Arsenal Gentleman’s Weekly Review

Arsenal Gentleman’s Weekly Review

What a plumptious and delightful week this has been. If this week were a lady, it would perhaps flash you a glimpse of ankle, wink at you, then light your Woodbine. For we have won two games of football, and we are in a Cup Final. The FA Cup final.

Let us savour those words, because I have not been reading those words often enough upon the twitter.

We are in a Cup Final.

The media can bleat all they wish about The Arsenal, but we are in a Cup Final. You can complain about transfer policy all you like, but we are in a Cup Final. Sky Sports board should be sentenced to death by paper cut, for their treatment of our away ladies and gentlemen, but we are in a Cup Final. John Terry is still breathing the same air as human beings, but we are in a Cup Final. Michael Owen is making a living from opening and closing his mouth, but we are in a Cup Final.

I care not a jot about the manner in which we won the semi-final, and nobody will, in years to come. Wigan United or whoever they are are a very good team, I expect. Probably the best team in Yorkshire, or wherever they’re from. Before the tie, Mr. Windsor was trotting out the line that we shouldn’t underestimate Wigan Town, but of course we should have, old boy. We should have come out in drag, barefoot, smoking cheroots and singing the aria from Turandot. And the manager knew it. But at the moment, being as handbrakesque as we are, we turned a trot in the park into a race through the trenches.

Tommy-in-Chief, the wonderful Mr. Flapplesthwaite, Grand Wizard Glove Butler, who is sadly to leave Woolwich this summer, made a penalty shoot-out as bearable as that particularly unusual form of torture can be, by denying the first two kicks from the dinner plate. A fine centurion, he has well and truly expunged his flapplesome early days, and if he were to remain next term would surely be awarded a new ‘Gentleman’s Name’. In that kind of form he could have saved Oscar Pistorius. (Cheer up, Oscar, by the way. Because we are in a Cup Final!)

A win over West Ham is always a delightful thing, is it not? Somehow it doesn’t really feel like a London derby, does it? I sense something of a mutual respect among our supporters that is not felt, for example, with those of Locomotiv Hammersmith, or the Middlesex Wanderers of Milton Keynes. And not just because of their sterling work upon the Late Feast of Dear Saint Totteringham back in 2006, when one found oneself singing about ‘blowing bubbles’ at Highbury.

One does enjoy the spectacle of spluttering ninny Mr. Allardyce, pacing his technical area like an angry but impotent hippopotamus, chewing furiously like his mummy has told him he must eat the last bit of a gristle on a cheap cut of meat before he can go and play with his toys. A ridiculous but compulsive sight, chewing his cud like a cow on amphetamines. I am sure fans of West Ham, from the criminal classes right through to the upper criminal classes, are delighted that for destroying their playing ethos, by my calculation, he gets paid £76,315.79p per game.

There were many good things to be pulled from the delicious pie of the West Ham game like juicy plums. Firstly, Mr. MacAlpine’s first start. For an elderly asthmatic alcoholic with gout, he certainly put in quite the performance: Always looking to up the tempo, his long range artillery was broadly accurate, he has a wonderfully nasty side and is built like an A39 tank. We must also praise Brigadier Goring-Hildred, whose goal really was a thing of wonder. Lord Vermington – in an appearance as rare as that of a book in a Spurs fan’s house – sent in the long one. Muscling that flap-mouthed gravedigger Mr. Carroll out of the way, he took the ball with a rarely seen confidence and smacked the pigskin through the glove butler’s pegs and into the onion bag. It was his 20th goal of the season. So a little more acceptance that it is not his fault that the club have failed to muster another striker might not go amiss. He must promise, I think, to keep Little Brigadier ‘in barracks’. He obviously has not the stomach for philandering. And so to Mr. Ponsonby. Dear Mr. Ponsonby. Poor, misunderstood Ponsonby. What a weapon that right foot is, eh? Ruddy Nora.

Good old Crystal Palace, what? That was a game everybody expected Everton to win. But our old chum Mr. Pulis, with his absurd ‘Babe Ruth’ style headgear has handed the advantage back to us. It is absolutely acceptable behaviour to delight in a Pulis victory, because a) we need everything we can get at the moment and b) we are in a Cup Final. If Hitler invaded Hell, I would at least make a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons, said my old chum and fellow gooner Sir Winston Churchill. My enemy’s enemy is my friend, said another wise man. So thank your lucky stars that the goblin king worked his evil juju on Mr. Martinez.

