I was sitting in my German exam the other day with time to kill and my mind drifted, as it usually does during down-time, to Arsenal. More specifically, what our squad needs for us to put together a proper, genuine, to-the-last-day title challenge next season, and what Arsene Wenger had to say on the matter. In the aftermath of Saturday’s glorious FA Cup triumph, he had reflected on hoping to bring in two or three players, depending on the potential departures of Lukasz Fabianski and Bacary Sagna, both of which now look unavoidable. Whether he meant two or three if they both stayed or whether he meant two or three even if they left is unclear, but personally I see us bringing in four players, with the departures limited to those two and Nicklas Bendtner also bidding some sort of farewell on a Bosman. But is four enough?
Lots of people had spoken about needing something like five or six, but personally I’m not quite so sure. The obvious places our current squad needs improvement are defensive midfield and up front – I think Mikel Arteta and Olivier Giroud have both done admirable jobs, and have had some really impressive performances this season, but of our strongest starting eleven, their limitations are most glaring, and have been particularly so in the big games, in which we’ve fallen painfully short.
And with Fabianski and Sagna leaving, goalkeeper and right-back will need new blood – Carl Jenkinson certainly has his qualities but I don’t think there are many who would be comfortable with him as our starting right-back at the moment, and as for the position between the sticks, I can’t imagine any of those at the club would be capable of being second choice, although Damian Martinez may well be our back-up next year.
So that’s four positions – goalkeeper, right-back, defensive midfield and striker – where we will need new players, but it’s not quite as simple as that. For example, Bacary Sagna’s departure has more ramifications than in his own primary position. The right-back’s versatility had come in handy several times as an auxiliary centre-back, and meant that we didn’t have to waste money and space on a fourth centre-back who would be sitting around, twiddling his thumbs until an emergency occurred. Sagna only played there three times last season, but his experience was helpful in times of injury crisis, which we as Arsenal fans are very familiar with.
Furthermore, lots of people have spoken about the need for a tricky wide forward, as well as a new striker – perhaps someone in the mould of Pedro, with the pace of Theo Walcott but more of a bona fide winger than a second striker playing out wide, which is the role that Lukas Podolski and Walcott have filled this season. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Serge Gnabry can both fill that role, which is why others disagree that a winger is needed, but it’s certainly debatable.
What helps us is that, while we have four positions in absolute need of strengthening, two further positions are only potential areas that may require a little strengthening. This is partly why I hope, and expect, us to go for versatile players – if we sign a right-back capable of playing at centre-back (or a defensive midfielder capable of playing there, as Alex Song once did for us and now Javi Martinez does for Bayern…) and a pacy striker capable of playing out wide, and then fill the remaining key positions as normal, we’ll have signed four players but strengthened six areas of the team. That’s why I’m expecting Arsene to target versatile players, as it keeps squad turnover to a minimum, which he is always keen to do. On top of that, versatile players give you a wider skillset – if players have the attributes to play in more than one position to a high standard, they’ll be a more well-rounded player than one capable of performing in only one position.
With that in mind, it’s not surprising that we appear to be targeting Serge Aurier of Toulouse. I can’t vouch for his versatility myself, but a quick check of his page on WhoScored.com indicates that he’s roughly spent half of the past season playing as a right wing-back and the other half as a centre-back in a three man defence. Another linked target, Carlos Vela, also checks the box of versatility, being capable of playing across the front-line. And at £3.5 million, he’d be a snip.
Personally, I like the idea of going for Alexis Sanchez of Barcelona, with the Catalan club supposedly open to offers for him and the afore-mentioned Pedro (I won’t go into the question of Fabregas…) – I really do think we’d be silly not to try for one of the two. Sanchez would be my preference, given that he could play through the middle or, as he’s done more often for Barcelona, out wide. Honestly, I think Giroud’s done a great job in most games this season, but it’s clear we need a different option, mostly for big games. For that reason, and those outlined above, I think it’s a good idea to go for a player who can play across the front-line, rather than just through the middle, also allowing for more potential squad rotation.
People may call me crazy for this, but I honestly think we’ve missed Gervinho this season. His ingenuity and unpredictability have served Roma well this season, and last year he scored more goals in big games while playing through the middle than Giroud – his beautiful swivel and half-volley against Chelsea at the Emirates was a thing of beauty. I also recall him causing havoc through the centre against Man City at the Etihad, even if his finishing left something to be desired.
