Slow, slow, [something something] slow

Slow, slow, [something something] slow

From feast to famine as the old adage has it. After a delightfully excessive and fattening 7-3 win over Newcastle, Arsenal promptly swore off the sins of the festive season with an impoverished performance at St. Mary’s. The Southampton display was rather like watching Tomas Brolin trying to squeeze into a pair of skinny jeans after a dedicated half an hour’s fasting.

Creatively famished performances such as the one on the south coast are becoming the norm for this season- especially away from home. It was in the tradition of Aston Villa, Everton, Manchester United, Norwich City, Bradford City, Stoke City and Wigan Athletic before it. Matches in which our attacking threat was easily neutered by the opposition.

As Arse2Mouse pointed out, it’s the second time we have registered less than two shots on target in a game this season. Yet at the thicker end of the wedge, already this year we have seen a pair of 5-2’s, a 7-5, a pair of 6-1’s and just a matter of days ago we demolished Newcastle 7-3. So why the anomalies? Is it simply a case that sometimes it clicks and at others it just doesn’t? I suppose you’re going to charge me with trying to explain it aren’t you?

Well, for a start, you’ll notice that in our most emphatic victories this season, there are no clean sheets. Arsenal have won by two goals to nil only three times this season so far and have yet to win a match 3-0. The simple fact is that Arsenal thrive in end to end, helter skelter style contests. This might not necessarily be new or privileged information, but it does show that Arsenal struggle to really dictate the tempo of a game.

Like Heath Ledger’s Joker, we’re agents of chaos. Of course, we lost possibly the best “match winner” in the league last summer, which partially explains why we’re not winning tight games. Theo Walcott might have 14 goals this season, but not too many of them have been decisive; there are few match winners or equalisers. In fact, Podolski is our most “decisive” goalscorer in that respect. (He’s put us a goal ahead in six games this season, for instance).

Arsene is keen to remind the press that he’s had to build a new team this season (again) and unfamiliarity is also at the heart of our inconsistency. I don’t think our midfield three has found the correct blend yet. On paper, Arteta, Wilshere and Cazorla ought to be possession vampires, sucking the life out of opponents with hypnotic ball retention. It’s rarely happened in fact (Wigan and Newcastle bested us for possession over the festive period).

Neither of the three has really developed the knack of upping the rhythm of our passing. Busquets-Xavi and Iniesta are of course the poster boys for possession football. But their success is not merely founded on an ability to hoard the ball amongst themselves. Crucially, they can up the pace of their passing in the blink of an eye once an opening is apparent. Much like the foxtrot the ideal vision is for the passing to go slow-slow-quick-quick-slow.

This is why I am still very much of the opinion that Rosicky has to come into this team somewhere, to inject a little more “quick” into the formula. I worry that Cazorla, Wilshere and Arteta are a touch too similar. We’ve struggled to kill teams off when in the ascendancy too. Reading, Spurs and Newcastle were all allowed back into games which we should rightly have finished off. Cast your minds back to the closing minutes of the 2003 F.A. Cup Final against Southampton, with a slender 1 goal lead, Arsenal maintained an uninterrupted period of possession for six and a half minutes. Even defensively speaking, our midfield isn’t sucking the life out of opponents with the ball either.

It’s a struggle with balance that Arsenal have toiled with all season and probably shows a dichotomy between the ideas of Steve Bould and Arsene Wenger. Arsenal have abandoned the pressing game this season in favour of getting numbers behind the ball and maintaining a solid defensive shape when the opposition has possession. Defensively it’s produced results but I wonder if it’s taken away some of our attacking impetus.

Our best attacking performances have come in these “helter skelter” type encounters because, as Anam pointed out, Arsenal make good use of transitions in play. There are less of these when you prioritise shape over hounding opponents. Essentially it makes us flat footed. “Backwards in coming forwards” if you will. More chaotic games in which we have been forced to “hound” opponents have led to a greater attacking threat, but more porous defending. We don’t dictate matches it seems, matches dictate us.

