Alanis Morissette may have struggled to grasp irony, but Arsenal Football Club seem to have a pretty firm handle on it. I think you would have to be suffering a special brand of delusion to suggest that Arsenal’s squad is completely set in defensive areas. Yet ahead of Arsenal’s trip to Manchester City this weekend, somewhat amazingly, Arsene Wenger has some selection headaches in his defence, in goal and in defensive midfield, which falls squarely into the realms of ‘unforeseen circumstances.’
Whether the competition we have in those areas is the level that we would like is another question. If, as I suspect, Arsenal begin with Coquelin and Flamini co-opting the base of Arsenal’s midfield, then there is effectively a choice between Santi Cazorla, Mesut Özil and Aaron Ramsey for the third midfield slot. This feels like the sort of selection dilemma a title winning team would have to negotiate. There is also the fact that absolutely nobody is realistically challenging to displace either Mertesacker or Koscielny at centre half.
Wenger often explains that stability of selection is a key ingredient for a successful defence. In periods of fixture congestion, he often warns against rotating his back five, whereas he feels his midfield and forward line are more open to tinkering. This perhaps explains a historic reluctance to stack his squad with defenders, preferring instead to have fewer players capable of playing in more than one position in the defence. In the past, he has bought centre halves with good reputations that have stagnated with a lack of playing time and become effectively useless, like bed sores festering on the arse of the squad.
Arsene’s first headache on Sunday revolves around the first name on his team sheet. In his pre-match interview on Sunday, the manager suggested that Wojciech Szczesny had been dropped purely on grounds of his form. Having been pressed further in his post-match briefing, he defensively grumbled, “The more I talk, the less I inform you,” which implies rather strongly that Szczesny’s banishment is very much a disciplinary matter.
I personally do not doubt Szczesny’s ability, but there clearly exists some lingering doubt over his attitude at the club. Wenger regularly suggests that deed is a better indicator of a person’s thoughts than his words and reading between the lines, last summer saw something of a shot across the boughs for Szczesny. For a start, he was not selected for the FA Cup Final. In the past, Wenger has had no compunction about breaking his “cup keeper pact” for finals, with David Seaman and Jens Lehmann reinstalled for showpiece games.
Fabianski’s selection at Wembley was interpreted as an act of sentiment towards the departing Pole, but it should also have been seen as a challenge to Wojciech. Wenger followed this up by buying an established international goalkeeper in the summer. At 25 years of age, Ospina is hardly looking for a gentle tilt into retirement in North London. It’s unusual for the manager to buy such an established back up goalkeeper, so he obviously felt Szczesny needed that level of competition. The manager likes to create an environment where players tutor themselves and flourish through their own self-determination.
Plenty of very talented young players have drifted into obscurity during his tenure because they could not summon up the motivation to succeed independently. This represents the second occasion whereby Szczesny has been dropped from Arsenal’s starting line-up (in fairness, Jens Lehmann was dropped twice too). Arsenal will wonder just how often they’re going to have to wave the stick at Szczesny before he grasps the carrot for himself. Reacting to a boot in the jacksy is one thing, but he will need to apply the galoshes to his own behind. Some of the stories that have emanated from the press about Szczesny’s future in the past week or so have looked very, shall we say, ‘well sourced.’
At left back meanwhile, the performances of Nacho Monreal have led many to dispute Kieran Gibbs’ status as Arsenal’s number 3. Kieran Gibbs has 176 Arsenal appearances all told and at the age of 25, I think there is a fair question as to whether he has developed to the ceiling of his capabilities. Personally, I go through cycles with Gibbs. I think he’s a pretty good left-back, but would be open to an upgrade if one became available. Then he strings a few games together and my impression of him inflates. Then he gets injured, recovers and goes straight back to square one. Do not pass the treatment room, do not pass 20 consecutive games.
I think it is fair to say that Nacho Monreal has improved this season. It could be that his spell at centre half has helped him to see the whole defensive picture with greater clarity. Monreal has always played pretty close to his centre halves, which has limited his effectiveness in an offensive sense. This is where you really sense that Gibbs has always had an edge on him. Especially as Arsenal’s left sided midfielders almost always have license to wander inside. But Monreal has shown a greater willingness on the attacking side of his game of late.
At centre half, Nacho behaves much like Koscielny does. The Spaniard was especially impressive at covering in behind Gibbs when opposing teams looked to play the ball in behind, in the corridor of uncertainty between centre half and left back. It could be that having to perform Koscielny’s ‘sweeping’ role at centre half has given him a better appreciation of Koscielny’s ability to cover him, thus infusing him with more confidence to attack. Or it could be that I’ve completely made that up and I’m talking total bollocks. It’s hard to tell sometimes.
Monreal’s good form is certainly good news for his compadre Hector Bellerin at right back. As I explained in this piece, the manager tends to like one enterprising full back and one more secure one. If Monreal can best Gibbs in the left back slot, then Bellerin’s prospects are increased as he toughs it out with Calum Chambers to understudy the stricken Mathieu Debuchy. Chambers has a slightly more solid presence, but that hasn’t always helped him at full back this season.
If Ospina, Monreal and Bellerin can win their jousts for position, the Gunners team suddenly begins to take on a notably Hispanic tongue, with the likes of Arteta, Cazorla, Alexis and Özil (who is fluent in Spanish from his spell in Madrid) scattered about them. Chambers may be perceived as the ‘safer’ choice at right back compared to2 Bellerin, but if the more defensively sound Nacho is keeping Kieran Gibbs out of the side, Arsene may be more open to a more ‘roving’ option at right back. The young Catalan’s recovery pace certainly works in his favour too.
In defensive midfield, it appears that Francis Coquelin has moved ahead of his compatriot Mathieu Flamini in the pointing, shouting and leaping into tackles role. I’m half joking, Coquelin has returned from his ‘Siberian’ loan spells and acquitted himself very well. His performances against Hull and Stoke were very promising and I think he thoroughly deserved to keep his place at the weekend. However, I do believe his resurrection has been a touch overstated. Limp Stoke and Hull sides at the Emirates are hardly the most pressing examinations for a holding midfielder.
More revealing I think was Coquelin’s performance at Southampton. He caught the eye with his ballast, totalling 9 tackles, but the reality was that he struggled to track the movement of Tadic and Ward-Prowse in between the lines. On Sunday, Arsenal will face probably the Premier League’s foremost provocateur between the lines in David Silva. I am to be convinced that Coquelin has the intelligence that Arteta offers in his positioning. If Southampton can fox him with their movement, then Nasri and Silva will provide an even sterner test of Coquelin’s progress.
I tend to think (and hope) that Wenger will opt for a Flamini–Coquelin tag-team to anchor Arsenal’s midfield. Coquelin stood up very impressively to the physical style of West Ham United at Upton Park, that game rather suited his qualities. Manchester City are an altogether more sophisticated and subtle outfit. It will be interesting to see how the Coq rises to City’s karma sutra attacking style. The competition may not be of the calibre that we would all like, but Arsene’s base doesn’t pick itself, even with key players missing. LD.
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