Although Robin van Persie won Arsenal.com’s player of the season award today by more than a landslide, there are several who deserve mentions alongside the Dutchman – the three men above for instance. No, not you Mike Dean. I blurred you out for a reason. (if you genuinely are reading this Mike, more penalties please. Not for the other team as pictured above, you give too many of those)
As well as Laurent Koscielny, Alex Song and Bacary Sagna, Mikel Arteta, Theo Walcott, Tomas Rosicky and Wojciech Szczesny have all made sizeable contributions this season, and those contributions should not be written off simply due to the magnitude of van Persie’s. Not only did several of them lay on a great deal of van Persie’s goals, but they were superb in their own rights. Suggestions that Arsenal are a one-man team are way off the mark, even if their captain did score a large amount of the Gunners’ goals last season.
In his first full season, Wojciech Szczesny made some excellent saves and was a commanding presence between the posts. A lack of protection from the defence and midfield at times exposed him – especially to an apparent weakness from long shots – but he still made some vital stops and his distribution seemed to improve. A large character, he’ll be sure to be Arsenal’s number one for years to come.
Despite two leg breaks, when he played, Bacary Sagna was a beacon of consistency and was always his no-nonsense self at right back, further strengthening his claim to being the best in the league in his position. As well as the never-wavering defensive contributions, he did his bit when he went forward too, setting up van Persie’s header at Anfield for example.
Many had Thomas Vermaelen & Per Mertesacker down as our first choice at the beginning of the season, and by the end, Laurent Koscielny is the only indisputable choice at centre back for many, myself included. The Frenchman (older than Vermaelen, to my surprise) had a superb second season, showing everyone that he had settled completely with many flawless displays in defence. Deserving of far more than just 4.29% in the player of the season poll.
In midfield we were ravaged with injuries, which meant we didn’t see Jack Wilshere once, and we were often without Alex Song’s back-ups in Coquelin & Frimpong. Luckily Song was pretty much always available, and while his performances weren’t as consistent as his appearances, he still came up with important assists when we needed him to; mostly to van Persie, although an exquisite ball to Theo Walcott for our second vs Aston Villa springs to mind.
Alongside Song in a midfield pivot was Mikel Arteta, summer deadline day signing from Everton. I’ve written way too much about him recently as it is, but one more paragraph can’t hurt: he added some much needed stability and balance to Arsenal, as well as chipping in with some vital contributions going forwards. Arsenal’s record without him said it all.
The third member of the regular midfield – in the second half of the season anyway – was Tomas Rosicky, and the Czech excelled in the role between Robin van Persie, linking up well with the Dutchman as well as dropping in and creating a midfield three with Arteta & Song, which helped Arsenal’s fluidity a great deal. 2 goals and 5 assists weren’t brilliant, but something to build on next season – and the goal to put the Gunners ahead against Tottenham was pretty huge.
It may seem strange to some that Theo Walcott is the final member praised in this post, as his contribution remains erratic, but there were still some important goals and assists scattered here, there and everywhere. In 46 appearances (including 5 as a substitute) he netted eleven times and set up nine goals – that’s 20 goals he was directly involved in. Not a bad return for someone still only 23 and still developing.
All in all, despite a huge contribution from van Persie, there were still vital parts played by his team-mates, and he certainly couldn’t have done it without them. I suppose this is kind of a lazy season review – and it’s not anything to do with the recent Unsung Heroes series, despite some relatable content.
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.
There would be little point in going over the same negative critiques as everybody else – it would add little to the debate and be very repetitive, not to mention rather detrimental. So instead, this post will discuss some of the positives that can be taken from the Arsenal – Manchester United game.
Let’s start with Laurent Koscielny, a player I (among several others) have long been championing. All season long (and before that too) he has been absolutely superb, barely putting a foot wrong. He kept that up on Sunday, with his immaculate defensive play one of the highlights for Arsenal. As always his tackles were precise and clean, and he was dominant in the air.
Indeed, he was the one who started the attack for Robin van Persie’s goal. He robbed Rafael of the ball expertly, and having carried it out of defence, fired a pass into Tomas Rosicky. Rosicky played a lovely ball to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who set up van Persie to fire home. Koscielny loves to come out of defence with the ball and it is one of the many things that endears him to Arsene Wenger. He loves a ball-playing centre back, and appears to have found a superb one in Koscielny. I’d say he’s quite easily the best defender at the club. There aren’t many better in England right now either.
The manner of Arsenal’s goal was unsurprising and perhaps telling, as it was made by the three stand-out players of the game for the Gunners. After the contribution of Laurent Koscielny came Tomas Rosicky‘s. He found himself in acres of space when found by Koscielny, and lobbed an excellent pass into the path of Oxlade-Chamberlain. Rosicky was easily the best out of Arsenal’s midfield trio, constantly looking for space and helping keep the ball. His dynamic runs on the ball were a great help in starting attacks for the home side, and filled in well for Mikel Arteta.
