Logic, movement and energetic pointing

Tim Stillman 2012-13

After a six month layoff, the Arsenal bench jacket is nearing a recall as the days and nights are drawing in. Soon Le Boss will be seen pacing the touchline in his chic sleeping bag number showing his inveterate distaste for water bottles. Though the evenings are beginning to chill, there is still plenty to warm the cockles of Arsenal fans.

This Arsenal team appears to be taking shape and a pleasing shape at that. I wrote last week about a kind of dis-economies of scale in this respect. The more the team begins to gel and find combinations, the more comprehensively our opponents can study us. You may recall that this time last year Arsenal cranked into a run of good form because a new team was in the process of fermentation and opponents had yet to figure us out.

A consequence of building our squad earlier in the summer was of course the avoidance of a catastrophic start to the season. But it also means the surprise element will disintegrate more quickly. To an extent we saw this on Sunday in Manchester. Much has been said about the partnership Cazorla and Podolski have struck up and City focused on disrupting their cross pollination to good effect. So much so that the German in particular, had probably his quietest game for Arsenal.

Wenger’s biggest detractors and even some of his most gushing admirers would say he doesn’t really “do” tactics, but the decision to play Ramsey on the right proved a sound one. I don’t expect many to agree with me when I say I would still play Ramsey in the centre ahead of Diaby every time. Abou has yet to really convince me that he is capable of any sort of consistency. Like rock star deaths, long term injuries can inflate reputations and Diaby still seems to wildly oscillate between sublime and ridiculous.

Performances like the one at Anfield can have you gasping in awe. But there are occasions when he will receive the ball and I won’t be able to stop Scarecrow’s “If I Only Had A Brain” ditty from Wizard of Oz running through my head. I’ve never made much secret of my regard for Ramsey, even if he did appear to run over numerous puppies belonging to Arsenal fans last year. Far from being his death knell, I think the signing of Cazorla can liberate Ramsey.

Many forget that before he was Shawcrossed, it was in the ‘pivot’ position that Rambo really began to impress alongside Fabregas. With Cazorla now in the ‘media punta’ role, I think Ramsey’s energy, close control and ball retention abilities mean he can flourish in a box to box capacity without being expected to be the main creator. I suppose it’s a question of mathematics more than anything. Once in a while, Diaby will produce something out of the top drawer.

But particularly in this new look, more compact, possession based side, Ramsey would be my go to ahead of Abou. I think I had subconsciously begun to accept that Diaby’s inconsistency was borne largely of disruptive injury spells. But I recently read back an account I wrote of his performance in 2009-10 – a campaign in which he appeared 40 times – and those impressions of his schizophrenia loomed large.

Still, it’s nice to have the options to argue over. Wednesday evening’s consummate victory over Coventry has raised further debate with some more marginalised players looking to make their point. In the wake of a goal and a couple of assists, Arsene Wenger rather damned Andrey Arshavin with faint praise. On the face of it, saying that the Russian’s best position is in the centre with those numbers behind him almost sounds like a flicker of recognition. But in truth, I think Arshavin showed why he’s further away from the first team than ever.

In amongst the goal and two assists were a litany of unnecessary back heels and flicks which were gratefully received by Coventry players. In this new look, disciplined, possession hording Arsenal side, Arshavin’s refusal to even countenance the basics means he stays behind Cazorla, Ramsey and Rosicky for the central role. In a home game against a side at the foot of League One, such japery can be just about tolerated. Against more gifted teams, showing such disregard for possession and an unwillingness to track runners will reduce his influence from positive to negative.

It’s frustrating, because if the first XI were picked purely on ability, Arshavin would be one of the first names on the team sheet. He’s one of the most ‘able’ players we have, but probably the least willing. If standing and pointing at unmarked players he should be tracking counted as tackling, Arshavin would be a Gattuso-lite midfield terrier. In a team that is finally beginning to respect defensive basics, the Coventry game showed he can still expect to be a peripheral figure.

Meanwhile Theo Walcott has reopened the debate as to whether he should play as a centre forward. I’ve said it before but I really don’t see that he has the qualities to play there. Theo’s game largely relies on finding space in behind defenders and his current position, as a wide forward in a front three, is absolutely tailor made for him to find goalscoring opportunities. Here, he can exploit the spaces between full back and centre half.

Full backs naturally push up more anyway, leaving lovely green space for young Theo to gallop into. But he can also play on the confusion as to who should be picking him up when he runs between the full backs and the centre halves. Both of his goals on Wednesday evening were testament to this point. Frankly, I’m astonished Theo doesn’t analyse his game and realise this. Through the centre he would be much easier to nullify.

If you’re a centre half partnership facing Theo Walcott through the middle, you simply resolve to stay on the edge of your area and not allow space in behind you. If you do that, that’s pretty much Walcott neutered. I know the question has cropped up again with Gervinho being given a central berth, but I think the Ivorian makes much more sense through the middle. For a start, for all of his club footed eccentricity at times, he can beat a man with more than just raw speed. He’s actually quite good at eking out opportunities for himself (and others) in tight spaces. I’m not sure Theo could replicate that quality.

There are those that ask if Walcott could perform as a striker in a 4-4-2 but I’m still not sure his movement is nuanced or sophisticated enough to play off of a striker such as Giroud. In injury time on Sunday, Mannone shaped to take a free kick with a view to hitting Giroud. The kick was delayed as Arteta had to yell at Walcott several times to move into the penalty area in the event of a flick on. Even when Giroud did duly oblige and win the header, flicking it into the area, Walcott still didn’t move and the ball rolled harmlessly to Joe Hart.

Maybe it’s overly fastidious to scrutinise an isolated incident, but it just struck me that, even when choreographed carefully by his captain, Walcott didn’t have that penalty box nous. Compared with at least two of Gervinho’s goals this season, where he’s been able to sniff out tap ins in the six yard area, I think playing Gervinho as a centre forward is less about “punishing” Walcott for his contract position and more about logic.

Nevertheless, things have started positively. At some point in the season, results will turn and the squad will be stretched- it happens to everyone. It is then that the true depth and spirit of the squad will be revealed. You find out much more about people in adversity, but let’s hope it’s a while before we have to contemplate that yet. Till next week. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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