That’s why I think we should go for somebody like Gervinho, but with more of a clinical edge – good at dribbling, crossing, quick, capable of playing out wide or through the middle and a clinical finisher. Vela admittedly fits that mould, and would be incredibly cheap, but as I said above, the idea of Alexis Sanchez excites me more, just because he appears to be the more talented player and I want us to be aiming as high as possible.
I think it’s a little too soon for Vela, personally – I’m not sure I see him as a first-choice forward for us yet, but I think if he stays at Real Sociedad for one more year, he’d be a great replacement for Podolski eventually. Like I said, I’m keen on the idea of a forward like Sanchez, and I think more than four additions would be pushing it in terms of integrating new players (we only have to look across the road for the dangers of too many signings at once) and I think Podolski still has a role to play next season – his return at West Ham and his statistics over the last month or so, despite his Wembley no-shows, demonstrated that. However, I think one more season is the best we can hope for from him, and then would be a great time to bring in Vela as a versatile option to play 20 or so games per season, as well as a potential impact player.
Looking backwards towards defensive midfielder, I’m quite set on the idea of prising Morgan Schneiderlin from Southampton. I’ve been impressed with him whenever I’ve seen him, and watching videos of his season on YouTube (scoff all you like, you can learn a thing or two about a player on there) increased my good impression of him. He’s a very modern deep-lying midfielder, capable of carrying out defensive duties impeccably, with good reading of the game, tackling and strength, but also more than happy to foray forward and showcase his excellent control of the ball and impressive range of passing.
It’s probably true that Victor Wanyama gives him a lot of help in the defensive side of the game, but Mikel Arteta wasn’t seen as a naturally defensive player and, other than his increasing physical limitations, has done a very good job. I think Schneiderlin would be an upgrade in almost every way, and perfect for our system: a strong, tall midfielder capable of setting the tempo, controlling the game from deep, starting attacks and vitally screening the defence, with a little help from box-to-box dynamo Aaron Ramsey of course.
If we were to sign Aurier, Sanchez and Schneiderlin, and bring in a back-up goalkeeper – let’s say Viviano for argument’s sake, and I do think it’s a possibility – our squad would look something like this…
Aurier — Mertesacker — Koscielny — Gibbs
Jenkinson — Aurier — Vermaelen — Monreal
Ramsey — Schneiderlin
Wilshere — Arteta
Walcott — Ozil — Cazorla
Chamberlain — Rosicky — Podolski
And then we’d have the likes of Damian Martinez, Mathieu Flamini, Serge Gnabry and Yaya Sanogo backing that core of 21 up in case they’re needed, also getting some vital experience whenever possible. To me, that represents a strong squad with plenty of quality and also plenty of potential for rotation. Last season we were only seven points off first place, and if we had held on to winning positions against Everton, Southampton and Swansea that would have been reduced to one point (although of course it doesn’t quite work like that). But if we can keep our players fit, use the FA Cup win to spur us on and grow as a team, I don’t think we need anymore than some choice strengthening to really go for the league. Let me know what you think.
It seems odd picking a defender after a month in which Arsenal conceded six goals in one game, in one of their worst ‘performances’ of the season. There were other candidates this month: namely Lukas Podolski and Tomas Rosicky – the former with a good contribution of goals and assists, and the latter with his typically impressive performances buzzing around in midfield, not to mention a rocket at Tottenham which ended up being the winner.
But, despite Bacary playing in the 6-0 capitulation at Stamford Bridge, Culann and I were both in agreement that he’d been our player of the month for March. Starting with said loss, it was notable that none of the goals really came down his side. In the first half, three of the goals were scored from Arsenal’s left hand-side being exposed, and in the second half the two goals came from our right after Bacary had switched to the left. The move before the penalty was conceded by Kiera- er, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came from Sagna’s side, but other than that he was hardly culpable. In fact, goals seemed to come from wherever he wasn’t playing, which probably says something about his defensive quality (or that Chelsea were targeting the other full-backs consistently – most likely because they knew of Sagna’s quality).
