There is a truth near-wholly acknowledged among football watchers that players below a certain age, or a certain number of first team appearances (the exact numbers remain vague) are allowed a certain level of leeway with regard to the shortcomings in their game. It’s only fair. The underlying idea behind this is that being young, inexperienced, or both, they will eventually grow out of their flaws and learn from their past mistakes. It’s often a slow, but worthwhile, and most crucially visible process. It rarely happens particularly quickly but in observing many young players over time, it’s easy to see them steadily ironing out some of the more negative and inhibiting facets of their play.
Arsenal, like most teams, are heavily reliant on a well-functioning midfield. Between early March and late December 2013, they had put together their best midfield setup since Cesc Fàbregas’ departure in 2011. They key to it all was and is Aaron Ramsey, preferably and most often partnered by Mikel Arteta in the deep midfield pairing. They allowed Arsenal to become something they had not been since Sol Campbell had left: a team comfortable without the ball, perhaps more so than with it. It took Mesut Özil’s signing for attacking cogency to be added to the improved defensive play, and with a midfield in perfect working order, everyone was thriving and they sat atop the league.
Ramsey’s goals were the first reference point for praise but far more important for Arsenal in both defence and attack are his remarkable engine and exceptional intelligence on the pitch. His movement in and around the box has always been impressive but more than where he goes, it’s about when he commits forward or remains back. Arsenal don’t get caught on the break when Ramsey is playing, even when he sits significantly further up the pitch than his midfield partner. They barely concede goals with him there, and score plenty.
Under Liverpool’s heavy pressing in the game last weekend, Arsenal looked lost in a way they have not done since the home first leg against Bayern Munich last season, despite having met heavier and more efficient pressers than Brendan Rodgers’ side since. There was a struggle in the first half an hour of the home match against Borussia Dortmund, but once they found their feet, they were fine against it. Under heavy pressing, the players being attacked need simple passing options close to them. When Ramsey’s there, they have them, even if they aren’t Ramsey himself. Without him… well, Saturday happened.
Arsenal’s midfield shape against Liverpool was one not seen since before that Bayern game. That midfield shape was the main cause of some of the more disastrous defending of last season. The primary reason for that, in the most part, was Jack Wilshere, his errant positioning and love for an aimless roam up the pitch, with little intention of returning to his station. Arsenal with a disjointed midfield makes for Arsenal with a leaky defence, and Arsenal with an unfit-for-purpose forward line.
On Saturday, it was the exact same issues as last season. Wilshere sat and pushed far too high, Arteta struggled to make up the ground, the opposition had an open middle and an exposed defence to attack. The full backs struggled, just as they did through a lot of last season, as they had no passing option on account of Arteta’s having to cover the position of two players 10 yards away from where he would ideally be, because who knows where Wilshere was. From there, it was easier for Liverpool to double up on both full backs and draw the two centre backs out of position.
Arteta came in for more criticism than Wilshere immediately following the game – mostly jibes about his mobility and struggles against Liverpool’s pace. Arteta isn’t perfect: he is slow and lacking the engine of the ‘top level’ defensive midfielders, and he has been known to play a little over-cautiously on the ball. He is a player who needs protecting and a bit of help, but with it he provides a valuable service which no other in the squad can do as well. Ramsey gives that help. Wilshere does not.
With Wilshere partnered by Mathieu Flamini, Arsenal lose a lot of their edge on the ball in midfield because they have one who is fairly average with the ball at his feet and another who, although far less limited, does not do enough practical and useful with it. In many games, that will not be the biggest of issues because even though they lose something without the first choice pair, most teams do not have enough to counterbalance that. But Bayern certainly do.
Ramsey makes up for some of that which is lost technically with Flamini over Arteta with his own smarter positioning and use of the ball. The greatest worry is that the issues with Wilshere are the same ones as last year. They are not technical limitations. He is an extraordinarily gifted player, but he does not appear to be learning from his mistakes. A year later and every problem that was prevalent then is prevalent now.
It is the case in so many areas. His lack of regard for defending is, of course, the standout. Beyond that, he still is not particularly adept at making himself available to receive the ball. He still holds onto the ball far too long in attacking areas. He still keeps dribbling until he gets fouled, tackled or forced into a move-killing sideways ball rather than play the earlier passes. His end product has shown improvement but it isn’t worth playing him in a central position where he damages the team’s setup for maybe 5-10 extra goals and assists each season.
Saturday, after half an hour and only the four conceded, marked was the return of ‘Wilshere vs The World’, while his team mates around him show themselves to be unworthy of the passion and drive he brings. Never mind that he was a major reason why the rest had played so poorly and he had no plans to help them out while he was on or off the ball. Another who specialises in such performances, especially this season, is Wayne Rooney. They have spent the game playing to their team’s detriment but they ran forward with the ball a lot in the final third. To little end.
Wilshere’s best position in this team is on the right wing. There, he has permission to drift inside and aid their quicker one and two-touch play closer to the box, where he is highly skilled; there is scope for him to harness his fantastic dribbling and he is less damaging to the team’s overall shape. He can exist comfortably as something a luxury while hopefully reaping the benefits of greater game time.
But that is the issue. His goal and assist numbers are the best they’ve ever been, but beyond ever so slightly more productivity from deep midfield (most of the goals or assists have come from him playing the advanced roles), he does not appear to have learned much, if anything for the central roles. Upon returning to the middle, it’s the same as the shambles that was the first two thirds of last season.
