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.
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