The search to fill a dreamy gap

For the last few years, I have felt unable to speak too much about the ‘Invincibles’ side online with other Arsenal fans. This is because I have found that the mere mention of that sobriquet invites fierce critique of the current squad. Possibly Arsenal’s finest ever assembly of players have, for the last ten years, ostensibly been forged into a stick with which to beat contemporary Arsenal. A knowing ‘those were the days, eh?’ is one thing, but very quickly this sort of nostalgia would give way to flagellation.

“Oh yes, back when we were any good”, “better than this lot” or comments of that ilk soon left you feeling you had gone from celebrating an incredible achievement to being spoon-fed misery. It’s for this reason I have really enjoyed the recent, “49, 49 undefeated” chant. Contrived though it maybe, it seems to represent distillation, as though we’ve finally moved on and begun to consider that achievement in the isolation it deserves.

I hope the upcoming book by the two Andrews further cements that impression. So with this optimistic sense of closure in mind I’m going to suggest Arsene Wenger is still trying to replace Robert Pires after eight years of trying. At this point you will probably reel off the names of Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry and Gilberto Silva as ‘Invincibles’ we haven’t replaced, but allow me to expand.

We might not have replaced those players in terms of quality or stature, but we’ve found different ways of playing to augment their loss. Structural accommodations have been made. Arsenal still haven’t cracked the issue of finding balance on their left hand side. Each of Pires’ successors have failed their auditions for different reasons. Tomas Rosicky was effectively bought to replace Pires and briefly, that quartet of 2007-08; with Hleb, Flamini, Fabregas and Rosicky, looked primed to be Wenger’s third great midfield until it was dismantled by injury and flightiness.

We’ve since found Rosicky’s rumbustious, scurrying style to be more practical from the centre. Jose Antonio Reyes suffered uncannily similar issues to those that Lukas Podolski currently presents to us. (That said, though Podolski appeared to have trouble settling into Munich life in his younger years, you don’t get the impression he yearns for home comforts as much as the Spaniard did). The issue for Podolski, like Reyes, is that he is neither a striker nor a left winger. He simultaneously convinces you he is both and neither all at the same time.

Podolski isn’t technically threatening enough to be a winger and not physically imposing enough to be a lone striker. He likes to play in the corridor of space between a full back and a centre half. The trouble for him is that that’s not really a recognised position on a football pitch in almost any formation you can name. Podolski essentially waits for the very small passages of a game when that small area of the pitch is useful. Podolski is good at finding space, but he doesn’t move an awful lot off of the ball.

Walcott has managed to fill the chasm left by the likes of Ljungberg and Overmars by playing as a forward that starts his runs off the ball from the flank. Podolski doesn’t represent a moving target for passers in the same way. So he basically has to wait for the perfect storm of a defensive lapse and a penetrative pass to ignite him into life. His delivery from the left is good, but his most productive crosses are usually a result of him having been played into some space. It’s rarely a product of his creative intuition.

Podolski rarely beats players and he’s not much use at bringing the ball in from the line because his refusal to use his right foot usually just sees him feeding the ball backwards and in field. Pires was so effective because he started from the touchline, but as soon as he received it, he sauntered in field with it to try and affect the play. For the past 12 months or so, Wenger has moved Santi Cazorla over to the left in pursuit of a similar result.

Like Pires, Cazorla is a technical aesthete with two good feet capable of finishing a chance when presented with one. Yet Cazorla has more of a tendency to wander. He likes to operate quite deep where he can open the pitch up with his laser-guided range of passing. However, sometimes you wish Santi would spend more time 20-30 yards further up the touchline where he could hurt defences more.

With Walcott on the right side, Wenger favours a more technical presence on the left. Andrey Arshavin was another of the manager’s bids to buy a technical guardian for his left hand side. Much like one of Arshavin’s passes though, the idea was good but the execution was lacking. In 2010-11 he moved Samir Nasri over to the left and the quartet dubbed “Theo van Nasregas” finally looked like a balanced attacking unit.

Nasri had the technical ability, the goal threat and the ambidextrousness to fill the Pires role on the left, receiving the ball from wide, bringing it in field and looking to prompt and probe defenders out of position and inspire movement from his teammates. But much like the Hleb-Fabregas-Flamini-Rosicky partnership, this chemistry was dismantled too soon and Nasri’s feet got itchy too.

In Gervinho, Arsenal went for something different, a winger that preferred to take the outside rather than the inside with a ball at his feet, searching for the by-line to provide for van Persie. The Ivorian was a hit and miss player at the best of times, but the departure of van Persie neutered his effectiveness greatly. The arrival of Özil has corrected a lot of our creative dysfunctionality, but his role is more central. He is more an heir to Bergkamp and Fabregas.

I’m rather left with the impression that Wenger’s interest in Draxler is a result of this ongoing search for the true descendant of Robert Pires. Whilst the masses will clack their tongues and scoff, “surely Arsenal don’t need another playmaker?” the truth is that they probably do. Draxler, or a player of that ilk, would replicate that ability for receiving a ball on the flank but looking to roam in field with the ball and affect play more centrally. Finding somebody that is technically brilliant, two footed and a goal threat is not easy to do.

That’s why Pires was such a special footballer. Arsenal have managed, by hook or by crook, to augment other losses with either a direct replacement or by making structural dalliances (replacing Vieira with Fabregas for instance). Yet there is still a Pires shaped hole in the current side even now. We’ve struggled to replace those ingredients and, every time it looks like the manager has cracked it, the tablecloth is swept from under him. And so, the search continues. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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