Given the comparison with current Ramsey has been so pronounced, it makes sense to compare him to Ramsey in the time following his injury, given that is the stage Wilshere is in now. It took a while for Ramsey to recover his best self, but what was habitually visible was his constant work for the team and movement in front of goal and to receive the ball in midfield, which is not the case with Wilshere. The England international’s issues mainly emanate from a seeming unwillingness to actually use his brain.
Ramsey had similar problems with being slow to release the ball and often losing it, but he has always had an altruism and intelligence on the pitch that Wilshere never has. Wilshere, at the moment, is an individual around whom the team has to mould itself. The problem for Wilshere at this point is that Arsenal have better players to build around and he simply does not yet give nearly enough to warrant being the centre of all things.
For now, that leaves Wilshere in a purgatorial state. Either he becomes the team’s man or… who knows? Time is on Wilshere’s side. There are no questions about his ability. My hope at the start of this season was that he would shed the ‘Star Player Syndrome’ with the signing of Özil and Ramsey’s rise, but the signs have not been particularly encouraging. Wilshere is his own main obstacle, but we are at the point now where it is fair to worry whether or not it is an obstacle he will overcome.
The state of Arsenal leaving 2014’s January transfer window was markedly different from the previous year. Arsenal were down in sixth, the lack of depth at centre forward was even more pronounced than it is now and the day before the window shut, they lost Kieran Gibbs for ‘up to 6 weeks’. With André Santos playing like Father Jack Hackett after going through a bottle of bleach, they were in desperate need of a new left back. A day later, Nacho Monreal’s £8m signing was confirmed – a deal apparently organised for the following summer, but brought forward upon necessity.
Monreal was the ideal signing, for both the circumstances and as an example of the purchases the club must look to make in the future. Unless the players you have are the best you can possibly get, no top level club should really look to buy squad fillers or backup players; new buys should be in the name of progress rather than preservation of what already is. Monreal and Kieran Gibbs play at similar levels, constantly challenging each other, and competition appears to be bringing out the best from both.
Monreal’s first two performances, 1-0 wins against Stoke and Sunderland respectively, were impressive, if unremarkable – which works well enough as a description of Monreal himself. His assist for Santi Cazorla’s 84th minute winner against Aston Villa was his first really notable attacking contribution and instance of resurrecting his combination with Cazorla from their days together at Málaga.
Despite starting well, he was not blameless in the shambles at White Hart Lane, and can be accused of being at fault for Aaron Lennon’s goal. That said he, like the rest of the team, seemed far more comfortable and secure after it. With Gibbs now fit, Arsène Wenger erred towards using Gibbs in home games, where Arsenal would look to play on the more assertive side and Monreal away, wherein comfort without the ball was more valued.
The Boss’ use of the pair and rotation of them is illustrative of their different abilities and styles. Gibbs is significantly faster and having spent most of his youth as a left winger, the more inherently attacking player. He plays wider, and tends to go right to the byline when attacking, making him far more useful in stretching teams. His pace allows him to take more risks on the defensive side, often relying on his recovery pace to make up for how high he commits up the pitch.
Monreal, however, is the more reserved. His attacking play generally consists of contribution from closer to the 18-yard line and although Gibbs is the more committed with his attacking, Monreal is more decisive and productive. He cannot rely on keeping pace with the quicker wingers as Gibbs can, so must position himself even better. The most notable difference between them with regard to defending is Gibbs’ greater strength facing players one-on-one, where Monreal – at present – is the stronger reader of the game.
Monreal’s return to pre-season was delayed by the Confederations Cup. Gibbs started the season exemplarily, playing like someone who knew he had to prove he deserved keeping his place. What’s more, in the absence of Cazorla, Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott, the width Gibbs supplies became far more essential to Arsenal’s play.
Monreal’s main role before November was as a defensive impact substitute, used to close out wins. He played well in the cameos and occasional (mostly League Cup) starts, and once the league starts followed he played as Gibbs had in the early part of the season: with renewed purpose.
As is his way, he has been quietly superb, in the most part. He had poor games away at Manchester City – though so would 2004-era Ashley Cole for all the protection Jack Wilshere and the midfield game him – and, recently, Southampton away, where he struggled with little protection from his midfield (Gibbs himself also struggled when playing alongside the pairing of Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini, most memorably away at Manchester United and Napoli). Otherwise Monreal has been consistent, deserving of his place and again combining with Cazorla to great effect.
While he works well with his compatriot, he does not work so well with Podolski. When Cazorla plays on the left, it is really in name only. He has total freedom to wander around the pitch with the left side merely his base position when Arsenal do not have the ball. Monreal’s narrow sitting, alongside Cazorla, Mesut Özil, Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and even Olivier Giroud at times, all of whom generally pitch themselves just outside the area, makes for the best and slickest combination play in the final third.
Though Podolski, like Monreal, prefers to sit narrower; closer to the edge of the area. With the two together, either Podolski cannot make runs from his favoured area because Monreal is already there and the opposition full back can easily follow him, or Podolski is forced to try and ingratiate himself with the midfielders as Cazorla does – which the German is not really technical or inventive enough to do. Arsenal are a narrower side with Cazorla on the left but a far more inventive one; with Podolski, they need Gibbs’ width to add that extra dimension to their attacking play; this was evident in the first half on Sunday against Crystal Palace.
