Slightly damp powder

Slightly damp powder

You’ll recall that in last week’s column, that I gently suggested Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott ought to be scoring crucial goals more often. Especially the sort of goals that either win or rescue matches, directly influencing the result in a positive manner. Given the response both players have produced in the last week, I think I should air a few more of my bugbears.

I find it genuinely annoying that we’ve never beaten Stoke City 8-0. I really think this is an area we have to improve on. It’s also my firm belief that Arsene Wenger’s reputation as a football manager will continue to deteriorate until he takes a clothing accessory – let’s say a baseball cap for argument’s sake – and forcibly inserts it into an opposing manager’s rectum. Oh and John Terry doesn’t get nearly enough testicular injuries either.

However, Giroud and Walcott’s respective boon in front of goal has been genuflected by even more defensive flatulence. Arse2Mouse referred to this phenomenon as “whack-a-mole” back in the autumn. It’s been a season long grapple. Podolski, Cazorla, Walcott and Giroud are showing tantalising signs of having found chemistry. But in order to accommodate all four and allow them to pollinate, we have to play the 4-3-3 formation which so exposes our defence.

As the transfer deadline ticked down and Arsenal frantically snipped wires to secure the signing of Nacho Monreal, there were understandable suggestions that a defender was indeed more of a priority for surgery ahead of our wafer thin forward line. I have to say I’m not so sure it’s a personnel issue back there at all. As Wojciech Szczesny intimated, we have good defenders.

Right up until the autumn, Arsenal had one of the better defensive records in the league. Thomas Vermaelen, Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker are all very good centre halves. When the team took a more defensively responsible shape earlier in the campaign, goal concession wasn’t a big problem. But impoverished offensive displays were becoming alarmingly regular. Who can forget the unholy trinity of games in October against Norwich, Schalke and QPR?

It took the Gunners 264 minutes to register a goal in a run of games that hardly looks terrifying on paper. (Two of them were at home too and it was defensive midfielder Mikel Arteta that broke the hoodoo). We’ve been playing more expansively of late, which has brought plenty of joy in front of goal at the expense of protecting our defence.

That being the case, you could clone Bobby Moore, Tony Adams and Paulo Maldini, put them in Arsenal shirts and they’d soon morph into air swiping, bumbling balls of anxiety given the level of protection they could expect. Welcome to Arsenal, Nacho! I know there’s a stat doing the rounds that Arsenal concede the most amount of goals via individual errors, but I find that data set suspicious. It’s a very subjective measure for a start.

But every goal emanates from an individual error somewhere. Whether it’s a hilarious swing at fresh air in your own six yard box, or a simple failure for a midfielder to cover a teammate. For my money, the solution is to demonstrate some tactical flexibility. Against the bigger sides (and Liverpool, fnar!) we need to play with four midfielders. The system I wrote about in the wake of the Swansea game should be deployed. That means relegating either Lukas Podolski or Theo Walcott to the bench, but so be it.

Both have previous this season for coming off the bench to change a game. Podolski has Lionel Messi levels of form for being subbed. I think both are equally capable of playing the winger / striker role in that system but we couldn’t have them both doing it. There’s always the potential to use our substitutions wisely and play a more open shape later in the game if required. We tend not to sober up until about the 60th minute anyway so I don’t think a slightly more secure formation in the first two thirds of the game is a bad idea.

Perhaps I’m guilty of overly simplistic thinking, but it strikes me we’re good at defending when we assume a more defensive shape and we’re very good at scoring goals in the second half of games. But with an attacking shape, we tend to concede more, especially in the first half. Maybe if the instincts of Steve Bould and Arsene Wenger could be fused together into some kind of gene splicer, like Jeff Goldblum in ‘The Fly,’ we could correct our little conundrum.

The increasingly tawdry soap opera that is the transfer window has now passed and I think, along with most Gooners, I’m a touch underwhelmed with the business we have done. On one hand, we’ve signed Theo Walcott up to a new contract and strengthened in the left back position. But I still think the lack of a striker might be the pin that potentially bursts our Champions League bubble this season.

