In years gone by, the first day of the football season was the ultimate, uncontested red ring on the calendar of the football fan. All anticipation was geared towards that sunny Saturday afternoon in mid August. Minutes and hours were counted as it approached, trembling hands hovering over desk calendars with the pen, aching to consign each preceding day to history with a big red cross. What’s strange is that, this summer, the 17th of August seems to have become a mere afterthought in our summer schedules.
All eyes, minds and tongues are concentrated firmly on September 2nd and the close of the transfer window. Even this week’s Champions League playoff draw has been relegated to a mere ornament in the pantheon of Arsenal discussion. This is not a criticism you understand, just an observation. Whether it’s is a consequence of modern football’s obsession with largesse or Arsenal’s total entropy in the market to this point, I will leave you to decide.
Arsene Wenger’s chequebook challenge (which sounds like the shittest game show ever incidentally) will indisputably be his most scrutinised. However, other issues remain “marked as unread” in his inbox. For some, the solution will have to be sought via Arsenal’s oak-paneled boardroom. For others, it will be fair London Colney where we lay our scene. Either way, here are what I deem to be Arsenal’s most striking priorities for the season ahead.
Develop Jack Wilshere into a true number 10.
Wright > Bergkamp > Henry > Fabregas. You can track the lineage of Arsenal’s lynchpins under Arsene Wenger. The men who could turn the game at the flick of a boot. Some Dutch bloke did that quite nicely for us for a year too, but the name pencilled in to succeed Cesc Fabregas’ throne was Jack Wilshere. Injury has delayed his coronation and now Jack finds himself, unwittingly, at the crux of a tactical quandary.
Much of Arsenal’s good form at the end of 2012-13 can be attributed to the “double pivot” of Ramsey and Arteta in midfield. The “runner and sitter” midfield combination is as old and fabled as the “big man / small man” axis of centre forward fame. Their twin, complimentary presence was at the heart of our defensive improvement. Wilshere’s great strength is in his ability to carry the ball from deep with his easy, balletic glide.
However, he is neither “runner” nor “sitter.” The reason he is effective from deep is almost entirely because it suits his attacking qualities, rather than the team’s defensive need. I also don’t think he has quite developed the qualities to sit at the head of Arsenal’s midfield triangle yet. Jack is a great ball carrier from deep, but I don’t think he’s a swivel headed defence splitter yet. It doesn’t suit him to receive the ball higher up the pitch, where opposition focus is more keenly trained.
Potentially, Wilshere could play deeper alongside Arteta for games against bus parking opposition. Yet you feel Jack is far too special for such an understated and occasional role. I prefer Cazorla out wide because it corresponds with his love for drifting around the pitch. The ‘trequartista’ role does not cater as well for his wandering tendencies for my liking. You feel that the role at the head of the midfield three is begging for Jack to make a giant arse groove in it. Arsene needs to marry the need for getting the best out of Wilshere with getting the best out of Arsenal.
Balance defence and attack
I would like to think Arsenal’s late season run imbued them with the tactical flexibility to vary their approach. For home games or matches against defensive opposition, there probably isn’t the same need to adopt Ramsey as Arteta’s Rottweiler in midfield for instance. Wenger opted for a back to basics, cautious approach at the end of last season because he realised that his defence had more cohesion than his attack.
Signing three new attacking players last summer, Podolski’s fitness problems, the desire to freeze out Walcott early in the season, followed by the placatory move to play him at centre forward, meant Arsenal were dysfunctional in the final third. The new attacking players have had a season together now (hopefully, they have world class reinforcement to look forward to as well!), so Arsene will probably look to release the handbrake.
I believe Arsenal need a greater creative presence in their squad. Part of this requirement can be met with the development of Wilshere as stated above. However, I think another tricky winger should be on the shopping list. Arsenal have let Gervinho and Arshavin leave this summer. Both of whom were, in theory at least, meant to be penetrative players from wide with the ability to stretch stubborn opposition. Podolski and Walcott are finishers, not creators.
Chamberlain’s jinking run to set up Giroud against Norwich in April may provide hope that he can really kick on and develop into that player. But I’ve a feeling he prefers playing in front of defences rather than seeking to power through them. Arsenal need to replace the (hypothetical) skillsets they are losing in Gervinho and Arshavin. Wenger will want to concentrate on restoring Arsenal’s attacking threat. Steve Bould will need to be a critical friend to ensure that Arsenal’s defensive responsibilities aren’t neglected in doing so.
Address contract situations
Decisions are going to have to be made with some key players. Unless the club have been incredibly discrete behind the scenes, Per Mertesacker, Wojciech Szczesny, Mikel Arteta and Thomas Vermaelen have two years left on their current deals. Given Arteta’s age there might be less urgency from both parties to renew. You would imagine the club will want to tie Mertesacker and Szczesny down as quickly as possible. Fabianski has one year left but you get the impression all parties would be satisfied for his contract to run down.
Sagna and Rosicky have one year left and again, given that both are over 30, the urgency isn’t quite so great from either side. Vermaelen is a different question. Were it not for Arsenal’s inability to sign defensive reinforcement to this point, or indeed for Vermaelen’s injury, I think Arsenal might have been open to selling their captain this summer. As it stands, he pretty much has to stay. For now. Wenger and Gazidis will have to deal with these situations as the season progresses.
Add quality to the squad
There’s no getting away from it, Arsenal needed quality reinforcement even before they drove their band of undesirables into the woods and set them free. The squad is light on numbers as much as anything at time of writing. The cause for Arsenal’s hitherto uninspiring window is anyone’s guess. Maybe Arsenal are finding that the calibre of player they require to compete at the level to which they aspire is difficult to capture.
It’s one thing having the readies, it’s quite another convincing clubs to sell. I still fancy that we need three more players even if we are successful in our pursuit of Suarez. I’ve no doubt it’s very, very hard to buy four quality players in one transfer window. I know I wouldn’t be able to do it. Arsenal pay the manager and the CEO very, very well indeed because their job is difficult. They’re paid so well because their employers believe they have the ability to execute such complex tasks. LD.
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