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Assessing Arsenal’s squad

squad

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…

Szczesny
Viviano

AurierMertesackerKoscielnyGibbs
JenkinsonAurierVermaelenMonreal

RamseySchneiderlin
WilshereArteta

WalcottOzilCazorla
ChamberlainRosickyPodolski

Sanchez
Giroud

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.

Arsenal Player of the Month: November, with Culann Davies video

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.

– Jacob Steinberg – The Guardian

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.

– Sky Sports

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.

– Gerry Cox, The Telegraph

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.

– Malky Mackay, TalkSPORT

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.

– Adrian Melville, ESPN.com

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.

– John Brewin, ESPNFC.com

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.

– Bobby McMahon, Forbes.com

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.

– Arsene Wenger, arsenal.com

ramseypotmnovember

Arsenal 2012/13 season reviewed

seasonreview

This article first appeared on Sabotage Times.

The ‘I f*cking love this game’ highlight of the season? Surprisingly, many to choose from here. The 7-3 against Newcastle was mental, the 3-1 comeback against Norwich a huge moment in our season and the 5-2 against Tottenham enjoyable. However, the utterly insane 7-5 Capital One Cup victory over Reading takes it by a nose – 4-0 down, back to 5-4, pegged back to 5-5 and two goals in added time of extra time to win it. Crazy. If anyone had money on 7-5, you’d have to imagine the people at bwinbetting.com were pulling their hair out.

The season ticket shredding moment? Less surprisingly, many to choose from again. A disappointing loss to Norwich is right up there, however you’d probably have to say the 2-1 away loss to Tottenham, despite the way in which it turned our season around in a positive way. Absolutely shocking defending through-out.

Moment that just about summed it all up? Probably the 3-3 home draw with Fulham – 2-0 up, inexplicably 3-2 down, instantly back to 3-3 then missing a last-minute penalty. Thankfully it’s not quite an accurate metaphor for the season, given that we squeezed over the line at the final hurdle.

Got the right manager? You certainly can’t convince me that we haven’t, although plenty have tried and likely will continue to. The fan-base is still somewhat divided over Wenger – some say he deserves credit for making a big change in dropping Szczesny and Vermaelen and Fabianski and Koscielny, others say he was simply correcting his original mistake. It’s time for him to be vindicated next season.

Player of the season? Per Mertesacker has been solid all season, with Laurent Koscielny returning alongside him in the second half of the season to shore up the defence superbly. Mikel Arteta has enjoyed a similar return to form after the revival of Aaron Ramsey, while Theo Walcott has had his best return in front of goal. However, in his debut season Santi Cazorla has to take it – the incredibly robust Spaniard barely missed any games, and only suffered slightly consistency-wise, winning over Arsenal fans with some magical performances and other-worldly touches.

What would you change next term if you were the gaffer? Formation is good, seems to have gotten the defence all singing the same tune of late – Steve Bould’s done a good job there, despite the rumours that Wenger refused to let him work with the defence because he was jealous. The main thing is getting someone to cover for Arteta – pretty much the only trust-worthy midfielder who’s got defensive nous, although Ramsey covered for him very well when needed.

Which player would you like to sign? Olivier Giroud has lead the line quite well in his debut season, while Theo Walcott has shown promise up-front (despite still getting into those positions from out wide), with Lukas Podolski slightly less successful in the middle. A proper good striker is very high on most Arsenal fans’ lists, and Stevan Jovetic has been linked. Tall, strong, good at holding up the ball, great at link-up play, skilful, mobile, a good finisher – Fiorentina missing out on the Champions League has given some fans hope that we can prise the Montenegrin away from them.

Biggest own-goal? Very nearly Wojciech Szczesny’s way-too-early gloating of sorts that Tottenham ‘lack quality’, although we (and he) came good in the end, so that’s alright. Bacary Sagna’s catalogue of errors to give Robin van Persie a penalty at the Emirates was awful, but playing a more-or-less full-strength team at Bradford and still losing was pretty embarrassing so let’s go with that.