It is for that reason that if I had a candle to my feet and had to pick Liverpool, Manchester City or Chelsea for the title, I would pick Liverpool. Yes, their fans are an irritating band of embarrassing, self-obsessed fools and their manager is a cringeworthy excuse for a human being, but we could think of this as their Hillsborough tribute year, which would be richly deserved. The alternatives do not bear consideration; Abu Dhabi’s plastic band of light-blue mercenaries? No thank you. John Terry raising yet another trophy above his grinning, racist head? I beg, no.

Meanwhile in Middlesex, Tottenham are doing their level best to self-destruct. Anyone know when St. Tott is coming a-calling?

Tactics column: On Giroud

Tactics column: On Giroud

As the last line of defence for struggling Norwich City, John Ruddy has had to be at his best to keep out some of the best strikers in the Premier League. He has, however, still had the misfortune of conceding the two goals of the season, an audacious forty-yard volley by Luis Suarez and a “ridiculous” team goal finished by Jack Wilshere. Such was the blur of red and white shirts leading up to the latter goal, in a 4-1 win for Arsenal, Ruddy probably hadn’t realised that the goal was created, not finished, by a striker: Olivier Giroud.

Giroud’s probably not very high on many defenders’ list on the toughest strikers they have faced. He’s a throwback striker; somebody who runs a lot, chases down loose balls, and attempts flick-ons. There are not many like him around anymore and playing in a team like Arsenal’s, who don’t target his height as much as a team like Stoke City, the physical battle will never be as intense. In any case, in the age of zonal-marking, centre-backs find it much easier to play fixed target-men than nippy, wiry types.

But to assume that Giroud is simply just a big guy who is good at holding up the ball with his back to goal would be to severely underestimate him because his role in the side is much more important; to create space for those nippy, wiry types that defenders hate and that Arsenal has in abundance, players like Ozil, Cazorla, Oxlade-Chamberlain.

As French Sports correspondent, Philippe Auclair tells Arseblog, Giroud “loves to play with ‘first intention’ as we say in French; somebody who can flick the ball around the corner, is always looking for a quick solution when the tempo of game has to be accelerated. He’s always looking to create something, a creator in the box. It’s something that Arsenal have been lacking for a while.”

In that sense, Giroud is probably more like Dennis Bergkamp in importance than Alan Smith, who Arsene Wenger likened him to, due to the responsibility he has in build-up. His deft touches, neat flicks and muscular hold-up brings others into play, in a way gluing Arsenal’s technical game together, and that’s what endears him so much to Wenger. When he set up the goal for Wilshere – a outside-of-the-boot flick between two defenders – it was a culmination of all that Arsenal have practiced on the training ground. He runs a lot too, further getting on the manager’s good-books.

The issue though, is that Giroud doesn’t score enough goals. In 43 matches, he has scored only 19 goals this season (although his raw conversion rate is up to 17% from a paltry 10% last season). He says it himself when he says his first role is to “give a lot of effort for the team, to keep the opponent under pressure, to press them, to win the ball fast – that’s what I try to do to help the team,” he tells Amy Lawrence of The Guardian. “After that I try to make some goals.”

Strikers must be creators too. That’s what Giroud does, as typified by his eye of the needle assist to Jack Wilshere against Norwich City and then more recently, in a 4-1 win again, this time against Sunderland. Arsenal rehearse these moves a lot on the training ground, honing technique by using springboards, and perfecting understanding by playing small-sided matches of 5v5, 6v6 etc. and practicing a drill called “through-plays” – a game where there are opponents are simulated by mannequins to “find holes to play diagonal passes.”

Recently, although bubbling for a while, some dissent has seeped through Arsenal fans who feel that creating and scoring at a rate of only 0.5 goals per game isn’t merely enough for a striker playing for a club like Arsenal. It’s true. In an age where fan access has increased considerably, effort isn’t enough; we’re more intellectual and theoretical in what we demand from our players. In the FA Cup quarter-final against Everton, which Arsenal won 4-1; Giroud came off the bench to score the two goals which ultimately put The Gunners through to the next round but the groundwork laid by Yaya Sanogo, the 21 year-old French striker wasn’t lost. He had run Everton ragged and that allowed a fresh Giroud to simply profit from the extra space and tired legs.

