It’s a rarity these days that an Arsenal game compels me to write a blog post on it in the aftermath. We have so many writers in the Arsenal fanbase, which means that every man and his blog has an opinion and most of the time someone else is saying what you’re saying, but after the Swansea victory I’m not really fussed – there are a lot of things I want to talk about, and Twitter doesn’t quite cut it.
I think more or less every player deserves a paragraph after the match that we had, so I’ll start with Wojciech Szczesny. The Pole has been doubted by just about everyone for a while, but Arsene Wenger’s faith hasn’t wavered enough for Le Boss to sign a new first-choice goalkeeper. He may have dropped Szczesny in favour of Fabianski, but it seemed the kick up the butt that Wojciech needed, and he duly responded with some fantastic form. He wasn’t actually called on much against Swansea, but I thought he was reliable each time – a Nathan Dyer snapshot that he was alert to springs to mind, while every single aerial ball was his. I thought that @gunnerthoughts made a good point about Arsene’s faith in him.
I said the other day that I thought Bacary Sagna deserves more credit this year, and most agreed, but with the compromise that, despite the fact that he’s playing at full capacity right now, his 100% now compared to a few years ago isn’t quite as good. Fair enough – the Frenchman was quite sluggish in his tracking of Ben Davies for Swansea’s goal, but other than that Sagna was solid and reliable, which is exactly what I hope to see in a full-back. It’s worth remembering how badly he played at points last season and comparing it with now. A full pre-season has him looking quite a lot like his old self. Give that man a new contract.
Speaking of new contracts, Per Mertesacker has been linked with one, and based on his form this season alone, he absolutely deserves one. An impeccable reader of the game, which is how he makes up for a lack of pace – although I’d genuinely posit that he’s become quicker/more agile since signing for Arsenal – Per was more or less flawless yesterday, other than getting caught underneath a wonderful Wilfried Bony ball for the goal. 29 today and showing no signs of slowing down in the mind, let’s hope we continue to see Per proving me and others wrong for having doubts over him. Happy birthday big man.
Alongside him, Laurent Koscielny did his usual thing. There weren’t many individual moments from our defence to talk about, since we defended so well as a team – more on that later – that the defenders didn’t really have to perform any miracles to rescue us. Other than that, Koscielny was solid as usual, without making his occasional error. As you can see from Culann’s video compilation of his performance, his distribution was near-impeccable and pretty much everything he did was positive. I particularly liked how well he kept stepping in front of Bony/Michu as Swansea tried to break us down near the end. Great stuff from Koscielny.
Then we have Kieran Gibbs at left back, and, like Sagna, I think his performances this season have been typical of what a full-back should be: solid and reliable at the back, as well as offering a useful presence going forward. The latter part of his game didn’t quite feature so much against Swansea, other than a penalty appeal after linking with Özil and some nice interplay with Jack and Aaron. Still, the attacking players hardly seemed to need much help, so that’s okay. Another no-frills solid performance from a member of the much-vaunted British core.
Since I’m doing this in formation order, I’ve got a decision to make – was it a 4-2-3-1, or was it more of a 4-4-1-1? I’d say in defence it was definitely the latter, while going forward there was so much freedom of movement that there wasn’t really a structure. Given that we spent a lot of time defending, I’m going to call it a 4-4-1-1 and talk about the guy who started on the right of midfield for the third game in a row.
I was really impressed by Serge Gnabry against Stoke last weekend. I thought he slotted in with minimal fuss to the first team, and didn’t look one bit out of place, which is just so encouraging for a young player. If people were dissatisfied with his performance against Stoke because of a perceived lack of confidence, I don’t think that was an issue for anyone yesterday. He was the player to break through the monotony of the first half, making a great chance for Giroud with a superb dribble and pass, and should have been rewarded with an assist. No matter – he consoled himself by capping off a superb team move with a goal. That’s what I mean when I say he didn’t look out of place – he was on the same wave-length as the rest of the players during the move, and finished it off with the quality you’d expect from a seasoned first-teamer. He got into a great position, checked back so he’d be onside, took a composed touch and fired low past Vorm. I couldn’t have asked for any more from Serge.