There have been many times when Rosicky has been written off by most but once again he’s come back and shown his true colours. If he could gain some more consistency in his performances (which are in fairness not very consistent themselves numbers-wise; he often gets thrown in due to injury, instead of being played in a rotation system, something which would probably decrease Arsenal’s injuries as they wouldn’t be relying on players so heavily) he would be seen as a very valuable member of Arsene Wenger’s squad. For now he should be seen as a great fill-in for Mikel Arteta – it is just a shame that Aaron Ramsey is also filling in for Jack Wilshere and is suffering from that reliance on him. It’s never easy when a team is forced to play two second choice midfielders, especially for Arsenal as it’s where the majority of their play comes from.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was the third player involved in the goal before the finishing touch from Robin van Persie and had been having an eye-catching game. His buzzing runs and powerful play created a few openings for Arsenal; a chance spurned by Theo Walcott and one narrowly missed by Aaron Ramsey were both set up by Oxlade-Chamberlain. He finally got the assist he had been working for when captain van Persie drilled home after great work from the youngster.
He repeatedly turned United’s full backs and covering players inside out, and did so again for the goal. Any worries about him not being mentally ready for the big-time seem to have been soothed. Physically he may not be ready 100% as was shown by Wenger bringing him off (although his critics will argue against that point) but that will be easy to improve on.
Talking about the game as a whole, 2-1 is a completely respectable score-line. Arsenal were poor in the first half, but the second half saw them take control. It was a very promising display; they seized upon mistakes (see Rosicky robbing Smalling) and despite missing chances it would have pleased Arsene Wenger, despite the direction the game took in the end. His side have lost by the same score to Manchester United many a time before, and there certainly wasn’t as much hysteria then.
Clearly Arsenal are suffering from injuries to key players; Bacary Sagna, Andre Santos, Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta would all have started, and Gervinho is also missing. Not only that but the replacements for those players aren’t all fit – Carl Jenkinson and Kieran Gibbs are both on the sidelines too. 2-1 against the champions is hardly a terrible result. It could have gone either way too – if Arsenal had made more of their period of dominance they could have easily gone ahead.
The point is not that the negatives are irrelevant or even not there. Just that they aren’t all that there is.
This post first appeared on Life’s a Pitch.
In the six years it has been since Arsenal lifted a trophy, there has been one common factor throughout: a problem with our defence. Whether it’s been a dodgy goalkeeper, the defensive personnel or trouble with set pieces, it’s nearly always been our downfall.
There have been several high-profile defensive mistakes at Arsenal over the past six years. Manuel Almunia has made a large number of them – for one, his fumble against Birmingham in March 2010 signified the beginning of the end of Arsenal’s title challenge. That season had seen us still in with a chance of lifting the trophy late in the season, but defensive mistakes, among other things, saw us fall away. Losses to Tottenham, Wigan and Blackburn – all littered with goals that should have been easy to prevent – were the final nails in our coffin for that season.
While other things have contributed to us not winning trophies (refereeing mistakes and injuries come to mind – these can also be traced back to St Andrews) it has long been the case that defensive troubles have been one of the main reasons that we’ve struggled for consistency. The fragility has always been clear to everyone, and you could sense that a mistake could come out of nowhere at any time.
Now, things seem to be different. Arsenal’s first choice defence finally seems to be one to be proud of; the reliable Wojciech Szczesny, one of the best right backs around in Bacary Sagna, our solid vice-captain Thomas Vermaelen, the ever-improving Laurent Koscielny and the enthusiastic (yet temporarily injured) Andre Santos. Left back is arguably the only first choice position which can be questioned – Santos has only been at Arsenal for a few months, and although he’s shown good signs he’s still yet to be tested to the best of his ability.
However, Arsenal have been a lot more solid in defence of late. Szczesny has proven himself as a top goalkeeper worthy of his position, Sagna has always been top quality, Vermaelen has few remaining critics after a storming first season, and Koscielny has set about proving all of his nay-sayers wrong with some outstanding form. Santos has also provided calm and experience, despite his liking to maraud forward – which has in fairness improved our attack too.
In fact, a case could well be made for Koscielny and Vermaelen potentially being the best central defensive partnership in the league. They haven’t played together at the heart of the defence as much as Arsene Wenger would have liked due to various injuries, but when they have they’ve impressed.
The perennial high line seems to have been ditched in favour of a more efficient, versatile style, and the Gunners have had far less problems in the air – be that from set pieces or from long balls. While not the tallest pairing around, Vermaelen and Koscielny are both deceptively strong in the air, and the statistics back that up.
