Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Arsene’s Agenda

Arsenal have plenty of unfinished business in the transfer market this summer. As the European Championships wind down, the peddlers of transfer smut will return to their stalls and players brief their agents from the sun lounger of some impossibly exclusive beach resort. The Euros have served as a comet in the sky, briefly distracting the townspeople, causing them to stare upwards agog. July 1st has now passed and contracts are either expiring or becoming activated.

The market place is gently waking from hibernation, but, contrary to popular belief, the chequebook is not the only tool available to the manager during pre-season. Arsene Wenger will be wrestling with some other priorities too, as he formulates his plans for 2016-17. This week, the first flower of spring- pre-season training- has sprung. Outside of a stirring market place, what are Arsene’s main agenda items for the summer?

Aaron Ramsey’s performances for Wales this summer have illustrated his ability. He has been one of the tournament’s outstanding performers, afforded a slightly freer role under Chris Coleman. Ramsey has played as the most advanced of a midfield three for the Dragons, with Joes Ledley and Allen anchoring the midfield. This allows Ramsey the freedom to lurch forward into space, where he simultaneously carries a goal threat and provides his team’s creative platform.

The territory in which he has flourished in France is Özilville at Arsenal and the town ain’t big enough for the both of them. Whilst Ramsey has license to attack in Arsenal’s midfield, he still has to punch the clock a little further back at the coalface. Ramsey doesn’t play the number 10 role for Wales in the same way that Özil does for Arsenal. Wales are more of a counter attacking side, which allows Aaron to make those lung sapping runs from deep positions.

The Gunners are forced into possession football by defensive opposition. On the occasions that Ramsey is permitted to bound forward, Özil is already occupying those pockets of space that he loves so much. Arsene Wenger’s estimation of Ramsey is pretty obvious, he pretty much always picks him, no matter what. The Welshman and the German have worked in concert before- in 2013-14, with Arteta at the base of the Gunners midfield, Ramsey notched 16 goals in 34 appearances.

I have my suspicions that Granit Xhaka was purchased in part to complement Ramsey. Last season Rambo occasionally found it tough going in a midfield setup not suited to his attributes. Had you reversed Arsenal’s injury jinx and left Arsene with Cazorla, Arteta, Wilshere and Rosicky as the prominent central midfield choices last season, you would have seen a similar pattern emerge, too many players of a similar ilk awkwardly soldered together. Every player needs a favourable setup and a balance of attributes to achieve their best form.

Even Pep Guardiola was minded to move Messi into a central position during his Barca tenure to eke the best from one of the game’s greatest ever talents. Arsene will need to find a network that allows both Özil and Ramsey to cohabit peacefully, whilst not looking to sacrifice any of the team’s defensive solidity. Arsenal have not offered enough goal threat in the last 3-4 seasons and freeing Ramsey would be a good panacea for that. But Arsene will need to be sure not to leave the back door ajar in this game of tactical whack-a-mole.

At the time of writing, news regarding the severity of Alexis’ ankle injury is scarce. I watched his ankle fold into the turf in the opening 90 seconds of the Copa América final and was unsurprised to see him play for a further 100 minutes. Alexis is somewhat animalistic in his desire to play football, but I think most players would have struggled on in this setting, with their country contesting a prestigious final.

Provided he hasn’t done himself any long term damage, I think this ankle boo-boo could be quite beneficial. It ought to give Arsene every excuse he needs to afford the Chilean some much needed rest. Sánchez and Wenger are bad influences on one another. Alexis will resist any invitation for extended holiday and Arsene hardly needs convincing to select his best players. A gammy ankle could offer the perfect barrier for both men’s more persuadable instincts.

Alexis has played international tournaments in each of the last three summers, he will play in next year’s Confederations Cup, Chile ought to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia and then there is a Copa América in Brazil in 2019. At some point, the Chilean is going to have to be decommissioned for a few weeks. By all accounts, Alexis’ appetite for football makes resting him a politically compromising task.

When Arsene insisted that Sánchez take an extended mid-season break after a hamstring injury suffered in November, the ex-Barcelona man was reportedly crochety. When he was substituted against Norwich in April, he harrumphed straight down the tunnel and into his car. Wenger is going to have to ensure that his star forward gets the rest he needs and simultaneously manage the confrontation that will invite. Not easy, especially when you’re trying to convince Alexis to sign a new contract….

Having failed in his pursuit of Karim Benzema last summer, the manager put his faith in the idea of collective responsibility in front of goal. In hindsight, he will have expected the likes of Özil, Ramsey and arguably Cazorla to have contributed a few more goals. But most of all, he will have expected Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain to produce a far more impressive spreadsheet of goals and assists.

Assuming the club keep both players, Arsenal will expect far more end product from Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain next season. As I alluded to earlier, the Gunners’ injury woes were concentrated amongst their providers. It is no coincidence that the likes of Chamberlain, Walcott and Ramsey played beneath their capabilities last season. (Ramsey less so than the former pair). All require a level of technical security around them to flourish, which was stripped away by injury. Likewise, it is no coincidence that more technical squad players such as Iwobi and Joel Campbell proved to be pleasant surprises. The team desperately needed that type of player.

Nevertheless, the manager will need to coax far better form from the likes of The Ox and Theo. If Arsenal are once again unable to land the striker they require, the impact would be enormously reduced by Ramsey, Chamberlain and Walcott enjoying more productive seasons in the final third. Creating a structure that allows each player to flourish at different intervals will form the most important part of this restorative process. But the manager will need to retune their confidence too, as he fingers the fretboard of this Arsenal squad.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto

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