Moving across the midfield to the centre, let’s talk about Aaron Ramsey a bit more. Other than a great drilled effort from range, he was pretty much on par with the rest of the team in the first half, in that he wasn’t quite at full capacity. That changed in the second half as he was instrumental in both goals – he set up Serge with an extremely intelligent pass, before capping a thrilling counter-attack with the coolness we’ve come to expect from him. He could’ve had another assist when he laid it onto Özil after the first. He is absolutely on fire right now.
Then we have Mathieu Flamini, the free transfer from Milan that was widely derided by many. The sensible Arsenal fans I know were fine with the move, although it was concerning for lots that he was the only central midfielder brought in (Mesut definitely isn’t a central midfielder). I wasn’t sure he still had it after a few years in Italy, but he seems almost as good as he was when he left. His displays aren’t as all-action – he’s more side-to-side than box-to-box, which is fine as Aaron has the latter role nailed down – but he’s just as useful. A cynical foul and booking after the first goal just summed him up – willing to do anything for the cause, and he demonstrated that with a committed, solid performance in front of the defence. His partnership with Ramsey is such that I’d struggle to break them up if I was the manager. A good headache to have with Arteta returning.
Jack Wilshere lined up on the left again, and I think he deserves a lot of credit. It’s important to recognise that he’s just getting to grips with that position, so he should be given time to overcome the initial shaky form that comes with that territory. Despite that, he played a huge role in both goals. For the first, he was part of the flowing passing that sliced Swansea apart, whereas he was integral throughout the second. Running onto Ramsey’s delightful flick, his desire and skill saw him emerge with the ball and as soon as he leapt to his feet, it was on. A brilliant give-and-go with Giroud before slipping in the Frenchman for the assist, and Arsenal were 2-0 up thanks to the finish from Ramsey. He may not have been brilliant from start to finish, but during that five minute period he had a huge influence on the game.
In front of the midfield was, of course, Mesut Özil, who showed off his skills with a cheeky gum trick in the warm-up. LOOK AT THAT CHEEKY GRIN. All in all, Mesut was a little quiet, although he was involved in both goals early on. Though he was at times peripheral, what’s important is that we didn’t need him to step up, so it was more a case of him stepping aside to let others do the business, and when he did get on the ball, he was excellent. He’ll need time to hit his stride as he gels with the team, and once he does we can expect him to dominate games. Until then, we can enjoy the flashes of brilliance which are definitely a sign of things to come.
Up front, Olivier Giroud toiled in the first half, not getting much joy in any area of his game before wasting a great chance. The key difference in Arsenal in the first and second halves was that we countered as a unit more effectively, and we got players close to Giroud. We were able to create triangles in the second period and that’s how we opened Swansea up, and Giroud deserves a lot of credit for being the attacking pivot, having a hand in both goals. He doesn’t look out of place in a fluid Arsenal side so far this season. Let’s hope he, like the team, continues to play at this higher level.
Focusing on each individual player has, I hope, highlighted that everybody is playing at a high level, but that’s not the point I was hoping to make when I began writing this post. As you can infer from the title, I thought we were solid for just about the full 90 minutes – I’m not sure if we can call Davies’ goal a lapse, given how well-worked it was – but hit our stride in the five minutes between 58 and 63. That’s when our goals came, and also when Mesut spurned a chance to get off the mark for us, and I think it really highlighted our quality.
Excitingly, though I shall try not to get carried away, it reminded me of the Invincibles. Solid and resilient throughout the game, but flicked the switch going forward for a brief period and blew away the opposition. The way we dissected Swansea was magnificent to watch in that time-slot, with the football quite breath-taking. That’s the fluidity that comes with continuity and having a core of quality players remain together for a good period of time. It’s what we lacked in the previous couple of seasons, which explains why our football was often so dull (not that the onlookers seemed to notice).
I think everyone deserves credit for their performances but Arsene also deserves credit for building this team – a team he always maintained faith in, especially a few choice individuals. It’s ridiculous how many important players Arsene has seen taken from other teams in stronger positions than us, and he responded the only way he knew how: by building a new team, and this time he’s not only been able to keep the team together but to add to it with Germany’s best player.
Now we’re in the position of power. Top of the table, on a fantastic winning streak, playing great football, with arguably the league’s most talented player yet to fully gel with his team-mates. Not to mention the absentees – Theo Walcott, Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky, Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain would all add massive strength in depth to this side, which is a ridiculous thing to say for players of their quality. People talked about our bench yesterday but given our injuries, a bench of Fabianski, Jenkinson, Vermaelen, Monreal, Arteta, Ryo and Bendtner is still quite strong.