So the Chelsea game didn’t put much of a blemish on Sagna’s month – certainly not as much as with other players (I won’t name and shame). Going back to the beginning of the month, the Stoke loss was fairly unremarkable from an Arsenal point of view, with no players doing particularly well. The following match against Everton was completely different, with lots of Gunners impressing. As well as putting in a good shift defensively, Sagna set up Arsenal’s third, with intelligent movement to get into a good position, composed play once on the ball and a well-measured pass to Giroud to score. What I most liked about that was his calmness – a less experienced player might have rushed things and played it as soon as Giroud began pointing, but Sagna waited until the right moment to deliver an under-stated pass to ensure it was an easy finish.
Next followed consecutively tough away matches at Tottenham and Bayern Munich, a 1-0 win and a 1-1 draw respectively. Arsenal set up in similar ways in both games, although, surprisingly, were arguably less defensive against Bayern Munich. Then again, maybe it seemed like that because they were able to keep the ball better at Bayern, and thus were able to relieve the pressure on the defence more often (or at least that’s how I remember it). Sagna was his usual solid, reliable self at White Hart Lane; coolness personified on the ball, putting in robust challenges and saving Szczesny’s blushes when he dropped it for the first time. Another reliable performance at Bayern followed.
I must admit that I’ve pretty much erased the Swansea match from my mind, surprisingly even more so than the Chelsea horror show. From what I can recall though, Sagna was, again, solid: it can be difficult to write about players like Sagna for these kinds of things, because they’re so consistent they don’t stand out – we’ve come to expect a high level of consistency from him, and, when he delivers it, it doesn’t seem particularly worthy of praise.
Then finally the 1-1 draw with Manchester City at the Emirates. I was at the game at an Arsenal pub for the first time ever, so I may have missed some of the action having had beer launched into my eyes when we scored (I hadn’t considered that people around me wouldn’t put down their beverages when they leaped up to celebrate) but a few things from Sagna’s game stand out. The first was his wicked cross just after the equaliser, when he whipped the ball devilishly across the goal, just in between the centre back and goalkeeper, more or less leaving both stranded. It was pretty much the perfect ball, and just needed somebody to have gambled on it (although if Giroud had, perhaps Demichelis wouldn’t have left it to zip across the face of goal as he did). The second was Sagna’s involvement in Flamini’s goal, which, like Sagna himself, was simple and under-stated. He pointed into the corner for Giroud to drift out wide and receive the ball, which the Frenchman duly did, and Sagna spun a nice ball down the line for him. What was helpful about this was that Giroud’s movement dragged Demichelis out of position, meaning City had to defensively reshuffle when it happened and then when Demichelis returned – just as Flamini volleyed home. It’s hard to say, but that little movement may well have made all the difference.
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.
And the Ramsey monopoly is broken! Culann and I were in more or less instant agreement that this month, Arsenal’s best player has been Theo Walcott. Not that there weren’t other contenders – Bacary Sagna and Per Mertesacker were superbly consistent as usual, while Koscielny was immense as ever. Mesut Özil was also quietly excellent, scoring twice and playing a crucial part in several goals, as well as putting in one of his most impressive performances to date against West Ham.
But the award goes to Theo Walcott, for his decisiveness in the big moments. His season has followed the pattern of last campaign, where he struggled to get into the team early on in the season (for different reasons) before finding his way back into the side and scoring lots of goals around December and January time. What’s different now is that our form players have dropped off, and Theo is the one we’re now looking to.
It’s incredibly encouraging because previously he’s seemed like a confidence player who played well when others were on form but hid when we were having an off-day. Now he’s one of the leaders of the team, and, while he may not put in 10/10 performances, he comes up with the important moments for us. That’s apparent in Culann’s video – there are a few decent highlights from his month, but mostly they’re decisive goal contributions, and all teams need a player like that.
His contributions this month have all been of utmost importance – he brought us level against City (with an admittedly scuffed finish) before a superb take and finish put us back in the game again; obviously we lost the match, but he was a big part of why we were in it. He played a vital part in the draw against Everton, combining well with fellow substitute Tomas Rosicky to set up what looked like a late winner for Özil – although Gerard Deulofeu had other ideas. Then his goals against West Ham, which probably summed him up this month: effective, influential and capable of producing at decisive moments.
It’s so important for Arsenal to have Walcott in this kind of form now that Ramsey is injured, having already begun to tail off a little, while Olivier Giroud also isn’t firing as he was (although Walcott put his first goal in several games on a plate for him against Newcastle) and Mesut Özil and Santi Cazorla are yet to hit top form – the same goes for Jack Wilshere. Theo Walcott is producing when Arsenal need him most.
