It’s back, baby. Whilst the rumblings of the transfer window continue to, errr, rumble, it is very good to have some on pitch action to ruminate over again. Even if the result on the opening day wasn’t quite what we wanted, frankly I’m still happier than Andre Santos on half a gram of MDMA. That said, as I alluded in the opening sentence, the spectre of the transfer window still dominates conversation and that’s a symptom of our ducks not quite being lined up yet.
Regardless of how positive our transfer acquisitions appeared in the summer, I reserved an anxiety about how we might start the season. The sale of van Persie was fully expected, even if the beneficiaries in that deal were not, but the loss/disposal (delete as applicable) of Alex Song has tossed another problematic iron into Arsene’s fire. Of the starting line up from the Sunderland game, only Vermaelen, Diaby, Gibbs and Walcott would have been in the running for an Arsenal XI in August 2010. (Three of those players spent much of 2010-11 injured in any case).
As I said last week, we are rather relying on a number of players coming into a new team in a new league and acclimatising instantly whilst also knitting together as a team. That of course, will take time and temperance. I recall an incident from Saturday when Gervinho pulled a ball back from the touchline that saw Podolski and Cazorla almost collide as they attacked the ball from different angles. In time, understanding will foment and teammates will anticipate one anothers movements better.
But there are other nuances in this tapestry of transition. In past summers, when vital cogs in the team have departed, there has been a natural successor to the crown. By the time Vieira and Henry abdicated the Arsenal throne, Prince Cesc was already eyeing the crown jewels. As Fabregas left to undertake his arranged marriage, van Persie already had one hand on the baton. There had been a natural handover. The manager seems to be favouring a quasi-socialist approach to his team now, with responsibility more equally divided. The right way to go in the long term, but such bonds take time to build and there might be more of the sort of short term teething problems we saw against Sunderland.
We’ve sold a starting midfielder and a starting striker from last season and that leaves issues in both areas of the field. We play a formation that was, to all intents and purposes, built to get the best out of two individuals who are no longer at the club in van Persie and Fabregas. The system is a relic of their tenure and with that, one has to ask if it is still fit for purpose. Others have expounded on our midfield in great depth elsewhere, but it’s the front three that causes me to arch my brow.
When I ponder the options we have in that department, I don’t think the squad looks terribly well balanced for the 4-3-3 system. The issue Wenger highlighted from the Sunderland game was the obvious incompatibility of the triumvirate of forwards. All were very direct players which resulted in them attacking the same spaces. Wenger usually prefers for his wide men to offer different but complimentary characteristics. Usually, he’ll have one “schemer” that starts wide (usually wide left) but drifts in field to make the play. (Pires, Arshavin, Nasri). And one more direct, rumbustious type. (Ljungberg, Walcott).
Arsene bemoaned a lack of creativity upfront, but when you assess the options, there isn’t a great deal of variety in terms of skill sets. Arshavin is really the only “schemer” type we have left and even if he isn’t sold before September, he’ll be a bit part player at most. Perhaps in the long term we could put Cazorla in the front three and have Wilshere provide the creative thrust from midfield, but it all feels contrived somehow. Besides which, we shouldn’t really rely on Wilshere being up to full intensity for a while yet. All in all it makes me wonder if the player we really miss is Yossi Benayoun, who appears to add the missing qualities to our milieu of forwards.
There are a lot of positives in our squad construction this summer, but one thing this all points to is that we will need a much quieter summer in 2013. I’m very much minded of the off season of 2003, in which we only bought Gael Clichy and Jens Lehmann. But we managed to tie Vieira, Pires and Henry down to long term contracts and, well, we all know how the following season turned out. Not that I’m suggesting that 2013-14 would unfold in quite the same vein, but there’s as much to be said for continuity as cosmetics.
Fine tuning is still required. I don’t ever recall there being so much expectation on an assistant coach as there is with Steve Bould. I suppose more people remember him as the outstanding centre half he was and therefore expect him to transfer his prowess to the team. The outgoing Pat Rice was also a respected defender, yet memories of his playing days have faded. (The coaching staff is and always has been chocked full of ex defenders under Arsene). Nevertheless, Bould’s influence has been rather easy to spot early on.
Anam made the point about Bould having noticed our full backs being exposed by Sunderland on the counter attack and instructed them to be more cautious as a result. Of course, that upset us in attacking sense, because the full backs perhaps didn’t provide the width we were so clearly missing in the final third.
But the most immediately recognisable Bould influence came from our corner kicks. With Mertesacker stationed at the front post, looking to provide the front post flick on that Bouldy patented in his playing days. It might look predictable after the first time you do it. But Mertesacker only has to win that header once and the second ball then becomes very difficult to deal with for the opposing defence. Especially when those attacking the ball have a running start on you. Much like Rory Delap’s throw ins, you might know what’s coming, but dealing with it is a different issue.
Consequently, Sunderland ended up double marking Mertesacker at the front post. Firstly, that’s an acknowledgment of how imperative it was for them that the ball wasn’t flicked into the danger area. But it also means that, by simple virtue of mathematics, double marking one player leaves another one free. It’s a curiously “percentage football” tactic for a team like ours, but it’s heartening to know that we’re actually practising corners for a start. It also demonstrates that Arsene is open to Bould’s ideas in an area where he has shown a shortfall in his knowledge. However, as with the new players, the new coaching staff will take time to impress themselves on the team.
Just a short reminder in closing that Stoke City isn’t Arsenal’s only fixture over the next few days. The U21s play Blackburn at the Emirates on Saturday afternoon, the U-19s begin their Nextgen tournament against Marseilles at Underhill on Wednesday evening and the Ladies are back at Borehamwood against Bristol Academy next Thursday. You could potentially go to all three of those games and still have change from a tenner. Till next week. LD.
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