It’s amazing how things change in football. Sitting slumped in my seat as thousands around me jeered the team and the manager off against Aston Villa was one of the lowest points of my time supporting Arsenal, and now, just over a month later, I’m more satisfied with the team than I have been in years, genuinely. The key now is to kick on and try to keep our lead at the top. Extending it would be even better. We’ll need some luck with injuries in certain positions. That was always clear. But with that luck, we can go places. Up the Arsenal.
In his stint as England manager, Fabio Capello was derided for – among other things – his use of a 4-4-2. As one of them flashy foreigners perhaps, more was expected, and with 4-3-3-s and 4-2-3-1s all the rage, most people were furious. After all, England are a footballing super-power, and must play as such, right?
Well, not really. While we have an absolutely superb league, with incredibly technically gifted players (who do play and thrive in 4-2-3-1s and the like), how many of those players are English? The simple fact is that England do not have the players to play an expansive, free-flowing, fluid game like the club sides in the Premier League.
And Roy Hodgson, like Fabio Capello, knows this, and thus plays 4-4-2. But still this isn’t good enough – still there are suggestions from the press and the fans that England change formations, because 4-2-3-1 is so successful on the club stage. There are a lot of flaws in this though. As mentioned above, England don’t have the players to play fluid football. What England have are a lot of players who are rather limited technically, to be blunt.
So Hodgson, ever the pragmatist, sets them up in a 4-4-2, designed to contain and score goals on the counter-attack. It may not be exceptionally pretty, or reliable all of the time, or what the media want, but a lot of the time it works. The players know their roles in defence, because it’s in the name: 4-4-2 – two banks of four. And that’s proven effective under Hodgson – two 1-0 friendly wins, both won by virtue of goals scored with direct attacking play, and a narrow 3-2 win over Sweden.
Critics may point to the two goals conceded against Sweden as a reason not to play 4-4-2, but that would just be brainless. Both goals were scored by the Swedes from set pieces; not exactly something that could be solved by a change of formation. With two banks of four under Hodgson, you know what you’re getting: a team that’s hard to break down.
And what’s wrong with that? England have ambitiously tried going toe-to-toe with the great footballing sides by playing an attacking game in the past, and have nothing to show for it. It’s surely time for a more realistic view of things and admitting that England don’t have the players to play a technically refined game.
Those who suggest an instant change of styles are probably still stuck in the club football mindset. In club football, managers can decide upon a long-term style and sign players to fit that. When a manager is brought into a national team weeks before a tournament, all he can do is pick a style that best suits the players at his disposal, and that’s exactly what Hodgson has done.
The imminent return of Wayne Rooney is part of the reason for the calls for 4-2-3-1 – he’s more mobile than any of the options England have to play off of the striker. But in England’s 4-4-2, the striker that drops off of his partner and roams is still very much a forward. In a 4-2-3-1, the central player in the ‘3’ is an attacking midfielder. If Rooney was played in that position, it’s likely that his general position would be a little different, and more like a second striker. In this scenario, it becomes more like a 4-2-2-2. Then, the only difference you have is that the wingers are higher up, and can do less defensive work – the banks of four is harder to achieve, and defensive solidity is sacrificed.
That’s OK for teams like Arsenal, who are good at playing on the front foot, and have players who are good at penetrating stubborn defences, but that’s not where England’s strengths lie. Direct, counter-attacking football is probably the most likely way for England to score, and that’s easiest to achieve in a 4-4-2, where defensive solidity goes hand-in-hand.
It is, however, important to remember that formations aren’t what defines a team – Stoke and Manchester United may at times play with the same basic formation, but the style of a team is more based on the players in that formation. 4-4-2 certainly lends itself to a more defensive and less ambitious set-up though, which is why 4-2-3-1 is more wide-spread in the Champions League than through-out domestic leagues.
While England have a massive reputation in football though, the football hasn’t quite caught up yet. There are players like Jack Wilshere coming through, who will allow England to play that technical football they so desire, but right now the Three Lions are far behind Spain, Germany and others in personnel, and should remember that. In a cliche-obsessed media, people would do well to recall the proverb ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’.