The great advantage of having such high quality and stylistically different depth in the left back position is that Wenger can rotate depending on opposition and options further forward. My hope is that he reverts to the idea of the end of last season, using Monreal mostly in away games and Gibbs at home. He may well feel differently now but the most important thing by far is that he has the luxury of a choice without fretting or worrying about which player he does select.
Monreal worked hard from the bench in the early season to re-earn his place and has done very well since doing so. Both Monreal and Gibbs offer things very different from each other in many respects but on a fundamental level, both are highly strong defensive and offensive outlets, while the Spaniard’s adaptability has been crucial in allowing Arsenal to close out games so effectively at various points this season. Good left backs are difficult to find: Arsenal are lucky to have two of them.
(Thanks to the excellent Christian – @CSJDKK1 on Twitter – for chipping in (ahem) with help for the headline.)
This was first published on TheShortFuse.com (link).
With every passing week and every win that comes with them, we have been subjected to a wide variety of different reason as to why Arsenal cannot and will not be able to win the league. First the defence was too weak, and now it suddenly isn’t anymore. Then it was just a good, lucky run of form, but after they gained their 91st point in their last 38 league games, that one lost its hold. Then there is the argument that no God will allow them to win the league while Arsène Wenger persists with that coat. That one remains to be seen.
Of all the reasons put forward, the lack of an adequate backup striker has been the most commonly thrown up and the one with most veracity. Olivier Giroud has been remarkably durable so far, and they have needed it to be. With him they have put together a formula that works. He is not as complete as the man he replaced but he is a monstrous physical presence and is sensationally good in the air. His link-up play on the ground with his midfielders and wingers is impressive, and invaluable to Arsenal’s style, just are his work rate and offering of a ‘Plan B’, as an out-ball from the defence and in goal-seeking, with his aerial ability.
That all being said, he is not the greatest of finishers and his first touch, although vastly improved, is inconsistent. His one touch play is fantastic, but he can be somewhat slow to bring the ball down with his feet and move play along swiftly. The overall point is that despite his flaws, Arsenal and Giroud very much have a good thing going. Without Giroud, Arsenal have significantly less of a good thing going.
The alternative options at the moment are Nicklas Bendtner, Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott. Bendtner is an odd case. He is not nearly as bad as many would have you believe – indeed, if Arsenal had the 09/10 form of Bendtner at the moment there would be no issue to discuss – but he has diminished since then and he has started three professional club games since last March. He is in a fairly similar mould to Giroud: strong in the air and of physique and able to link play well. He has a better first touch, but is worse in pretty much every other department.
Bendtner was set to be discarded this summer but after Podolski’s injury and the failure to sign anyone else, he was kept. He has done nothing to warrant being maintained beyond the summer, but mildly impressive substitute appearances in some league games and good performances in starts against West Brom in the League Cup and Hull last week have given some cause for thought. While better remains in many places, how viable is he as an option for just 6 more months?
If nothing else, the encouraging game against Hull showed that he can still offer something in games against the Premier League’s lesser sides (and there are quite a few), enabling rests for Giroud, gambling that the Frenchman will remain fit through the rest of the season. It’s not the most preferable option but Bendtner is still a decent striker, and far safer than some of the potential alternatives.
Neither Podolski, nor Walcott contribute enough to the team’s buildup play, while neither offers an outball from the back given neither top 6” or are particularly good in the air. That would be negated if they were of a high enough technical level for Arsenal to play a more possession-based attacking game with them in the side, but they aren’t. Both can play up front, with the creativity that Arsenal now have, but it would require them looking to play on the counter far more than they do. Hopefully it won’t come to either being used there.
While Bendtner remains, they are firmly the third and fourth choice options, anyway. An alternative to all of this is signing someone. In an ideal world, Arsenal sign, say, Edinson Cavani and glory follows. But Cavani, like all strikers of his ilk or anything approaching it, will not move in January. And if he or they did, it would be for the kind of money that could cause Wenger to have palpitations. So it would end up being more likely to find someone of far less ability at a non-Champions League club, for a stupidly inflated fee. Think Christian Benteke. Then they would be stuck with him beyond the season’s, restricting their ability to go for a real centre forward in the summer. Is that a significant enough upgrade for the trouble that would come with it? In almost all cases at hand, no.
One possible route is a permanent move, on a six (or perhaps eighteen) month contract for an older player who would not be adverse to such a deal. Miroslav Klose and Dimitar Berbatov have both been mentioned here and would perhaps be the best way to go about things – however, facilitating that is difficult. Berbatov is probably unlikely to go to Arsenal and Klose’s situation remains hazy.
The most likely avenue for any kind of move is a loan of some description. Alvaro Morata has been mentioned and under the circumstances he would be near-ideal for 6 months. Alexandre Pato has also been discussed as both a potential loan and permanent move, but he is very much an ‘avoid’ for reasons better elaborated here.
My expectation is that they will keep with Bendtner for the remainder of the season before signing a better striker. That said, I don’t think a loan is at all unlikely, depending on who is possible. Then there is the question of what kind of centre forward to chase in the summer. Someone similar or different to Giroud.
For me, the most important question is whether they can match Giroud’s back to goal work, or at least provide an alternative to it. The need for a striker with ‘super, top, top quality’ is overstated. Cavani would, of course, be the best of all worlds in that respect, but it’s not going to happen. As Wenger lamented a few weeks ago, there really are very few attainable top level centre forwards in Europe at the moment.