There are also still issues of familiarity upfront. Our attack looks much better when the front four interchange positions effectively. The reason they haven’t done so consistently is partly governed by the rhythm of games, as discussed above. But it’s also down to a lack of telepathy, which takes time and games to build. It’s the reason that we, as fans, should not obsess too much over who starts as a central striker.

Against Newcastle, Walcott scored two goals from the centre, scored one drifting in from the left and made two with good pieces of wing play from the right. Podolski made a goal with classic wing play from the left but that didn’t stop him scoring a poacher’s goal inside the six yard box later in the game. The goals in the 5-2 win over Spurs showed similar variety. Walcott and, perhaps more quietly, Podolski’s desire to start through the centre is simply a fit of ego.

It doesn’t really matter who starts through the middle. If all the players do their jobs and interchange well, they will all get chances to score and create from all positions. Much in the way that United effectively managed to blend Tevez, Ronaldo and Rooney without fixed positions and Chelsea are doing something similar with Mata, Hazard and Oscar. Robert Pires never demanded to be played at centre forward simply because he scored a lot of tap ins.

Theo Walcott in particular needs to be careful not to fall into the trap of ‘amour-propre.’ It sounds incredibly churlish to complain in the wake of a hat trick. But there were a multitude of occasions against Newcastle where Walcott prioritised his desire to prove himself as a centre forward over and above the team. He rather pinched his second goal off the feet of the better positioned Bacary Sagna and has left Lukas Podolski fuming on a few occasions by taking on a shot with the German waving frantically in space.

Of course, having taken the ball off of Sagna and scored you can say his decision was vindicated. But such behaviour repeated and spread over a longer period won’t always yield positive results. Likewise, Arsenal were awarded a 91st minute free kick at St. Mary’s which was tailor made for Wilshere’s left footed delivery, to be inswung towards a goalkeeper whose handling was clearly questionable. Walcott ushered Wilshere away and tried a right footed outswinger which failed to beat the first man.

It was a decision piqued by ego ahead of the greater interest of the team. This may sound incredibly pernickety and I accept that it may well prove to be. A more purposeful, confident Theo Walcott is a good thing. I accept that he’s also trying to prove himself as a striker and, in time, he may relax if he can establish himself there. But he needn’t think that holding the cards in a contract negotiation makes him Charlie Big Potatoes on the pitch.

It sounds as though Arsene isn’t keen on having to rebuild the attack again next season and that the club are willing to be more receptive to his demands. But a balance needs to be struck to ensure Theo doesn’t turn into Daniel Sturridge. ‘Eht’s a tightroap Spud, eht’s a fookin tightroap.’ Till next week. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

Transfer window: more outs than ins right now

Transfer window: more outs than ins right now

So the transfer window is open and everyone is anxiously awaiting the first new arrival. This is the point where I say I’m not going to hold my breath because, well, if experience has taught us anything it’s that trying to hold your breath for 28 days is a task that not even David Blane should attempt (although I do think he should attempt it, the annoying twat).

One of the players we’ve been linked with, Demba Ba, is on his way to Chelsea after they triggered his £7.5m release clause. Sounds cheap. Well, that’s until you find out that Ba has 5 agents who all want £1m each, plus an £80,000 a week contract over 4 years and his knee is made from dust. At which point you begin to realise that Arsenal, even if they wanted the player (and I’m not sure we do), would run screaming from such a situation. Dealing with one agent is tough enough for Dick Law and Order, five in one go would turn him into a gibbering wreck (please note: I’m not suggesting this is a bad thing).

From what I gather there has been some contact regarding a Spanish based striker (see recent blog titles for a hint there), but I’m not sure I buy the stories linking us with Adrian Lopez, mostly because it seems to have originated on goal.com, the slave labour Pinocchios of football information. If we do have targets, and I hope we do, I think they’re being kept as close to our chest as possible, the same way we always do. It doesn’t mean information won’t leak at some point. With clubs and agents all looking out for their best interests – by which I mean as much money as possible – it’s sometimes inevitable that they try and build profile for a player/potential sale by linking said player with a big club, but so far there’s been little concrete.

