Walcott signs, now the pressure’s on :: + Coquelin and Diaby

Walcott signs, now the pressure’s on :: + Coquelin and Diaby

So, after over 18 months of refusing to sign a new contract, Theo Walcott has put pen to paper and committed his future to Arsenal.

Good, because it means that a tedious, drawn-out saga is over. Good, because Arsenal have secured the future of a player who, while still far from the finished article, looks to be improving and maturing. Good, because it shows that Arsenal can hold onto a player who, for all intents and purposes, was angling towards a move away from the club like others have in recent times. If not quite a show of strength from Arsenal, it is a change from ignominious departures and that is a positive thing for the football club.

It has bucked the trend of recent times when players who reach the final year of their contract are sold. Having gone on as long as it did, the most obvious thing to happen was for him to leave in the summer on a Bosman, something Arsene Wenger acknowledged:

I was scared at some stage, yes, that he could leave because it is like that with the experience I have in negotiations. When things last too long, it is never a good sign.

Obviously things have changed over the last few weeks, compromise has been reached on both sides and hopefully now a line can be drawn under things and we can get back to what really matters. If the deal makes Theo Walcott Arsenal’s best paid player, on £100,000 per week, nobody should be fooled into thinking he’s Arsenal’s best player, least of all Walcott himself. While some of his recent performances have been exciting, he’s still just as likely to go missing in a game as he ever was, or for the technical flaws that he has to manifest themselves, but perhaps with the contract situation sorted out he can concentrate on improving his game.

If he’s asked to play as a centre-forward he needs to be stronger, to hold the ball up better, learn how to bring others into play and make sure the game doesn’t pass him by. If he’s asked to play out wide he needs to accept that that’s where he’s been picked and not take it upon himself to drift around the pitch like some kind of mercurial playmaker. That’s not his game, and it never will be. His strengths are his pace and, for the most part, his finishing but his all round game can still get better if he’s willing to apply himself.

And if this sounds over-critical, let’s go back to the key point: after holding out for a long time, and making his future and salary such an issue, Theo Walcott is now Arsenal’s best paid player. With that comes a measure of responsibility and a fair amount of expectation. When you’re the highest paid player at the club, after your own brinksmanship has made that happen, you are expected to live up to that and it will be no different for him.

When he shines, he’s very difficult to play against and can be tremendously effective, but he can just as easily be invisible, clumsy or out-played by supposedly inferior defensive opposition. He’s nearly 24 now and for a player whose game is built on pace Arsenal will probably have his best years, but Walcott’s demands to be considered one of the best will not be proven by his pay packet, only by what he does on the pitch. And now it’s down to him to show it on a much more regular basis.

In other news, Arsene Wenger has been talking up two of his midfielders, both of whom still have a lot to prove but for different reasons. First off, Francis Coquelin, of whom Wenger says:

What Coquelin is doing is quite good. His qualities help the team to defend better. He has that ability to fly into people and win the ball back, and that’s something important.

Regular readers will know I’m fond of the Coq at the best of times, but I do think he’s a guy who has qualities that set him apart from others. His energy and willingness to get stuck in mean he might well be able to carve himself out a niche in this Arsenal team, and if he’s patient enough he could well become an important player as other legs get a bit older.

Meanwhile, the return of Abou Diaby is something most Arsenal fans will welcome on one hand and find frustrating on the other. He’s a very talented player, no question, but the injuries have more or less destroyed his career. Arsene spoke earlier in the week about how he had the same questions asked of Robin van Persie when he spent months out here, months out there, but I’m not sure the comparison really holds up. The Dutch Skunk suffered a series of different injuries, Diaby’s all stem from that horrendous and utterly needless challenge by Dan Smith.

And you get the sense from what Arsene says that there’s a bit of sympathy driving the fact he hasn’t yet written him off when, realistically, I’m sure many other managers would have:

Diaby has a very serious life, he doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t go out, and is very conscientious in training. So you always feel sorry for him, so you always touch wood it will go well for him. Honestly, what he has gone through is unbelievable.

If you love football and you see a player like Abou, you want him to have the career he deserves, especially when he has the attitude that he has. You have to have patience. Because what did he do wrong? Nothing. You have to give him a chance.