Diego Costa would be intriguing. He certainly has the all-round game, but disciplinary would be a severe concern. He does not exactly fit the description of a ‘Wenger player’ as a person, but he certainly does in talent. And he has an affordable release clause. The other possibilities are: signing a player who isn’t a striker but moving him there in the same way he did with Robin van Persie, or signing a striker who doesn’t have that ‘super quality’, but is enough, like Giroud.
Julian Draxler could work successfully in the former category. He has all he needs physically, bar perhaps the aerial prowess, which would hopefully be made up for by his technique, but would come at a heavy price. (Sidebar: Stephan El Shaarawy and Ezequiel Lavezzi would not fit into this category as neither could play as a number 9 for Arsenal. Please stop suggesting them.) Then into the latter set falls Mario Mandžukić. He and Giroud are similar in terms of basic style. Both hard workers, dominant in the air and able bring their players into play very effectively. Mandžukić is more mobile and a better finisher, but is not quite as adept with his back to goal, nor with his one-touch play. They would be fantastic competition for each other, while fitting into the system perfectly.
What lies ahead in the summer is a mystery. January is a lot easier to make out. As stated above, my expectation is that it will probably be nothing, but a loan would be in no way surprising or unwelcome. They have a hit at the moment – there is no need to rewrite it. Not right now, anyway. Attempting evolution of that style mid-season would be an huge risk.
As much as I defend Bendtner, is he enough if Giroud does get injured or suspended? It’s highly questionable. The logic that signing an admittedly not-good-enough-long-term centre forward could be enough to secure this year’s title is like Manchester United believing any central midfielder is better than none, then signing Marouane Fellaini for £27million. Whatever happens, if Arsenal can be lucky with Giroud as they were last year, the problems barely exist.
Eduardo Da Silva’s Arsenal career is a constant reminder of a time I generally refuse to talk about, even 5 years after it happened. As much as it would be nice to remember his short time here for other things, it will always be overshadowed by the leg break at Martin Taylor’s hand. It began the unravelling of a phenomenal young side’s title ambitions and had huge ramafications on Eduardo’s own career.
He actually had some small marks on English football, and specifically Arsenal, before he had even signed: he became the first player to score a European goal at the new Emirates Stadium, when Dinamo Zagreb took the lead in their Champions League qualifying round. Later in that year he scored the first goal, a header, in England’s 2-0 loss to Croatia in 2006 (a game more famous for Paul Robinson’s hilarious mis-kick).
Players like Eduardo have grown steadily less and less popular since around the time of his return from the injury. He was and is a sensational finisher of any fathomable type of goal within 20 yards of the net; he isn’t particularly tall but is excellent in the air, while wonderfully calm and assured in front of goal, usually on his favoured left foot. He could never really hold the ball up and his lacking back to goal work was his true downfall at Arsenal, but his height belies his strength and enables his agility.
He is more than a classic poacher, but not much more. His assists record has always been fairly good, but his business lay in goals. It was fantastic for a time, but following February 23rd 2008, it has hit a low. He became football’s answer to Nas: the brilliance of the first album was concealed behind too much inconsistency and mediocrity for him to remain at the top. Embers of the mastery flickered on, but always tainted by dreams of what should have been.
The worst part of the timing of the leg break was that it came just as he was hitting league form. He had waited until December to get his first goals in the league, but he had been fairly prolific in the cups, sealing 3-0 wins against Sparta Prague (his first goal) and Sevilla, then adding League Cup doubles against Sheffield United and Blackburn, as well as an FA Cup strike away at Burnley. He was mainly confined to playing in the cups until late November, when Robin van Persie’s inevitable pre-2010-minimum-four-month-with-added-recovery-time-to-follow injury happened, giving him more league playing time.
A double against Everton and goals against West Ham and Manchester City, all beautifully composed left-footed finishes, left him with an encouraging 12 goals as March approached. 5 points clear on top of the league, only having lost one and drawn five all season, the trip to St. Andrews had seemed routine.
There’s little to be said about the incident that hasn’t already been said over the 5 years. Personally, I liked Arsène Wenger’s initial view on it all, which he later retracted. But of course, Taylor isn’t the kind of player to go flying into good, old-fashioned ‘reducers’ three minutes into games on the halfway line on a player who was causing no great threat. No, Sir, not he.
He had hoped to return before Christmas 2008 but had to settle for February. The rescheduled FA Cup 3rd round replay vs Cardiff would see him get a surprise start. 20 minutes in, he got the goal – a well-placed header from a Carlos Vela cross. It ended up being another cup brace, as he added a second from a penalty, before going off with a hamstring injury. This would become an odd precedent for the rest of his Arsenal career: providing a reminder of his brilliant finishing ability before spending three weeks out. He wouldn’t make his league return until the opening day of the 09/10 season, in the 6-1 trouncing of Everton. He added the sixth, a tap-in, thanks to some clever movement.
Between them he scored his best goal of his Arsenal career, against Burnley in the FA Cup. It was his second game since returning and before the match, Arsène Wenger had awarded him with the captaincy as “a tribute to his personality”. He returned the favour with a both unique and barely-explicable goal. The first in Alex Song’s Pantheon of Chipped Through Balls (the few that came off) left Eduardo near-free in the 18-yard box. Rather than bring the ball down or even attempt to side-foot it, he volleyed it perfectly into the opposite top corner with the outside of his left foot. That decision and the finish still make no sense, yet they led to him scoring one of the best goals of the Wenger era.
