Tuesday, April 16, 2024

What Arsenal need this summer – Part 2 (midfield and attack)

Last week I considered some of the summer chin scratchers facing Arsene Wenger with respect to his goalkeepers and defence. This week, it’s the midfield and the forward line that come under the microscope. Whilst I think the squad needs some bolstering numerically at the back, there are some more nuanced questions about how the coaching staff tinkers with the formula further forward. Perhaps more linked with the defensive constitution of the team, I think a holding midfielder may be near the top of the Arsenal shopping list.

Wenger trusts Mikel Arteta and he Mathieu Flamini and both are considered senior lieutenants in the squad. However, both are now north of 30 years old. Arsenal were sniffing around Luiz Gustavo and Lars Bender last summer. Once it became apparent that Arsene could not secure his principal targets, Gareth Barry and ultimately Flamini were caught in his cross-hairs. Given the respective ages of Barry and Flamini, it seems obvious that the manager was coveting a short term solution until he could procure a worthy successor to Arteta.

I think this is part of the reason Arsenal passed up on Cesc Fabregas. Not only would it have required, in my opinion, a transition period to blend Fabregas into our team, but I expect the manager already has thoughts of a starting XI ready holding midfield player. Wenger quietly warned Tottenham last season that bedding lots of players into your team represents a “technical risk.” It seems the manager has decided that Özil, Ramsey and Walcott are the “chain” of his team.

They dictate the tempo – the three suns around which the rest of the attack faithfully orbits. I don’t think Wenger saw Fabregas fitting into that equation without unduly altering the mechanics in the engine room. If Arsenal are also looking to induct a new holding midfielder to provide the link between defence and attack, simultaneously making another big step change in your midfield points to another transition period. I don’t think Wenger signed on for another three years to park his boots under that particular bed again.

What Arsene Wenger does with his forward line has been the subject of debate for some time. I think it’s reasonably obvious that we can’t go through another season needing 50+ games from Olivier Giroud. Tellingly, in his summation of where Arsenal fell short in the title race last season, the manager said, “To be completely honest, a team like City scored 100 goals so you have to say their offensive potential has been absolutely brutal and fantastic, Liverpool as well. We have scored 66 at the moment, that is where we have room for improvement.”

Concerted, if ill fated, efforts to sign Gonzalo Higuain and Luis Suarez as well as the long, fruitless flirt with Julian Draxler suggests that improving the attack has long been a priority. If smoke reveals fire, it would appear that Alexis Sanchez is the doyen of Arsene’s affection this summer. Sanchez, or a player like him, would make sense on a number of levels. A player that can operate all across the front three solves a cluster of problems for the manager in one fell swoop. For a start, Giroud needs competition and support.

As an Arsenal fan, I’m contractually obliged to refer to Yaya Sanogo’s charms as “raw.” Really the young Frenchman ought to be ironing out his creases in League Cup encounters or F.A. Cup ties against lower division opposition. Not huge cup games against Liverpool and Bayern Munich. Olivier Giroud is quite the physical specimen. Every game is a war for him yet he’s almost never injured. But we’d be taking a carefree slash into a tempest to rely on him for another 50 games or more. That’s leaving aside the “shouldn’t we be looking to improve on Giroud?” question.

A couple of months back I suggested that Arsenal have lacked a left sided ‘schemer’ since Robert Pires sashayed out of the exit door. Arsene has searched for a wide forward for the left hand side ever since. Walcott fills the Ljungberg role quite nicely. But the likes of Reyes and Rosicky never really compensated for Pires’ qualities as intended. Lukas Podolski was meant to be the wide forward offering penalty area threat, but he doesn’t provide enough penetration with the ball.

If you give him the ball in some space, his delivery and finishing are faultless, but he does too little to actually create space. Wenger saw Gervinho as a panacea for our lack of penetration on the left. A nippy, dribbler capable of getting the byline and committing defenders, pulling back fours out of shape. Like many of the man’s actions on the pitch, Gervinho was a good idea in principle that didn’t quite work out. Once van Persie left, his effectiveness dwindled and his ‘unpredictability’ became more frustrating.

Cazorla is an excellent footballer, but playing as a kind of wandering left sided midfielder, he often plays much deeper than you’d like him to. With Ramsey and Walcott (and Podolski) fed by Özil and / or Cazorla, Arsenal have runners and passers. But they could probably do with the sort of player Gervinho was meant to be. Somebody that can bring the funk with the ball at his feet. Someone that commits defenders in the dying yards of the pitch.

Olivier Giroud has worked very hard on his movement across the face of the six yard box during his time at Arsenal. Despite not being anyone’s definition of a pure goal scorer, he’s surprisingly good at taking up these positions, as you can see from these goals against Norwich, Everton and Spurs. The issue is, that Arsenal don’t have a player on their left that commits players and makes it to the by-line.

You only need to look at the way in which Pires and Ljungberg used to combine to see what Wenger’s thinking might be. Indeed, the connection Walcott and van Persie enjoyed was borne of Walcott’s ability to get to the by-line. It’s a signature move of Wenger’s Arsenal but, especially sans Walcott, Arsenal don’t quite have enough penetration in the final 20 yards of the pitch to make it happen as much as the manager would like.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is capable of those lung busting surges to the goal line (exhibit A and exhibit B) but the manager seems to see him as a central midfielder in the future. It’s important for Arsene to introduce some variety in the attack next season and a player of Sanchez’s ilk gives us diversity in terms of tactics and personnel. It was partially Suarez’s ability to play across the front 3 that made him so coveted by Arsenal.

The prospective return of Joel Campbell could offer us another option in reserve, with the Costa Rican stepping into the sizeable shoes of Nicklas Bendtner. I think Campbell has had a good World Cup, but I do think the ravenous desire to see another striker worthy of the name at the club has led some Gooners to overrate his contribution. It’s the same itch I think that causes many to criticise Giroud far too harshly. He’s clearly a very good striker, but because people want to see better (understandably so), they convince themselves that Giroud is awful, which is irrational in my opinion.

It is very important that Arsenal increase their goal threat and their options in attack. Aaron Ramsey is going to be very closely watched. Ramey’s goals actually dried up in the short period where both he and Theo were fit last season, so they’ll need to find a way of alternating their threat effectively once Walcott returns to fitness. I think Wenger will add a more penetrative, wiry element to his attack this summer, as well as a new holding midfielder. How Wenger makes these puzzle pieces fit at London Colney will be one of his most fascinating challenges this summer. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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