On Saturday at Villa Park, Arsenal reverted to the tried and tested route. The slight change in the alchemy of the team this season has been, by now, well documented. Fans of narrative were presented with a gift horse when Mesut Özil was given a more central berth in the West Midlands and the German promptly orchestrated the home side’s demise.
#PlayOzilat10 had become a semi satirical hashtag on twitter in the days leading up to the game and the tongues of the mischief makers moved from cheeks to chins as they salivated over his display. Whilst I think it’s reasonably obvious where Mesut enjoys playing the most, I don’t think Saturday’s stroll was simply down to seating Özil on his enganche throne. I think there were other factors that became a little clearer in the disappointing League Cup exit to Southampton.
Whilst purring over the display of Danny Welbeck, which saw our new striker rack up a goal, an assist and a 97% pass completion rate, Wenger tellingly mused, “he contributes to our team play because he doesn’t lose the ball up front and those are important qualities.” Arsenal dropped Alexis and Wilshere to the bench and reintroduced Cazorla and Chamberlain to the mix. Consequently, Arsenal suffocated Villa simply because they did not surrender the ball.
Wilshere and Alexis are players that like to take risks in the final third, which of course all decisive players do to some degree. Your forward players passing sideways for 90 minutes isn’t likely to produce goals. Villa are a team built for the counter attack and the Gunners looked especially susceptible to the tactic in Dortmund last week. The answer was simply not to turn the ball over and give the home side the chance to break. Gabriel Agbonlahor (surely the diviest player to ever escape a reputation for histrionics) completed only four passes and three were from kickoffs.
With players such as Chamberlain and particularly Cazorla, Arsenal had greater technical security. Against Southampton, Arsenal were unable to mind the ball with quite the same conviction. It was evident that many of the attacking players had rarely played together before, if ever. But we also caught a glimpse of one of Wenger’s biggest challenges this season. Alexis Sanchez is a special talent and probably second only to Özil in the Gunners’ squad in terms of ability. Even in his nascent Arsenal career, we’ve had plenty of end product from the Chilean to moisten our gussets.
However, Alexis is something of a wildcard on the ball (or a ‘soloist’ as James from Gunnerblog termed him). He favours a very high risk / high reward passing style, which does see him turn the ball over often. In a passing side like Arsenal, and one that currently does look vulnerable to the counter attack; that does create issues. Though it’s obviously worth pointing out that if someone is bringing juicy ribeyes to the table every evening, you can probably tolerate them chewing with their mouth open on occasion.
Ultimately, Wenger has to find a way to marry Özil’s metronomic efficiency with Alexis’ more bombastic qualities. In turn, he may need to refine Alexis without aiming to change him. It’s a precarious line to walk but the manager has refined forward talents such as Henry and van Persie successfully. The 23 year old van Persie was a precocious talent, but possibly one of the least team minded players one could imagine. By his late 20s, whisper it quietly, he actually ended up making quite a good club captain. An irreconcilable change from the petulant young talent that we purchased.
That said, Arsene had a similar stylistic puzzle in Arsenal’s inaugural season at the Emirates. A waning Thierry Henry required a 4-4-1-1 formation with a Bergkamp-esque playmaker behind him to extract his best form. Whereas the impudent young Fabregas needed the incubation of a 4-5-1 system to flourish. Wenger ended up ceding to Fabregas’ youth and when Barcelona came knocking for Henry, he offered little resistance. He had already handed the keys of the team to Fabregas. On that occasion, King and Prince couldn’t co-exist peacefully.
I think Santi Cazorla could possibly represent the rhythm section to level out the two very different creative talents of Özil and Alexis. Cazorla was unfairly burdened as the Gunners’ sole creative presence in his first season in England. I suspect he is more Ronnie Wood than Keith Richards. He anchors talents like Özil and Alexis because he has enough creativity to jam with them, but enough of a sense of preservation to bring structure to the melody.
To torture the analogy further, without Santi, we could be in danger of going a little prog-rock. I definitely don’t want to see any of our players endure a concept album phase in a red and white shirt. Where this leaves Theo Walcott once he returns is a worthy question. Can Alexis and Walcott feature simultaneously as wide front men? It’s possible. Different games give you different problems, as we have seen in the last seven days.
Wenger intimated in the aftermath of the Southampton game that he is minded to try and turn Abou Diaby into a screening midfielder. ’I tried to develop [Diaby] in a deeper role, I think he can do it. He can be very interesting because he has all the attributes to do it.’ Of course some of the more sensitive souls in the Arsenal webosphere have taken this to mean that Diaby is our indefinite long term scratch to the defensive midfield itch. I think the truth is probably much more pragmatic than that.
Over the summer, I pondered whether Wenger might try and make this exact move. (Incidentally, my £3m invoice to Arsenal for ‘strategic and advisory services’ on the basis of this article remains unpaid). I think the reality is that Diaby would have to do something extraordinary to earn a contract extension beyond the expiry of his deal next summer. Arsenal are now well stocked in Diaby’s favoured position with the likes of Ramsey, Wilshere and even Chamberlain as long term options in the “number 8” role. We are not quite as blessed in the screening role.
Basically, we’re much more likely to need a body in front of the defence than we are in Diaby’s favoured position. If we’ve got him for one last year, we might just as well try and mould him into something more useful to the team. The Capital One Cup seemed like a good environment to help facilitate that change. Barring an injury crisis (!) I can’t see Diaby playing many games of much consequence there.
It’s certainly his last grasp of the vine at Arsenal. If he can stay fit and grow into the role, great. If he can’t, well it’s a break glass in case of emergency type of option until the summer when we (hopefully) get it together and buy a more realistic long term option. As fanciful as it is in reality, it would be the greatest resurrection since, well, Aaron Ramsey if Diaby were to grow into the defensive midfield player Arsenal fans had craved since the days of yore. LD.
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