Biggest t*sser? I’d love to pick from the series of Tottenham staff who insisted it’d be their year (yet again) – Bale, Adebayor, Villas-Boas etc – as well as Steffen Freund, whose final day aggravations behind the manager were utterly hilarious. Piers Morgan is also a contender, as would anyone who made Alan Sugar’s opinions on Arsenal seem sensible. A word, too, for Stewart Robson, who, having been removed from his analyst duties, did his best to destabilise the club with myths about Wenger and Bould not being on speaking terms. Let’s just say everyone’s a t*sser and be done with it.

Best chant? Not many to choose from to be honest, although if I’d been to more away games I could list some of the more imaginative ones. I’ll keep it plain and simple and go with Per Mertesacker’s: “We’ve got a big f*cking German, big f*cking German”, which went down a treat with big Per.

Player’s tweet of the season? Nothing hilarious, just a perfect summary of everything from Mikel Arteta, accompanied by a charming mis-spelling of ‘title’: “We kept great TOGETHERNESS between Players,Staff,Directors & Supporters and we got rewarded! Proud 2 play 4 Arsenal!Let’s win a tittle now!”

Best laugh you had all season? All of my gold doubloons go to the man who sent a text to someone at White Hart Lane, mischievously misinforming them that Newcastle had drawn level against us. Wild celebrations ensued at the Lane. Even Michael Dawson was on his knees celebrating when Bale scored – he thought they’d done it. Oh Tottenham. The gift that never stops giving.

How do you plan to get through the summer without football? Tennis. I need to prepare myself for goal line technology.

Abou Diaby comparing himself with Yaya Toure may not be wide of the mark

This article first appeared on Sabotage Times. Click or Diaby will hunt you down

The most inescapable facet of Abou Diaby’s career at Arsenal has been the comparison with Patrick Vieira. A tall, gangly French central midfielder of African descent playing at Arsenal under Arsène Wenger; the likenesses were invariably going to be addressed.

In fairness, they are quite a bit alike on the pitch. Their physical similarities mean that their playing styles have many shared components – both stride around the pitch using their long legs to retain possession, and, when on his game, Diaby uses his strength to hold off opponents in the same way as the former Arsenal captain did time and again at Highbury.

But while Vieira was a disciplined distributor, Diaby is a midfielder who likes to get forward, and often emphasises this in interviews. Having been pigeon-holed by many as a defensive midfielder due to his physical attributes, despite preferring to attack, it’s understandable that his progress has been delayed – and not just by injury – as it’s taken time to perfect his role at Arsenal.

Another player who’s suffered a similar categorization is Yaya Toure. At Barcelona he was classified as a holding midfielder due to his strength and size – it was assumed that he would follow the many midfielders of African descent in being a defensive player, but he seemed reluctant to play in a disciplined role. When he came to Manchester City, he was given freedom to drive forward from midfield into advanced positions, which suited him perfectly.

Comparisons between Diaby and Toure, like those between the current Arsenal number 2 and Vieira, may be easy to make, but there’s certainly weight behind them. Both of them are skilful midfielders who swim against the tide of stereotypes, preferring to break forward in support of attackers than stay back and protect the defence.

One of the main differences has recently been that while Toure has been on top of his game for a while, Diaby has struggled so long for any semblance of form, mainly due to injuries – not just the physical consequences but the mental aspect. His confidence seemed drained during matches, and he looked unsure of himself.

Quite what clicked against Liverpool is unclear. It may be that he just needed games under his belt, or that alongside Arteta given license to get forward everything finally came together for him, but his performance had pundits showering him with praise. The role he played was similar to that of Toure at Man City – alongside a disciplined distributor in midfield, given license to go forward.

