Sunday, February 5, 2023

Back in action, back to basics

The last crumbs of the international break are being vacuumed up and the finish line is now in site. As international breaks go, I have found this to be one of the more tolerable. Driving to Swansea and back just over 24 hours after arriving back from Munich had left one feeling somewhat jaded. (Fortuitously, we did not leave the famed handbrake on for the journey to Wales. That really would have been a bitch of a trip).

Since the Swansea game, the Ladies and the U-19s have found exposure easier to come by as both progressed to European semi finals this week. Personally, I always feel that the word “club” stands out in “Arsenal Football Club.” That is an all encapsulating phrase that includes the Ladies team, the youth team, the staff and the supporters. As such, I take a keen interest in the other competitive teams the club fields.

However, it’s impossible to deny that fortnight long international breaks leave a sizeable void in, well, our lives I suppose. The world is a smaller place now and international football doesn’t hold the same exotic qualities it once did. There’s very little we don’t already know about Europe’s top teams and individuals, you have pretty much every league in the world at your fingertips nowadays, by fair means or foul.

I read a good piece this week referring to the English national side as “a failed brand” which resonated. I think a lot of British football fans under 40 are struggling to muster much of a shit and in many incidences, apathy is giving way to outright hostility towards the national side. I think a lot of us are turned off by the ridiculous press that surrounds these games too. There’s a slightly tragic irony in the tabloid press damaging the very “product” they are rabidly trying to promote.

International federations themselves are also, somewhat ironically, part of the problem too. They play too many international friendlies, which in itself destroys the sense of spectacle. Sergio Ramos and Lukas Podolski reached 100 international caps before their late 20s. Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole have reached that landmark recently too. To put that into perspective, Nat Lofthouse played for England between 1950-1958 and amassed 33 caps. Kevin Keegan picked up 63 between 1972-82. The club football calendar has not been unduly altered in two generations.

However, one must not be too parochial about this. There are supporters and players, in Britain and further afield, for whom the national side is still the pinnacle of footballing decoration. Back in October, I wrote about my experience on holiday in Brazil and how a seemingly run of the mill friendly for the Seleção brings the nation to a standstill.

I think there’s a workable solution to preserve international football that wouldn’t interfere with club football too much. I would like to see qualifying condensed into a tournament of sorts. Without the smorgasbord of two week hiatuses in the calendar, you could effectively make international football a biannual sport. Most qualifying groups require ten fixtures. I think that could be carved up into a couple of mini tournaments.

For instance, 5 games in a 3 week spell in late May (the club season could finish a fortnight or so earlier without as many international breaks). Then you could fulfil the other 5 fixtures in one fell swoop in November, for example. The tournament feel would make the spectacle a lot more engaging and tense and probably increase the interest in qualifying by making it more of an event. The club calendar is then slightly cleansed with only one serious pause per season. It’s not perfect, but I think it’s an improvement on the current situation.

The international break appears to have been good to us, with Walcott the only real casualty of note. With Podolski now fit again, I might have been tempted to reinstate the German ahead of Theo anyway. At least in the short term. Walcott hasn’t scored for eight games now and I think it’s because his partnership with Giroud is in need of tweaking. Understandably so too. Theo has been asked to play in a kind of lopsided winger-cum-striker role and it is a little new to him. Or at least, it is a new variation on an old theme. It stands to reason that he’s still grappling with it.

I fancy that teams have figured Giroud and Walcott’s “little and large” partnership out and both players need to demonstrate some adaptability. Walcott’s movement in from the flank needs to become more considered. He needs to pick his moments. As it stands, Walcott starts from the right and the instant Arsenal obtain possession, he drifts straight into the centre, regardless of whether there’s space there or not. I think he needs to be better at assessing when there’s a gap to exploit and when he’d be more effective staying wide and looking to make his runs a little later, when they’re more difficult to detect.

I think Podolski can play that role from the left very effectively. He’s shown a knack for appearing in goalscoring positions many times this season. Giroud just needs to relax a little more. He tries too hard to impress and it leads to rash decision making. (Honestly, if he tries another pot shot from 350 yards, he’s going to see the business end of a hissy fit from yours truly). His, ahem, “assist” for Monreal’s goal against Swansea was a case in point. A bout of hilarious incompetence brought on by over keenness, which eventually worked in our favour by luck rather than design.

The manager has other decisions to make for the run-in of course. I would imagine Fabianski will continue in goal until there is a good reason to drop him, which is as it should be. He’s had a couple of good games in Germany and Wales, but I’m still slightly sceptical that he’s a reformed character. He has been protected well by a team that has gone “back to basics” in midfield and the defence have received greater regard. You may recall that when Arsenal played with a comparably cautious outlook earlier in the season, Vito Mannone managed to impersonate a vaguely competent Premier League goalkeeper. In some respects, Szczesny is unlucky not to have benefitted from playing behind a team for whom defence was more than an afterthought.

Bacary Sagna is fit again and the question of whether he replaces Carl Jenkinson will be reprised. I’ve defended Bacary to the point of crushing ennui this year. But I would probably persist with Jenkinson; such has been his encouraging form. I do think some are a little eager to write Sagna’s obituary. Jenkinson is still a young player and his form will fluctuate yet. Nearly all young players experience a dip shortly after their breakthrough. Szczesny and Chamberlain are prominent enough examples of that this season.

Even if Jenks were to cement himself as first choice right back by the end of the season, I would still want Bacary Sagna around pushing him, guiding him and to deputise when Jenkinson’s form inevitably wobbles again. One of the more common pleas from Arsenal supporters is for an experienced back up goalkeeper for Szczesny. There’s no reason the right back position shouldn’t be stocked in the same manner. But Jenkinson is still some way from dislodging Bacary permanently. As supporters, we don’t have to pick sides, as it were. We should just be enthused that the competition exists. Till next week. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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