Arsenal: The Season So Far
After summer mayhem, Arsenal has settled down and has delivered 10 games, winning 6, drawing 3 and losing 1. On average, the team has scored 2.4 and conceded 0.8 goals per game. Difficult games have been completed with varying results but on the whole the start has been an encouraging one. As the interlull drags on, here are some thoughts of the team early in this season.
What we have seen is 2 Arsenals in play this season. The first Arsenal is the one that gives me hope. It is a more rigid structure with physical players forming the spine – Per, Diaby & Giroud. Such physical presence and power has been unheard of ever since Sol Campbell, Patrick Vieira and Adebayor. For many years, we were a small but quick team, beautiful to watch but clueless when more physical teams shut us down. We refused to buy bigger and physical players. In a sense, Fabregas success clouded Wenger’s vision. We bought players like Nasri, Arshavin, Walcott and an entire host of quick footed and semi built players. For multiple reasons that model has left us trophyless for a long time. You cannot win the English league without physical strength.
In games where Per, Diaby and Giroud were playing, we had a good blend of pace and power. Per was solid at the back. Diaby could batter his way through stubborn back lines and Giroud easily held off centre backs. This created space for Cazorla, Gervinho, Poldolski, Gibbs and Jenkinson to exploit. We were able to play more directly with greater stability. Winning the ball in the midfield and quickly closing opponents down was possible. When in trouble, the big guys would help hold and push forward. The down side is that we were more predictable but yet more direct and effective. Having the big 3 the team has led to solid wins. However, the ugly win at Montpellier did demonstrate the weakness of an overly structured approach.
The second Arsenal is one that fans have gotten used to during the Fabregas days. This is the false-9 team. Big guys dropped off. The focus is to be unpredictable to make it really tough for defenders to mark. Basically, Podolski, Gervinho, Cazorla, Walcott, Oxlade Chamberlain and Ramsey were given the license to swap spots at will. When pulled off right, this can be an unstoppable team.
There’s no silver bullet strategy and we will need both as the season progresses.
The hard part? Pulling it off. The false-9 style is akin to what Spain did in Euro 2012 which was largely inspired by Barcelona. You need the team to be well gelled, fully understand each other’s movements and be able to anticipate each other well. If the team fails to do any of the above, the formation falls apart. Arsenal’s false-9 attempts are mixed. It worked well against lesser teams but flopped against Chelsea. It’s hard to tell because this team has played only 10 competitive games together and not all of them were in this particular style. There are a few reasons why Wenger has been pushing the false-9 play style First, its to relieve pressure on Giroud. Second, to return to something he is more familiar with. And thirdly, because a false-9 play style requires a lot more time and practice to perfect. There’s no silver bullet strategy and we will need both as the season progresses. It is good we seem to have 2 plans now. We’ve always been labelled a team without Plan B anyways.
No surprise. The most important midfielder for Arsenal last season has taken the role of vice captaincy in his stride. He has been sent further back and has again done his job perfectly. This guy can play anywhere in the middle. He has played as an AM (Everton), CM and DM (Arsenal) and has been an influential figure. Also, we have no one in the team that can replace him. If we were to suffer any injury, it must not be Arteta. He’s our conductor, the closest to a Pirlo-esque player in our team. This has been Arsene’s best last ditch signing in a long time.
When I first looked at the team in August, I thought we had a well mixed starting 11 and the only weakness was Sagna injured and Carl stepping in. Carl had an indifferent first season while Sagna is arguably the best right back in the league. How things have changed in 10 games. Jenkinson has played near perfect games in every match he has been involved in. Even in games that we played poorly, Carl has been performing consistently at a high level. It’s a meteoric rise for this 20 year old. The surprise of the first 10 games definitely. No one would have expected this. The weak spot I once perceived turned out to be one of our most consistent players early this season. Sagna has to fight for his place now.
Sagna has to fight for his place now.