Funnily enough, Vieira would probably be Diaby’s perfect central midfield partner. Like Arteta at Anfield, he would sit deep while Diaby probed forwards with driving runs, dancing pirouettes and penetrative passing. We finally saw Diaby produce something close to his best after seemingly laying dormant for so long, and Arsène Wenger will have been pleased to see his persistence pay off.

The comparison of Toure and Diaby isn’t exactly ground-breaking – the Arsenal midfielder made it himself after the game – but it certainly proves that Diaby can be a success after so long without a defined role. He seems to have found his calling, a role in which Toure so frequently excels for Manchester City, and one that should also help his new team-mate, Santi Cazorla. When Diaby breaks forward from midfield, Cazorla can drift into wide areas as he loves to do, with Diaby occupying his position. Indeed, we saw this for Cazorla’s goal at Anfield.

It will certainly give Arsenal unpredictability going forwards – rather than a rigid formation, the team will be free-flowing and fluid going forward. Last season it was similar, but the chaos that often broke down opposing teams also contributed to the Gunners’ own downfall; the lack of structure leading to a leaky defence.

Song was in Diaby’s box-to-box role, and Arteta’s function was slightly vague. This season it’s much clearer that he’s the disciplined holder and Diaby the one with license to get forward, and with more clarity Arsenal should benefit.

Wenger was widely derided for not buying a centre midfielder in the summer, especially after the sale of Song, but Diaby coming good against Liverpool seems to be vindicating him. Everyone knew of his talent, but the question was whether he could finally fulfil that potential. It was a risk to not strengthening centrally, but Diaby seems to have benefitted from the faith his manager put in him.

It took a while, but this may well prove to be another time where Arsène Wenger has the last laugh.

Arsenal have reasons to be cheerful

I was asked to metaphorically cut the metaphorical tape with metaphorical scissors for the not-metaphorical launch of Chapman’s Goal, so here’s the article which is the metaphor for the cutting of said metaphorical tape. You can follow them on Twitter here, and check out the original article here, if it makes any difference to you, or love it so much you want to read it again but with a slightly different setting.

The headlines at Arsenal this summer have been the departures. Robin van Persie and, more recently, Alex Song, both packed their bags and spat in the face of/were gladly helped out of the door by (delete as applicable) the man who made them what they are. Following the precedents set by recent seasons, in which first team players have left and we’ve failed to win a trophy, the media have automatically assumed the same will happen again.

Poor media. Their blindness to the positives at Arsenal will inevitably come back to bite them in the, ahem, arse. It’s happened before when they predicted us to finish outside the top four, and those who don’t think we’ll challenge will be chewing the bland, rubbery humble pie they know so well at the end of the season. They should know better.

The reason for my confidence is what the media have overlooked – the quality of the replacements Arsenal have brought in. Van Persie’s departure has been offset not only by the signings of international strikers Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud but also Santi Cazorla, who I’m sure I don’t need to tell you anything about. Except those that are calling him “Carzola”. Stop that.

It’s important that people realise Van Persie was so important to us because we didn’t properly replace Cesc Fabregas – Aaron Ramsey was in no way ready for ‘the Cesc role’, and because the most central (in terms of location and importance) role was being filled by someone not quite up to the task, we suffered, and Van Persie was required to win us games on his own.

Later, Tomas Rosicky began to make the role his own, and it’s no coincidence that the loss of Van Persie’s form went fairly unnoticed at the time. The vital piece of the puzzle was sufficiently placed by Rosicky, and our efficiency increased – Van Persie wasn’t the only way we could win games, as demonstrated by a 3-0 win over Aston Villa with no contribution from The Lying Dutchman.

Still, Rosicky was only an adequate stop gap, and the perceived wisdom was that Arsenal would need someone to fill the Cesc-shaped hole properly – especially with the Czech’s injury problems which have unsurprisingly crept up once more.