Of course, Sanogo’s goalscoring record is also not great, although he’s young, but in the other three games he has started, against Liverpool, Bayern Munich and just last weekend, Wigan Atheltic, he added visible energy to the side with his running of the channels. There’s a lot of value added to a side like Arsenal when a striker does that as it then opens up space for their diminutive midfielders to run into. Giroud, while his link-up play brings others into play, is mainly static, exclusively playing in between the two centre-backs and as such Arsenal’s play can look predictable, and it relies on moves being perfect.

In the match against Sunderland in March, Giroud made an enthusiastic start, scoring the opener by pouncing on a loose ball and generally working the backline. But quickly, he started reverting to type, playing very, very centrally, looking for flicks and lay-offs, and while it didn’t matter much as Arsenal were comfortably playing in front of Sunderland’s defence, it was patently obvious they could have won more comprehensively by exploiting the space behind. But then this happened and all was seemingly vindicated.

In Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final match against Wigan, Yaya Sanogo got a chance to stake his claim and while his shooting was erratic, he showed promising signs. The issue, however, is that it’s hard to tell just how good he will become. His touch was a little inconsistent but he’s very durable, very difficult to bump off the ball. But most promising was his direct play, getting onto the end of set-pieces and crosses, and also looking to spring behind Wigan’s backline even when Arsenal had the ball in defence. The Gunners are reticent to do that, however, lump the ball forwards as Kolo Toure and Sol Campbell might have in yesteryear, even when Giroud is playing. Indeed, the issue of a lack of directness, explosiveness, has been framed at Arsenal all season, even when they were winning.

In the first-half of season they were able to get away with it due to playing with extra commitment and focus and being clinical. But even back then, Wenger admitted that Arsenal probably weren’t “playing that well”. For him, the negativity of opponents’ gameplan made it more difficult for his players to take risks and be “audacious” – key ingredients in his “pass and move” football. In cup matches, and that’s probably why Sanogo has played, Wenger has tried to implant more pace into his side, looking to exploit the nervous energy of the occasion. While that didn’t go exactly to plan against Wigan – Arsenal were a little meek and overawed and as such, allowed their opponents to play – there was a buzz about the way Sanogo played across the line, allowing Oxlade-Chamberlain to run behind. When Giroud came on and both strikers played together, he took a backseat to Sanogo. The one chance he did get, struck well from outside the area and forcing Scott Carson to tip wide, highlighted his lack of pace.

Indeed, that poses the question: had Arsenal had a player like Sanogo, somebody who plays on the offside like though more clinical, like Suarez, for most of the season, how much would it improve Arsenal’s play? It’s argued that this type of striker would be more beneficial to Arsenal style considering they have enough players that like to create but not enough to finish. Besides, Arsenal, being a team stocked with technical players, can feasibly replicate Giroud’s link-up play in different ways: more one-twos between the midfield players predicated on the type of understanding they practice on the training ground, and more wiry, quicker players who can give Arsenal an extra dimension.

Figure 1: How Giroud gets his chances

chances_123

Via Paul Riley (@footballfactman). It’s arguable that Arsenal don’t use Giroud enough as a target-man (though he is third behind Crouch and Benteke for flick-ons). Indeed, it’s shown by the graphics of where Arsenal create the chances for Giroud, his negligible as a threat from set-pieces but while the bulk of his shots are created from neat interplay out wide or from crosses, he could be more clinical. But that’s also hints at the inconsistent nature of wing-play. If Arsenal are wondering why they are not quite as potent this season (on average they take 13 shots per game, four less than each of the last 3 seasons), perhaps they can point to this contradiction: a pass and move side whose main goalscorer comes alive from chances created from the flanks rather than in the middle (usually these are cuts-backs or crosses flayed to the near post).

As Paul Riley himself says, “in terms of my chance creation model, for the type/volume of shots Giroud has had this season, he’s bang where he should be. Should have 13, has scored 13.”

Arsene Wenger, though, feels safer with Giroud in the side because he balances a team which is he says, “is a bit short, lightweight and more focused on mobility and technical movement so he is the one guy who has that strength and structure for us. That fighting up front is very important for us.” (That means Giroud is sure to start against West Ham to counter the set-piece threat of Andy Carroll).