The season that followed was more sad than anything else. Arsenal had switched to 4-3-3, and his inability to play as a lone striker in such a system meant he was shunted to the wings, for which he was neither fast nor creative enough. He struggled for fitness, and his confidence took an understandable hit. He was unrecognisable in front of goal from his 2008 self. The most notable incident of his final season at Arsenal was the overblown controversy surrounding his dive in the Champions League qualifier against Celtic. He went over under minimal contact in the area and won a penalty this one time. There really was very little to it.
He left for Shakhtar Donetsk in the summer of 2010. It was one of the sadder partings in recent Arsenal times. Eduardo himself may justifiably have felt that he was never really given the chances he needed, in a role to which he was better-suited, following the break. Arsenal were committed to the new system; Eduardo’s time was done.
Arsenal and Shakhtar were drawn together in the 2010/11 Champions League group stage, and just as he had scored his side’s consolation goal against Arsenal before joining, he did the same afterwards. The Arsenal fans cheered as if they had added a sixth, rather than conceded their first. Eduardo ambled back to the centre circle without celebrating, but a visible hint of a tear in his eye. The feeling was shared across the stadium.
Eduardo was and still is loved by many Arsenal fans, but it can be best summed up by saying that the rue lies with the fact that he had to leave, rather than the fact he did. In the words of Belle and Sebastian: It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career.
Around this time a year or so ago, two things were commonly accepted among many Arsenal supporters: Bacary Sagna was way past his best, and he would be leaving in the summer. For a healthy proportion, the latter line of thinking strengthened the widespread acceptance of the former. It was sad that his exceptional – yet nowhere near as illustrious as deserving – Arsenal career was drawing to an end like this; so meekly, brought about by injury and with no trophy to show for his understated brilliance, but it appeared to be the only possible outcome.
The great ‘change’ in Arsenal’s 12/13 campaign is mostly acknowledged as having come in the 2-0 away win against Bayern Munich, but for Sagna himself it had come a few weeks prior. As Arsenal made their way to Sunderland, Thomas Vermaelen had been ruled out injured, while Laurent Koscielny and Ignasi Miquel made the trip despite being major doubts. The grim expectations were realised when Koscielny pulled out in the warmup, and Miquel was not fit enough to start. Sagna was shifted to centre back, with Carl Jenkinson drafted in to cover at right back.
Alongside Per Mertesacker, Sagna was sublime. And after Jenkinson’s red card, they had needed to be. It was the start of Sagna’s up-turn. Despite picking up an injury and missing the following few weeks (including Bayern away), he looked like himself once more upon returning. The injury rest had been his first time out since returning from the second leg break in October 2012. His remarkably swift recovery and instant return to form after the first break made it easy to forget the magnitude of the injuries. The second time around he was again thrown straight back in, this time against QPR (in October), without even a game with the reserves beforehand. It is testament to Sagna, that he was expected to have few, if any, re-teething issues.
As it happened, he (quite understandably) had some problems. The major difference in the side after the match at the Allianz Arena was, of course, the partnership of Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta in central midfield. It was first pointed out to me by the excellent @RasDamAFC that almost all of Sagna’s poorer performances in 12/13 came with Arteta being partnered with Jack Wilshere. Wilshere’s high positioning meant Arteta had to sit further in-field which removed or affected Sagna’s easiest passing option and left him more open to being attacked. Theo Walcott’s lack of protection did nothing to help, either.
His only poor games since have been against Manchester United and Aston Villa at home. In the former, Ramsey was often higher up the pitch as he was tasked with pressing Michael Carrick, while against Villa, the midfield pairing was Ramsey and Wilshere, which is a defensive disaster zone. Otherwise, he has been consistent, reliable and wonderfully committed at every turn – just as ever he was.
He is not quite as athletic or fast as he was before his injuries, meaning he commits somewhat less going forward, but he remains a superb defender and outstanding right back, and his performances at centre back have most encouraging. That being said, his being used as both is a source for worry, if defensive injuries get in any way out of hand. But at the same time, the only position in which ‘super quality’ is more difficult to find than centre back is full back. Sagna is a rarity among those in his position. Most full backs are attackers who were moved back in their late teens or early 20s after being not good enough to make it further forward. For the majority within that, defending is an afterthought.
Héctor Bellerín differs from that basic outline in one very significant way: he was moved to right back at 16. He has been conditioned to think about defending from a far younger age than most in his situation and, by all accounts, it is showing in his progress. The most stylistically similar ‘full back’ to him at the moment is Jordi Alba, who is great to watch going forward because he is still a winger by mindset. He is defensively suspect because he is still a winger by mindset. He was only moved back at 20-21 and only became a full time left back when he was signed by Barcelona. Bellerín’s extra years as a defender are having the expected effect, while he still attacks like a traditional winger. He is in the process of becoming a very, very good right back.
But it remains a process, and it is currently in its infancy. Bellerín is 18 and has all of 10 minutes of professional game time to his name. And they came in central midfield. If he is seen as the heir to Sagna’s throne, it is at least two years away from coming to fruition. And however much he has improved, Jenkinson is only marginally readier than Bellerín is. Having Sagna and Jenkinson as the right back options make sense, just as having Sagna and Bellerín would; Jenkinson and Bellerín as the only two right backs – as early as next season – in a team that hopes to contend for the league and the Champions League would be insanity.
