Where we are – part 1

Tim Stillman Column

Last week I touched upon our feeling as supporters around the squad; how the bonhomie appears to have improved. This both between the players and according to the respect that radiates out from fans compared with six months ago. I met little opposition to the supposition that the supporters were more tolerant with this more experienced roster than last year’s.

So over the next two weeks, I’ve decided to examine further. Where is the current squad? How have they performed with the season approximately at its half way point? Over the next fortnight I’ll undertake an in-depth, two part interrogation on the contribution of the squad so far this season; taking into account individual displays as well as an appraisal of the team as a unit. For this reason, I’ll split the review into four parts; starting this week with a forensic look at the goalkeepers and the defenders.

GOALKEEPER(s)

It’s difficult to believe that just 18 months ago; one of the most popular caterwauls, from press and supporters alike (though 99% of the time, one begets the other) would have had you believe cosmetic surgery was required in the goalkeeping department. But since his installation into the team at the beginning of 2011; the belief of the supporters in Wojciech Szczesny has been total. In fact, our conviction in him is only outstripped by his conviction in himself.

His supposed eccentricities make him a popular character – both in the dressing room and in the stands. Though leading the away support in song, kissing his captain’s boots and his hybrid cockney Pole burr help aid the cult of Szczesny, there really is more to it. The English, as a general rule, don’t like self confidence. We think it unbecoming and unseemly. (Which I think, partly explains why we tend to explode like rat bags in most sporting contests, but that’s a different story).

With Szczesny I think we appreciate the differences. There’s a measure of self deprecation in there too; which suggests he analyses his mistakes without just blindly championing his ability. Following his Premiership debut at Old Trafford, he immediately took to Twitter to say, “I think I’m going to have to work on my kicking!” He was clearly true to his word too; because now his distribution is faultless. For a side like Arsenal, this is a crucial facet for a goalkeeper.

Arsenal build attacks from the back and Szczesny is able to aid that with his calm distribution. It’s become a feature of matches now for him to control a backpass and coolly chip an inch perfect pass over a closing striker and to the feet of his centre halves. It’s difficult for some to give credence to the importance of a keeper that is good with his feet, even some 19 years after the backpass law was introduced. But Ferguson even put de Gea’s ability with his feet as one of the reasons he parted with 20 million big ones to secure his services.

szcz

Szczesny has presence in abundance for sure, but presence counts for precisely jack shit if you haven’t got the ability to compliment it. There has been a catalogue of excellent stops from the Pole in the Goal this season. The close range reflex save from Cattermole, the sprawl and save at the feet of Balotelli, the gravity defying claw away from Danny Graham’s header and my personal favourite, the high fist away from di Natale’s penalty in Udinese. All were important stops in tight games.

In a couple of the aforementioned examples, they were the only work he had to do in the entire game. Another urgent quality for an Arsenal goalkeeper. This is what separates Wojciech from a goalkeeper like Manuel Almunia; whose better performances came in games where he was busied- think Barcelona and United away in Champions League encounters. Szczesny might only have one save to make in 90 minutes; more often than not, he makes it.

Szczesny’s game has improved markedly in his decision making from crosses- as you’d expect now he has 50 Arsenal appearances under his belt. Work has clearly gone in on the training ground here. From the opening day against Newcastle, it was clear Szczesny’s aim was to be a decisive goalie; making decisions early and sticking to them. Fear and hesitation are deadly bedfellows for a Premier League custodian.

When Szczesny leaves his goal line, he’s out quickly and early. As with his distribution, this will occasionally lead to mistakes. But compared with a goalkeeper like Shay Given, whose reputation is built upon his refusal to make decisions that might lead to mistakes, he’ll save us infinitely more than he loses us in the long run.

My only concern with him at this stage is that his Schmeichel-esque sprawl in one on one situations leads to many strikers putting the ball through his legs – many of his goals have been conceded that way. But that really is a minor concern. In fact, it’s probably a concern borne of one of his biggest strengths. In seemingly hopeless situations; make yourself as big as possible and play the odds.

