Bonjour Gooners. Having returned from France with the sweet taste of victory on Wednesday evening, I can retire my pigeon French again for the foreseeable future. (“Errr gar-son, sank grooond beer see voo play.”) It’s hard to see how we could go into games against Manchester City and Chelsea in better shape, but confidence, reputation and form can be very transient and shape shift at light speed. Laurent Koscielny and Vito Mannone will bear testament to that.
In recent years, Arsenal’s player turnover has been more akin to the counter staff of a drive-through McDonald’s. But it does make for interesting viewing as to how the germ of the team evolves in style every season. In 2010-11, we had the chin stroking, possession based formula, with Arshavin, Fabregas and Nasri flecking the canvas with paint in the final third. When it clicked, it was devastating, but as the confidence of the team began to visibly ebb in the wake of the Carling Cup Final, it became ponderous, overly deliberate and frankly, torturous.
Last season, we metamorphasised into a more direct outfit. The game plan basically became “operation, get the ball to van Persie as quickly as sodding possible” as we flanked him with pace from wide in the shape of Gervinho and Walcott and played the more bombastic Ramsey in behind him. Again, it seemed to work but it did rather hinge on a single pivot. This season, the manager has already spoken about having “diversified” our approach.
There has clearly been another augmentation in Arsenal v.2012-13. Much of the credit thus far has been dispensed towards twin sources. Santi Cazorla has the kind of technical ability and finesse that the 2011-12’s Frankenstein creation sometimes lacked. The team has also looked a lot more solid thus far and, naturally, much of that has been attributed to Steve Bould. We can but speculate on Uncle Bouldy’s influence, though he and Arsene have been quick to note Neil Banfield’s role in the coaching set up.
Indeed, Wenger even suggested that, between he, Bould and Banfield, each coach has been able to focus on one area of the team apiece. Whilst the praise of Messrs Bould and Cazorla appears not to be undue; I think Lukas Podolski is the newly grafted limb that I have taken to the most. For a start, he just doesn’t ever seem to waste the ball. Against Southampton, he completed all 31 of his attempted passes. That’s a freakish rate for somebody that plays so far forward. He completed 85% against Montpellier too. (Stats via @whoscored).
Good players don’t just perform their own functions well; they are quick to understand their teammates’ strengths and look to accentuate them. (This is what made Cesc Fabregas pretty close to the perfect midfield player in my opinion). Podolski is five games into his Arsenal career and we are already talking about the understanding he has struck up with Santi Cazorla. It’s notable how often he has used Kieran Gibbs to great effect too. There’s a common denominator here. Good players form good partnerships.
This quite excellent examination of this season’s Arsenal focuses on Cazorla’s role in the transformation. But within the diagrams, I was drawn to the subtlety and simplicity of Podolski’s play. It sounds excruciatingly simple, when we don’t have the ball (and it seems deliberate that we have allowed the opposition more possession thus far), he fills in on the left flank. But when we break, he moves more centrally, expertly exploiting the corridor of opportunity between full back and centre half. He can finish too.
I’m trying desperately to avoid using the word “efficient” in connection with a reputed German international, but Podolski’s economy with the ball in tight situations, combined with Cazorla’s imagination has brought the swift, one touch transitions of play back to our attack. Both of our goals in France were the direct result of quick, single touch moves. Allied to this, Arsenal have completed 55 dribbles in their first four games, the most in the Premier League. Liverpool have completed the second most at 36. (Stats via @F365.).
Arsenal are showing nascent signs of variety upfront. Theo Walcott’s contract situation has been used to explain away his current exile, but the truth is, even if he signed a ten year contract tomorrow, he would still likely find himself on the bench. (Though it is interesting to note that the club used his face in the promotional literature for Capital One Cup tickets. As far as graphic putdowns go, it’s quite withering).
Nevertheless, enthusiasm ought to be tempered this early in the season and with some truly meaty games ahead. In the build up to the Liverpool match, I wrote about a potential advantage for the Gunners at Anfield. The team is in such an embryonic stage of its development together, that it’s difficult for opponents to analyse our style. As the season unfolds, more comprehensive study material will be available to our adversaries, which will present its own challenges.
Another source of great credit for our early season form adds further fuel for the Teutonic flame I’m clearly holding this week. The criticism for Per Mertesacker from esteemed members of the fourth estate last season confused me greatly. With the exception of a goal at Carrow Road, I don’t recall too many that the BFG was at fault for. I think there’s an obsession with pace in the modern game that now casts a lack of it as some kind of inoperable weakness.
I wouldn’t consider the likes of Vidic, Ferdinand, Cannavaro, Adams, Baresi, Maldini or almost any other guardian of the defensive art from the last 15 years as any sort of speed demon. But in modern parlance, it’s been firmly clichéd into accepted wisdom that slow equals lumbering. American football, by nature, is more nuanced in its approach. Scouts will assess the flexibility of a defensive player’s limbs, to see how quickly he can open out his body and adjust his position.
I think this translates into football and Mertesacker is a perfect example of how. He seems to defend almost on the half turn, which both offsets his lack of speed and also allows him to swivel his hips and thrust out an intercepting foot in any direction required. A good friend of mine has a theory that Mertesacker should be a fixture in the team because he possesses the happy knack of bringing out the best in his partnering centre half. The fact that he’s keeping last season’s star performer Laurent Koscielny on the substitute’s bench is testament enough to his form.
Wenger has unwittingly developed a nice selection headache in goal too. I freely confess that adjectives I have previously used to describe Vito Mannone ranged from “suspect” to “total shit.” But the loan spell at Hull appears to have reinvigorated the Italian. Selection of goalkeepers is a difficult dichotomy for a manager. On the one hand, Arsene is absolutely correct that investing confidence in your goalkeeper is crucial when he makes a mistake.
However, one has to keep the deputy keeper sufficiently incentivised. I think this partly explains Alex Manninger’s fall from grace some years ago. Having produced a period of outstanding form in the 1998 title run in, he was immediately dropped once Seaman recovered from injury. It’s difficult enough for a back up goalie to come into a side with a lack of match practise and perform, but it must have been hard on Manninger. Even subconsciously, if you know that good form is likely to go unrewarded, it must be difficult to prepare for games with the same enthusiasm.
All the same, I would stick with Szczesny myself, but it’s an interesting proposition. Mannone has better chant prospects by adapting Chesney Hawkes’ winsome karaoke favourite ‘I Am Vito Mannone.’ An important consideration for the manager too. Till next week. LD.
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