Sunday, September 25, 2022

Finding a new balance

It would have been difficult to believe, back in the summer of 2006, that 17 year old Theo Walcott would still be awaiting his World Cup debut after his 29th birthday. Yet that’s the regrettable situation he finds himself in. On a human level it is impossible not to feel sympathy with Walcott. His progress might have been more laboured than some would have liked, but injury always seems to find him at the same time that consistency does.

From Arsenal’s point of view, I don’t think there is much disguising this blow. I’ve long said that I believe the title will be won by the team that keeps its key players fit the longest. Arsenal have lost one of their most consistent sources of goals and assists over the last 4 years. If we accept that the Premier League title is being contested by three steeds, then it’s not unreasonable to argue that Arsenal is the one that can least afford such an affliction.

Arsenal have the odds massively stacked against them in the title race. That has been the case from day one. The narrative has been diluted by past frustrations over parsimony and a perception of under achievement. (“Arsenal, who have not won a trophy since……” FUCK OFF!) Objectively speaking, the truth is that Arsenal have absolutely no right to finish anywhere near Manchester City or Chelsea given comparative resources. (Yes, it is also true that Spurs have never really had any right to finish so close to Arsenal in the recent past for the same reasons).

The Gunners are hardly paupers, of course. We can afford fabulous players such as Mesut Özil, but as Amy Lawrence points out, Özil is an occasional treat for Arsenal. Like a cream cake after a hard session at the gym. Chelsea and City are habitually securing that sort of transfer. We’re a well heeled London banker or stockbroker taking on Bill Gates and Carlos Slim. Losing a waterside pied-à-terre to a property crash hits us harder than it does them, even if the peasants aren’t weeping in empathy with us.

That said, Arsenal can ill afford to be too moon faced about this. Cope with it they must and they have the internal solutions to do so, even leaving aside the fact that this misfortune at least had the good grace to befall them at the beginning of the transfer window. I honestly believe Arsene will go all out to perform some surgery on his squad, but the extended disco version of “easier said than done” is on constant rotation in my frontal lobes. Arsenal will want to replicate Theo’s goal threat by other means and it’s possible with the players they have.

This represents a big chance for Lukas Podolski to influence the second half of the season. Wenger may be minded to slightly re-balance his more alchemic players to the right hand side, allowing Podolski to provide the penetration from the left. Kieran Gibbs certainly enjoys playing with Podolski on that side and Özil likes drifting towards the right. Cazorla is ambidextrous enough to wander in from that side and create the sort of midfield overload Anam describes here.

Potentially this cosmic realignment allows Cazorla and Özil to play closer together and swap positions between centre and right.Özil and Podolski already have a working relationship through the German national team. Podolski, who himself has felt the sting of long term injury this season, ought to relish the rest of the season as the defining opportunity to relaunch his Arsenal career. If Walcott is analogous to Pires in 2002, then Podolski can be our Ljungberg.

The goal scoring bursts of Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott have been contradictory this season. Ramsey’s purple patch earlier in the season rather cushioned the blow of Walcott’s abdominal injury in the autumn. It is no coincidence that Ramsey’s goals dried up when Walcott came back into the starting line up. With Walcott available, there isn’t the same need for the Welshman’s darting runs into the area. Now Theo is indisposed, Ramsey is free to rediscover his penalty area lust. We are to hope that the symmetry continues and that these two goal scoring ships pass in the night once more.

Whilst you would hope that the likes of Giroud, Podolski and Ramsey are able to make up some of the goal scoring shortfall, the right wing itself is actually well covered by Alex Oxlade Chamberlain and Serge Gnabry. Neither offers the same threat in front of goal, but if Ramsey and Podolski can correct that deficit, Gnabry or Chamberlain are capable of contributing to Arsenal’s build up play. Both are ambidextrous too, which means that they’re comfortable drifting in field.

However, there is an issue of maturity here. Gnabry and Chamberlain are still young and all young players, other than super freaks like Cesc Fabregas, are inconsistent. Hence Wenger’s cautionary stance when discussing Gnabry’s excellent performance against Tottenham. “Let’s not make superstars with one game. The top level is about consistency but I believe the ingredients are there.” Players such as Aaron Ramsey, Kieran Gibbs and Wojciech Szczesny have only found consistency recently. Jack Wilshere is still searching for it.

If given an extended run, Chamberlain and Gnabry are almost certainly going to have a few indifferent games. That’s not a wantonly pessimistic forecast on my part; it’s a natural by-product of individual development. Senior players are going to have to pick up that arrears in experience. We’re better equipped to handle developing players nowadays with characters such as Per, Sagna, Rosicky, Arteta and Flamini around the squad. This isn’t the side of a few years ago that looked pretty much solely to Cesc Fabregas to cut its meat and veg.

However, it does illustrate that one way or another, nearly every Arsenal player is going to have to demonstrate another dimension and give another 5% somewhere to redress the loss of Walcott. The manager is probably going to have to realign his side, both tactically and physiologically. He has done so once already this season of course, with Walcott and Cazorla absent early in the season. But that was in the warm, fuzzy glow of the Özil signing. We were a club chugging on a post coital cigarette at that point.

It’s easier to rejig a team operating at the zenith of its confidence. I maintain that the best football I have ever seen Arsenal play came in the first ten games of the 2002-03 season. Both Pires and Ljungberg were injured during that spell. Yet so brimming with pish and vinegar were we that the likes of Jermaine Pennant and Pascal Cygan slotted into that side with the deceptive air of world beaters.

For now, many hands will need to make light work. Players are going to need to add an extra few goals to their games. Some may need to learn to direct their talents from new positions and weave their magic from different angles. Some will need to cajole teammates by shaking their fists a little harder and cradling shoulders a little tighter. For us, the supporters, we have only to lend our voices a little bit louder. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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