Many good football teams with a distinct style are built around one player (or a few players in the case of Barcelona) who embody their identity; as we saw yesterday, Napoli’s Ezequiel Lavezzi epitomises their exuberance especially in the counter-attack, while you have Xavi, Leo Messi & Andres Iniesta for Barca’s aesthetic and technical prowess.
Arsenal, however, are stuck between two eras – that of Cesc Fabregas (and to an extent Samir Nasri) and that of Aaron Ramsey & Jack Wilshere, neither of whom are currently ready to fill Fabregas’ boots for different reasons. The Gunners need to transition from the previous era to the new one – Arsene Wenger wanted one of Juan Mata, Mario Goetze and Santi Cazorla do that, and move out wide once Ramsey was ready. However, he failed to secure any of these targets.
Now, Arsenal lack an identity which would have come from a playmaker – while Robin van Persie is excellent and undoubtedly a talisman, not all of Arsenal’s play goes directly through him, which makes it more difficult for him to influence their general style and identity.
Wenger needs to be careful that his side manages the transition well. If they don’t make the Champions League, it will be that bit more difficult to keep the new era on track. In previous seasons when key players were sold, like Thierry Henry, their replacements were able to fill their boots immediately. However, Henry was sold just as he was past his peak, at a time when Emmanuel Adebayor was approaching his own. Fabregas had to leave earlier than Wenger would have liked, due to different circumstances – his love for Barcelona and his wish to return more than anything.
Because of this early departure, Wenger’s planned internal replacements were not quite ready, so he attempted to find a temporary central player who would eventually move out wide once Ramsey was ready to play in that playmaker role.
Now, though, it’s difficult: Wenger has had to accelerate Ramsey’s development. He was supposed to stay under the tutelage and behind the shadow of Fabregas until he was ready. Wenger’s hand was forced, and after he failed to replace Fabregas, he now has to throw Ramsey in at the deep end, which could be thoroughly detrimental to the youngster’s progress. It would be incredibly unreasonable to expect to successfully build a team around the 21-year-old Ramsey.
The big difference between the early careers of Ramsey and Fabregas is that while Fabregas was eased into the team at an incredibly young age with little pressure on him, Ramsey is still being integrated into the Arsenal team, and began this process at an older age, with much more pressure and spotlight on him. This is why Arsenal were able to build the team around Fabregas at Ramsey’s current age, while the Wales captain is still not ready. It’s also pertinent to remember that Fabregas was and is a unique talent – similar things should not be expected of Ramsey.
Still, you can probably expect Wenger to go back in for a playmaker who can play out wide in the summer – which may well prove difficult, however, with Mata & Cazorla gone and Goetze pricy. A loan move for Gourcuff might appeal to the manager, form and availability dependent. Although, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s rapid progression, a playmaker/winger’s arrival could well signal the end of Theo Walcott’s Arsenal career, or perhaps just his stint as a winger.
In any case, you can probably expect Arsenal to let a winger go if they do in fact permanently sign a playmaker/winger in the summer. This might well turn out to be Arshavin, although perhaps we should take into account the departure of on-loan Yossi Benayoun.
As Calum Mechie put it for SBNation, Arsenal don’t lack leaders – they lack a point. Now that Fabregas is gone, Arsenal need somebody to define their style of play, otherwise they will continue to suffer an identity crisis, and fluctuate between styles, never truly being able to do any proper justice.
It may have been a rather boring game, but there were positives for Gooners to take away from it.
Our two representatives, Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey, emerged with yet more credibility, adding yet more football people to their burgeoning list of admirers. Jack was his usual self, winning tackles, playing through balls, and spraying passes about with ease. England’s new 4-2-3-1 formation, similar to ours, really suited him and helped him play as well as he did, alongside Scott Parker. You can catch highlights of Jack’s performance on 101greatgoals, here.
Captaining his country for the first time, Aaron looked a little rusty, as can be expected since he’s still on the road to recovery from his injury. He gave the ball away a few times, but showed good feet and awareness, and completely skinned John Terry before firing just over. As my Dad said to me, it’s good for him to get another 90 minutes under his belt. I think after a proper pre-season this summer, he’ll be ready to command a starting place.
Really, with these two young stars, Alex Song, Samir Nasri and all of the other young talents at the club, I’m not sure selling Cesc would be as disastrous anymore. We still look a little lost without him, so we need to hang onto him for a bit more, but soon I think we’ll be able to let him make that move to Barcelona.