There has been talk about signing another right back, but as alluded to earlier, good right backs are extremely difficult to find. Sime Vrsaljko and Martín Montoya are two names that have been mentioned but they are 21 and 22 respectively and, just like pretty much every other attainable right back, they are inferior to Sagna. He is the ideal mentor to Jenkinson and Bellerín and will not stand in the way of either’s development. Sagna deserves a two year extension; Arsenal would be out of their minds not to give him one.
Since the initial departure of Mathieu Flamini, many Arsenal fans have wanted a specific kind of player more than any other. Not an energetic, almost purely defensive midfielder of the Frenchman’s type, nor a replacement for Thierry Henry, who had left the year before; instead, there was a wish for a return to the ‘power’ of old. What Flamini and his wonderful but all too short-lived partnership with Cesc Fàbregas (with Aliaksandr Hleb and Tomáš Rosicky flanking them) showed was that the definition of ‘midfield power’ goes beyond the 6’4″ broad-shouldered, physical Adonis, with the capability to stride from his own penalty box to the opposition’s in a single bound. Instead it could come from high energy and supreme technical skill.
With Abou Diaby’s constant injuries, no such ‘all-rounder’ came to the fore. Players who are already sculpted with those qualities are both difficult to find and very expensive once found. The beautiful quartet were broken up steadily, first by Rosicky’s long-term injury, then by the departures of Flamini and Hleb. Arsène Wenger was unable to replicate their brilliance, and so went a slightly different way with it all. There was a patience required. As he himself said, if you cannot ‘buy superstars’, you must make them.
Alex Song eventually took on the ‘power’ but so little of that was focussed further forward until 11/12. Samir Nasri became the wide, creative dribbler. It was no cheap imitation, but anyone claiming it represented an upgrade would have to be lying, blind, or mad. The cries for ‘a Vieira’ were ever-present from many corners. They had known the success that Vieira had brought them, and they understandably wanted that back.
Vieira was a truly unique player. He was, of course tall and powerful, exceptional off the ball and even better on it, capable of turning defence into attack with a single interception and able to sprint from one end of the pitch to the other, be it 1st minute or 121st, but he was, above all, a phenomenal leader, the kind of player who would drag others up to his level. If needs were he would be vocal and authoritative, but his greatest strength was his inability to accept the concept of a lost cause on the pitch. His teams always followed his example.
Arsenal’s search for the 747-engined deep midfielder with the heart of gold and the ability to match is drawing to its close. In that, they already have all the parts, they just need to finish the assembly process. It may be considered hyperbole to attach that label to Aaron Ramsey at this stage, but to recreate the Invincibles in the same blueprint is impossible. He is becoming that figure in a very differently constructed side.
It has not, of course, been an easy few years for him since Ryan Shawcross mangled his leg back in 2010. He was made to take on the departed Fàbregas’ position – to which he was relatively unfamiliar – immediately after the ex-captain’s departure, in a total mess of a side. He was impressive but highly inconsistent until the Great Full Back Crisis of 2011-12, which had an unexpected effect on him. His limitations had been masked by easier passing options around him; the makeshift full backs now sitting almost entirely behind the halfway line took away avenues on either side. It also meant that the wingers either side were made to sit slightly deeper and the midfielders behind him slightly higher, pushing him further up into more confined space where he was even more uncomfortable.
In the middle of that came Gary Speed’s suicide. Speed had been the Wales manager at the time and the man who had appointed Ramsey as his captain. The shock loss of such a figure was impossible to brush off, yet Arsenal’s squad was so thin that there was almost no option for him but to attempt to do so.
It was his first full season after the break. The fatigue, poor form and external circumstances exacerbated one another and Tomáš Rosicky’s return pushed him out of the first eleven, for a while. Games came, mostly from the bench, until Mikel Arteta’s injury at home to Wigan, with only a few matches remaining. At this point they were yet to win a single league match that season without Arteta. The haywire partnership of Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen needed all the protection it could get. Like Jack Wilshere after him, Alex Song’s presence was needed further forward, and he obeyed those instructions to great effect; the lack of tracking and abandonment of defending were not as needed. Ramsey was thrown overboard, while Song’s assists saved him from more savage criticism. The still-out-of-form and visibly struggling Welshman was unfortunate. Third was scraped, a new season began.
Song had been made to walk the plank, his services rendered useless therein. But rather than send Ramsey immediately into whatever position Song was supposed to be playing in his final season, the manager instead sent him to learn a few different facets of his trade out on the wings. Philippe Auclair cites a conversation with Wenger in his biography of Thierry Henry about playing central players out wide for a time:
“It’s sometimes a good idea, to deploy a player who has a future in the middle of the park on the flank. He gets used to using the ball in smaller space, as the touch line effectively divides the space that’s available to him by two; when you move the same player to the middle, he breathes more easily and can exploit space better.”
The merits of this more controversial of methods can be debated, but two things cannot: it has worked many times for Wenger, and Ramsey looks much more comfortable in the middle now than he did before his time out wide. What is also difficult to dispute is that Ramsey’s time on the wing was itself extremely mixed, at best. Often its merits were overridden by its misuse. The game away at Manchester City one where it was of use; QPR at home was not. There were some highly encouraging performances, but more somewhat demoralising ones. The wing tactic died after the Bradford game; few mourned it.
