It’s been clear from the opening two games that Arsenal, like most top teams, are going to have to feel their way into this season. Past post World Cup campaigns have been instructive in this respect. In 1998-99 for instance, Arsenal drew 4 of their opening 5 games after key players such as Bergkamp, Overmars, Petit, Vieira, Adams and, err, Nelson Vivas took part in international football’s biggest summer festival. All of those players were restored to the starting line up straight away that season (with the notable exception of new signing Vivas, of course).
Consequently, none produced their best season in an Arsenal shirt and that, along with the advice of new fitness coach Shad Forsythe, may have informed the decision to hold back on the reintroduction of Mertesacker, Özil and Podolski. Wenger said, rather tellingly earlier in the month, “You have the choice – you get them back very quickly and you lose them in October, or you give them a needed rest to build them up again.”
That said, I think it’s reasonably obvious that there has been an Özil shaped hole in the team in the first two matches as the Gunners have struggled to create. Part of this of course is down to a lack of sharpness in the players. Arsenal’s play relies a lot on synergy of movement and passing, an almost telepathic understanding of one another’s movements, as we saw demonstrated quite beautifully with Wilshere’s goal against Norwich and Rosicky’s versus Sunderland last season.
However, I don’t think there’s a huge cause to be alarmed by the rough edges just yet. Last season, along with several other recent campaigns, have showed that hitting your peak in September isn’t necessarily portentous of remaining in fine fettle come April. When Arsene Wenger warned Spurs last summer that buying a lot of new players can have ramifications on the balance of your team, it wasn’t just a cheap shot at our neighbours.
For instance, the understandable lack of understanding between Debuchy and Alexis on the right hand side has been quite stark. Earlier in the summer I suggested that it would take time for Bacary Sagna’s replacement to fully integrate and we can see that the team aren’t quite accustomed to Debuchy’s movements yet. A few passes on Arsenal’s right hand side went astray against Crystal Palace because Debuchy moved forwards at the exact point that the passer released the ball, causing it to trickle frustratingly out of play.
Besiktas’ best chance on Tuesday night came after the Frenchman abandoned his post to make a strong tackle close to the centre circle. As the ball broke loose, Wilshere and Debuchy left it to one another and the moment’s hesitation allowed Besiktas to mount a break on Debuchy’s side. These little misunderstandings are to be expected early in the season I think, especially when Bacary Sagna has been such a mainstay of the side for so long.
Arsenal have struggled to support their centre forward in the hard fought games with Palace and Besiktas. Whilst nobody would or could pretend that Sanogo or Giroud especially distinguished themselves in either game, it’s also not a huge coincidence that both faced a similar struggle. As Anam explained shortly after the Community Shield, Arsenal have compensated for Özil’s absence by playing Wilshere and Ramsey slightly closer together, which effectively sees them share the “number 10” role.
Largely for reasons of unfamiliarity, it’s resulted in a lack of support for Arsenal’s main striker. Alexis has shown positive intent, but he doesn’t yet have a working relationship with his teammates, which goes some way to explaining why we’ve been a little patchy going forward. I would expect Özil to be the first German thrust back into the starting line up against Everton this Sunday. Especially in light of Arteta’s injury. Given the fine job Chambers has done to this point, I would only expect Mertesacker to start if Koscielny’s dicky achilles is deemed too much of a risk.
I think Arsene Wenger will want as much familiarity in the middle of the pitch as possible. Özil oils the wheels for our runners and that will hopefully allow Alexis and Ramsey to provide more of a cavalry for Giroud to call upon. The French striker lost the ball more times than any other player on the pitch on Tuesday evening and completed just 52% of his passes. Rustiness partially explains this, as does a pitch that basically turned the ball egg shaped. But a lot of it was down to a lack of support too.
Often he struggled to get the ball under control under the close attention of 2 or 3 Besiktas defenders, with few passing options nearby. Even leaving those points aside, he had a bit of an off day too. It was a rather unvirtuous circle all in all. Hopefully Özil’s return will aid Ramsey and Alexis and in return, we might get more change out of Santi Cazorla, who has underwhelmed as much as Arsenal’s strikers, only to less vociferous criticism.
I think this is largely because nobody thinks we are crying out for a diminutive playmaker, but an upgrade in the centre forward position is at the foremost of the thoughts of many Arsenal fans. Sometimes, our preoccupation with the transfer market can lead us to hyperbolise existing deficiencies. We see much the same syndrome inform opinions of Mikel Arteta. Because a deep lying midfielder is at the top of most wanted lists, anyone we currently have there is viewed through a less forgiving prism.
That’s not to say a better centre forward and a newer, younger defensive midfielder wouldn’t be near the top of my shopping list too were the purse strings turned over to me. (Personally, I’m all for upgrading in any position if the right player becomes available, no matter how well you’re stocked in that position). But there’s a middle ground to be found I think. On the forward issue, we may have seen a glimpse into the manager’s thinking with his tinkering during the Palace fixture. Towards the end of the first half and the beginning of the second, with Arsenal struggling to open the Eagles defence, Wenger switched to more of a 4-4-2 shape.
Alexis played closer to Sanogo with Ramsey coming wide in a narrow midfield four. Arsenal played some of their best football last season with a squeezed quartet in the middle- most notably against Napoli. In reality, it became something of a 4-1-3-1-1 with Arteta sat behind Rosicky, Wilshere and Ramsey. Özil played ahead of them as an out and out number 10 behind Giroud. The presence of Alexis (and conceivably Walcott once he’s fit again) does give us the option of moving to more of a 4-4-2 shape in game if we’re finding an opponent difficult to break down.
I’ve the feeling that Wenger will upgrade in the central striker position as and when somebody that takes his fancy becomes available. (He wouldn’t have spent all of last summer courting Higuain and Suarez unless it was a thought he had entertained rather strongly). Rightly or wrongly, I just don’t think there’s anybody currently on the market that tickles his fancy. In the meantime, he may argue that his forward line is more flexible than it has been for a while, but he will hope the chemistry is swift to brew. LD.
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