When you hear it like that it’s very difficult to counter without sounding like a heartless bastard. It’s true, Diaby did nothing wrong other than have his foot nearly taken off his leg by a clogger who now works in a fucking call centre. His hard work, training, rehabilitation, preparation and everything else he does just to try and play football are a credit to him, I’m sure. But at some point, and I think we’re very close to it now, there has to be a time when you say that it’s not something we can sustain.

If he stays fit until the end of the season, plays regularly and contributes to the team, then it’s worth thinking about next season. But if he picks up another injury from kicking a ball and misses three or four months, you have to ask if that space in the squad couldn’t be better utilised. You can still have sympathy for Diaby – or not – but managers are paid to make decisions with the head, not the heart, and for all his qualities when he’s fit, his injury absences affect not just him, but the team overall.

I agree with Wenger when he talks about a player like Diaby being the missing piece of the puzzle but if that players misses three months, then takes a few games to get back to match fitness, then gets injured again and misses weeks/months, it’s an unsustainable, and horribly vicious, circle. In the end the priority has to be the team before any single player, but, even if it does come to a head, as I’ve said before, I don’t think we could ever be accused of not giving him enough chances.

Right, that’s your lot. Have a good Saturday, back tomorrow with a Chelsea preview and all the rest. Until then.

Where do stories come from? + Arsecast 263

Where do stories come from? + Arsecast 263

Morning all, it’s a pretty miserable one here in Dublin.

Bits and pieces going on as we prepare for a big, big game on Sunday against Chelsea. Arsene’s press conference took place yesterday and it was interesting, really interesting, to see how stories are created. You might wake up and see us linked with Napoli striker Edinson Cavani but how that’s come about is quite fascinating.

A chap on Twitter who gives information in good faith (and I want to make it perfectly clear this is not to disparage him in any way), mentioned that Arsenal had made a big bid for somebody. He mentioned no name. Some way or another the name of Cavani became attached as the grapevine went mental, and all of a sudden it was the story of the day when Arsene met the press. He was asked if this was a player he ‘might’ be interested in. His reply:

“I like him as a player. He would cost a lot of money, that’s for sure. Nobody would deny that!”

You can see a clip of it here. But saying you like a player is a lot different from saying you’re going to buy him, or even try to do so. I’m sure Arsene Wenger likes him, why wouldn’t he? He’s a brilliant striker, Arsenal could do with one of those. But then I’m sure Arsene Wenger likes Falcao. And Lionel Messi. And Cristiano Ronaldo. And so on.

Being asked a direct question about a player and answering it in fairly non-committal, but polite, way is now enough to spark headlines about how we’re ‘interested’ and ‘ready to swoop’. The reality is quite different, as Wenger points out:

Napoli are playing for the title and the Champions League in Italy. What is Napoli’s interest in selling Cavani? None, unless you say, ‘OK, we will pay twice the price of what the player is worth’.

Are Arsenal a club that pay twice what any player is worth? A player that has recently signed a new contract and who has a buy-out clause of £50m+? Experience tell us this is not the case. As much as I’d like to see it, and it’s something I discuss on today’s Arsecast with Tim from Arse2Mouse, I simply cannot see Arsenal being willing, much less able, to buy Cavani.

The interesting thing though is that new media is driving ‘old’. The question about how there are rumours he’s ready to spend big has come directly from the information posted on Twitter. The name of Cavani has come as consequence of that too. There’s no journalist working an angle, finding a source or using any information they’ve dug up themselves, it’s all from Twitter. And if you think it doesn’t happen, remember this?

At a press conference days afterwards, a journalist asked Carl Jenkinson straight out if it was true that his dad had been a professional singer – see here for the question and Jenkinson’s reaction.

So if it happens for obvious nonsense, you can be sure it’s happening for stuff that will really sell some papers/garner some clicks. Quite what it all means, I don’t know. It’s always been incumbent on us to separate the wheat from the chaff, and even if we desperately want to believe some of the chaff is wheat, we kinda know better. But the lines are being blurred now and it’s very interesting to see.

Sadly, I don’t think we’re likely to see much happening in January, although obviously I’d like to see some arrivals. Arsene giveth in one breath:

We can spend money if it is for a player we think gives us a plus. If we find something, we will do it.

