The Sea Wants To Take Me

Tim Stillman column Arseblog

Football moves along at light speed. The succession of fixtures and storylines are so dizzying that it is difficult to release oneself from the echo chamber and take stock. Football is akin to soap opera in this sense. As a result, many of us can be hasty with our assessments of teams, players, even football clubs. Just ask a West Ham fan at the moment. We are all guilty of believing that now equals forever from time to time.

As such, players that are out of favour now are quickly deemed dispensable. All of that said, one can but wonder what the future holds for Olivier Giroud and Per Mertesacker as they look upon an Arsenal team whose muscle memory is slowly forgetting their presence. The problem for both players is not so much one of selection. Whilst it is highly unlikely that either would make the starting XI at this moment in time were they fit, there will be a fair amount of natural squad attrition over a season.

Injuries, fatigue and suspensions decree that it’s difficult to keep the same starting line-up for a whole season. Hitherto unfancied squad players have been known to forge good careers from the fallout of Arsenal’s annual injury crises. Just keep turning up and eventually you’ll get a chance. The issue for Giroud and Mertesacker is more nuanced however. They form the base and the tail end of Arsenal’s spine, their inclusion and indeed exclusion; has significant ramifications on the team’s identity.

Arsenal’s style has gradually gravitated away from them. As I have documented many, many times now, Arsene has been trying to ‘quit’ Giroud in favour of a more mobile alternative for some time. Experiments with Podolski, Gervinho and Walcott in central striking roles have been abortive. Welbeck has been hamstrung by injury, while pursuits for Suarez, Benzema, Higuain, Vardy and even Demba Ba have proved fruitless.

However, the manager’s second try with Alexis Sánchez seems to be bearing fruit, with Arsenal’s attack interchanging busily between the Chilean, a rebooted Theo Walcott and the livewire Alex Iwobi. In Lucas Perez, Arsene has bought a more mobile alternative. The team has taken a step away from Giroud’s attributes, if Welbeck can return in good working order, the squad potentially does too. That’s not to say that the Frenchman will be surplus to requirements, he might just have to settle for becoming Arsenal’s Plan B from the bench, which I honestly believe is the role he was originally bought for.

In his favour, the team’s current frontline du jour is fragile. We’ve been here before with Giroud after all. Alexis currently works as a number 9 because the qualities of Walcott and Iwobi allow him to. I am not as convinced Sanchez would be as effective there in any other combination of players- at least not until Lucas is fully inducted and Welbeck is fit again. The problem for Olivier is that he does not enjoy a fruitful working relationship with Alexis.

The Chilean’s best form always coincides with Giroud’s absence. Likewise, Iwobi notably tailed off towards the end of last season once Giroud was reintroduced ahead of Welbeck. Both Iwobi and Alexis thrive in a fluid attack based on interchanging combinations. This means even rotating the Frenchman in as an occasional starter is an unattractive prospect. Giroud is unlikely to yield a move to a bigger club, especially now that he has turned 30, so he may well accept a “break glass in case of emergency” role from the subs bench.

But the picture is arguably bleaker for captain Per Mertesacker. Since coming into the team, Shkodran Mustafi has made the most tackles (four) and clearances (6.5) per game of any Arsenal player, the second most interceptions (3.3) behind Monreal and makes the second most passes behind Santi Cazorla. Prior to his arrival, Arsenal conceded 5 goals in 3 games.

With Mustafi in the side, they have played six games in the Premier and Champions League, winning five, drawing one, scoring thirteen and conceding just three. Only one of those three came from open play. Wenger tried to phase Per out in the second half of last season, favouring Gabriel. With the team suddenly stocked with front footed, aggressive players, Wenger wanted to transition to a high pressing approach- which meant that he favoured Gabriel’s skillset and superior recovery pace to Mertesacker’s.

Mustafi looks to be an upgrade on Gabriel in terms of quality, but is carved from the same material. It will be interesting to see whether Koscielny eventually matures into a calmer, senior antidote to Mutafi’s up and at ‘em style. The Frenchman has mastered this trait over the years, but there are signs that he is blossoming into a true leader. The team will still need his more bombastic qualities to maintain their favour for the high line and hard press.

But I wouldn’t mind betting that Koscielny will mellow a little with age. At 31, he is now the senior partner and he might allow his junior German attack dog to do some of the barking for him. Mertesacker has a similar issue to Giroud in that his reintroduction suddenly alters the entire emphasis of the team. Mustafi is, like Koscielny, an adventurous, line breaking passer. He establishes a fast rhythm from the back as Arsenal start attacks.

Mertesacker’s more considered (but no less accurate) passing style was more suited to a team featuring the likes of Arteta and Giroud. Now Arsenal’s build up play has a little more oomph. If one of Koscielny or Mustafi is unavailable, then Gabriel is a far more natural replacement, as he doesn’t disturb the team’s thrust quite as much as Per would. In Giroud’s case, there is at least more scope for rotation and substitutions in attack, defence does not allow for the same wiggle room.

Per will know well that once you’re Arsene’s first choice centre half, you’re going to play whenever fit. The BFG’s contract expires at the end of the season. I think Wenger will want to keep him around for the same reason he kept Arteta and Rosicky, even when they were lame. When the extent of Mertesacker’s knee injury was confirmed in July, the manager said of his captain, “He is very well respected in the dressing room and gets everybody focused on targets. We lose a heavyweight in our dressing room.” The question is whether he would want to accept a reduced role.

You’ve the feeling that he is the type of player that could continue his career well into his 30s. His game is based on positioning and, well, he hardly has any pace to lose. The manager notably talked up Koscielny’s leadership qualities following his bicycle kick equaliser against Southampton and he was also complimentary about Mustafi’s loquaciousness. If they continue on this path, Per’s importance as a senior figure is reduced further.

As I said at the outset, football changes very quickly and Giroud and Mertesacker’s Arsenal careers are far from mummified yet. However, it does feel as though the manager has been trying to gradually steer the team away from them stylistically for some time. It is a process that he tried to start before he counted on Alexis as a serviceable number 9 and before he bought Lucas Perez and Shkodran Mustafi. It’s an even longer route for the tide to turn back towards them now.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto 

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