While it may be too late for Arsenal to mount a proper title challenge this season due to a late awakening because of Wenger’s apparent wish to press the snooze button until the end of August, we seem to have sorted out the problems that have haunted us season upon season. The spine of the team is now strong, and we have a tough, efficient base to build upon. Without the shakiness at the back the rest of the team can feel more at ease and more able to do their own jobs, instead of worrying when the next defensive cock-up will come.
Not only have we improved our first choice back-line, it seems obvious that our back-up options are better now too. Instead of the often-erratic Eboué (see the penalty he conceded against Liverpool at the Emirates last season) we have the young, hard-working Jenkinson – while he is still learning, he has incredible stamina and a wicked cross. At centre half Squillaci is making fewer appearances thanks to the shrewd purchase of Per Mertesacker; although he has made a couple of errors, he’s still getting to know the Premier League and has given us a vital boost of experience, according to Robin van Persie. Johan Djourou now seems ready to fill in whenever needed effectively across the defence too, instead of destabilising our defence like he once did. And Kieran Gibbs now offers a more reliable alternative at left back than he did a few seasons ago (when he’s actually fit!).
So you can keep your Gary Cahills (overrated and not at all versatile) and your Christopher Sambas (definitely not what we need, thanks) because we’ve solved our defensive problems on our own. As the old saying goes; Arsène knows.
This post first appeared on Life’s a Pitch
When Arsenal signed Laurent Koscielny for £10 million from French side Lorient in the summer of 2010, eyebrows were raised.
Few fans of English football knew if he was worth that much, in fact, few had even heard of the defender. Indeed, it had been a fairly rapid rise for Koscielny; he’d gone from the French second division to the Champions League in just two years.
Over the course of his debut season, it seemed that many formed the opinion that he’s not a very good defender. This is probably because alongside the woeful Sebastien Squillaci and the occasionally error-prone Johan Djourou, Koscielny was part of poor defensive showings. For example the 4-4 draw with Newcastle having been 4-0 up at half time. Of course, the Carling Cup final incident wouldn’t have helped either – a horrible mix-up with goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny saw Birmingham lift the trophy in the dying seconds.
However, those freak incidents should not affect people’s judgement of Koscielny, although inevitably they do. If you watched Koscielny closely, you’d see countless perfect interceptions and tackles; he’s excellent aerially as well as on the deck. His range of passing is usually impressive, and he’s stronger than he looks.
I’m writing this after Arsenal’s 1-1 draw with Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League, although I did begin the article before the match. From taking a glance at Twitter, the overall view of Arsenal’s performance is that Koscielny was among our best players. For a man who last season divided opinion a lot, the majority are beginning to realise that he’s a superb defender.
Communication may be an area in which he lacks, but he makes up for that with a combination of physical and technical prowess. For example, a couple of times against Dortmund he played a BVB player onside, yet managed to recover and put the player off each time. He quite clearly has the infamous mental strength that Arsene always goes on about; he also recovered from that scarring incident at Wembley, which speaks volumes of his character and mentality.
I still don’t quite understand how some fans don’t rate Koscielny higher. I’ve been banging on about him for months (it hasn’t just been me in fairness) and some people are only just realising how good he is when he’s playing with a good partner. It’s a wide perception that he struggles in the air, but that’s actually not true; he came up with several brilliant headers against Dortmund, as per usual in fact. Perhaps it’s his brilliance on the deck that makes his aerial ability seem less in comparison.
Still, the criticism that he’s come in for from the media and from the fans has been incredibly harsh. Against Barcelona at the Emirates last season, he absolutely dominated the best player in the world – Lionel Messi didn’t have much of a look-in (well, a lot less than he usually does) because of how well Koscielny handled him. If you don’t believe me, have a look at Koscielny’s performance on YouTube. It was sterling to say the least.
And if you’d like more evidence as to his aerial prowess, have a look at how well he handled Andy Carroll a few weeks ago. Carroll too barely had a look in, and this was thanks mainly to Koscielny. He had been targeted by the lone striker Carroll due to the misconception of Koscielny not being very good, but our number 6 handled Carroll impeccably.
Our new zonal marking system suits Koscielny down to the ground, and he’s one of the reasons as to why our defence has been so sturdy in the new season, Old Trafford aside. Statistically our defence may not have been very strong, but when watching games against Newcastle, Liverpool, Swansea, Udinese and Dortmund we’ve held out well, and only really conceded when down to 10 men or to a wondergoal.
To sum up, I’d have to say Laurent Koscielny is one of the most underrated players in the Premier League in my opinion. He’s a solid defender, no-nonsense and is improving game-by-game.