And he taketh away with another:

On top of that, all the players who can strengthen us are cup-tied in the Champions League.

Which is, frankly, a nonsensical thing to say. Arsene says himself the priority now is to finish in the top four. That should be motivation behind any transfer business. It’s very much a case of Que sera, sera in Europe. If we go further, great, but we also need to be in Europe next season and that’s why frustration levels rise at our inaction thus far in the window. Buy players who can help us finish in the top four, don’t worry about them playing in the Champions League this season, make sure they’re part of a team that’s playing in it next.

But hey, this feels like old ground/familiar territory, possibly because we’re going around in circles. All I know is that if we sign somebody it’s likely to be closer to the end of the window than today, and that’s merely based on what Arsene said at his press conference. Even then that’s a bit of straw clutching (and the straw turns out to be chaff most of the time). I’m now officially giving up trying to make any sense of anything anyone says and does in relation to transfers, transfer business, transfer rumours, transfer gossip, Manhattan Transfer, and everything else transfer related.

Which brings me nicely to this week’s Arsecast in which transfers are discussed (hah) along with Jack Wilshere, the Man City game and lots more. Joining me to discuss it all is Tim from Arse2Mouse (background snoring provided by his dog).

You can subscribe to the Arsecast on iTunes by clicking here. Or if you want to subscribe directly to the feed URL you can do so too (this is a much better way to do it as you don’t experience the delays from iTunes). To download this week’s Arsecast directly – click here 24mb MP3) or you can listen directly below without leaving this very page.

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Fill yer boots, news throughout the day on Arseblog News, more here tomorrow. Until then.

Wilshere changes the game and changes the game

Wilshere changes the game and changes the game

As with most Champions League dwelling clubs, we Arsenal fans have been spoiled over the years by the quality of player we have borne witness to. There’s a saying that the sun shines on a dog’s arse once a day. Even the most average player can produce a high level performance on a given occasion. Think of Baptista at Anfield. Or Carlos Vela against Wigan a few seasons ago.

Some players veer chaotically betwixt sublime and ridiculous. Diaby and Walcott, for instance. Good strikers can score goals that help you to win games. Good goalkeepers can make saves that do much the same. But only a select cartel of players can win you games single handedly. They can dominate them from first to last, with aggression allied to technique; simply overwhelming opponents over a 90 minute period. Players that can project their personalities onto games.

Thierry Henry could do it. (Liverpool and Leeds in the unbeaten season. Roma in 2002). Dennis Bergkamp could do it. (Barnsley in 97, Leicester in 97 and 99, Everton in 2005). Cesc Fabregas did it for fun. (Juventus in 2006. Villa in 2009 from the sub’s bench to name just two). Charged with greater responsibility in a more advanced role, Jack Wilshere produced a coming of age performance against Swansea.

Wilshere’s talent has been obvious for a very long time, but Swansea probably marks the first time he’s really “taken a game by the scruff of the neck”, to lapse into tabloid parlance (though he made a decent enough attempt of taking the game to Manchester City on Sunday). The display of Wilshere and indeed the team, will have given the manager food for thought with regards to his formation. We’ve previously been picking over the fossils of a system designed to extract the best from Messrs’ Fabregas and van whatshisface.

Arsene might have cause to reflect that the system deployed against Swansea plays to the strengths of Arsenal’s latest fulcrum. It’s voguish for teams to use three central midfielders nowadays- possession is the new black after all. Few teams have identified with the fashion for ball monopolisation better than Swansea City. Arsene seemed to stumble across an answer last night. Let’s play four central midfielders.

Whilst not conceptually flawless, it seemed to suit us better than the 4-3-3 system, which these players have never really ‘broken in.’ Jack played a role more befitting of his squad number last night, but it wasn’t necessarily the same version of the trequartista role played by Fabregas. Nominally, Arsenal lined up with Walcott on the right and Cazorla on the left, with Wilshere playing in behind Giroud. But its fluctuation was much more discrete than that.

Cazorla started wide but was given freedom to drift inside and find the ball. One game is an insufficient sample size to assess long term viability, but it appeared to suit him better than the number 10 role. Cazorla likes to wander all over the pitch and often comes deep to receive the ball. This can isolate the forwards in the 4-3-3 because he is charged with being their supply line when he so often likes to be in the centre circle. Against Swansea he was able to play with greater freedom than we have seen from him for weeks.