It’s also encouraging to see him use the ball more intelligently – his runs off the ball have always been clever, despite what Chris Waddle may think about his footballing brain, but he uses his body more wisely when in possession, shielding the ball and feinting to get past players, as you can see in Culann’s video. Everything seems to be coming to him more naturally now, which can only be a positive.
He may not beat five players in a row down the line when people shout “Run at him Theo!” (hey Dad) but, if you give him a bit of space, he’ll nip past you and whip in a devilish cross. He might even be able to get on the end of a cross, as he showed against West Ham. Arsenal had become a little predictable with playmakers out wide, so having Theo Walcott back and in form is proving a bit help in making them harder to deal with.
With all of the Player of the Month awards that he’s been given, I don’t think there’s a sentence I haven’t used to describe Aaron Ramsey – every superlative has been ticked off, and I’ve even used the cliche about how I’m running out of superlatives, I think. So I think it’d be a little boring for everyone concerned if I was to reel off the same thing about how well he’s playing and how good a player he is, and, although it seems lame and lazy, I decided to find what other people across the internet are saying about our main man right now. Sorry if that seems like a cop-out, but I thought it’d be more fun for everyone.
Perhaps no player symbolises how much Arsenal have progressed more than Aaron Ramsey. There was a time when the midfielder was the target of such fierce criticism from a section of Arsenal’s fans that Arsène Wenger wondered whether it would be best to leave him out of home matches for his own sake, but no one doubts his value now. These days the questions Wenger has to answer concern whether Ramsey will develop into one of the best players in the world after his outstanding start to the season.
Man of the match vs Liverpool: Aaron Ramsey. It was a wonderful team performance from Arsenal but Ramsey gets the nod after another exceptional display in midfield, capped off by a stunning goal.
But this season Ramsey has been a revelation, scoring freely, assisting others and pretty well running the show from his favoured position in the centre of midfield.
That Ramsey’s running is one of his most impressive qualities should come as no surprise. He covered 11km on Saturday [vs Liverpool], proving that he has come of age as a box-to-box player par excellence.
Aaron Ramsey at the moment is arguably one of the best midfielders in Europe. That’s why he puts in performances like that. He’s one of the best in Europe. He’s a fine young man and he’s someone is beginning to show that potential and hard work – if given a chance and if given a steady run of games – can shine among European stars which is something will probably delight Arsene Wenger.
Through 12 games, Ramsey has not only realized the individual potential that everyone saw in him as a youth at Cardiff City, but he has also been the driving force behind Arsenal’s fast start. Wenger has used both tactical shifts and more compatible teammates to transform Ramsey into a consistent two-way player for the top team in the Premier League, and he is my early favorite for the Player of the Year award.
Ramsey’s move from an auxiliary wing position to the central midfield this season has played an instrumental role in his establishment among Europe’s best midfielders. The move gave Ramsey more control of the midfield, and he now leads the possession-based Gunners with 87 touches per 90 minutes. For some, the fact that Ramsey is the most active player on the league’s top team is enough to garner consideration for Player of the Year, but Ramsey’s advanced numbers show that his move to central midfield has made him more efficient in other areas as well.
Aaron Ramsey, scorer of the goal that took Saturday’s game beyond Liverpool, played like the Steven Gerrard we knew back then. He charged from box to box, tackled all that moved, and inspired his team to victory. The current version toiled in a malfunctioning midfield that could never get a grip on the match that was supposed to prove his club’s credentials as a force for honours.
Maturity and experience has undoubtedly contributed to the “new and improved” Aaron Ramsey and this season he has ticked all the boxes required of a modern all-round midfield player. His stamina and mobility are extraordinary and although he has trouble running away from the opposition over longer distances, his sharpness over the first few yards often puts the opposition under intense pressure and the ball is often easily recovered.
Aaron [Ramsey] has first a fantastic engine. I believe his defensive awareness has improved, his defensive qualities have improved and his defensive score is very strong now. After that he has a huge desire to play every single ball. He wins the 50:50s – that was not the case a year ago. If you let him, he takes the ball at the back, passes to himself in midfield and passes to himself up front because he wants the ball so much. That’s why his presence is so massive in a game.