Stoke City are a cynical and rather brutal side managed by a perma-tracksuited hoof merchant. In that respect, Stoke were the perfect preparation for the trip to Sunderland last weekend. Profligacy in front of goal aside, it was one of the more satisfying victories of the season in that it had a bit of everything. We were fluent and creative, unperturbed by the bully boy tactics of clogging oafs like Lee Cuntermole. But most pleasing was the response to being debited by a man when Carl Jenkinson was sent off.
Sunderland and Stoke are probably the two most “agricultural” sides in the league and neither has managed to score against us this season. Fat Sam’s West Ham can probably be lumped hopefully into the mixer with those sides and they caused us little consternation across two encounters. I think there’s an element to which the “Arsenal don’t like it up ‘em” discourse still survives.
Most opinion columns till tell you that Arsenal’s most dire need in terms of recruitment is a big puck of gristly meat in the midfield. This could be true, but it ignores the fact that Mikel Arteta averages 3.5 tackles per game and 2.6 interceptions (via @whoscored). To put that into context, Lee Cuntermole averages 2.1 tackles per game, Glenn Whelan averages 1.6. Prior to his injury in mid-January, Arteta had committed more fouls than Grant Holt and Marouane Fellaini. Arsenal deal with the physical midfield battle very well.
I have tried, over the last few weeks, not to turn Bacary Sagna into a cause celebre. I have rejected the notion that he is a busted flush which has passed into accepted wisdom. But I can’t pretend I didn’t find his man of the match display against Sunderland especially satisfying. In fact in his autumn years, I could see him playing as a centre half with some distinction. Sagna’s aerial prowess is obvious enough every time Szczesny floats a goal kick towards his braided head, a move you see Arsenal use constantly.
Anam wrote an excellent piece highlighting the regularity (and ineffectiveness) of Sunderland’s crossing. Sagna made a total of 11 headed clearances on Saturday, 15 clearances in total (Per Mertesacker made 10), winning 6 aerial duels (the BFG won 3). He remains an excellent defender. Carl Jenkinson flourished earlier in the season in a more defensively cautious Arsenal side. That he has made big errors in his last two Premier League starts elucidates how different the role of right back has become in this Arsenal side.
It’s a bitch to play. To follow up on the very well made point Anam made about Sunderland’s crossing, Arsenal’s nominal wide men on Saturday, Cazorla and Walcott, did not attempt a cross between them. That was not just a conscious decision based on the inefficiency of crossing, it’s because both like to float in from the wing. Cazorla likes to drift into the centre circle and Walcott is under instruction to join Giroud as a second central striker.
The upshot is that the full backs are carrying an almighty burden in this Arsenal side. Without an archetypal right winger ahead of him, Sagna has made a better fist of the right back slot than most full backs in Europe would have, believe you me. Having been reared in the Arsenal academy as a flying left winger, Gibbs has enjoyed the system a little more with his ‘chalk on the boots’ style. But I think he’s benefitted from greater protection.
Whilst it’s true that Lukas Podolski has hardly scored 12 goals this season standing on the touchline, he does play a little closer to the flank than Walcott does. Both Arteta and Wilshere naturally prefer to play from the left side of central midfield, which exposes him to the sort of passing options that I don’t believe are as available to Arsenal’s right back.
I suppose that brings me nicely onto the loan departure of ever chipper left back Andre Santos. I’m going to invite howls of dissension by maintaining my conviction that he’s a good left back. Ultimately, he doesn’t fit this team any longer. Whilst Gibbs has flourished as a touchline raiding full back, Santos likes to probe the channels. As I explained earlier, with Arteta, Podolski/ Cazorla and Wilshere already in this area of the pitch, it’s a little too crowded to bring the best out of Santos’ abilities.
It happens sometimes. However, given how quickly and how brutally Santos was jettisoned and replaced by Nacho Monreal; it’s hard to imagine he’s shown the necessary determination to adapt to Arsenal’s new requirements. Maybe it’s harder to teach a 29-year old dog new tricks than it is for a whippersnapper like Gibbs to mould his game. But Santos has hardly kept himself in great physical shape on the side-lines.
I would conclude that, like Eboue before him, Santos had the ability, but not the mentality and application to play for a club like Arsenal. He clearly found it difficult to recover from his all advised decision to swap shirts with Robin van Persie at Old Trafford during half time. I would point out in his defence that he’s not blowing smoke up our arses with his cultural defence of that episode.
I watched Santos (the Brazilian club, not the player!) play Sao Paulo little over a week ago. Ganso moved from Santos to Sao Paulo recently and if you think we despise Robin van Persie, that doesn’t even measure on the Richter scale of hate that Santos fans hold for Ganso. They brought effigies of him into the stadium. Santos striker Neymar swapped shirts with Ganso on the field at half time and there has been no reaction whatsoever. Andre was naïve not to know the whims of British culture, but his defence is not merely a mealy mouthed excuse.
Santos’ departure on a loan deal will raise wider questions around the club, with Djourou, Chamakh and Frimpong loaned out in January and Squillaci and Arshavin grimly clinging to squad status. I don’t deny that we have “wastage” issues with our roster, but I don’t think it’s a concept that’s as exclusive to us as people believe. Andy Carroll, Michael Essien, David Bentley, Huerelho Gomes, Bebe, Wayne Bridge, Roque Santa Cruz, Federico Macheda and Fabio are all currently out on loan for similar reasons.
I think this is a wider symptom of salary inflation and the inequalities that are deepening within the game. There exists a cadre of clubs able to pay significantly larger salaries than the rest. So when a player acquired by one of the behemoths doesn’t quite make the grade, moving them to a club on a lower rung in the league ladder is fraught with difficulty. Whereas in the past we could flog Matthew Upson to Birmingham easily enough, or United could dump Alaves with Jordi Cruyff, buying clubs at that level wouldn’t be able to satisfy the salary chasm in a contemporary context.
Though they’ve been able to afford it, City and Chelsea have effectively paid large sums for clubs to take the likes of Veron, Crespo, Adebayor and Jo off their hands. Arsenal still have big improvements to make to their wage structure and their squad, that is beyond argument. It just doesn’t hurt to step back and set their misgivings against the bigger picture. Till next week. LD.
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