It’s probably best not to view Giroud as your orthodox striker but rather, as an extension of the midfield – although he’s the player who has the biggest responsibility to finish. When teams become more pure, more focused on keeping the ball, they start to look for unconventional methods of breaking down opponents – look at Messi at Barcelona for example – because they know they’ll deny them space in behind. Instead, the space is in front and Giroud’s link-up play is capable of making space for those players. Perhaps, though, next season we’ll see Arsenal go full circle again look for a “fox in the box” to lead their line…

Figure 2: Where Giroud shoots from

giroud finishing-trainor

Via Colin Trainor (@colinttrainor). In my analysis of how Giroud can improve his scoring rate from last season, I suggested that he needs to add more mobility to his game and show less reliance on his surprisingly poor heading. Not that much has changed this season except that he is a little less impulsive but still very central. Of course, you’d expect a striker to shoot mostly from these positions but his mobility is surely a factor.

Arsenal Gentleman’s Weekly Review

Arsenal Gentleman’s Weekly Review

So, my dearest chums, are you enjoying the collapse? It’s a particularly Arsenalesque one this year is it not? Five points clear atop the English League at one halcyon moment and now the manager of a club called ‘Wigan Athletic’ (?) is playing mind games with us. More of him later.

Perhaps ‘collapse’ is not the most apt term for our almost annual slump. How about ‘gentle descent’, as if one was on a beginner’s slope at Klosters? Or perhaps we could make up a neologism, something like ‘Krumph’, the sound one makes as one lowers oneself into a brand new Chesterfield? Whatever we call it, it is damned unpleasant. It whiffs. It winks at your wife. It drinks your single malt. It puts the milk in first. It overstays its welcome.

We turn, as we must, to the killing floor of Goodison Park Abattoir, and to a slaughter so appallingly (un)planned it could have been dreamt up by some of my General chums in the Army in northern France back in WW1. And yet, part of me knew it was going to happen. The obdormition that is the precursor begins in the area of an old shrapnel wound in my foot and spreads up the old left peg. By the time the numbness reaches little gent, we are invariably up the creek without an oar. Barely could I summon up he energy to tinkle the little bell and have the butler bring me a treble gin and tonic with a chaser of laudanum.

This team is undergoing an attack of The Whiffles. I believe in darts the term is ‘The Yips’, an inexplicable loss of motor control. In football, Herbert Chapman called it The Whiffles, and would not stand for it. In less enlightened times, when treatment for psychological disorders essentially consisted of shouting “SNAPOUTOFIT” at distressed people, The Whiffles were cured by the thing that causes most of humanity’s problems, but also cures most of them: BOOZE.

This team does not drink enough.

In the old days, a player would be expected to drink seven or eight pints of Mein Host’s finest session ale per night. Nothing more than 3% mind, there was no need for excess. They would typically engage in this activity with their colleagues. Accompanied by twenty or so Capstan Extra Strength, or a lady’s cigaroon such as a Woodbine, our forebears at this great club would bond. At some point during the convivial evening, each would epideictically confess to everyone else that they were in fact their best friend. In this age of micronutrients and eating squirrel glands or whatever they do up there at London Colney, Arsenal have lost a central part of their identity: The borderline alcoholism. So, the remedy is simple. Send them on the lash. Get them sozzled. Get them pie-eyed. Get them Adamsed. Encourage breaches of the peace. Install at London Colney, not a space-age oxygen chamber, or dentistry parlour, or fitness suite. Put in a pub. And let us end this confounded inward-looking nonsense that they spout after every ruddy match.

Chaps: Just get pissed and get over it.

SESLEY: C+
SAILOR: D+
MEATLOCKER: C
VERMINGTON: D
MANDEVILLE: D
ARKWRIGHT: E+
FLAME: D
ROBINSON: C-
COUSINS: C-
PONSONBY: D
GORING HILDRED: E- (Played like an absolute shithouse)

We wish to see an improvement in these grades upon the morrow. Defeat at the hands of ‘Wigan Athletic’ would be intolerable, and a wholesale change of personnel over the summer would be highly desirable. Not by normal transfer business, but by firing squad. There are a number of first-team players who need to bloody well man up. They know who they are. Unfortunately, Mr. Flame (and of course his parrot), one who invariably does, is out. Mr. Flapplesthwaite starts at Glove Butler, and as it stands, he may be our only fit player. Just him, in goal. The injury list, which now bears something of a resemblance to a village’s memorial to the fallen of the Great War, is large and growing. Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gibbois and Robinson all face late smacks with a big hammer to see if they’re able to walk. Although it looks like our Senegal Sir, Mr. Abdoulaye Ramsara, may start. So perhaps the Gent’s XI will read: Glove Butler – Flapplesthwaite, Centre-Halves, wing-backs, midfield and striker – Abdoulaye Ramsara. If he regains his exquisite early season form that should be enough.