Many would argue that the performances of Fabianski and Mannone in turn in Athens demonstrate a lack of quality back up. In truth, I don’t think clubs around us have an awful lot better on the bench. I’d argue any top side that has a genuinely top quality goalkeeper on the bench probably has a keeper that lacks ambition. Or else they have a questionable number 1 that leaves the deputy with a glimmer of hope for playing time.

DEFENCE

Another area of the squad that appeared to be positively weeping for improvement, which has slowly improved. There are a number of factors for this. Firstly, I think there are more mature, responsible players in front of them. The team ethic towards defence has greatly improved with the likes of Arteta and Benayoun arriving. There’s also the replenishing effect of having a trusted goalkeeper behind them.

But largely I think it’s just down to an improvement in personnel. Thomas Vermaelen was injured for the whole of last season and, being a world class defender and a leader, his presence has had a rejuvenating effect. (Dare I say he’s been like a new signing?) Then we have the improvement in Laurent Koscielny who seems to be undergoing a Robert Pires style flowering at centre half. That is to say, a fairly impressive first season with glimpses of real quality, followed by a metamorphosis into a world class performer in his second.

Then there’s the addition of Mertesacker. There have been hiccups, as one would expect in an acclimatisation period. But put bluntly, whereas last season we looked to Squillaci, this season we call upon a centre half with 80 caps for Germany. Mertesacker has fitted into the ethos of Arsenal’s new defence, which appears to be built on early interceptions. Vermaelen, Santos and especially Koscielny, are very adept at nicking in front of an opposing striker and beginning an attack with Arsenal on the front foot.

I think this has suited Mertesacker, whose quality appears to be his reading of the game, enabling him to perform the “mop up” function. This is why Santos has also been a quality addition. For an attacking side like Arsenal, defending on the front foot is important because it allows you to quickly start attacks. Santos looks to be an upgrade on Clichy to me because of what he adds going forward. This piece from Arsenal Column expands on that brilliantly.

I think there has been something of a revitalisation in the defence because there’s a slightly different attitude. Put simply, there’s more pride in the art. The likes of Koscielny, Vermaelen, Sagna, they’re defenders that love defending. They relish the prospect of putting their bodies on the line. For too long I think there’s been a laissez-faire attitude at Arsenal that defence was simply a necessary evil. Now I think our current backline actually enjoys it.

There are still some kinks to work out, sloppy goal concessions of late to Aston Villa and Wolves say as much. But I don’t think any of us fill our undercrackers with effluent every time the opposition is awarded a corner. (Well, possibly less than we did in the spring anyway). Our recent injury curse at full back has inevitably upset us too I think. But I have very positive vibes about the current defence and I think it will only improve as the cohesion increase- as it will with games.

With everybody fit, we have competition for places in defence possibly for the first time in Wenger’s reign. The vital thing now will be keeping them together; Arsenal are finding out more than anyone how hard a task that is in the modern game. Quite enough chin stroking for this week. Next week, I’ll analyse the contribution- or lack thereof- of our midfielders and attackers. Until then, toodles. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

Thoughts on Thierry’s (possible) return

For the last few months if speculation has been made over where Arsenal should make a signing in January it’s been in the striking position.

Beyond Robin van Persie we have few options. Or, to put it another way, we have options which no longer produce goals or which the manager clearly has little faith in. There’s no point in me charting Marouane Chamakh’s decline, we all know the player we’re seeing now is far removed from the one we first saw in the early stages of last season. To me he looked a decent, albeit limited player, but still one who could produce enough to prove worthy of a place in the squad. Not quite a Plan B but almost.

The return and form of Robin van Persie seemed to the knock the stuffing out of him. Just 2 Premier League goals in over 12 months is a poor return for any player at a club like Arsenal, and more than the lack of goals it’s the obvious brokenness of him that’s most worrying. He does try but he looks like a player in a permanent state of ‘Movie hero yet to come good who is going through the bad patch before the montage of awesomeness at the end when he scores loads of goals’.

