Thursday, April 25, 2024

Implosions, anchors and an anguished visage

The Premier League is beginning to take shape. Eight points separate the top 8, the same number of points that divide the bottom 10. Theo Walcott is scoring hilarious comedy goals (never has there been such a prolific purveyor of the ‘inept goal’ since the days of William Gallas), Jose Mourinho is making damn sure that everyone is talking about Jose Mourinho and Tottenham Hotspur are upholding their lifelong commitment to death by hubris.

The ‘Arsenal implosion’ has also become something of an annual tradition in the Premier League. The linearity of this particular storyline is malleable from season to season. We either start the campaign like a freight train, threatening to sweep all before us only to implode spectacularly. Or else we begin a season with all the conviction of Andrei Arshavin shoulder shrug, only to reinvigorate ourselves with an inspired long distance burst into 4th. Like the T-1000 from Terminator 2, we regenerate ourselves from a pile of metallic sludge into something more recognisable.

So married are football fans to the Arsenal implosion narrative, that cynicism has pervaded our early season form from all corners. Collapse is seen as inevitable, so praise has been grudging. 2 points from a possible 9 in tough encounters against Everton, Manchester City and Chelsea are seen as the ominous shadow of the four horsemen of Arsenal’s annual apocalypse. Whilst I still don’t, in my heart of hearts, believe that Arsenal will win the league, nor do I believe we will collapse spectacularly either.

The ghosts of collapses past have long since left the club and I think the fabric of the squad has been soldered together, rather than delicately woven as it may have been in the recent past. Momentum always dies at some juncture, it’s just a case of whether it stalls gradually and reignites in the same manner or whether it confines itself to a bunker and shoots itself in the temple. Arsenal were never going to maintain the pizzazz of September and October for the entire season. Nobody is ever uniformly amazing for 9 months.

Titles are won  through damage limitation – minimising the disruptiveness of the ‘blip’ when it inevitably finds you, relegating those spells to a brief anomaly as opposed to a harbinger. That is Arsenal’s task now. In that respect, the victory at the Boleyn Ground was a promising start. There are a number of potential catalysts for Arsenal as they head into the second half of the season that could help them rediscover their mojo.

In a sense, Lukas Podolski, Santi Cazorla and Theo Walcott are just starting their seasons. It would have been unthinkable this time last year to imagine that those three would have had such a marginal role in an Arsenal side that tops the Premier League table. Cazorla has struggled to find the imperious form he showed last year thus far, for a number of reasons. The Confederations Cup and an early season injury have arrested his rhythm. He didn’t really have a pre season to speak of, which is important for a player for reasons beyond simple physical fitness.

Cazorla has, I think, struggled also due to Theo Walcott’s absence. Walcott brings a kind of structure to Arsenal’s midfield chaos. With Theo absent, Arsenal’s midfield took on a kind of liquid blur, with four central midfielders constantly interchanging. This suits more ‘kinetic’ types, such as Wilshere, Ramsey and Rosicky, who boast a more all action style. I believe Cazorla is at his best drifting in from the left, but I think he needs some kind of structure to work with to maximise his artistry.  Without Walcott (or a player like him, such as Gnabry or Chamberlain), there’s a sense that others are stepping on Santi’s toes.

It reminds me a little of that Simpsons episode with Hank Scorpio. Marge becomes despondent and depressed living in a house where cutting edge technology takes care of all the housework for her. The presence of Walcott makes the roles of the midfield more defined as he relies on service rather than interplay. You always know roughly where Walcott will be at any one time. According to @squawka he spent 22% of the match against West Ham inside their penalty area.

Walcott’s return to the starting line up also limits the need for Aaron Ramsey to burst into the penalty area, which goes some way to explaining why his goals have dried up. One of the most trouser troubling prospects of Özil’s signing was the anticipation of he and Santi linking up. It hasn’t really happened as yet in Arsenal’s totally interchangeable midfield. Without Walcott, Özil has been required on the right hand side, further away from Cazorla.

With Theo taking care of the right flank, Özil can play more centrally. There were examples against West Ham of Özil and Cazorla swapping positions more readily, with the German tucking into the left when Cazorla wandered in field. (This time, Wenger was comfortable enough with Cazorla’s performance to substitute Özil before full time, rather than Santi). Essentially, Walcott is a kind of anchor that allows Santi to soar. He brings structure to the anarchy, like a good bass player, allowing Cazorla and Özil to swap between lead and rhythm.

The benefit of being able to introduce a goal threat like Lukas Podolski again was also apparent at West Ham. The German’s season has been depleted by injury, but he has 3 goals from 5 shots this season. It’s difficult to argue that he isn’t our most clinical finisher, even if he isn’t always necessarily a constant threat. However, I’m still not sure I see him taking up the slack from Olivier Giroud upfront. A crisp, instinctive finish Poldi’s may have been at Upton Park, but he got it by playing off of Giroud.

Had Giroud not been on the pitch, with Podolski instead playing at centre forward, the German would have been required to hold up the cross rather than finish it. Podolski is good at finding pockets of space undetected from the left, but he doesn’t find the same spaces in the centre, nor can he hold up the ball in the same way that Giroud can. The conundrum of Olivier Giroud was fully illustrated in East London. He snatched at a presentable chance in the first half, yet it’s hard to believe players such as Podolski, Ramsey and Walcott would find the opportunities they do without his presence.

In a sense, we can’t live with him and can’t live without him. Earlier in the season, Giroud was finessing his finishing, stroking and poking the ball into the net as the situation demanded. Now he’s snatching at chances again, opting for maximum power every time. You get the sense that Giroud is a guy that feels responsible and that’s largely a good thing. It explains his insatiable team ethic. But it can also translate into his finishing.

The brooding, anguished look to the sky has become something of an Olivier trademark. As soon as he scuffed his shot wide at West Ham, he immediately swiped at the turf in frustration. You’re left with the impression that a goal drought plays on his mind and with it, his élan in front of goal disappears in a cloud of huff and puff. In football, the ability to forget past errors insulates you against making too many of them in the future. Olivier Giroud and Arsenal take heed. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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