Of course the system requires hard graft and understanding to work. Whilst Cazorla is granted clemency to float in from the flank and Walcott has license to join Giroud when we have the ball, the players have to be responsible when we don’t. Jack and Santi swapped very effectively, with Wilshere popping up on both flanks at varying points of the game. It makes effective communication key when we don’t have possession, but having four players in the middle of the pitch could mean that that happens less often. We were able to pick up second balls from Swansea clearances and we pressed them high up the pitch with the knowledge that Coquelin and Diaby were providing a solid base.

Of course that places a lot of pressure on the full backs to provide width. Gibbs and Sagna were very much up to the job on this occasion, but it might be a big ask over a long period of time. But the use of the full backs gave us another advantage in an attacking sense. So often opponents have been able to neutralise Arsenal by forcing them into wide areas. This leaves us with little recourse but to chuck the ball into the area against our will. But with Cazorla and Jack given greater license to drift, along with Walcott, we are able to create better angles for our build up play.

The full back has an ‘out’ ball with a player slightly tucked in, allowing effective of use one two’s to create good attacking angles in the channels. That allows Walcott to play the “winger-cum-striker” role more efficiently too, because it can provide the angle for a through ball into the channels that he likes to roam. Basically, it helped us pull Swansea’s defence around and the possibility to translate this tactic against other opponents must be one that is intriguing Arsene Wenger.

Hypothetically speaking, with everybody fit, Diaby and Arteta can provide the “base.” Wilshere can play in an advanced role, with Cazorla drifting in from a wide starting position. Walcott and Podolski are both, at least theoretically, suited to joining Giroud upfront from the flank. It’s a complex system for sure. It requires concentration, communication and understanding. Cazorla, Wilshere and Walcott / Podolski would need to chop and change constantly and be vigilant when we don’t have the ball. But I think it might be worth persisting with.

It seems to suit our team better than the 4-3-3 has and allows us to impress our personality on our opponents. It seems to tailor to Cazorla and Wilshere too. Within his effusive prose, Arsene said of Jack, “The closer he is to goal, the better it is.” I just hope that we don’t make the same mistake we did with Cesc Fabregas. We need to surround this boy with a comparable level of quality. Swansea might have been a breakthrough in Arsenal’s season long grapple with balance and it might have been a watershed for Jack Wilshere too.

In the wake of the Manchester City game even, there had been calls to make Wilshere captain. I don’t think there’s quite the need for this yet. “Change the captain” has been one of the catch all solutions proffered by Arsenal fans for the last 6 years. It’s become our answer to “bobbies on the beat” in general election vernacular. In England, we seem to have this impression that the captain’s armband is not merely a piece of cloth, but a magic wand that turns shit into gold.

After all, even if we have done so unwittingly, we’ve changed the captain every year for the last four seasons and it doesn’t seem to have changed much! Wilshere certainly has captaincy potential for the future, but for now I think we need to leave him to his game. We can afford to wait a while until he develops into a natural and regular match winner. Then we can give him the armband. If we give it to him too soon, we risk compromising his subconscious.

Making him skipper might give Wilshere the impression that he has to win every game in the manner that he did last night, which isn’t always healthy. We waited until Cesc was running matches on a weekly basis before appointing him to the role. Sami Hyppia eased Steven Gerrard’s development at Liverpool by keeping the armband warm until Gerrard was winning games as second nature. For what it’s worth, I don’t see what Vermaelen has done so wrong as a skipper in any case.

The key is always to have a team of leaders. Patrick Vieira wasn’t a great leader per se; he skippered a side that required no direction. I think Vermaelen is a decent leader, but every colonel needs good lieutenants. Szczesny and Wilshere provide compelling potential to lead the team in the future. But we must make sure we surround them with similar quality and fight. Be bold Arsene, please. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

Arsenal 1-0 Swansea: Wilshere makes the difference

Arsenal 1-0 Swansea: Wilshere makes the difference

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When Cesc Fabregas left Arsenal, he said something on his Twitter account about how Arsenal fans shouldn’t be too worried because we had the best English midfielder around in Jack Wilshere.