We all chuckle at the “super, super quality” line, but we are in something of a vacuum that makes player recruitment difficult. That is true. The players that can genuinely improve us are usually hovered up by better resourced clubs (Demba Ba, for instance). Tottenham finished 37 points behind us in 2008, four months before Sheikh Mansour bought Manchester City. They’ve not found it difficult to find the sort of player to elevate them from Midtable to Champions League reckoning.

Like it or not, they’re who we are competing with and trying to fend off nowadays. Despite showing a willingness to spend, they’ve still found better players picked off by richer clubs (Berbatov, Modric) and not been able to recruit the sort of player that can push them into title contention. On occasion, I’d be inclined to accept the oft repeated line that there is nobody a) available and b) that would improve us.

But when we “keep our powder dry” window after window after window, it’s hard not to get the impression that the club are just being defeatist. Nacho Monreal was recruited at the twang of Kieran Gibbs’ thigh. It shows that deals can be done when there’s a willingness to do so. One has to seriously enquire as to what would have happened had Gibbs been injured this Saturday, with the window closed.

To all intents and purposes, we have a back-up left back in Andre Santos. Gibbs is expected to be out for 6-8 weeks, not forever. (Not yet anyway). Purchasing a player on the back of a relatively short term injury suggests that Wenger has no faith in his back up option. That being the case, why weren’t we trying to buy a left back on January 1st? Or the 10th? Or the 20th? Was he really going to just wing it and hope that Gibbs could play every game?

If Giroud’s knee had collapsed on Wednesday night would we have suddenly found a “super, super quality” striker on the market? It just doesn’t strike me as a meticulously planned, strategic approach and it hasn’t looked that way for some time now. I don’t want to sound down on the Nacho Man; he looks like a quality addition. It’s just his recruitment makes me wonder if finding players is as spectacularly impossible as Arsenal make it sound. LD.

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He’s gotta be, so Nacho + Arsecast 265

He’s gotta be, so Nacho + Arsecast 265

So deadline day came and went and we bought somebody but it was somebody nobody had ever mentioned before but everybody was an expert and knew all kinds of stuff about him even though they didn’t seem to know it the day before yesterday and basically I’m glad the transfer window is over because it’s all a big distraction from the real thing.

Am I satisfied with our business? I’d have to say I’m a bit disappointed we didn’t do more. I still worry about our striking options but as I mentioned yesterday, given the way we defend perhaps a defender would have been a smarter move. And we got one. Nacho Monreal has signed from Malaga. A Spanish international, ex teammate of Santi Cazorla, and an experienced left-back.

Arsene Wenger says:

We are delighted that Nacho Monreal has agreed to join us. We have been monitoring him for some time now and are really pleased that we’ve been able to agree this move today. Monreal is a strong left-sided defender with good experience at both club and international level.

He is a technically gifted player, a good crosser in the final third and strong in the air. Monreal will add quality to our squad and of course, to our defensive unit. We all look forward to him playing for us

Now, I know Andre Santos fails to convince, and even if Gibbs is out for three weeks, I’m not especially convinced that a left back was that high a priority. I think I’d have preferred to see another centre-half come in which would have meant in the short term Thomas Vermaelen could have filled in there until Gibbs returned. And when you consider Gibbs has been one of the brighter stories of this particular season it seems a bit of an odd one, but hey, faced with the prospect of nobody coming in at all then I’ll take it.

Perhaps there’s some method to the manager’s madness. I remember in the 2009 transfer window almost everyone was crying out for a centre-half, so Arsene went out and bought Andrei Arshavin. This time, with folks looking for a striker or a bit more midfield solidity/creativity, he’s bought a left back who will, at the very least, spawn an immeasurable number of puns based on his name.

NACHO MAN SAVES ARSENAL WHEN CHIPS ARE DOWN

M-UNREAL – NACHO’S 45 YARD ROCKET SLAYS VAN PERSIE

And so on. And while I welcome him and hope he does well, I also have to ask how much of an impact we can seriously expect him to have on the way we play and the fact that this team isn’t strong enough to maintain a title challenge. We’ve spoken many times about how January is not the ideal time to try and buy the players you want. Look at the David Villa situation – we were in for him in a serious way, I believe he was very interested in the move, but Barcelona refused to sell in January (and we surely refused to pay so far over the odds that they’d have a change of heart).

