Slightly damp powder

Tim Stillman 2012-13

You’ll recall that in last week’s column, that I gently suggested Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott ought to be scoring crucial goals more often. Especially the sort of goals that either win or rescue matches, directly influencing the result in a positive manner. Given the response both players have produced in the last week, I think I should air a few more of my bugbears.

I find it genuinely annoying that we’ve never beaten Stoke City 8-0. I really think this is an area we have to improve on. It’s also my firm belief that Arsene Wenger’s reputation as a football manager will continue to deteriorate until he takes a clothing accessory – let’s say a baseball cap for argument’s sake – and forcibly inserts it into an opposing manager’s rectum. Oh and John Terry doesn’t get nearly enough testicular injuries either.

However, Giroud and Walcott’s respective boon in front of goal has been genuflected by even more defensive flatulence. Arse2Mouse referred to this phenomenon as “whack-a-mole” back in the autumn. It’s been a season long grapple. Podolski, Cazorla, Walcott and Giroud are showing tantalising signs of having found chemistry. But in order to accommodate all four and allow them to pollinate, we have to play the 4-3-3 formation which so exposes our defence.

As the transfer deadline ticked down and Arsenal frantically snipped wires to secure the signing of Nacho Monreal, there were understandable suggestions that a defender was indeed more of a priority for surgery ahead of our wafer thin forward line. I have to say I’m not so sure it’s a personnel issue back there at all. As Wojciech Szczesny intimated, we have good defenders.

Right up until the autumn, Arsenal had one of the better defensive records in the league. Thomas Vermaelen, Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker are all very good centre halves. When the team took a more defensively responsible shape earlier in the campaign, goal concession wasn’t a big problem. But impoverished offensive displays were becoming alarmingly regular. Who can forget the unholy trinity of games in October against Norwich, Schalke and QPR?

It took the Gunners 264 minutes to register a goal in a run of games that hardly looks terrifying on paper. (Two of them were at home too and it was defensive midfielder Mikel Arteta that broke the hoodoo). We’ve been playing more expansively of late, which has brought plenty of joy in front of goal at the expense of protecting our defence.

That being the case, you could clone Bobby Moore, Tony Adams and Paulo Maldini, put them in Arsenal shirts and they’d soon morph into air swiping, bumbling balls of anxiety given the level of protection they could expect. Welcome to Arsenal, Nacho! I know there’s a stat doing the rounds that Arsenal concede the most amount of goals via individual errors, but I find that data set suspicious. It’s a very subjective measure for a start.

But every goal emanates from an individual error somewhere. Whether it’s a hilarious swing at fresh air in your own six yard box, or a simple failure for a midfielder to cover a teammate. For my money, the solution is to demonstrate some tactical flexibility. Against the bigger sides (and Liverpool, fnar!) we need to play with four midfielders. The system I wrote about in the wake of the Swansea game should be deployed. That means relegating either Lukas Podolski or Theo Walcott to the bench, but so be it.

Both have previous this season for coming off the bench to change a game. Podolski has Lionel Messi levels of form for being subbed. I think both are equally capable of playing the winger / striker role in that system but we couldn’t have them both doing it. There’s always the potential to use our substitutions wisely and play a more open shape later in the game if required. We tend not to sober up until about the 60th minute anyway so I don’t think a slightly more secure formation in the first two thirds of the game is a bad idea.

Perhaps I’m guilty of overly simplistic thinking, but it strikes me we’re good at defending when we assume a more defensive shape and we’re very good at scoring goals in the second half of games. But with an attacking shape, we tend to concede more, especially in the first half. Maybe if the instincts of Steve Bould and Arsene Wenger could be fused together into some kind of gene splicer, like Jeff Goldblum in ‘The Fly,’ we could correct our little conundrum.

The increasingly tawdry soap opera that is the transfer window has now passed and I think, along with most Gooners, I’m a touch underwhelmed with the business we have done. On one hand, we’ve signed Theo Walcott up to a new contract and strengthened in the left back position. But I still think the lack of a striker might be the pin that potentially bursts our Champions League bubble this season.

We all chuckle at the “super, super quality” line, but we are in something of a vacuum that makes player recruitment difficult. That is true. The players that can genuinely improve us are usually hovered up by better resourced clubs (Demba Ba, for instance). Tottenham finished 37 points behind us in 2008, four months before Sheikh Mansour bought Manchester City. They’ve not found it difficult to find the sort of player to elevate them from Midtable to Champions League reckoning.

Like it or not, they’re who we are competing with and trying to fend off nowadays. Despite showing a willingness to spend, they’ve still found better players picked off by richer clubs (Berbatov, Modric) and not been able to recruit the sort of player that can push them into title contention. On occasion, I’d be inclined to accept the oft repeated line that there is nobody a) available and b) that would improve us.

But when we “keep our powder dry” window after window after window, it’s hard not to get the impression that the club are just being defeatist. Nacho Monreal was recruited at the twang of Kieran Gibbs’ thigh. It shows that deals can be done when there’s a willingness to do so. One has to seriously enquire as to what would have happened had Gibbs been injured this Saturday, with the window closed.

To all intents and purposes, we have a back-up left back in Andre Santos. Gibbs is expected to be out for 6-8 weeks, not forever. (Not yet anyway). Purchasing a player on the back of a relatively short term injury suggests that Wenger has no faith in his back up option. That being the case, why weren’t we trying to buy a left back on January 1st? Or the 10th? Or the 20th? Was he really going to just wing it and hope that Gibbs could play every game?

If Giroud’s knee had collapsed on Wednesday night would we have suddenly found a “super, super quality” striker on the market? It just doesn’t strike me as a meticulously planned, strategic approach and it hasn’t looked that way for some time now. I don’t want to sound down on the Nacho Man; he looks like a quality addition. It’s just his recruitment makes me wonder if finding players is as spectacularly impossible as Arsenal make it sound. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA


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