del Rey, he was not trusted to start the final, instead coming on when they were already 4-1 up. Of the 36 games he did play (19 starts, 17 from the bench) he averaged just 47.3 minutes on the pitch.
It was no surprise that he was not playing his football at Barcelona the following season, although he was still contracted to them, as he left on loan back to VfB Stuttgart, the club he played for before Arsenal. He was as effective in his return to Germany as he had been in Spain, only without the protective shield of scant playing time. He struggled to return to his pre-Barcelona form and after head coach Markus Babbel was sacked and replaced by Christian Gross, whom Hleb claimed drove him out of the club, the writing was on the proverbial wall. He commented: “obviously my contract states that I may only play for 60 minutes. I have no idea what he expects from me, but I have a problem with him… The chances of me staying with Stuttgart are 0%”. The club themselves attempted to send him back earlier than the terms of his loan dictated. Only the most immovable of objects could halt the progress of the unstoppable force of Hleb’s plummeting career.
Nasri’s 09/10 started terribly, as he suffered a broken leg in pre-season. He returned in October but was still finding his way back into fitness and form for the next couple of months. He reclaimed his place in the side and while his inconsistency remained an issue, he was starting to influence games more and more. Some of his better and more influential performances came with Fàbregas out of the side, in stark contrast to the previous season: the sign of a growing independence and maturity about him on the pitch. His finest moment came with his sensational goal and all-round outstanding performance in the 5-0 victory over Porto which again came without his captain on the pitch.
The summer of 2010 was a big one for both. Nasri was omitted from France’s World Cup squad, despite some impressive performances towards the end of the season. Hleb remained unwanted at Barcelona and hence the natural step down was to Birmingham City, again on a season-long loan. His time at Birmingham can be summed up best in his own words, through his scathing digs at manager Alex McLeish. He was a deadline day signing that epitomised the panicked nature of such purchases; ill-fitting, unneeded and almost totally doomed to failure.
Nasri, by contrast, was truly taking on Hleb’s old mantle, finally excelling in his third season. For the first six months of the season, he was the standout best player in the division. Spurred on by his rejection at Domenech’s hand, he had seemingly eliminated the more frustrating elements of his game. He no longer held the ball for an excessive amount of time, nor disappeared from games for hour long periods as and when. The understanding Fàbregas and he had developed saw them prosper together and a stronger Nasri was now ready hold greater creative responsibility when the Spaniard was absent, with the plan long-term being that he would take over the primary creative role when the captain left that summer. They were able to now function strongly both together and independently of one another.
Nasri was conspicuously missing, even though he was habitually present, during the great collapse of 2011. When the going got tough, Nasri hid beneath the table. He went without a goal between the end of January to the end of April, by which time all semblance of whatever title challenge they held had crumbled. In this time he had been allowed to enter the final 18 months of his contract and speculation was rife concerning his future as, presumably, were talks with numerous clubs. Eventually, he moved to Manchester City £24million, and more than triple his previous wages.
A league title was won; progress was not made. If anything, it was the opposite for the Frenchman. As a footballer, he was still in the process of being sculpted by Arsène Wenger, who had used him on both wings, as a number 10 and even as a deep-lying playmaker, understanding that he still had elements of his trade that he needed to learn before he became the ‘finished article’. At City, there was no such nurturing. He was deployed near-solely on the wings and encouraged to play as a more traditional winger than the ‘inside forward’ role he held at Arsenal. He was misused and his old flaws have regrown since his move. According to City blogger @TypicalCity, Nasri “doesn’t apply himself [and] drifts in and out of games”. A familiar tale to any who watched him between 2008-2010. His career has gone backwards; so much so that many City fans jumped at rumours that Inter were set to bid for him. He is no longer trusted to play most games and finds himself confined to the bench more often than not. Alarmingly similar to the beginning of the end Hleb’s career.
Hleb left Barcelona for his third loan spell, coming into the final year of his contract, this time to Wolfsburg. In December, following one start and three substitute appearances, the deal was cancelled by the German side. Upon returning to Catalonia, he agreed to terminate his contract with the Spaniards, ending a tormenting three and a half years with the club. But the hell was not yet over. A move to low-flying Russian side Krylia Sovetov Samara and 8 appearances later, the season and his contract were finished. He returned to BATE Borisov, with whom he started his career.
The cycle was complete. And it was all so avoidable. He himself has acknowledged that he made career-fatal error in leaving Arsenal behind, just like Nicolas Anelka, Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars before him, and Adebayor and Nasri afterwards. The man who replaced Hleb for Arsenal looks though he will be following his path in more ways than their former manager had initially planned. Privately, Nasri asked Wenger to return to Arsenal last spring: he acknowledged his error earlier than his predecessor. With the likelihood of him being moved on this summer, all he can do is hope it is not too late.