In footballing circles, the Christmas period is always talked about as being unusually hectic. In reality, when one glimpses the eight games Arsenal (potentially) stand to play between January 1st and February 2nd, that impression retards somewhat. As international football has increasingly interfered with the schedule, there is rarely true respite in the calendar.
Arsene has shown a reluctance to rotate over the festive period (just what did Tomas Rosicky do to Arsene Wenger?) but he’ll be left with little choice now. I hope that doesn’t translate into putting the F.A. Cup onto the backburner. Clubs that regularly compete in the Champions League do have a more congested fixture list to contend with; but the financial rewards are made available precisely so that you can stock your squad to cope.
This time last year, my main seed of doubt with regards to Tottenham’s lead over us in the table regarded Redknapp’s lack of rotation. I always felt confident ‘Arry would run them into the ground (I can’t say I was necessarily as confident that we would be in a position to take advantage, mind). Especially as older players such as Gallas, Parker, King and Friedel – allied with puzzling additions of Saha and Nelsen – made up a significant amount of the petrol in their tank.
Put bluntly, I don’t see that potential fragility in Spurs now, with whom we are surely to grapple for a top 4 spot again. Their physical artillery is no longer weighed down with a reliance on old limbs. Now, I see the potential for burnout in Arsenal players as a far more likely scenario. Add in the fact that we play Spurs away in the second half of the season, whereas we were pinning our hopes on an upcoming home game against them this time last year.
Santi Cazorla practically has smoke billowing out of his bonnet. Sagna (who was reported injured prior to the Bradford game but played regardless and has completed every minute of each subsequent game) and Arteta both made errors on Sunday which could be attributed to mental fatigue at the very least. It isn’t solely miles on the clock that is causing fatigue for some of the aforementioned.
When Theo plays as a kind of right winger-cum-striker as he did on Sunday, there is a knock on effect. It places an enormous amount of pressure on Bacary Sagna to cover the entire flank both offensively and defensively. I think that really told at Swansea – countless times he was forced to turn inside or back towards goal with no passing option available.
You may recall that Swansea scored their second goal at the Grove in December by hassling Jenkinson on the right flank, with Walcott tucked in and offering no get out. But also I think the idea is that Cazorla drifts over to the right to cover from an attacking point of view. This places extra pressure on a player already running on empty. But it also denies the team some of its most valuable partnerships.
Earlier in the season, Cazorla and Podolski used to combine so frequently, it was a wonder that they weren’t just given their own ball to play with. With Cazorla needing to pull to the right, the umbilical cord between the two is cut. The idea is possibly for Wilshere to bridge that gap and supply the left hand side. In fairness, he did so very well in the second half against Swansea. But Jack is in the “fetch and carry” mould, so it still robs a little fluency from our play for my liking.
We have ourselves a game of tactical whack-a-mole here. When one band aid is applied to one area of the pitch, it is ripped from a scabby knee elsewhere, exposing a fresh wound. In asking Jack and Cazorla to attend to other areas, the upshot is that Arteta is isolated from both of his midfield amigos. This is why Chamberlain is the preferred choice on the right in spite of some rather average form this season. In lieu of Walcott wanting to be a winger, The Ox is now the only option that balances the team.
I think perhaps this is one of the reasons Wenger is loath to rotate. There is certainly an issue with members of the squad that he doesn’t trust. But most of the offending driftwood seems to be walking the plank overboard this month. There are those that he does seem to trust: Coquelin, Jenkinson, and Rosicky who still aren’t being used. I think the manager wants to try and keep as regular a selection as possible in order to foment the understanding that has eluded the team.
Noise seems to be percolating that Theo Walcott has won his stand-off with the club over terms and that he will sign imminently. That being the case, I hope once he signs, we’re less tempted to pander to his ego at the expense of the team. The “winger-cum-striker” (or “winger-cum-hole”?) experiment doesn’t work for the collective. It places too much pressure on overworked teammates whilst he plays “TJ the superstar centre forward.”
There was another incident on Sunday when Walcott had gone down nursing a boo-boo on the bonce. Given that it was the 91st minute and time was at a premium, Arteta rushed over to take the corner we had been awarded. Arteta is a fine and trusted deliverer of set pieces. But no, Theo decided he had to trot over and definitely had to take it himself. Personally, I’d like to have seen Arteta – our captain on the day no less – bare teeth and tell him to fuck right off.
I don’t want to seem like I’ve got an agenda against Walcott. Theo staying would definitely be A Good Thing. But I do rather wonder if it would be A Good Thing because it would arrest the annual exodus of first team players, rather than because I think Walcott to be a genuinely world class player. I think the importance would be weighted with what Theo signing represents over and above his actual importance to the side. (Though he is important, clearly).
This piece on Football365 last week worded it rather chillingly. “Has he [Walcott] finally developed to the standard required to play for Arsenal, or have Arsenal dropped to the standard of Theo Walcott?” Arsenal are having issues with balance which Walcott needs to conform with. I do rather suspect this contract situation has been allowed to obstruct that as we have pandered to his positional fancies.
However, there were some real positives at Swansea. Even if we are showing a worrying proclivity towards conceding goals straight after we’ve scored them. We were able to pick up the tempo of our play in the second half. At half time, I did suspect the game would peter out in the same manner other such away matches have done this year. But on this occasion, we managed to grip the game by the short and curlies.
Certainly in an attacking sense, we played with much more purpose. The substitution that brought Podolski into the fray demonstrated the value of having a good forward option on the bench. Lukas is often accused of drifting in and out of games, but we were troubling Swansea when he came into the game. We put our best finisher on at a time when we were creating goalscoring opportunities and it paid gold.
It’s indicative of the surgery that Arsene really needs to perform in January. Both to purchase greater firepower and to balance the team. I wrote this piece on the August transfer deadline day which I really could have just cut and pasted and posted for this week’s offering. Time to get busy Arsene. Till next week. LD.
Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA