Method to the madness, the Arsenal way

Method to the madness, the Arsenal way

There is certainly a much more serene atmosphere amongst Arsenal fans this summer compared to the ghosts of summers past. The miniature shit-storm that arose when Arsene Wenger passed up on Cesc Fabregas now seems a lifetime ago. A dash of FA Cup, 1 shot of World Cup distraction and four measures of brand new signing have enabled Arsenal fans to grab a straw and slurp on the kool aid. One by one, problem positions are being calmly and decisively addressed, almost in order of priority too.

There is still work to be done of course, but the words ‘dithering’ and ‘trolley dash’ have been happily absent from our summer lexicon. The reasons for this new found decisiveness are manifold I think. For a start, the club made very little secret of the fact that summer 2014 would see the financial scales tip back towards Arsenal. Not only due to renewed sponsorship deals, but as regulation begins to grip our competitors. As Chelsea confirmed the sale of Romelu Lukaku on Wednesday, Jose Mourinho cited FFP regulations as a factor in their decision to sell.

It could also be that the signing of Mesut Özil last summer gave the club a little more confidence in their ability to conclude complex transfers. In turn, it becomes slightly easier to seduce players like Alexis Sanchez when you thrust back the curtain and show them what awaits them in N5. All of those things play a part, but our hitherto assertive summer is probably owed to less sexy, market based reasons. The transfer market got going earlier this summer because big deals happened quickly.

Last summer, the Gareth Bale transfer was the catalyst for a lot of business and Daniel Levy intentionally made sure that deal wasn’t concluded until deadline day. Barcelona and Real Madrid are nearly always the stimulant for the top end of the European market. Both clubs chase Galactico style signings for political reasons, which consequently means they discard very good players to accommodate. Barca and Madrid landed their principal targets in Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic, Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez relatively early in the window, which has smoothed the way for Fabregas and Sanchez to move to England.

I think the market will stall slightly until mid to late August now. With Kroos and Rodriguez on board, realistically, Real are going to have to shed a midfielder or two, with talk of Angel di Maria and Sami Khedira becoming expendable. There’s also a question mark over the future of Edison Cavani at Paris Saint Germain and maybe even Marco Reus at Borussia Dortmund- though I wouldn’t expect him to leave until next summer. Once the futures of these players are clarified, I think the plug will be released and the market will spring back into life again.

What does this mean for Arsenal? My entirely uninformed hunch is that Wenger will recruit another centre half and a defensive midfielder, but I don’t think either will happen until after the season has begun. I think the club might relax and be prepared to haggle over those positions. We needed Alexis Sanchez desperately, we required another forward urgently and preferably one blessed with pace and guile. We had to replace Bacary Sagna and we had to replace Lukasz Fabianski. Calum Chambers’ versatility will probably result in him becoming our de facto 4th choice centre half.

I think Arsene wants to, and will, upgrade in the defensive midfield position. But while he has Arteta and Flamini, he knows he has two capable, experienced performers tucked away in his back pocket. He can stick for a little while and assess the scene. Likewise, we can afford to hold onto Thomas Vermaelen until another centre half is acquired. If and when that new defender arrives, I think Arsenal will quickly grant Vermaelen’s wish to leave. The Champions League qualifier might be the only trigger that makes a new centre half slightly more urgent.

If we’re to sell Vermaelen, we won’t want to preclude him from this season’s competition by cup-tying him and Per Mertesacker may be a tad rusty from his World Cup exploits. It would represent a risk to go into such an important match with Koscielny, a raw Calum Chambers and an under prepared Per Mertesacker as viable centre back options. Though Wenger has hinted that Podolski and Mertesacker will be back into action quicker than Mesut Özil, who played notably more minutes for Germany than his Teutonic teammates in Brazil.

Arsenal’s business thus far has revealed quite the ruthless streak from the manager. The capture of Calum Chambers proves that he still loves a developmental signing (even in 2011’s summer of clusterfuckery, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain and Carl Jenkinson were procured before the end of June). The signing of Chambers tosses the gauntlet at the feet of Carl Jenkinson. At time of writing, a season long loan at West Ham United looks to be on the cards. However, the signing of Chambers needn’t represent the end of Carl’s Arsenal dream.

Jenkinson has shown in individual games that he has ability. Notable performances at Arenas Etihad and Allianz suggest a big game aptitude too. His challenge is to demonstrate consistency now. It’s more difficult for young defenders to develop without playing time than it is for forwards and offensive midfielders. A defender’s game is much more reactive and based on positioning, concentration and decision making. These are qualities that one accrues over time.

In the past, promising defenders such as Senderos and Djourou have struggled to develop with their involvement in the team fitful or fractured. Eventually, they got to an age where they probably lost confidence that they ever could develop to the required standard. At 22, Jenkinson is approaching that age and you have to think that 2014-15 will see his Arsenal prospects judged definitely by the manager.

Likewise, the signing of David Ospina reveals a much more Darwinist approach to squad building from the manager. Ospina and Szczesny are 25 and 24 respectively, both first choice for their countries and both will want to play. Ospina must have discussed his prospects with the manager before signing and Szczesny was recently handed an expensive, long term contract. I can’t think of a single example from any club where two goalkeepers flourished in the same squad.

Ultimately, one will not play as many games as they like and will leave. They may even end up stagnating as a result. That’s fine for Arsenal; we will reap the rewards of the victor. Whoever wins this duel will be a stronger goalkeeper and personality for it. It’s just a little un-Wenger like, historically speaking. The manager that has famously shunned established signings so as not to “kill” young prospects has thrown his two goalkeepers one pistol and ordered them to fight to the death. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. But it is new. And it is exciting. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

A football fan abroad

A football fan abroad

My favourite aspect of travelling to watch Arsenal in Europe is the chance it affords one to experience live football in different cultures. I support the biggest, historically most successful and well supported club in the city of my birth. As such, Arsenal is woven rather easily into the fabric of my footballing identity. I have been a season ticket holder since I was 8 years old, English football culture has nurtured me and, in some small, insignificant way, I have influenced it simply by having been an organ of it for my whole life.

Travelling to watch football abroad has layered appeal. Without wishing to indulge Football Factory rhetoric, there is an undeniable tribal appeal to wearing your colours and supporting your team in foreign territory. Especially when you are from a small island like England, which, generally speaking, still doesn’t recognise itself as quintessentially European as some of our continental cousins. Secondly, it’s a very effective way of getting to see some of Europe’s greatest cities. I have come to regard European away matches as mini breaks.

But as well there is something culturally satisfying about watching football in a foreign stadium and observing the small customs that make a match day what it is. Pre match rituals and behaviour, the signing and chanting inside the ground, the bands of ultras huddled behind the goal, the giant flags and banners.  It’s often the little things that strike you the most. Irony is a staple of British humour that scans very well on football terraces.

‘Piss taking’ isn’t just a national pastime, it’s at once a defence mechanism against our own insecurity and a tool with which to defeat our opponents. The Dutch and the Germans are quite good with terrace wit too, but some cultures, Italy for example, don’t seem to consciously champion the widely available comedy in the sport.  Even crowd noises are exotic and fascinating on the continent. A missed chance in England is greeted with a spontaneous, despairing, “ooooh!”

Whereas in other European countries, there is a conscious pause for dramatic effect, before a much deeper, knowing, “oooooooooooh!” is bellowed out from the pit of the terrace’s collective gut. Crowd choreography is much more common too. Those that travelled to Naples in December will recall a crazed man with a megaphone yelling, “GONZALO! HIGUAIN!” no less than 7 times in a row after he scored against Arsenal in December.

I recently took my annual trip to Brazil and there are few football cultures more beguiling. Though I could not attend any of the matches, being in the country for the latter stages of the World Cup seemed like a fantastic opportunity for some football tourism. I hoped that the hosts would still be involved in time for my arrival, at the semi final stage. I wanted to experience the country in the grip of World Cup fever. I actually experienced something quite unique about the country’s footballing culture, just not in the way I had imagined.

I watched the semi final between Brazil and Germany with a Brazilian family. I didn’t see the second half of the match. The television was turned off as Germany rolled in their 5th goal. Brazilians are very (very) fond of fireworks and the neighbourhood streets were filled with their ironic release with every German goal. (If you’ve bought them, you might as well use them). I experienced a country grieving its national team during a tournament that is so central to its identity.

Football is seen as Brazil’s national sport but it isn’t. Not really. Their national sport is winning. It’s just that football is the sport they have excelled at historically. Ayrton Senna is a national icon the equal of Pele, even though Formula 1 isn’t nearly as popular as futebol. UFC is popular in Brazil since Rorion Gracie’s influence bred a succession of successful Brazilian fighters. In the country’s domestic football league, the Brasileirão, attendances are almost entirely contingent on a team’s form and recent results.

In the fallout of the Germany semi final defeat, I struggled to convince anybody to watch the remaining matches with me. Interest in the competition died with that efficient German dismantling in Belo Horizonte. The day after the match, almost all Brazil flags had been removed from the streets. The locals once again dressed in their club colours, the stain of the copa was being cleansed. I was witnessing denial, one of the most identifiable signs of grief. I dared ask an acquaintance whether he was going to watch the 3rd place playoff match between Brazil and Holland.

He rather emphatically suggested he would not, colourfully describing the match as “o jogo da vergonha.” (The game of shame). The final barely registered comment, save for the desperation not to see Argentina prevail on Brazilian soil. I wanted a distinct taste of how the country experiences its national side and unwittingly I got exactly that. But I didn’t get the flag waving, singing and dancing stereotype. I got the comedown version of a nation bereaving its seleção.

Whilst my hopes of experiencing copa fever were foiled, I did attend a Brasileirão match during my stay. Due to my better half’s allegiances, I have been watching Atlético Mineiro of Belo Horizonte closely for the last few seasons and last summer, saw them lift the Copa Libertadores in Estádio Mineirão. In the smaller and pokier surrounds of their regular home ground Estádio Independência, I watched them play Bahia on Saturday evening.

Being a gringo in a foreign stadium I have watched a thousand times on an internet stream was a strange and wonderful experience. I think I got a taster of what thousands of overseas Arsenal fans experience every year upon pilgrimages to the Emirates. Familiar as I am with Galo and Brazilian futebol, this was still a long way from my footballing comfort zone. This is a country where, even in the big cities, somebody with a complexion as fair and un-Brazilian as mine is unabashedly gawped at. It’s a friendly fascination, but it can still be awkward for the humble gringo all the same.

In a city that averages an annual temperature of 25 degrees, beers are supped in the streets outside the stadium rather than in the dimly lit pre match bars of England. Beverages are served so cold that it is not uncommon to swill sheets of ice from your mouth between sips. Behind the goal stood the “Galoucura” (‘locoura’ is Portuguese for ‘craziness’) who model themselves very much on the European ultras. They marshal the atmosphere with a full Brazilian band and it’s widely understood that you only stand (nobody sits) behind that goal if you are part of ‘Galoucura.’

Importantly, the band is very skilled. They play hypnotic, rhythmic beats that inspires singing as opposed to the monotonous drone that follows the English national team, or the hair raising vuvuzelas of South Africa. Player chants are not as common in Brazil as they are in England. When they occur, they usually involve a simple yelling of the player’s name punctuated by a couple of beats of the drum.

Individual players’ names are only really chanted just before kickoff (and the player is obliged to acknowledge the crowd) or when a player scores. The more imaginative chants are reserved for the club itself. Brazilian fans are used to losing their best players anyway, so individuals generally don’t get the chance to build a real rapport with a club’s supporters. Coaches rarely last more than a few months which means playing rosters are very fluid anyway.

Because of this, the identity of the club itself is very strong. Atletico’s nickname is “Galo” which means ‘rooster’ and this ornithological imagery pervades at every opportunity. Almost everybody wears a club shirt of some description to the match. Brazil is a very religious country there is a comparison to be seen between the symbolism adopted by football supporters and those used by religion.

Each team in Brazil also has a specially written song unique to their club, which is called a ‘hino’ (hymn). ‘Hinos’ are littered with striking, almost fatalistic imagery. Atletico’s own includes phrases such as “uma vez até morrer” (once until death) and describes the club as “forte vingador” (strong avengers). I know many of Galo’s chants and have just about enough Portuguese to understand what they mean, but I still felt every inch the gringo inside the stadium.

The language is not nearly natural enough to be spontaneous to me yet, so the desire to yell out in English was strong at times. I just about managed to hold my tongue to avoid becoming the subject of greater local curiosity!  I’ve become so used to being a regular, cynical old hand in North London that viewing a game through the lens of an outsider was a broadening experience and one that helped me to understand others a little better. That’s precisely what travel should do. LD.

Follow me on twitter @LittleDutchVA

A little shot of Jack

A little shot of Jack

Over the last few weeks I have looked in depth at what Arsenal need to supplement their squad, both on the training ground and in the market (part 1part 2). There are also individuals in the squad for whom next season has a decisive feel to it. Whilst the end of Nicklas Bendtner’s contract signals the final swing of the axe for operation deadwood, there are players that will need to increase their personal contribution as well. The foremost of those will be Jack Wilshere.

Jack’s career to this point has been constantly worthy of analysis. On the one hand, his rise to first team prominence at such an early age gives you the feeling he has been around forever. On the other, the pregnant pauses in his Arsenal career due to injury make you inclined to disbelieve that he is as old as 22. In my 8 years or so of blogging about the club, I think only Theo Walcott has coaxed more ink from my biro (I hope that didn’t sound like a questionable euphemism) and that’s purely because he’s a little older (now it definitely sounds like a questionable euphemism).

The number one objective for Wilshere last season was fitness and up until a fairly run of the mill impact injury in March, he achieved that objective. His performances improved in a quiet, understated sort of way. He scored more 5 goals and provided 4 assists, a career best, and appeared 35 times, 2 more times than in 2012-13. An improvement in all aspects in purely numerical terms. Like most young English players of any repute, Jack was subjected to the soda light of media hype from an early age.

In the immediate aftermath of the stress fracture that kept him out for close to 18 months, I had opined that a spell on the sidelines might not be a bad thing for Wilshere. In 2010-11 he played a total of 49 matches, with Fabregas and Diaby suffering from aches and pains and Denilson’s early promise slowly dwindling into incompetence. Wilshere won Arsenal’s player of the season in 2010-11 and his reputation was beginning to inflate. With any young player, especially a genuinely homegrown one, there is normally a pattern to observe in the behaviour of football supporters and the media.

A young player “bursts onto the scene” and delights our affections with his carefree ways. Much like an edgy young indie band cutting their first album in between trips to the job centre. They have no preconceptions of success and we have no preconceptions of their existence, so everything they do is new, edgy and exciting. They don’t over-think what they are doing and we, in turn, haven’t really come up with enough reasons to hate them yet. It’s a perfect storm for the kindling of a love affair. The biggest enemy to this relationship is familiarity and, ultimately, boredom.

Suddenly, like an infant that first recognises its own image in the mirror, the young whippersnapper becomes more aware of his place in the world. We, as observers, start to become over familiar and we begin to pick out things we don’t like. The new and exciting feeling we had of the youngster bursting onto the scene is fleeting and in turn, seeds of frustration begin to flower. We become pickier and more demanding just as the player becomes more inhibited and less of an unknown quantity to his opponents. It’s the imperfect storm.

I felt the initial injury may protect Wilshere from this algorithm and in a way it did. However, where once injury protected him from the hype, it’s now concealing the fact that Jack hasn’t improved to the extent that we expected. Somewhat fittingly, Jack’s slight progress last season was made all the more understated and quiet by the infinite improvement of Aaron Ramsey, which cast a protective shadow. The case of Ramsey is at once instructive and inspiring for Jack. At 22, there is no real cause for alarm just yet, but you are left with the impression that he stands at a crossroads.

Wilshere himself notes this, telling the Guardian newspaper recently, “I’m not young any more. I’m going to be 23 in January and that’s a good age for a footballer.” The issue is that, at the moment, Wilshere is not part of Arsenal’s best XI objectively speaking. Of course he’ll get plenty of games with another 50+ fixture season on the horizon, but still that fact would have been difficult to believe at the end of the 2010-11 season.

The World Cup didn’t really go as planned for Wilshere. The injury at the end of last season halted his progress and he lost his place in the England side to Jordan Henderson. Wilshere’s cameos against Italy and Costa Rica were listless by his own standards and, despite Henderson’s admirable but limited talents, Jack hardly made the decision to drop him look like an error from Hodgson. From Arsenal’s perspective it might have been a very convenient tournament for their number 10.

He didn’t play too much competitive football, but he managed to train in an intense manner without too much strenuous stuff on the pitch and maybe he worked off some of his rust in the white of England- a consequence free environment as far as Arsenal are concerned. However, there is a nagging sense that he’s not really learning to play with the sort of elan that would help him realise his potential.

Once again, his foot injury was borne of impetuousness. He simply did not need to go into a 50-50 with that much gusto in a meaningless friendly. Wilshere is beloved of Arsenal fans because of his vim and vigour, yet one of Arsenal’s biggest challenges is to coach some of the ‘bulldog spirit’ out of him. Patrick Barclay told the Gooner fanzine last season that “He (Wilshere) is a wonderful player, but sometimes he tries to take on the world, and then I think he looks quite ordinary.”

In the 5-1 demolition at Anfield, Wilshere lost his head early in the game when Liverpool raced into a two goal lead, totally abandoning Arteta at the base of Arsenal’s midfield in a bid to ‘take on the world.’ In the 6-3 defeat at Manchester City, he became so frustrated that he flipped the bird at the home support and landed himself with an avoidable suspension. Wilshere is a technically gifted footballer, he can allow his technique to dominate his performances without the need for quite so much bearing of teeth.

I wonder if the manager might give him a run on the right in the early stages of next season until Walcott is fit. Fabregas and Ramsey both spent some of their developmental years on the right and Wilshere played well there early last season in a kind of rotating midfield 4, orbiting around behind Mesut Özil. It would allow Jack to drift in and join up with play from the right without having to wade through the meat and gravy of central midfield, where Wilshere often feels he needs to be Roy Keane incarnate.

Playing on the right potentially allows him to focus on the technical side of his game and utilise one of his biggest attributes, his beautiful dribbling. Cutting in from the right flank opens up the pitch for him without bogging him down too much with the spit and sawdust stuff. It was from this wide right berth that he scored twice against Marseille last November. Provided he stays fit, Wilshere will play plenty of games next season, but the time has come to deliver on his early promise. The player himself seems to recognise that, which is an encouraging sign. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

What Arsenal need this summer – Part 2 (midfield and attack)

What Arsenal need this summer – Part 2 (midfield and attack)

Last week I considered some of the summer chin scratchers facing Arsene Wenger with respect to his goalkeepers and defence. This week, it’s the midfield and the forward line that come under the microscope. Whilst I think the squad needs some bolstering numerically at the back, there are some more nuanced questions about how the coaching staff tinkers with the formula further forward. Perhaps more linked with the defensive constitution of the team, I think a holding midfielder may be near the top of the Arsenal shopping list.

Wenger trusts Mikel Arteta and he Mathieu Flamini and both are considered senior lieutenants in the squad. However, both are now north of 30 years old. Arsenal were sniffing around Luiz Gustavo and Lars Bender last summer. Once it became apparent that Arsene could not secure his principal targets, Gareth Barry and ultimately Flamini were caught in his cross-hairs. Given the respective ages of Barry and Flamini, it seems obvious that the manager was coveting a short term solution until he could procure a worthy successor to Arteta.

I think this is part of the reason Arsenal passed up on Cesc Fabregas. Not only would it have required, in my opinion, a transition period to blend Fabregas into our team, but I expect the manager already has thoughts of a starting XI ready holding midfield player. Wenger quietly warned Tottenham last season that bedding lots of players into your team represents a “technical risk.” It seems the manager has decided that Özil, Ramsey and Walcott are the “chain” of his team.

They dictate the tempo – the three suns around which the rest of the attack faithfully orbits. I don’t think Wenger saw Fabregas fitting into that equation without unduly altering the mechanics in the engine room. If Arsenal are also looking to induct a new holding midfielder to provide the link between defence and attack, simultaneously making another big step change in your midfield points to another transition period. I don’t think Wenger signed on for another three years to park his boots under that particular bed again.

What Arsene Wenger does with his forward line has been the subject of debate for some time. I think it’s reasonably obvious that we can’t go through another season needing 50+ games from Olivier Giroud. Tellingly, in his summation of where Arsenal fell short in the title race last season, the manager said, “To be completely honest, a team like City scored 100 goals so you have to say their offensive potential has been absolutely brutal and fantastic, Liverpool as well. We have scored 66 at the moment, that is where we have room for improvement.”

Concerted, if ill fated, efforts to sign Gonzalo Higuain and Luis Suarez as well as the long, fruitless flirt with Julian Draxler suggests that improving the attack has long been a priority. If smoke reveals fire, it would appear that Alexis Sanchez is the doyen of Arsene’s affection this summer. Sanchez, or a player like him, would make sense on a number of levels. A player that can operate all across the front three solves a cluster of problems for the manager in one fell swoop. For a start, Giroud needs competition and support.

As an Arsenal fan, I’m contractually obliged to refer to Yaya Sanogo’s charms as “raw.” Really the young Frenchman ought to be ironing out his creases in League Cup encounters or F.A. Cup ties against lower division opposition. Not huge cup games against Liverpool and Bayern Munich. Olivier Giroud is quite the physical specimen. Every game is a war for him yet he’s almost never injured. But we’d be taking a carefree slash into a tempest to rely on him for another 50 games or more. That’s leaving aside the “shouldn’t we be looking to improve on Giroud?” question.

A couple of months back I suggested that Arsenal have lacked a left sided ‘schemer’ since Robert Pires sashayed out of the exit door. Arsene has searched for a wide forward for the left hand side ever since. Walcott fills the Ljungberg role quite nicely. But the likes of Reyes and Rosicky never really compensated for Pires’ qualities as intended. Lukas Podolski was meant to be the wide forward offering penalty area threat, but he doesn’t provide enough penetration with the ball.

If you give him the ball in some space, his delivery and finishing are faultless, but he does too little to actually create space. Wenger saw Gervinho as a panacea for our lack of penetration on the left. A nippy, dribbler capable of getting the byline and committing defenders, pulling back fours out of shape. Like many of the man’s actions on the pitch, Gervinho was a good idea in principle that didn’t quite work out. Once van Persie left, his effectiveness dwindled and his ‘unpredictability’ became more frustrating.

Cazorla is an excellent footballer, but playing as a kind of wandering left sided midfielder, he often plays much deeper than you’d like him to. With Ramsey and Walcott (and Podolski) fed by Özil and / or Cazorla, Arsenal have runners and passers. But they could probably do with the sort of player Gervinho was meant to be. Somebody that can bring the funk with the ball at his feet. Someone that commits defenders in the dying yards of the pitch.