The former captain wasn’t to know that Jack would miss an entire season, and the start of the next, through injury, and it just makes you wonder what kind of a player he’d be now if he hadn’t suffered that unfortunate problem. Because last night he put in a performance of the very highest level, and when you consider he’s only been back a couple of months, it’s hugely encouraging.

There was a bit of a tweak to the formation with Wilshere lining up in the central attacking midfield position with Walcott and Cazorla either side of him, and he showed, to my mind at least, that this is where his long-term future lies. With Diaby and Coquelin behind him, providing a decent platform against a very good and disciplined Swansea side, Wilshere’s influence grew as the game went on.

In a slightly underwhelming first half he was always looking to drive Arsenal forward, to run with the ball beyond his markers, and in the second he took it to another level. Combing graft and bite with end product and an energy that must have come from the reserves build up during his long absence he, more than anyone, ensured that Arsenal went through to the 4th round of the FA Cup.

Of course it was his late goal that won the tie. Cazorla fizzed a pass into Giroud whose touch was absolutely perfect, laying the ball into the path of Wilshere to smash home on the half-volley. But beyond that he epitomised everything good about the game and put in the kind of performance that should be an example to all his teammates. He spoke afterwards about not wanting the game to go into extra-time, and he clearly meant it.

Swansea couldn’t get near him and when they did it was often last-ditch stuff. Possession football is great but teams need somebody to spark, to provide forward momentum. We’ve spoken before about how Tomas Rosicky, like Fabregas before him, was the kind of player who could find space between the lines and Wilshere did that time and again last night. Running with the ball at his feet he’d ghost past opponents and the best part of it all was that he made it look so simple. There was nothing complicated to it, not much in the way of flicks and tricks, it was all engine and it was just great to watch.

It needed somebody to make the difference and he stepped up. Arsenal, in the second half, were all over a Swansea team that looked a bit jaded compared to their usual effervescent selves, and the players deserve credit for that. Some of the finishing left a bit to be desired, it has to be said. Theo Walcott missed three fantastic chances to score, that’s not being critical, that’s simply a fact, and he needs to apply one of  those Consistin® Patches fairly sharpish. Olivier Giroud too could have done better on a couple of occasions but provided the assist for Wilshere and, as I spoke about yesterday, we really need to see him have a run of games up top.

I thought Diaby looked better and sharper than against Man City while Francis Coquelin took his chance well with a tidy, energetic performance and while he’s clearly still got some developing to do, I think he’s got a genuine chance of becoming a more regularly used option in this squad. At one point he won a crunching tackle high up the pitch which allowed Wilshere to storm towards the Swansea goal, and even late on he was sprinting around the pitch looking to make space for others. Encouraging.

Overall it was a game we more than deserved to win. Sure, Bartley hit the bar in the first half, but beyond that the visitors offered little as an attacking threat. Even the introduction of the fabled Arsenal slayer Michu made no difference and we were the ones who created all the chances. A combination of poor finishing, good goalkeeping (by Vorm and Graham), and some stoic defending prevented us scoring before we did, but when we did it nobody could argue it wasn’t merited, that goes for goal and the scorer.

Afterwards, Arsene heaped praise on Jack:

He was outstanding tonight. He is at the complete midfielder, he can play anywhere. He is a guy who can dribble and give a final ball, so the closer he is to goal, the better it is. He has quality and enthusiasm, and love for the game. That is the most important thing to me.

And his team:

We persevered and were rewarded and we had a good performance. It gives you a lot of regrets that we played with 10 men on Sunday when you see our second half and our game tonight. It is important that we continue to develop like that as a team.

Amazingly, it’s our first win in January and very welcome it is too. Clearly there are other issues – it was hard not to look at the second half chances being squandered and not wish for another striking option – but let’s hope that when Arsene talks about working very hard in the transfer market (something he repeated on TV last night), that he, and the club, are doing everything they can to put money where his mouth is.

For now though, it’s worth enjoying the win, and a performance from Jack Wilshere that makes you very glad he’s just a new five year deal with the club.

Till tomorrow.

Arsenal v Swansea – live blog

Arsenal v Swansea – live blog

Join us this evening for live blogging of Arsenal v Swansea in the FA Cup, kick off 7.30pm.

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