So it’s to players on the way out we should look and the first of them appears to be Johan Djourou. I fully accept he had a rotten time last season, playing right back didn’t suit him or us in any way, and the perception of him as a player seems to be based on that almost entirely. He had a bad spell of form playing out of position and, sadly, it seems to have finished his Arsenal career. It wasn’t so long ago that he was lauded for his presence in the team, our record with him playing was very good, and I remember distinctly how unhappy people were when he picked up an injury (possibly in the 4-4 at Newcastle).

Now he’s probably on his way to Hanover, although I’m sure there’ll be other clubs interested in him, and despite earlier reports which said it could be a loan deal, it looks as if he’ll leave the club permanently. Good luck to him if he goes. He’s never been anything but an Arsenal lad since he joined the club and became ‘He who must not be named’ as Arsene looked to protect his potential. He’s our longest serving player, and although it hasn’t worked out I wish him all the best.

On the face of it, his departure weakens us in the central defensive area. Ignasi Miquel could be bumped up the list, but the likelihood is that if Djourou goes then Sebastian Squillaci is the one who will move closer to the first team despite admitting he could be off in January. It seems more obvious that he’ll see out his contract with us and go in the summer, and he names a number of French clubs to whom he’s talking. From a financial point of view, it’d make more sense for them to sign him in the summer, so we could have a situation where people are thankful Djourou has gone but to me it’d be a move that weakens us.

Squillaci has become something of a poster boy for the failed signings of recent seasons, and on paper it’s one that should have been much more successful. He was a French international, he was playing for a Sevilla side that won a European trophy and was in and around the top four in Spain every season, and he was at an age where his experience at centre-half should have proved useful. Instead, his performances weren’t great, his confidence waned and reached a point where he’s simply not played professional football for almost two years. It’s astonishing really.

Just 6 appearances last season, playing only 10 minutes of Premier League football during which time a dodgy header against Fulham cost us a late goal after a Djourou red card, and this season he’s played just once, in the Champions League as we lost to Olympiacos. So if Djourou goes, a Mertesacker ankle twist and a Vermaelen suspension means we’re faced with a choice between him and the young Spaniard, who I feel needs a loan spell (and I think he’s injured at the moment anyway).

Now, I’ve got no objections to him leaving, and in all honesty, given the circumstances and how little he’s played over the last couple of seasons, it’d absolutely mad for us to put ourselves in a position where we need him, but the clubs that might take him can’t match his Arsenal wages. With only 6 months to go perhaps a compromise can be reached, perhaps a ‘Thanks for everything, here’s a few quid’ scenario isn’t out of the question, but it still leaves us a bit short in the centre of defence.

The same might well apply to Andrei Arshavin. He too has just 6 months to go, Arsene Wenger simply won’t use him anymore and was so desperate to move him on this summer that he was offered on a free to a number of Russian clubs. There was interest but Arshavin didn’t want to leave London. I don’t know if there’s any interest in him, maybe someone will take a punt, but at the moment he’s just a guy in whom the manager has no faith and is simply taking up space in the squad.

The same goes with regard to Marouane Chamakh. He can’t make his national squad for the African Cup of Nations, and if his stock has fallen as a footballer his rise towards the top of Arsene’s list of dodgy signings is almost meteoric. But who will take him? Who would take him? West Ham are supposedly interested, I’d be hugely surprised. What are his selling points? He’s on a comfortable contract, he seems content to see it out knowing he’s not going to earn as much elsewhere. Not even Huey Lewis would be happy to be this kind of stuck. But if there’s a way of moving him on we should do it. It’s pointless hoping he’ll come good again despite the early promise he showed. Cut and run. If only it were that simple.

So, at this moment in time, despite our obvious need to strengthen, it seems more likely that some players will leave. However you regard these players, it does leave us weaker in terms of numbers and, in the case of the Djourou/Squillaci situation, weaker as a squad. There’s plenty of work to be done this month, I just hope they’re doing it and not sitting, waiting, waiting and then oh, it’s February.

Right, that’s that for now, back tomorrow with an Arsecast and all that, so take it easy until then.