Now that was a signing that you could envisage impacting the team in a bigger way than a left back, and I say that with all due respect to our new boy. Did we have back-up targets? I don’t know. I didn’t hear anything about a striker beyond Villa, so perhaps not. Maybe there’s nobody out there the manager fancied or who was available.

And as frustrating as all that might be, there’s little point in spending for the sake of spending, but maybe some work needs to be done behind the scenes so that all our transfer eggs aren’t put into one basket. I’d also ask if we’d have signed Nacho Monreal if Gibbs hadn’t been injured on Wednesday night. I suspect he’d have stayed in Spain for the remainder of the season – and I’m not convinced this is a summer signing brought forward either. It seems reactive, rather than planned, and ultimately that’s a worry.

It means there’s great competition for the left back spot now, but somebody’s going to lose out: it’s either the new £10m signing or part of our much-lauded ‘British core’ who has just signed a 5 year deal. Que sera, sera and all that, but again I’m struggling to believe this was part of a deliberate strategy. We’ve spent a lot of money because of a thigh strain and the fact that Andre Santos has probably gone past the point of no return now. Maybe that’s as good a reason to spend as any, the proof will be when we see this guy play and how Gibbs responds. I’m sure it will be a positive move, but it does feel like we’re scratching around in the dark a little bit.

Update: Arsene Wenger has revealed that Kieran Gibbs could be out for up to a couple of months, which certainly puts the move into better context. May the best man and, more importantly, Arsenal, win.

Beyond that nothing much happened from an Arsenal point of view. Chuks Aneke will spend the rest of the season on loan at Crewe and I was a little surprised that the likes of Eisfeld didn’t go out for a spell to get some first team football, but it was a fairly quiet day all round. I think it’s still possible for loans to lower leagues too.

So, what we have, we hold. This is the group of players who are now tasked with having a go at Bayern Munich, stepping up the chase for a top four finish and going the distance in the FA Cup. It’s going to take some improvement to do that; they need to find consistency above all else, cut out the crap at the back, and then we’ve got a chance. Yet every failure, every dropped point, every silly goal conceded, is going to be played out in the light of Arsene talking about having a ‘top, top’ squad, a ‘complete’ squad, the relative lack of January investment, and all the rest.

Tedious, it might be, but that’s the reality. I believe this is a group of players who are certainly capable of more than we’ve seen from them this season. There’s no lack of experience, there’s a fair amount of quality, and this isn’t a situation which is alien to us. We’ve been here before and we’ve shown the stones to get it done. It is really a matter now of digging deep, for those who can lead to do so through words and actions, and let’s hope it’s enough for us to achieve what we need to between now and May.

Once that’s done (fingers crossed), then a serious discussion needs to take place about how we improve the team and make it competitive enough to challenge for the league title again. As I’ve always said, winning the league isn’t the requirement for me, it’s knowing that we’ve done everything we can to try and win it. If we lose out to a better team, then that’s football, but I don’t believe we’ve done as much as we can this season (amongst others) and that’s the big frustration.

Anyway, without being blind to the failings, my glass tends to be on the half-full side. I like to believe that simply pulling on the red and white shirt gives them powers beyond those of mere mortals, and I sincerely hope that’s the case between now and May. I want us to win every game, play well and be in a position to improve come the summer. The alternative does not bear thinking about.

Right then, onto this week’s Arsecast, and due to the day that was in yesterday, it would have been out of date and stuff if I’d recorded early in the day. So what I did was record all day. I’m sure some of you would rather eat your own eyeballs, but it’s a journey through transfer deadline day with guest appearances from Gunnerblog, The Man from East Lower, Arse2Mouse, some poetry with Tony Adams and a bit of Amaury Bischoff PI at the end.

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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News throughout the day on Arseblog News, a column from Tim Stillman here later. Back tomorrow with a Stoke preview.