Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Singing for your supper

Having accepted that advancement to the quarter finals of the Champions League was an impossibility, I got what I wanted out of the trip to Munich. (I’m not just talking about the copious amount of Weißbiers and pork products consumed either). Regular readers will know that I have been banging the “defending is the duty of all eleven players” drum to the point of RSI. Wednesday evening should be a salutary lesson to the team and all of its critical observers that Arsenal can defend when the entire team takes that duty seriously.

I’m sure you have probably noticed that away teams aren’t habitually turning up at the Allianz and managing three shots on target, let alone three goals. That was always going to be too tall an order for us. In truth, despite the 2-0 scoreline it never looked likely that we would create enough to achieve that target. What I wanted to see, as outlined last week, was the basis of a solid defensive performance for the rest of the season.

We managed that. It’s a platform that, with some loving carpentry, can be carved into a stage. If we can keep a clean sheet at the Allianz, we can do it anywhere. In the wake of the Blackburn defeat, the manager dejectedly said, “The team is not capable of preparing in the same way for every game.” Arsenal’s season now rests on them bloody well learning to do so. Scraping 4th upgrades the campaign from “severely disappointing” to merely “forgettable.”

The manager has been criticised ad infinitum for not being Johnny Tactics, but he boxed clever in Germany. For instance, he tweaked his Walcott- Giroud strike partnership. Giroud was the one assigned the defensive duty of tracking back to help his defence when Bayern had the ball, with Walcott instructed to remain up top, thus maintaining the counter attacking threat he poses. Effectively, when we didn’t have the ball, Ramsey moved wide to cover the right flank, with Giroud dropping back into midfield.

When in possession, Walcott drifted to the right with Giroud in the centre. Munich looked a little rattled by Theo in the first half, but closed him off after half time. Wenger made a brave decision to remove one of his biggest goal threats for Alex Chamberlain with Gervinho joining him. Clearly Wenger sensed an aversion to players that run with the ball in the Bayern defence and The Ox and Gervinho – despite some iffy recent form from both – made a positive impact.

Whilst acknowledging that Wenger isn’t the most strategic manager, I think his tactical weakness is overplayed. The issue nowadays is more with the quality of the players he has to carry out his instructions. (Of course, that is his responsibility, so it’s not really a let off, more a transfer in the balance of weakness). He has to be able to motivate this team to carry out the instructions he gives them for every single game.

That may explain his recent decision to drop Vermaelen and Szczesny. The captain’s form has certainly deteriorated. Laurent Koscielny is a perfectly capable replacement. Whether Vermaelen was rotated or dropped will probably be revealed in upcoming selections. Wenger did indicate at the beginning of the season that the three centre halves would be rotated. But given the enormity of the task in Bavaria he would have gone with what he considered to be his strongest option.

I must say the dropping of Szczesny has surprised me considerably more. The Pole hasn’t played to the ceiling of his capabilities this season, but he’s not been a disaster area. I can’t think of too many goals I would have held him personally responsible for. When Szczesny came forward for a corner in injury time at White Hart Lane recently, I instinctively turned towards the bench and saw Wenger solemnly shaking his head.

I looked because I can’t think of a single occasion in Wenger’s reign when a goalkeeper has surged forward for a last gasp set-piece. You have to presume that’s because the manager expressly forbids it. Perhaps that last minute saunter upfield convinced Arsene Wenger that Szczesny’s head isn’t in the right place at the moment. I think there’s more psychology behind this decision to give him a “mental breather.” (When did we stop using the term “dropped”?)

Arsene will no doubt be thinking back to late 2004 when he gave lovable nutjob Jens Lehmann some time in a padded cell. Lehmann and Szczesny are similar characters in many ways and their personalities make them good goalkeepers. Jens believed he was the best goalie since Mr. and Mrs. Yashin did the funky thing. He wasn’t, but that impregnable belief that he was gave him the ability to forget his mistakes. This is one of the most precious commodities a goalkeeper can possess and Szczesny has it too.

By the manager’s own account, Lehmann worked harder than ever whilst on sabbatical. Szczesny will have to do the same. He was faced with the task of reclaiming his place in the Polish side after Euro 2012 and he managed that. Young players (and we forget that in goalkeeping parlance, Szczesny is still very young) almost never experience linear development. There’s always a dip. (See Oxlade-Chamberlain, Alex).

Jack Wilshere was demoted back into the U-18 team having broken into the first team squad in 2008-09 and endured a frustrating 2009-10 season until he went on loan to Bolton. I recall a game in the F.A. Cup at West Ham in 2010 when he could barely trap the ball. However, Wenger must see good reason to test Szczesny. When speaking about Fabianski, the manager’s words looked suspiciously as though they were aimed at the younger Pole as well as Wookash.

“Sometimes to go out of the game for a while helps people to mature and think about their own game. If they really want to become a better player, they think, ‘How can I become better’.”

It’s difficult to understand where Wenger has seen a “mental transformation” in Fabianski after one game – in which he performed well, admittedly – in thirteen months. So I think he’s talking Fabianski up for the benefit of both Polish goalkeepers. Fabianski’s contract is up soon and, unless he has reason to believe that he the number 1 shirt is his for keeps, he’s effectively playing for a good contract at another club. That’s not as barmy a situation as it sounds.

With the best will in the world, players often experience an upturn in form when they are signing for their supper. If Wenger can successfully harness a goalkeeper that is playing for his future and offset him against a goalkeeper that needs time to reflect, he could pull off a managerial masterstroke. If Fabianski fills his pants on Saturday and chucks one in his own net, Arsene’s decision will be ridiculed and denounced. In a sense, the ghost of Manuel Almunia haunts this conundrum. The decision to drop Jens for Almunia in 2005 turned out to be a good one in the short term. Lehmann’s form upon his reinstatement represented the best football he ever played in an Arsenal shirt.

Almunia, unwittingly perhaps, gave Jens a kick in the pants. (Not literally you understand. If he had, I suspect Manuel would be drinking his food through a straw). Yet the decision to hand Almunia the number 1 shirt following Lehmann’s departure ranks amongst Arsene’s biggest errors. Hopefully Jacob Marley has visited with Le Boss and shown him the Ghost of Almunia Future so that the dice tumble favourably. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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