A word then on the Hun Rossler. Pipe down, you shiny headed, tedious, ruttish, shard-borne pumpion. You shall hush your mouth come Saturday.

Which brings me to some other infirmary news. It seems the inability to treat athletes at Arsenal Football Club for any complaint at all is down to two separate factions within the Arsenal Medical Team. There are the ‘Leech Lovers’, who favour the purification of the body through attaching slug-like beasts to a payer, and ‘The Bloodletters’, who are fond of inserting rusty iron implements into a vein and draining “a gallon a day” of the old claret into a bucket. So please, well compensated medical technicians – make your minds up; leeches or rusty pipes, but not both. A glimmer of hope: Arsenal are retiring Old Meg, who has been haruspex in chief for the last 70 years and moving on to the tarot method of team preparation.

We do not know whether Mr. Orwell has been blood-let by leech or pipe, but it seems like he might be ‘fit’ for Hull Tigers on 19th April. We hope he is early-season Orwell, rather than the mid-season stroller. Mr. Costerley has been treated with ‘Venice treacle’, a combination of viper’s flesh, opium and myrrh, and could be with us for Tuesday’s ominous-looking match against Fat Sam’s Typhoid Marys.

Until next time, old chums, and let us kick the living Tottenham out of the Latics tomorrow. Tally-ho!

Too much valium and not enough amphetamine

Too much valium and not enough amphetamine

You don’t have to read many Arsene Wenger interviews to recognise his constant emphasis on the collective of football. His most devoted students, such as Robert Pires, Thierry Henry and Cesc Fabregas, have all been inherently unselfish players, noted as much for their goal provision as their goal scoring. Yet it’s not just an emotional bond the manager seeks to foster. Good football teams are all about chemistry, the right blend of qualities working in concert.

You won’t win the league title with eleven Ray Parlours but you also won’t win one with eleven Thierry Henrys either. In an age where people are as married to their opinions as they are their football teams, the temptation is to identify individual players and isolate them when a team is playing badly. Especially if we’ve previously insinuated that we’ve always suspected that they’re bobbins. It’s entirely possible and even probable that every team has its weak links. Yet more often than not, form, be it good, bad or indifferent, is usually a result of how the collective is functioning.

Injuries are a prolific frustration for an Arsenal fan nowadays. Yet much of the Gunners current woes lie not just in how many injuries they have to key players, but also in the types of player that they have missing. (I’m not suggesting that our poor form of late is entirely attributable to the treatment room. I wouldn’t expect our U-21s to lose by some of the score lines we have suffered this season). The manager suggests there is an issue of confidence at the moment, which I think is plain to see.

Yet it’s not just hearts and minds that are wavering. To embrace colloquial football parlance, Arsenal’s “legs have gone.” That’s not (just) to say that our dwindling collection of healthy footballers are gripped by fatigue, but all of the players that give the team energy, movement and purpose have all been simultaneously unavailable. This has led to Arsenal looking one paced, predictable and easy to nullify.

Everton and Chelsea were able to press Arsenal high and harry them in possession safe in the knowledge that nobody would run into the space behind them. It’s not just that Arsenal have had key players unavailable, but the ones we do have rely on our more kinetic players to cover their weaknesses. The reception Olivier Giroud received upon his substitution on Sunday was acidic. Mikel Arteta has also begun to feel the wrath of Arsenal fans too.

Whilst Arsenal could certainly improve on Olivier Giroud as a first choice striker, I think it’s fairly well documented that without the likes of Walcott and Ramsey around him, his attributes are rendered impotent. Likewise, the complaints abound about Arteta, that he’s too slow, that his legs are creaking and that he’s too cautious with the ball.

I would argue that he’s no slower, or less adventurous than Gilberto Silva, or Claude Makelele or Didier Deschamps or Dunga or many other screening midfielders you can name. Gilberto had Vieira or Parlour partnering him, Alonso had Mascherano, Makelele had Essien and so forth. Almost every player on the planet has weak points which need to be veiled by the qualities of his teammates. Without Ramsey or Wilshere, or even Koscielny in the back four, Arteta’s lack of mobility is much starker. It’s for this reason that Gilberto and Edu were hardly ever partnered together in the heart of midfield in the Invincibles side.

