A common theme of this Player of the Month series has been, after initial domination by Aaron Ramsey, that it’s highlighted the sharing of responsibility in this Arsenal team in these last few months. Theo Walcott and Santi Cazorla both won it recently, but with the former injured and the latter flitting in and out of form, there’s been room for another player to step up: this time, it’s been Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain coming to the fore.
It’s incredibly promising that he can come back from such a long lay-off and instantly become a key player in this team: so much so that, prior to the Sunderland match, he had scored or assisted our last five goals, stretching back to the Crystal Palace game in which he scored both Arsenal goals. He’s looked equally impressive in central midfield and out wide, managing to contribute greatly in both positions, which is a big attribute for a player who is still quite young to have.
The difference in the Oxlade-Chamberlain of now and a year or so ago is quite stark. The main thing that he’s managed to improve, besides his end product, is no longer running up blind alleys and trying to do too much. That was a feature of his game a couple of years ago, but he’s eradicated that now, and uses the ball much more intelligently, knowing when to give it simple and when to take players on.
That directness was much needed for Arsenal, given that Serge Gnabry seems to be raw still, and of course the injury to Theo Walcott. After he missed out against Manchester United at home, he was used at home against Liverpool in the FA Cup, and his assist for Podolski shows exactly what Arsenal, and Mesut Özil in particular, had been missing: a player willing to be direct and run in behind players, rather than constantly looking for the ball into feet.
It showed against Crystal Palace, too, when Chamberlain made an incisive burst behind the defence to neatly control and lob Santi Cazorla’s through-ball over the advancing goalkeeper: that kind of composure isn’t to be sniffed at from a player of such a young age. He was also one of the only players to emerge from the Anfield debacle with any modicum of credit, dribbling well and winning a penalty from Steven Gerrard. He gave Gerrard a bit of a tough time at the Emirates the next week, and the England skipper should probably have received two yellows for the fouls that Chamberlain drew from him alone.
It says a lot about Chamberlain’s rapid development and increasing importance to this team that against Bayern Munich he looked to have the beating of David Alaba, perhaps the best left back in the world right now, and certainly no slouch: Chamberlain wasn’t able to rely on raw pace to beat his opposite number, because Alaba is probably quicker than him. So it’s impressive that he managed to use other tools in his locker, rather than just pace. Indeed, his combination of pace, power and guile is a nightmare for any opposition full-back. His directness should serve Arsenal well as we approach the final straight.
Despite the fact that I’m in Turkey, the Arsenal bug has followed me and has bitten, so I’ve been unable to resist posting my thoughts on the recent goings-on at the club.
Recently the main talking point, other than you-know-who (I’ll get to him/it later), has been the friendly against FC Köln; Lukas Podolski’s former club of course. Our new German forward started the game alongside fellow new signings Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud, and all three stood out for differing reasons.
Podolski started on the left wing, and at first wasn’t involved all that much as he got to grips with our style of play, but after a brief lack of involvement began to see more of the ball, as he drifted in from his wide position; Kieran Gibbs’ overlapping allowing him to do so.
This feature of their link-up play – Podolski coming in search of the ball and Gibbs taking up the vacated space out wide – saw Lukas score our third goal, and his second; he dropped deep centrally, looking for the ball, and got it, before sending a probing, lobbed ball over the defence. Gibbs chased after it, and Podolski continued his run, converting the pull-back with the type of efficient finish we’ll surely come to expect from the £11 million man.
Earlier the 27-year-old had converted a penalty to make it 2-0, after Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had been fouled. It was a confident finish, and perhaps Podolski might be our penalty taker for the new season, depending on the situation with *ahem*… All annoying speculation aside, Lukas had a good game, and looked comfortable out wide and later in a central berth in the second half, before being replaced by… erm, before being replaced.
£12 million man Santi Cazorla (I know, I can’t believe it either) lined up in between Podolski and Theo Walcott in what has been referred to in recent seasons as ‘the Cesc role’. But if his performance today was anything to go by, we might be calling it ‘the Santi role’ for years to come. He did everything required of him in the position – creating in advanced positions, pressing alongside the centre forward, and dropping deep to aid transitions from defence to midfield as well as ball retention.
He looked assured on the ball, and showed the degree of technical ability you tend to expect from a Spanish midfielder. It seems as if he’ll follow in the footsteps of Juan Mata and David Silva in becoming a Spanish playmaker integral to his side. He was at the heart of a lot of good moves yesterday – always offering an option, playing several key passes as we had hoped, and also sending in the corner for the first goal, which was flicked on by Per Mertesacker and nodded home by Thomas Vermaelen. As many said, it was the typical Steve Bould goal.