Jack and Aaron are both such good players, it’s difficult to comprehend that they’re only 19 and 20 respectively. One is captain of his country already, and the other certainly must be some time – I would be surprised if neither wore the armband for Arsenal in the future. They both lead by example, getting stuck in, cajoling their team mates, scoring and creating goals. I’m so pleased we have them at our club.
The fact that Aaron is captain of Wales just weeks after coming back from a career threatening injury speaks volumes about his strength of character, especially seeing how young he is – he’s Wales’ youngest ever skipper. It takes great mental resolve to return so strongly from such a huge blow, and that’s exactly what he’s done. Being made captain will have boosted his confidence ten-fold.
As for Jack, he’s already an established started for club and country near the end of his breakthrough season. Some credit should go to Bolton and Owen Coyle, who gave him vital Premier League experience. Arsene couldn’t have handled his development better. There’s not much I haven’t already said about this young lad – it was only a few days ago that I covered his rise to prominence – so I’ll leave it at that.
Now I’ve got a football match to help my team win – we’re playing top of the league. We’re 2nd, but they have a game in hand. Before I go, make sure you watch the video in the post below. Truly inspirational stuff.
From being a shock inclusion in the starting line-up for a Premier League game, to being one of the first names on the team sheet – it’s been a crazy year for Jack Wilshere so far.
In fact, his surge to prominence has been so great that many, including myself, would be surprised if he wasn’t named PFA Young Player of the Year. It wouldn’t even shock me if he was on the shortlist for the senior award, he really has been that good this year.
Out of our 49 games this season (thanks to @ArsenalCW for that stat), Jack has played the most, starting 36 times and coming off the bench four times (stat found here). Out of those games, he’s barely had a bad one. He’s scored twice and assisted eight goals, but those stats don’t tell the complete story.
He’s usually played alongside Alex Song in a midfield pivot, although he has had other midfield partners – he’s linked up with Denilson, Diaby and Ramsey at times. He’s also played in the “Cesc role” in the Carling Cup final and against Sunderland in the 0-0. The compliments and appraisal Jack’s received have come from all corners – his captain, team mates, managers and opponents have been heaping on the praise, and it’s little wonder.
The stand-out performance from his season would have to be against Barcelona in the home leg. I’ll let your minds drift back to that wonderful game for a moment… great wasn’t it? Anyway, he bossed the game against the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi. If Balotelli didn’t know who he was before, he definitely would after that performance. *
His only two goals of the campaign so far have come against Aston Villa in the Premier League and Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League. The former was a diving header at the back post to seal the three points in the dying embers of the game, while the latter was a beautiful dink over the goalkeeper after a flowing move.
The eight assists he has provided include important goals for Chamakh and Bendtner. One of Marouane’s goals which was set up by Jack turned out to be the winner against Birmingham. Our English prodigy played a one-two with Alex Song, before slipping in Chamakh who did the rest.
Bendtner’s goal was arguably Jack’s best pass of the season, and a hugely important one. Even though we didn’t win the Carling Cup in the end, the goal brought our hopes of the final back to life midway through a tough second half against Ipswich. Jack received the ball inside his own half, and sent a searching ball right into the path of Bendtner – and the rest is history.
The fact that Capello has revealed he’ll be an England regular from now on is telling of how good a season he has had. He only made his international debut earlier this year, and already is being talked of as future captain of England, and indeed of Arsenal. But it’s not just his skills that warrant such high praise.
His attitude is always 100% spot on. He gives every fibre of his being in every game, no matter what, and never shies out of a tackle, winning more than he loses, despite his slight frame. Another thing Arsenal fans appreciate about him is how he acknowledges the fans without fail, after every game. He accepts responsibility for the team’s failures, even when he played his heart out, and he doesn’t take credit for our victories.
Many players divide opinion in this club, but not Jack. The image of him after the Carling Cup final would have touched every true Gooner. We all knew how hard he’d worked for that trophy. If we win the league this year, a huge amount of credit has to go to him. He’s been immense.
*Speaking of people who didn’t previously know who Jack was, after he starred in his first Emirates Cup, I somewhat prematurely got his name on the back of my shirt. All my friends would laugh at me and say “Who’s Wilshere? I bet he’s rubbish”. Who’s laughing now?