This at least partially explains why Santi Cazorla has looked rather average in recent weeks. He too isn’t hugely mobile. He opens up the pitch with his technique and he wanders into space, but he doesn’t pull defences around with his alacrity. Cazorla provides the conditions for others that like to do so. Rosicky has become such an important player for us of late because he possesses this kind of vitality. Unfortunately, his briskness troubles opposing midfielders more than it does defenders.

On Sunday, Arsenal’s back four was robbed of Gibbs and Koscielny too, with Vermaelen and Monreal deputising. This made Arsenal’s defence less portable. Basically Arsenal’s weaknesses are a neon welcome sign for opposing teams at the moment because we are missing the qualities to offset those weaknesses. Losing Özil, who is good enough to shoulder the creative burden alone, was the stray pube in Arsenal’s shit sandwich. I submit the situation would be much the same if we were to reverse the injury situation and peer into an alternate universe.

If, for instance, Arteta, Mertesacker, Giroud, Podolski and Cazorla were injured, a team containing the blue arsed fly qualities of Ramsey, Wilshere, Koscielny, Sanogo and Walcott without the disciplined, more positional presence of the likes of Arteta, Mertesacker and Giroud would be pulled apart due to its impetuousness. A big part of Arsenal’s issue at the moment is that there’s a touch too much valium and not enough amphetamine. But the reverse formula would probably be just as damaging.

For these reasons it is quite baffling that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain did not start at Goodison on Sunday on the right hand side. Especially given what we know about the attacking vigour of Everton’s full backs. The Toffees were able to harangue Sagna and Monreal and Wenger actually aided that strategy by playing a pair of wingers in Cazorla and Podolski that rarely offer the full backs a passing option. Martinez slit Arsenal’s throat, but Wenger handed him the knife.

The manager spoke after the game about “going back to basics” and it will be interesting to see if he reverts to the more cautious approach favoured at the end of last season. Arsenal urgently need to get over the line now and achieve their two glaring targets, Champions League qualification and winning the F.A. Cup. I do wonder if we’ll make a conscious attempt to having men behind the ball and becoming hard to beat as a first priority as we did last spring.

The glamour of the F.A. Cup may have faded over the years, but I cannot think of a year in my life time when it was so central to Arsenal’s ambitions. In 2003 and 2005, when we were truly spoiled, it felt like a consolation prize having finished second in the Premier League. In 2002 and 1998 the cup formed part of a ‘Double’ and therefore was not really recognised in its individual right. In 1993, we had already attained the league cup going into the F.A. Cup final against Sheffield Wednesday.

Even in 1980, Arsenal played a F.A. Cup Final and a Cup Winners Cup Final in the same week. So the domestic pot formed part of a dual storyline. You probably have to go back to 1979 for the last time the old trophy was this central to an Arsenal season. The Gunners must reconnect with their self belief; they’ve beaten Spurs, Liverpool and Everton to get to the semi final. They’re not there by felicity. Saturday ought to be viewed as an opportunity to relish rather than an itch to be scratched. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

The search to fill a dreamy gap

The search to fill a dreamy gap

For the last few years, I have felt unable to speak too much about the ‘Invincibles’ side online with other Arsenal fans. This is because I have found that the mere mention of that sobriquet invites fierce critique of the current squad. Possibly Arsenal’s finest ever assembly of players have, for the last ten years, ostensibly been forged into a stick with which to beat contemporary Arsenal. A knowing ‘those were the days, eh?’ is one thing, but very quickly this sort of nostalgia would give way to flagellation.

“Oh yes, back when we were any good”, “better than this lot” or comments of that ilk soon left you feeling you had gone from celebrating an incredible achievement to being spoon-fed misery. It’s for this reason I have really enjoyed the recent, “49, 49 undefeated” chant. Contrived though it maybe, it seems to represent distillation, as though we’ve finally moved on and begun to consider that achievement in the isolation it deserves.

I hope the upcoming book by the two Andrews further cements that impression. So with this optimistic sense of closure in mind I’m going to suggest Arsene Wenger is still trying to replace Robert Pires after eight years of trying. At this point you will probably reel off the names of Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry and Gilberto Silva as ‘Invincibles’ we haven’t replaced, but allow me to expand.