Olivier Giroud has worked very hard on his movement across the face of the six yard box during his time at Arsenal. Despite not being anyone’s definition of a pure goal scorer, he’s surprisingly good at taking up these positions, as you can see from these goals against Norwich, Everton and Spurs. The issue is, that Arsenal don’t have a player on their left that commits players and makes it to the by-line.

You only need to look at the way in which Pires and Ljungberg used to combine to see what Wenger’s thinking might be. Indeed, the connection Walcott and van Persie enjoyed was borne of Walcott’s ability to get to the by-line. It’s a signature move of Wenger’s Arsenal but, especially sans Walcott, Arsenal don’t quite have enough penetration in the final 20 yards of the pitch to make it happen as much as the manager would like.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is capable of those lung busting surges to the goal line (exhibit A and exhibit B) but the manager seems to see him as a central midfielder in the future. It’s important for Arsene to introduce some variety in the attack next season and a player of Sanchez’s ilk gives us diversity in terms of tactics and personnel. It was partially Suarez’s ability to play across the front 3 that made him so coveted by Arsenal.

The prospective return of Joel Campbell could offer us another option in reserve, with the Costa Rican stepping into the sizeable shoes of Nicklas Bendtner. I think Campbell has had a good World Cup, but I do think the ravenous desire to see another striker worthy of the name at the club has led some Gooners to overrate his contribution. It’s the same itch I think that causes many to criticise Giroud far too harshly. He’s clearly a very good striker, but because people want to see better (understandably so), they convince themselves that Giroud is awful, which is irrational in my opinion.

It is very important that Arsenal increase their goal threat and their options in attack. Aaron Ramsey is going to be very closely watched. Ramey’s goals actually dried up in the short period where both he and Theo were fit last season, so they’ll need to find a way of alternating their threat effectively once Walcott returns to fitness. I think Wenger will add a more penetrative, wiry element to his attack this summer, as well as a new holding midfielder. How Wenger makes these puzzle pieces fit at London Colney will be one of his most fascinating challenges this summer. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

What Arsenal need this summer – Part 1 (at the back)

What Arsenal need this summer – Part 1 (at the back)

My Vital Arsenal colleague Amos wrote a thoughtful piece some weeks back on how the transfer window has come to be viewed. In it, he contests that transfer windows are portrayed and perceived as a contest in themselves. You can see it pervade many discussions around a club’s transfer activity. The actual footballing value, in terms of tactics and player personalities, of new players has given way to the impression of activity or ‘making a statement.’

To borrow a Wengerism, a new signing has effectively become ‘like a trophy’ (not for everyone of course, but for many). A temporary lift during the summer months, something to parade in an act of one-upmanship in lieu of actual results. How you amend and improve your squad is incredibly important, but the pitch is the only arbiter that determines improvement and the training field has a role to play as well as the transfer market. Arsenal’s most important player last season was one we’d bought in 2008 that improved markedly with training ground vigour.

Many definitively judge the success of a window on deadline day without waiting to see how activity translates on the pitch. In reality, nobody knows for certain whether they’ve had a successful summer until the end of the season. Squad improvement should be the first and only condition of your activity and that tends to work best as an incremental process. The work carried out in pre-season at London Colney will prove to be just as crucial.

This is when battle lines are drawn and the shape of a team is largely decided. During the season, games are so relentless that training sessions become more of an exercise in physical recovery. So what are Arsene Wenger’s primary concerns once he reassembles his troops for pre-season training? In a two part piece, I’ll be considering the defensive element of the team this week, with the midfield and forwards to follow next.

One of the first orders of business for Arsene Wenger has to be the acquisition of a goalkeeper with Lukasz Fabianski having joined Swansea City. Damian Martinez is highly rated but still untested at the top level. Wojciech Szczesny signed a lucrative, long term contract recently and you’d imagine the question of Fabianski’s replacement will have cropped up during discussions. The Pole has the club’s trust and I think his improvement last season was reasonably obvious. At his age, the potential for further improvement is there.

