Monday, December 11, 2023

Get Tim to the Greek

Greetings fellow Gooners. You find me bright eyed and bushy tailed following a pleasant three day constitutional in the city of Athens. The economy may be well and truly Chamakhed in Greece, but they still seem to have pioneered truly jaw dropping technology. They had this kind of giant yellow radiator in the sky that generated a pleasant, balmy heat. We should really look at investing in something similar in England. Especially in December.

During my stay I peered beyond the looking glass and saw the grizzly future of West Ham in ten years or so. AEK Athens played at home on Monday evening in the Spiros Louis Olympic Stadium and I curiously went along. Tickets were 10 Euros; a large beer cost 2 euros. Being that they currently sit bottom of the league, AEK attract crowds of around 7-8,000. Their home ground holds 75,000.

Away fans are no longer permitted in the Greek Superleague either. So PAS Giannina’s equaliser was greeted with eerie silence not heard since Wigan Athletic’s last away goal. It was much like watching a match in Mad Max’s Thunderdome. Only the spectators were drinking ill-disguised bottles of ouzo and smoking pungent skunk joints. If this be the future, I say bring it on!

The subject of post-apocalyptic fallout of course brings me neatly onto Arsenal’s current form. A pair of defeats have occurred since last we spoke and the “Arsenal in crisis” klaxons are in need of new batteries. (Do klaxons take batteries? Maybe they are “little bit short of petrol”?) There certainly hasn’t been a point this season where I’ve felt that this is a balanced squad of players. I don’t mean mentally balanced so much (that’s a question for another column!) but in terms of its blend of attributes and qualities.

Here we sit in December and I still don’t think the manager really knows how to set the forward line up. The 4-3-3 (or 4-2-3-1 if you want to get technical) was designed to wring the best out of a pair of players that no longer play for the club. I think it’s fair to say that the system has expired in terms of its usefulness to us. For a start, I think the team are lopsided. Most of our attacking players work better from the left or the centre (Chamberlain, Gervinho, Podolski, Giroud, Chamakh (!) and Arshavin). Only Theo truly works as a right sided front-man and he doesn’t even want to play there!

Arsene appears to have rejigged that front-line slightly, but in a kind of non-committal way that hasn’t really paid dividends yet. Walcott has started nominally from the right, but with the license to drift infield as moves unfold to become a second striker. Cazorla has spent a lot more time wandering over to the right flank both to cover Walcott’s inward foray and, presumably, to find some space for himself now that the Premier League’s watchful eye is aware of his prowess. (His goal against Spurs emanated from an undetected run from the right).

Without Walcott on Tuesday, I think Gervinho was asked to perform a similar role from the left, as a vague kind of winger / striker hybrid. Beginning from the flank with license to drift. Of course this puts a lot of pressure on the full backs to maintain the width and the continued fitness of Gibbs and Sagna is imperative in that respect. I also think that Giroud’s qualities could be enhanced with a striker alongside him. But the restructure hasn’t really worked yet.

The consensus of opinion is that Arsenal need more firepower upfront and I wouldn’t disagree. But I think just as important is another creative presence in the team. Possibly from one of the wide forward positions. Podolski and Walcott are more predator than provider. Cazorla, Arteta and Wilshere pass beautifully but very little of their ball recycling penetrates the heart of a defence. Wenger spoke last month about Giroud playing “completely on the offside line” but it’s easy to see why he seldom does so when nobody is looking to play him through.

The return of Rosicky is a boon in this respect because he speeds up the transition in our play. It was very noticeable that a promising first half in Greece disappeared into the dressing room with the fluffy maned Czech. But in truth, he’s still hardly a schemer that picks locks. The twin losses of Fabregas and Song have left us short of a key skill-set.

To that end, I still wonder what Wenger’s strategic vision was for this squad and how it would shape up back in August. We’re in December and we still don’t appear to have any clear idea of how we want to play. The Swans had six players (not to mention a manager) who made their Swansea debuts in 2012 and yet they looked a far more adhesive and cohesive unit.

Our titanic struggle for identity has not been restricted to the front three. I think the formula for the midfield has yet to come to fruition as Anam pointed out. Though it must be said, with less damning caveats than the dysfunctional forwards.  Jack Wilshere’s ability and application are wonderfully obvious and he brings undoubted quality to the side- not least his beguiling ability to carry the ball in a team of ball hoarders.

However, I don’t think he’s quite adjusted to playing with Mikel Arteta yet and it’s told on the Spaniard. There’s a much-repeated statistic doing the rounds this week that Arteta has completed 1,228 passes this season but only a shade over 20% have gone forwards. I think Jack is playing a touch further away from Arteta than Diaby was prior to his injury when Arteta’s form was at its most imperious. I noticed this most glaringly as the game wore on against Swansea.

Because he’s such an enthusiastic character, the more the game wore on and the more our creative game waned, the higher up the pitch Jack ventured. It’s understandable, even laudable that he wanted to make something happen in the final third. But perhaps increased maturity will teach him that patience is a virtue and that he would be better off getting closer to Arteta and allowing Arsenal to build their passing game from deep. Diaby did this masterfully at Anfield in September, receiving the ball from Arteta before providing the springboard for attack.

Arsenal tried 11 long passes to Giroud at Goodison last week and that suggests a paucity of short passing options in midfield. Building a rhythm is pivotal to the success of a passing game like Arsenal’s. Arteta also found success and comfort earlier in the season because he preferred to veer slightly to the left of central midfield. Clearly that’s an area Jack likes too. (The single biggest flaw in Wilshere’s game is that he’d rather eat his own excrement than use his right foot).

Wilshere and Arteta are fine players and they will find a way to click with time and temperance. But telepathy will only build with games and they’ve still not had many together. They’re still working one another out. In the meantime, it still looks like Arsene is working his forwards out. Till next week. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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