We might not have replaced those players in terms of quality or stature, but we’ve found different ways of playing to augment their loss. Structural accommodations have been made. Arsenal still haven’t cracked the issue of finding balance on their left hand side. Each of Pires’ successors have failed their auditions for different reasons. Tomas Rosicky was effectively bought to replace Pires and briefly, that quartet of 2007-08; with Hleb, Flamini, Fabregas and Rosicky, looked primed to be Wenger’s third great midfield until it was dismantled by injury and flightiness.

We’ve since found Rosicky’s rumbustious, scurrying style to be more practical from the centre. Jose Antonio Reyes suffered uncannily similar issues to those that Lukas Podolski currently presents to us. (That said, though Podolski appeared to have trouble settling into Munich life in his younger years, you don’t get the impression he yearns for home comforts as much as the Spaniard did). The issue for Podolski, like Reyes, is that he is neither a striker nor a left winger. He simultaneously convinces you he is both and neither all at the same time.

Podolski isn’t technically threatening enough to be a winger and not physically imposing enough to be a lone striker. He likes to play in the corridor of space between a full back and a centre half. The trouble for him is that that’s not really a recognised position on a football pitch in almost any formation you can name. Podolski essentially waits for the very small passages of a game when that small area of the pitch is useful. Podolski is good at finding space, but he doesn’t move an awful lot off of the ball.

Walcott has managed to fill the chasm left by the likes of Ljungberg and Overmars by playing as a forward that starts his runs off the ball from the flank. Podolski doesn’t represent a moving target for passers in the same way. So he basically has to wait for the perfect storm of a defensive lapse and a penetrative pass to ignite him into life. His delivery from the left is good, but his most productive crosses are usually a result of him having been played into some space. It’s rarely a product of his creative intuition.

Podolski rarely beats players and he’s not much use at bringing the ball in from the line because his refusal to use his right foot usually just sees him feeding the ball backwards and in field. Pires was so effective because he started from the touchline, but as soon as he received it, he sauntered in field with it to try and affect the play. For the past 12 months or so, Wenger has moved Santi Cazorla over to the left in pursuit of a similar result.

Like Pires, Cazorla is a technical aesthete with two good feet capable of finishing a chance when presented with one. Yet Cazorla has more of a tendency to wander. He likes to operate quite deep where he can open the pitch up with his laser-guided range of passing. However, sometimes you wish Santi would spend more time 20-30 yards further up the touchline where he could hurt defences more.

With Walcott on the right side, Wenger favours a more technical presence on the left. Andrey Arshavin was another of the manager’s bids to buy a technical guardian for his left hand side. Much like one of Arshavin’s passes though, the idea was good but the execution was lacking. In 2010-11 he moved Samir Nasri over to the left and the quartet dubbed “Theo van Nasregas” finally looked like a balanced attacking unit.

Nasri had the technical ability, the goal threat and the ambidextrousness to fill the Pires role on the left, receiving the ball from wide, bringing it in field and looking to prompt and probe defenders out of position and inspire movement from his teammates. But much like the Hleb-Fabregas-Flamini-Rosicky partnership, this chemistry was dismantled too soon and Nasri’s feet got itchy too.

In Gervinho, Arsenal went for something different, a winger that preferred to take the outside rather than the inside with a ball at his feet, searching for the by-line to provide for van Persie. The Ivorian was a hit and miss player at the best of times, but the departure of van Persie neutered his effectiveness greatly. The arrival of Özil has corrected a lot of our creative dysfunctionality, but his role is more central. He is more an heir to Bergkamp and Fabregas.

I’m rather left with the impression that Wenger’s interest in Draxler is a result of this ongoing search for the true descendant of Robert Pires. Whilst the masses will clack their tongues and scoff, “surely Arsenal don’t need another playmaker?” the truth is that they probably do. Draxler, or a player of that ilk, would replicate that ability for receiving a ball on the flank but looking to roam in field with the ball and affect play more centrally. Finding somebody that is technically brilliant, two footed and a goal threat is not easy to do.

That’s why Pires was such a special footballer. Arsenal have managed, by hook or by crook, to augment other losses with either a direct replacement or by making structural dalliances (replacing Vieira with Fabregas for instance). Yet there is still a Pires shaped hole in the current side even now. We’ve struggled to replace those ingredients and, every time it looks like the manager has cracked it, the tablecloth is swept from under him. And so, the search continues. LD.

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