I wasn’t convinced by Gibbs last season and I thought Santos should have been picked over him. Somehow, Santos has got slower this season and has been saddled with his reckless speed (oh the irony) driving ban. Gibbs has made the most out of it. When Gibbs slid in to prevent West Brom from equalizing in the final game last season, I felt that the last ditch sliding tackle that handed us Champions League football was a rare positive contribution from him. However, he has improved by leaps and bounds. His England call up is no surprise. He’s turning out to be more Cole than Clichy. Is Carl’s and Kieran’s rise down to coaching balance between Wenger and Bould? Too early to tell.
It’s hard to believe that we got him for such a low amount. This player is worth double we paid for him. His vision, touch, passing, positioning, awareness has been top of the line. His only weakness seems to be his long range efforts. And just as I was thinking Cazorla is hopeless from range, he dips in a beauty against West Ham. Cazorla is tiny, really tiny but he has withstood difficult physical tests against the likes of Yaya. On top of that, this Spanish wizard is always smiling. It’s hard for opponents to not like him. There’s a reason why he has scooped up every Player of the Month award (Arsenal.com) ever since he joined.
He was our best defender last season but has been poor so far. It may be the unfortunate case of not being ready and not having a good warm up against City and Chelsea but he was the weakest link for both games. Against City, Per covered his ass. Against Chelsea, his rustiness was exposed. Tracking player before ball has been a weakness he shed mid season last year but it seems to be back this year. Laurent needs some game time before being pushed into difficult fixtures.
He was our best defender last season but has been poor so far.
It is harsh to put him here since he has only played one game but I felt his arrogance and lack of concentration plus the tendency to completely screw up easy situations has continued from the Euros. WS1 is a good keeper, quick reflexes and has saved Arsenal many times. However, he has to get rid of carelessness and negligence if he wants to be among the best out there.
Diaby is an important player this season. He gives the midfield physical power and we have no replacement for him. Unfortunately, he is injury prone. Frimpong is sort of a substitute but our Ghanaian is not ready for prime time. He has a lot of guts, passion and is physically very strong but he does charge around like a headless bull at times. If Diaby manages to keep fit and play 70% of our games, we have a good season to look forward to. Else, the lack of physical strength in the middle will hamper us again.
Akin to the Diaby issue, our depth will be tested in time. We don’t have a replacement for Arteta. Wilshere and Frimpong are on their way back. Le Coq, Ramsey are available but are they really first team, week in and week out players? I doubt it but we have to wait for them to grow. There’s no reason to buy a physical player with 4-5 players waiting in line for the CM spot.
Walcott is a contract problem. He says it isn’t cash and he wants a striker role. Wenger has mentioned his intention of doing so but I am not convinced that Walcott can handle it. Theo is one of the best finishers in the team. He is also the fastest player we have but that is about it. The reason why he is on the bench is because he can’t get past players without his speed. His role as a super sub is working well as he cuts in from the wing at pace when defenders are tired. In the two cameos that he was slotted in the middle upfront, he looked clueless. Maybe he needs games but with his contract in limbo, it is hard to make a call whether to keep him or sell him. Note that his asking wage is currently higher than his output on the pitch. If we offer something that he wants, it will be a leap of faith on his ability. And our wage expenditures don’t look rosy at the moment.
Tactically, I hope we choose to forgo the false-9 and in its place continue to work on a physically more robust system. The stability and options that this play style offers are invaluable in the EPL. Unfortunately, knowing Wenger, this will probably not materialize. One can only hope.
Arsenal’s finances told a simple tale. We are completely shit in the commercial department. Our debts are being paid off by the sale of players and property. The board expects that to improve with commercial deals awaiting renewal within a year. If we can’t nail down the business portion of the club, we will never come close to having the resources to compete. Arsenal is still in debt. If things on the commercial end do not improve, expect more big name sales at the end of the season.
Arsenal is still in debt. If things on the commercial end do not improve, expect more big-name sales at the end of the season.
The season is still in its infancy but signs are encouraging. We’ve completed many difficult matches and 6W 3D 1L is a pretty good start so far. Here’s hoping the team gels well, stays injury free and the board gets its commercial deals sorted out right.