I would imagine Wenger will look for an experienced back up, perhaps somebody in the twilight of their career that can act as both deputy and mentor to Szczesny. Of course the manager could really throw the cat amongst the pigeons and buy a top quality keeper in his prime to challenge Wojciech, but I’m not sure I see that happening. More experienced keepers tend to make for better back up because they are less likely to stagnate and are probably considering a coaching career anyway. A goalkeeper sitting on the bench in his prime is potentially destructive for his career and I can’t see Arsenal investing heavily in two goalkeepers with the likelihood that one will either leave or rot.

It seems fairly obvious that Arsenal require a centre-half or two in the market. Thomas Vermaelen’s future will determine whether it is a solitary signing or a couplet that is needed. Out of favour, and with a year left to run on his contract, it is unlikely that the Belgian will be inclined to pen a new deal. Likewise, Arsenal don’t seem to have enough faith in him to continue to make him of the best paid players in the squad. The risk of losing him on a free next summer is very real but Wenger should not agree to let him go until he has acquired a replacement.

The club are in a position now where footballing considerations can take precedence over fiscal factors. Numerically, Arsenal need another centre-half even if Vermaelen stays I think. One can’t help but feel that the ‘business’ issue with our captain’s contract wouldn’t be as prevalent had we addressed the need for another central defender more urgently in preceding windows. If it ends up becoming bad business to lose him on a free, that would be a consequence of failure to plan.

How and who we buy in this area is the rub. Koscielny and Mertesacker is a well established partnership for good reasons. However, in the outfield positions, I’m generally not a fan of buying a player with the intention that they are 3rd or 4th choice in perpetuity. That way lays Squillaci and Silvestre territory. Obviously there are budgetary constraints and logistics of squad harmony that prevent us from buying from the absolute top shelf every time, but I think we should look at somebody that harbours realistic ambitions of challenging the Mertescielny axis.

In the past, Wenger has used an apprentice as his 4th choice centre-half. A young buck with potential looking to learn on the job. The likes of Upson, Senderos and Djourou have previously occupied tea making and photocopying responsibilities in the defence, but given the lack of progression in each of those players, maybe another work experience lad isn’t such a good idea. There’s quite a lot more circumspection required in squad building than just liking a player and buying him.

A few weeks ago, I analysed the task of replacing Bacary Sagna in depth. Arsenal have to think very carefully about the sort of right back they buy, assuming they don’t appoint Carl Jenkinson the man of this particular house just yet. Links to Serge Aurier have been constant, but I’d be quite surprised to see us purchase a roving right back, given Wenger’s preference for caution in his right full back. Historically Wenger prefers his left backs to provide the thrust (Santos, Clichy, Cole), whilst the right back (Lauren, Sagna) is a little more defensively secure.

Of course, we could counteract the presence of two roving full backs if we purchase the sort of defensive midfielder that can nestle in between the centre-halves and create an auxiliary back three whilst we attack. It’s the sort of function that Busquets has performed so effectively for Barca and that Luiz Gustavo does so well for Brazil. That said, as the right sided centre-half, Mertesacker’s lack of pace would become an issue without a more conservative right back next to him.

Asamoah Gyan for instance, had Mertesacker on toast in the channel in the recent Germany v Ghana match with Germany’s right back committed upfield. Sagna was very good at ensuring that no interlopers from the opposition’s left hand side were able to engage in a straight foot race with the German. Lusting after a player isn’t always as easy as admiring his qualities and hoping that they transplant into your team. A good side also makes allowances for its weaknesses and ensures they are offset.

I think this is arguably the area of the pitch that requires the most surgery in the market. Arsenal will need to buy and induct a new right back that is ready for the starting XI because I don’t believe Jenkinson is quite ready yet. At least one centre-half will be required. Project internal solution isn’t realistically actionable here because there’s nobody of note coming through the ranks in central defence. Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs and Szczesny are a well calibrated unit by now but Arsene will need to make sure they have support, competition and a suitable right back to complete the quintet. LD.

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