If that was all still not enough, Chris Coleman turned up and complicated matters by stripping Ramsey of the Welsh captaincy. The Arsenal man had been vocally against Coleman’s appointment. The new manager did not have the courage of Speed’s convictions; nor his managerial talent. It was just another layer of misfortune for Ramsey, but what stood out most were his performances. Effort habitual, consistency less so.
Even when not at his best, he still worked significantly harder than almost everyone else on the pitch, whatever position asked of him. What’s more, his issues were common for younger players. Poor finishing, ponderousness on the ball, hesitant decision-making are all so normal of players in his shoes, injury regardless. That perpetual effort, clever movement and unwillingness to become peripheral in games meant he always had a lot of the ball. His positioning in and around the box has always been excellent, but for many years his finishing did not exactly go with it. His fashioning chances others would not have almost became a flaw, as his visibility made him an easier target than someone who rarely shoots or finds space in the box.
Then the change came. Whether the boss planned to move him back to deep midfield at the turn of the year, who knows, but Arteta’s injury and the total dearth of defensive midfielders saw him stationed in his position, next to Jack Wilshere against West Ham and Liverpool at home. Its initial success, coupled with Wilshere’s fantastic game as a number 10 at home to Swansea, inspired Wenger to shift to using Ramsey and Arteta in front of the defence.
What followed was more relief than surprise. The Wilshere-Arteta partnership had been the cause of many problems in the team’s balance. With Ramsey there they were instantly stronger defensively but still disjointed and lacking edge further up the pitch. The rest of the season followed that very layout. Arsenal were bulidling on virtues less synonymous with the Wenger Era than previous sides: a strong defence, and a team which identified more with grit and fight than any Arsenal side since Vieira’s days, a side starting nervously but steadily growing more and more comfortable as itself. Ramsey embodied all of that.
At long last, he was excelling, every strength visibly improving, and every weakness visibly diminishing, with each passing match. The defensive side of his game has become fantastic, and he has been growing more and more impactful in attacking moves. His positioning is as intelligent as ever, and with Arteta beside him, he has the security to trust his first instinct to attack the ball.
His transitional play and dribbling remain below Wilshere’s levels, but the improvement in both has been distinctly noticeable. Finally he appears now to have the composure to match his timing and movement around goal. The 7 goals in the last 8 are just the start.
In more defensive setups he has been more useful off the ball than on it, and vice versa when the onus lies more with Arsenal. One issue he has solved is balancing the two. Rarely has he shown himself yet to be adept at being both in the same game, but there is enough evidence on all sides that he is getting there. As said before, his transitional play and speed with the ball, although improving continuously, still have a way to go.
Two issues that have gone under the radar are his minimal use of his left foot and his lack of aerial presence. At 6’0″, he could reasonably be expected to have more influence in defending and attacking set pieces, but if the rest of his game is any indication, it will come.
Overall, Ramsey is becoming a frightening player. At 22 years old, rough edges are to be expected; his remaining ones are eminently fixable, far more than the ones already smoothed. The Welshman is significantly more direct than Wilshere, but his game lacks the subtlety of his counterpart’s, as of yet. Development is needed on both sides.
He has not been a ‘post-injury’ player to Arsenal fans for some time, but to much of the wider world, it was merely the last notable thing that happened to him. The goal against Stoke and the glorious ‘shh’ celebration gave a feeling of having come full circle. He can become ‘Aaron Ramsey, brilliant footballer’ in everyone’s eyes, rather than just ‘Aaron Ramsey, leg break victim’.
Every new performance shows more improvement. He has won over his detractors at home, and many on the outside. Now all that is left is to solve the solvable and maintain his form. So far we have seen this renewed Ramsey sustained for six months. It is not unrealistic to think we could be seeing it for the next 10 years. It’s a wonder what a bit of confidence can do.
If a club wants to progress, one of the things it needs is better players than the ones it already has, assuming that’s possible. With that in mind, only one club in the world doesn’t ‘need’ Mesut Özil, and that’s Barcelona, seeing they have the only number 10 in the world who’s better. And even then, they could still make good use of him. Even without the deeper context of Arsenal and their current situation, Özil would instantly become the best player in his position at the club, thus making him needed.
Speaking of the only number 10 better than Özil, Arsenal sold him – as well as the man they’d planned to be his successor two years ago. Since the sales of Cesc Fàbregas and Samir Nasri, the lost creativity has been a cause for concern. In 2011/12, they scraped by in a poor league through mostly Robin van Persie’s incredible form, utilising the likes of Alex Song more creatively and, in essence, chancing it. With those two gone the next season, Santi Cazorla was almost alone in providing direct creativity high up the pitch. His being the only avenue made Cazorla easier to isolate, especially in big games and the first half of the season.
The move out to the left hand side remedied this, to a point, but neither Tomas Rosicky nor Jack Wilshere offer much in the way of goals and assists, still leaving Cazorla as the only proper direct creator. He made up for the wide creativity that had been lost, but there was still a chasm in the centre. It showed in the performances: defensively exceptional, but disjointed and meek going forward. They did enough to win their games, but only just. Özil offers variety on top his creative skill, fitting into both more possession-centric and direct counterattacking styles.
Özil’s propensity to drift into wide areas – generally the left – makes him ideal to play with both Cazorla and with Lukas Podolski. For the German national team, when Podolski is on the left-hand side and Özil at number 10, they sit in the standard 4-2-3-1 off the ball, but on it, Podolski tends to run on and play as a second centre forward, leaving Özil to find space on the left hand side and making it more of a 4-2-4 shape. He often does the same on the opposite flank, with Thomas Müller taking on the second striker role. This works especially well in games in which they play more on the counter. In games they control more, Müller and Özil tend to drift between eachother, as number 10 and pseudo-right winger.