One of Cazorla’s excellent passes was a simple ball that was played easily between two defenders and into the trajectory of the run of a certain Olivier Giroud, whose shot was saved well by Timo Horn. Giroud had four efforts in target during his first-half appearance, all dealt with well by Horn, and it was the goalkeeper who came out on top of the duel. Still, Giroud can be pleased with his showing. He made good runs to help forge those chances – firstly one in behind the defence to be found by Francis Coquelin; Giroud then sprinted onto the ball and from a tight angle fired a snapshot low at the near post, only for it to be turned around by Horn. The resulting corner led to the first goal anyway, so the missed opportunity didn’t mean much.
Having had another shot saved by Horn after being found by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s cut-back, Giroud was slipped in on goal by Cazorla. After sticking out a leg to control the ball well, his powerful curled effort was saved well again by Horn, and was denied for a third time. His fourth missed opportunity was a powerful header from a corner which was tipped over nicely by the goalkeeper, a chance which few could begrudge him for not scoring.
All in all it was a good performance from Giroud – while the finishes weren’t perfect, his all-round play was impressive, as he linked well with his team-mates, acting as a good foil for the likes of Walcott and Cazorla. Indeed, he linked up with both at one point to almost assist a goal, nodding down Walcott’s cross for Cazorla to fire a low driven volley against the legs of Horn from a decent position. Giroud’s hold-up play was excellent too, as he kept the ball well, putting his physique to good use, as well as acting as a reference point for the entire team and pressing well.
So we saw three very encouraging performances from the new signings, with the trio all impressing on their debuts for different reasons, but Francis Coquelin also caught my eye. He was tenacious and good going forward, but was sloppy in his own half – basically everything we see from Alex Song. He was careless on the ball quite a bit last season, against West Brom on the final day in particular, and we saw it again at the Rhein-Energie Stadion. It’s disappointing because he’s a precocious talent, yet, like Song, seems prone to complaceny. Let’s hope it only crept in because it was a friendly.
I must also touch on Gervinho, who put in a good second half performance. The decision making issues are still very much there – he failed to spot Lukas Podolski in a perfect position to complete his hat-trick early in the second half, and later delayed too long before shooting – but it was an encouraging showing from our Ivorian winger. Our fourth was an excellently taken goal by him; he received the ball on the left, deftly nipped past his man, before beating him again and slotting home at the near post with a clever finish. As I said recently, I’m expecting a big season from him, so let’s hope he doesn’t disappoint.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain also put in a good shift, with some powerful runs and some clever passes. He played deep in midfield alongside Coquelin, and the two of them often combined well with Cazorla as a triangle. It had seemed a curious midfield three at first, but it seemed to work, with a lot of fluid interchanging of positions. Chamberlain has been ruled out of England’s friendly with Italy (Joleon Lescott has been called up instead – why is nobody tweeting #InRoyWeTrust?) with an ankle knock, but it doesn’t seem anything serious. Hopefully it’ll mean he’s more fresh for the Sunderland game, or at least avoids a worse injury on international duty.
Sadly I feel like I have to touch on the more negative points raised from the 4-0 victory, and for me, the main one was the handling of the captaincy. Personally, I don’t want van Persie being captain at all, but I can understand Arsene not wanting to officially strip him of the armband, as it might lower his value. Still, the situation was handled poorly – no captain was selected for the second half, meaning when van Persie came on, he was already donning the armband.
If, say, Koscielny had been given the captaincy at the start of the second half, the issue would have been avoided, because van Persie wouldn’t have been expected to take the armband when he came on. Instead, it seemed as if Wenger was sure to make a statement by giving van Persie the armband in a situation where he normally wouldn’t have had it anyway. It’s hard to tell what that move meant – or if it was actually down to poor planning, although I don’t think Arsene would have fallen foul of that with such an important issue – because it could be one of a few things. Perhaps Wenger was trying to keep van Persie’s value high, or perhaps he was trying to warn off potential bidders and make a statement.
For me, I don’t think that little stunt – if it was one – would do anything for van Persie’s value, as he surely wouldn’t be expected to take the captaincy from a player already wearing the armband if he came on. Furthermore I’m completely against van Persie being captain in any situation – it’s not just that a captain is supposed to be a leader on the pitch, but an ambassador for the club. Van Persie can no longer do the latter, and there must be question marks over the former too, given his desire to leave the club.
However, I can see Wenger’s point of view – the media would blow it out of proportion if he didn’t receive the armband from whoever might have had it at the beginning of the second half, which might have some effect on van Persie’s value. It sounds a little silly, but perhaps Wenger was right to be cautious. After all, he knows a lot better than I do.
The final talking point before I lift myself from the metaphorical pool of speculation and dive into the very-real pool of the villa in Turkey where I’m staying – yes, that’s my commitment, writing before relaxing – is about Nuri Şahin. We’ve been linked with him for a while, and now AS are saying that his loan move is expected to be confirmed this week – with the Turk most likely coming here to Arsenal. I’ve spoken on Twitter about this, but I have to re-emphasise how thrilled I would be at the signing.
Real Madrid want to loan him for a reason; he’s had fitness problems, and they want him to regain his sharpness and match fitness so he’s ready to play next year for them, so it would be unwise to expect his Dortmund form straight away. But wow, if we could harness that form during the season, he’ll be a brilliant addition. He was superb for BVB in his final season there, as they won the title with him at the forefront, and on that form he would have walked into almost any midfield in the world.
Sadly, Madrid’s is not included in that enormous list, and he suffered there. But his lack of game-time shouldn’t put us off too much – he’s a fantastic talent with the potential to really make a difference for us. He has the clichéd ‘wand of a left foot’, which he uses to spray passes across the pitch – his range of passing is almost Cesc-esque (what a word) – and he’s composed on the ball. He’s not afraid to get stuck in either, so he should be able to adapt well to English football if he does come here. Let’s just hope it’s the Emirates he’s plying his trade at if so.
That’s all from me, although I imagine Saurabh might have something soon-ish for you to feast your eyes on. Enjoy fantasising about Cazorla, Giroud and Podolski firing us to a long overdue trophy…
Hello Almunia-ites. The blog has been rather bare lately, because I’ve started my internship with Sabotage Times in London. But fear not! I’ve still been tapping away at my keyboard and articles have been flowing freely from my finger-tips. I’ve not had the time to commit stuff exclusively to CoA, but please enjoy Sabotage Times’ sloppy seconds over the last week or so…
June 27th - a piece on Francis Coquelin & Emmanuel Frimpong, comparing the two and weighing up their chances of breaking into the first team proper.
June 29th - why I think Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will eventually be a central midfielder for Arsenal.
June 30th - thoughts on Steve Bould‘s appointment as assistant manager.
July 2nd - in praise of Cesare Prandelli after the EURO 2012 final.
July 4th - some words on Cesc Fabregas‘ role for Arsenal, Barcelona and finally Spain.
July 5th - and of course my reaction to the Robin van Persie statement.
Bonus piece! Have a read of my review of the new Futures album, The Karma Album.
It’s difficult to think of a fitting first line for an article on a night like that (and some might call this one a cop-out), a night on which Arsenal came so close to completing the seemingly impossible. There were a few prevailing emotions at the final whistle: pride, restored after the humiliation at the San Siro, was certainly one, as the Gunners put in a superb performance to put three goals past Milan, who had no response. But as well as that, a tinge of regret – despite the heroics, there were one or two “What if?”s that Arsenal fans couldn’t help but to ask.
The main one was regarding the man pictured above. 32 goal Robin van Persie. A man whose goals have carried Arsenal this season – although this is not to say that the Gunners are a one-man team; simply that van Persie is more often than not the man who puts the ball in the back of the net – and whose left foot has been compared by many to a wand.
What luck, then, just the luck that Arsenal needed in fact, that the ball would drop to that same foot mid-way through the second half, after Christian Abbiati had only parried Gervinho’s blocked attempt. With the goalkeeper on the floor, surely the most clinical Arsenal player since Thierry Henry would finish off an incredible – in the full meaning of the word, not the all-too-common modern day hyperbole – four-goal comeback.
However, it wasn’t to be. Disbelief, all around, as van Persie stood in agony as Abbiati leapt to his feet, ball in hand. In hindsight, the dinked finish was probably the wrong kind, although credit must go to Abbiati. Still, watching the replay of the vital miss again, one can’t help but beg for van Persie to smash the ball past the goalkeeper and spark wild celebrations at an already-buzzing Emirates Stadium. If only football, and indeed life, worked like that.
Sadly it doesn’t, and van Persie must live with his miss. But if Arsene Wenger’s players showed anything on the night it was that infamous mental strength, which the Frenchman so often reiterated in his press conferences. Many would laugh at him as he insisted that his players were strong, but it seems he was vindicated, and even his fiercest critics may have to admit that he was right after all.
Some might argue that it was the fans’ infectious belief that transferred to the players, though that is but a trivial aspect of the game. What matters most is that the players summoned the belief, one way or another, to battle their way back to 4-3 on aggregate. They refused to sit down and admit defeat, even late in the second half when they were visibly exhausted from the super-human effort to claw the tie back to such a small overall deficit. It was clear, though, that not even their belief could carry an injury-ravaged, burnt-out side over the line. Arsenal had certainly made the impossible seem infinitely possible, but fell just short of ascending the Everest-like mountain they had created for themselves.
In the first half, Max Allegri’s side had little response to the intensity and spirit of Arsenal’s game. They pressed and pressed, harrying Milan, not giving the opposition any time to rest or to even think on the ball. Arsenal were hungry for the ball, hungry to atone for the errors at the San Siro. With the speed of the players at Arsene Wenger’s disposal, it was always going to be promising winning the ball back high up the pitch, and the likes of Tomas Rosicky set out to do just that.
The only problem with that was the all-too-real possibility that the Gunners would run out of steam. Wenger’s options suddenly decimated by injuries after the Liverpool match, he had just two specialist midfielders in the first team available, in Rosicky (who passed a late fitness test having been a doubt) & Alex Song. Oxlade-Chamberlain was the natural choice to be the third man in midfield, given that he played in the centre of the park for Southampton several times. Indeed, he displayed the talents which saw him picked there by Nigel Adkins at St Mary’s, despite the likes of Graeme Souness admitting he “didn’t realise [Chamberlain] could play there”.
As mentioned on Chronicles of Almunia before the game, it does seem as if the England youngster will end up in the centre of the park. He certainly has the attributes – upper body strength, an eye for a pass, a wonderful drive on the ball and a talent for long-range strikes. What hadn’t been apparent until last night, however, was how far he’s come defensively since his last Champions League appearance at the Emirates. Against Olympiakos, despite scoring, he was criticised for his lack of defensive nous, but showed significant improvement in that area against the European giants of Milan.
It was not only his stamina but his defensive contribution that Arsene Wenger had worried about before letting ‘The Ox’ loose, but now he is willing to throw his summer signing into the deep end. This faith in his discipline in tracking back was undoubtably repaid – in a deeper midfield role than he might be used to, Chamberlain curbed his attacking instincts well at times to cover for Song, when the Cameroon anchorman went on a pressing foray. The ex-Southampton man even covered at centre back at one point.
Chamberlain did make a few telling contributions going forward, of course – none more so than his bursting run from deep into the opposition penalty area, when he was brought tumbling down as the filling in a sandwich of Djamel Mesbah and Antonio Nocerino, the former bundling him over to concede a penalty. As Michael Cox said over at Zonal Marking, Arsenal decided to target Milan’s left hand-side in particular, which meant Gervinho was fairly quiet. The African Cup of Nations also took a lot out of him, which may have contributed further to his muted performance.
Laurent Koscielny also profited from Oxlade-Chamberlain’s good play, bundling home his corner with either his head or the top of his shoulder. The French centre-back was magnificent once again, marshaling Ibrahimovic many a time to keep the big Swede relatively quiet. His runs having dropped deep usually pose a problem for sides, but Arsenal played the offside trap to perfection, catching him offside probably around 10 times.
Another Arsenal player who can be particularly proud of his individual performance is Tomas Rosicky. The Czech midfielder was marvellous in midfield, imperious even, as he played a huge part in dragging Arsenal to the brink of glory. He was buzzing around in midfield like an angered wasp, ready to sting at any point, and indeed his near-post strike which beat Abbiati would have stung the Italian goalkeeper considerably. It was though an excellent finish, measured to perfection, just out of reach for the man between the sticks.
Rosicky has so long been tortured by injuries but has this season finally shown consistency in his performances, and it seems as if the 31-year-old is back to his former brilliant self. Arsenal have seldom seen this side of Rosicky – perhaps due to the likes of Cesc Fabregas playing in the favoured position of “the Little Mozart”, but in the absence of a playmaker, Rosicky has well and truly stepped up to fill the gap.
However, the midfield schemer visibily tired in the second half, clearly unable to influence the game as he had in the first 45 minutes. The same could be said for a lot of the Arsenal side out there though – it was never going to be easy sustaining the level of intensity and pressure they had managed to perform to in the opening period of the game. It was then that the lack of options really became apparent – Wenger threw on Park Ju-Young and Marouane Chamakh, but neither of the strikers could push the Gunners over the line.
It was no surprise that Arsenal tired – their squad has been stretched so tightly as a consequence of injuries, in midfield especially as Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby have failed to complete a full 90 minutes between them. Aaron Ramsey, Mikel Arteta, Yossi Benayoun, Francis Coquelin and Emmanuel Frimpong all joined their fellow midfielders on the sidelines, which left Oguzhan Ozyakup, a 17-year-old reserve midfielder, as Arsenal’s only option to bring on in the middle of the park.
Once the Gunners’ injuries ease, which should be soon given the hopefully short-term nature of many of their midfielders’ knocks, it will be considerably easier to manage the strains of pressing at such a high level game-by-game. There will be the option of bringing tired players off, as well as rotation between games to allow players like Rosicky the rest which they surely would need after such an effort.
If this turns out to be the case, and Arsenal are able to produce similar performances, they stand in good stead for the future. The clouds seem to be lifting once more, and given the high-profile nature of Arsenal’s successive scalps, you could forgive Arsene Wenger for hoping that this string of results is not just another false dawn before his side plummets back into the abyss. Perhaps the future is bright after all.
Per Mertesacker. Andre Santos. Sebastien Squillaci. Johan Djourou. Kieran Gibbs. Abou Diaby. Tomas Rosicky. Mikel Arteta. Aaron Ramsey. Jack Wilshere. Emmanuel Frimpong. Yossi Benayoun. Francis Coquelin.
Those are all of the players who are unavailable to Arsenal for the home leg against AC Milan on Tuesday night – Tomas Rosicky, Kieran Gibbs and Johan Djourou are in italics due to their status of ‘doubtful’. There is just one specialist midfielder (Alex Song) in the entire first team at Arsene Wenger’s disposal, assuming that Rosicky doesn’t recover in time. If ever there was an injury crisis, this was it.
With so many midfielders injured, an option might be to bring a defender such as Thomas Vermaelen into midfield. However, this isn’t an option either – just four defenders in the first team are available: Bacary Sagna, Laurent Koscielny, Thomas Vermaelen and Carl Jenkinson, who will presumably make up the back four. Arsenal’s squad has suddenly been annihilated by injuries.
Out of the entirety of the first team squad, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is the only player who could plausibly play in midfield alongside Alex Song. Then you have the remaining forwards – Robin van Persie, Marouane Chamakh, Park Ju-Young, Theo Walcott and Gervinho, with four places needing to be filled. Walcott and Gervinho would naturally play as wide forwards, while you’d probably want Robin van Persie playing off of Chamakh. In the entire squad, that only leaves Lukasz Fabianski and Park unused (poor guy).
It would be a bit of an odd shape – some would optimistically call it a 4-4-2, as many have been calling for that for months. However, Walcott and Gervinho are certainly not wide midfielders, but more wide forwards/strikers. This would leave the formation as more of a 4-2-4, or a 4-2-1-3 when van Persie drops off of Chamakh.
The mix-and-match formation would see two things that haven’t happened a whole lot at Arsenal – Robin van Persie playing behind a main striker, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in midfield. Many have called for van Persie to be deployed in the “Bergkamp role”, and the last time he was from the start was against Partizan Belgrade in the Champions League.
As for Oxlade-Chamberlain, it does seem as if he’ll end up as a central midfielder. He appears to have all of the vital attributes – powerful runs, an excellent range of passing, a sturdy build and superb long shots. However, Arsene Wenger will continue to play the ex-Southampton man (who did appear a lot in midfield at St Mary’s, including against Manchester United in the FA Cup) out wide for as long as he can. As with van Persie and Theo Walcott, and it could be argued Nicklas Bendtner, it’s where he seems to put offensive players until he’s satisfied that they’re ready to move centrally.
Chamberlain did come on for Abou Diaby through necessity against Liverpool, but Tomas Rosicky was there also to offer protection, which will probably not be the case on Tuesday. Chamberlain will have to maintain a huge amount of discipline, especially alongside Alex Song, who tends to roam. Song will also need to curb his attacking instincts – although it’s a bit of a catch-22 for Arsenal. They need to go on the attack, and with the line-up they’ll be forced to opt for that will be the natural thing to do. But with such a make-shift midfield in particular, they’ll be extremely vulnerable on the counter-attack, so may not want to commit too many players forward.