Andrei Arshavin is not a striker, per se, but really has enough about him to have eased some of the burden on van Persie. Such is his form he’s fallen down the pecking order to the point where even if Walcott is out of the squad entirely he doesn’t start and people then want a youngster like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to go on ahead of him. And then we have Ju Young Park. It’s easy to be cynical and suggest that the signing was one designed to do more for Arsenal’s commercial department than its playing one but until we see the player produce it’s always going to be in the back of people’s minds.

As January nears the possibility of signing a striker is open to us and much of the talk is that Thierry Henry will rejoin the club on a short-term loan deal from New York Red Bulls. He’s been training with the club for a few weeks now and despite Arsene saying he hasn’t spoken with Thierry about it from what I hear there is more than a hint of truth to these stories.

Per Mertesacker, speaking to the official site, said of the former captain:

In training he shows his class and to have him with us is great because he shows his attitude, his experience. He still has the same attitude he showed in a lot of games at Arsenal.

He is a great opportunity for us, but I’m not the manager, I couldn’t find a decision or what is possible for him or for us.

Is that a bit of groundwork being laid there? We shall see, I suppose, and it’d be an interesting move by the manager, adding to the Sol Campbell and Jens Lehmann events in which the man who never looked back starts looking back. I have to say though, I’m very much in two minds about it.

Mind 1

I look at the paucity of options we currently have and I think that Thierry Henry is a player of class who knows the Premier League and its demands. I look at him and although he’s been in the MLS for a couple of years I’d still have more faith in him to score us a goal than Arshavin, Chamakh or Park. Does he improve us? Probably, and that’s not a bad thing, but why he improves us is the bigger question.

Mind 2

Our need for a striker is obvious and our need for a striker isn’t just temporary either. I know Chamakh is off to the ACN but the Chamakh that returns is likely to be the same Chamakh that left. If the manager is considering bringing back a 34 year old Thierry Henry who, with all due respect to the MLS, has been out of top-level football for as long as he has, what does that tell us about Park and the manager’s willingness to use him?

In two months time when the loan move is up we still face the same problem of having no real alternative to Robin van Persie. And games like the one against Wolves show the value of having another striker who could actually trouble defences and goalkeepers. Basically, we need to invest, properly, in a forward who will be part of the first team squad for the foreseeable future. The gap we need to fill is not one created by the ACN or anything like that; it’s been created by the declines of Chamakh and Arshavin, the unsuitability (thus far) of Park and the reliance on van Persie.

If Henry were to come alongside another signing then I’d happily welcome him back. If his loan move is the best we can come up with as we head into the second half of the season, with the fight of our lives on our hands for a top four finish, then I don’t think it would be at all satisfactory.

Like others, I don’t hold any truck with the tarnishing of a legend. If Henry comes now what he does in this period will have no bearing on what he did when he was the best striker in the world and becoming our record goalscorer. Yet if people are expecting that kind of player they will be disappointed. I can’t speak to his physical condition, Arsene will have watched that closely during training, but it’s obvious that burst of pace is gone and if he’s up to 90 minutes in the Premier League it’d be a surprise. And that’s no criticism, he’s 34 and heading into the twilight of his career.

I love the guy, for everything he did for us in the past, and on his day was just an absolute joy to watch. Nothing will spoil that for me but I’m just worried that he’s not the solution we need at the moment. People speak about January and players not being available but in the past the manager has gone out and bought. January arrivals include Adebayor, Walcott, Diaby, Reyes, Arshavin – and you can use those and say ‘Haha, after that you can see why he won’t buy in January’ but the reasons for those players working out has nothing to do with when they were brought to the club.

Maybe the player Arsene really wants isn’t available in January, which is unfortunate, but the obvious solution there is find another option, a different player. We’ve got the money to do something in the transfer market this January and we have a hell of a scrap ahead of us in the next half of the season. I know we’re not great at the old ‘speculate to accumulate’ thing but you can’t help but get the feeling we’ve got to at least try this January.

So to conclude: Henry solo – welcome in the sense that he could offer than what we currently have but this is a very quick fix with all kinds of caveats. Henry + AN OTHER – adds depth, provides experience, and what an option to have in the final 15-20 mins of a match. Then you think if he did sign AN OTHER, is there any need for the Henry signing at all?

Anyway, January is almost upon us, all will become clear sooner rather than later.