Within those examples, there is a basic template of how Arsenal can and will use him. Podolski and Theo Walcott are both capable as the auxiliary second centre forward, with the £42.4million man wandering into their vacated areas out wide, for more reactive setups. Similarly, Cazorla and Özil could (and hopefully will) combine to great effect. Cazorla on either wing is a wide player in name only. He goes where the space is, and where he can have most effect, but with the left hand side as his base. Özil does the same but stationed from the middle. Özil’s wide movement is the best of any number 10 on the planet. When he will drift towards the left, Cazorla will exploit the space inside, and vice versa. The versatility and intelligence the two share will surely make them ideal team-mates, as soon as they can gain an understanding.
Something else that Özil does is enable Wilshere as a deep option again. His indiscipline last season was damaging to the side, but with more creativity higher up there is less need for him to charge forward. Like in his breakthrough season, his contribution will be the bonus rather than the necessity it appeared to be at times last year: That is how it should be. The reaction to Wilshere’s recent form is surprising as you would’ve expected people to know that he is very, very good. You would also expect people to be more rational about a player who has spent so much time injured and is only 21 years old. He has lost his place to Aaron Ramsey, who went through an almost identical cycle post-injury. It takes time. A minimum of pressure on Wilshere will be the best thing for him and at club level, that is what he has. With no reliance on him, even to play every week, Arsenal can let him steadily get his way back to full fitness and form.
The talk over this summer was, understandably, about the need for a striker, as Olivier Giroud remains the only legitimate centre forward at the club. But what can most strikers do with little to no service? All-round centre forwards who can bridge that gap are rare. Arsenal sold one last August and had their bids for another, Luis Suárez, very publicly rejected. The main problems in the squad, in order, were the need for creativity and the lack of depth in defensive midfield, up front and in defence. The former two have been fixed, but there still remain the issues of the latter pair.
Arsenal saw between 2007 and 2011, with the cases of 07/08 Emmanuel Adebayor, 09/10 Nicklas Bendtner and 2010 Marouane Chamakh, that top level service can make any striker look significantly better than they are. The combined talents of Özil and Cazorla mean that even Podolski and Theo Walcott are semi-viable backup options, should the worst come to the worst. Hopefully there will be some kind of signing in January – more likely, if any, to be a seat-filler than seat-seller, but someone who can cover for and challenge Giroud. That is, assuming Nicklas Bendtner hasn’t had a complete personality transplant and career revival… probably a safe assumption.
Still, just because Podolski and Walcott will now be able to do more passable impressions of lone strikers, it does not mean that any injury to Olivier Giroud will not cause mass worries. Going forward, as they are, they can do as they did in 11/12 and get by. Of all the summers that shouldn’t have culminated in ‘getting by’, this was supposed to be it. It’s not a disaster, but it could conceivably turn out to be.
The story is similar at the back. For once, the defence purely as itself is no cause for concern. With Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny forming a fantastic partnership, and the very strong full backs either side of them in Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna (who in turn are well-covered), Arsenal – for a long time – have one of the best defences in the league. And Thomas Vermaelen, despite his flaws, is not a bad backup to have. In turn, they are well protected by the pairing of Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey in front of them.
Bacary Sagna’s few games as a centre back have been very impressive but how much can really be ascertained from games against Sunderland, Fulham and Fenerbahçe? What’s more, all of those games had him next to Mertesacker, to whom his style is complimentary and who can make any central defender look good as long as they don’t charge out of the defensive line every few minutes. If the German is unavailable for any great length of time, there will be serious problems. None of the other three are strong organisers and are very similar to each other, stylistically. Only partnerships involving Mertesacker have any balance.
Even if one assumes Sagna will be fine, then there’s Carl Jenkinson at right back – who has done well but is still some way short of Sagna’s levels – with Mathieu Flamini as third choice. A new centre back or right back was the requirement, but buying neither is a pretty unnecessary risk. As with the striker situation, they can get by, but there shouldn’t be the need to do so.
The club will defend itself by saying that just because it has money, does not mean it should buy just for the sake of it. Looking at the players who actually did move, it is somewhat tough to disagree: Sagna is a better centre back than all of Mamadou Sakho (who cost Liverpool £15million), Ashley Williams (for whom Swansea wanted circa £10m), Martín Demichelis (£4million to Manchester City) and Kolo Touré (free), to name a few examples, and it is similarly difficult to find good right backs. That said, if they stay lucky with defensive injuries, as they did last year, then such issues will come up rarely, if at all. But it still should not have to have been a cause for worry if it did. The concerns in midfield are mostly solved, with the Özil and Flamini signings.
Realistically, the squad depth issues put the title at a solid ‘probably not’ at this point. But the difference between this Arsenal and so many others is that so much of their strength lies in their defence. The style of play in the season’s opening few games – the Villa horror show apart – has reflected this; they are far more contented to play more on the counter, trusting themselves on the defensive side and attacking far more directly. How nice it is to be able to say that about Arsenal once more.
The ability of the first XI rather than the whole squad would make a cup a far more likely proposition than the league, at least at the moment. But rule them out at your peril. This Arsenal will surprise people – the extent of that surprise remains to be seen.