For once, our luck was in, and we managed to wrest Santi Cazorla from Malaga’s relenting grasp due to their financial problems which came fairly out of the blue. Cazorla is, let’s be honest, not quite as good as Cesc. Very few players are. But since Cesc’s time at Arsenal, some of the players he was surrounded by have matured, and we’ve brought in others to improve the team.

Per Mertesacker was brought in last season, and should have adapted more to the league so as to be able to better instil his calming influence and exemplary reading of the game. Laurent Koscielny became one of the best defenders in the league last season. Thomas Vermaelen, despite occasional struggles last season, should improve with the added responsibility of the armband, and for once we’ll have a captain who can lead as a general, rather than a soldier, if that analogy makes any sense whatsoever.

Moving up the pitch, Mikel Arteta was superb last season with his precise passing, retention of possession and positional discipline and will continue to use his experience to help the side. Jack Wilshere, touch wood, returns in October, and will add guile and energy to the midfield. Abou Diaby is another who is hoping to put an injury nightmare behind him, and while performances might be inconsistent to start with, he has the potential to be an important player for this team.

It’s hard to place Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in this article, as he could be in the midfield paragraph or forwards paragraph, but I imagine he’ll play as a wide player this season give that we need a less direct option who’s happy to help keep the ball and probe against deep-sitting, bus-parking opposition. After a season under his belt he’ll have improved, as will his competitors on the flanks, Theo Walcott and Gervinho, who both showed signs of that in pre-season.

Lukas Podolski will also play out wide, but will be vying also for that central spot with Olivier Giroud also in contention. Last season Van Persie was our only option, with Chamakh a stuttering, nervous wreck and Park possibly not existing. This season we’ll be able to rotate up front, as well as in other positions, meaning we’re much less predictable.

And finally a mention to our new signing, Nuri Sahin. At the time of writing he’s not been confirmed officially, but I’ve already been assured I can order my Turkey away shirt with ‘Sahin 10’ on the back without worrying the move will fall through. At Dortmund he was fantastic, and while a loan deal is always slightly disappointing, he’s sure to be a great asset this season, and will allow for even more rotation and, by extension, unpredictability.

All in all, Arsenal’s options, on paper, look promising. An opening day draw against Sunderland has drawn criticism from some quarters, but teams don’t click overnight, and this one will need time to begin firing. The team showed classic signs (I’m sounding like a shrink) of being a team in need of time to gel and in particular patience, and they deserve that before our fans start ripping their hair out and throwing it at Arsène Wenger. Who, by the way, knows more about football than pretty much everyone who has criticised him.

That’s not to say he doesn’t have his faults, but look at our signings this summer – Olivier Giroud, top scorer in Ligue 1 in a title-winning side who came from nowhere to clinch it; Lukas Podolski, 18 goals in a relegated side and over 100 caps for Germany; Santi Cazorla, widely acclaimed as the best player outside of La Liga’s ‘big two’ and winner of 46 caps in a Spain midfield including Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Cesc Fabregas and Iniesta; and finally Nuri Sahin, Bundesliga Player of the Year in 2011. I could list more accolades, but I’ve written too much as it is.

So that’s four fantastic additions from Wenger, and many more reasons to be cheerful at the Emirates. It may well be a far better season than many are predicting. I for one am looking forward to it.

The Robin van Persie situation

Hi there! Two blogs in as many days, I know, must be some sort of record for me. Nice choice of picture? What ever do you mean? Nope, sorry. No idea what you’re talking about…

So it seems as if Robin van Persie, our talisman of last season, will be sold if Manchester United meet the asking price, which they apparently have. I wrote about the situation a while ago, before he made the statement, insisting that we couldn’t afford to sell him, even if it meant he ran down his contract and went elsewhere. It’s important to mention that I assumed ‘elsewhere’ would be another league – I was sure he wouldn’t leave us for another English team.

Well, pretty much everything has changed since then. He made the statement, looks likely to go to one of the Manchester clubs with few other teams in for him, and we have signed Santi Cazorla. The situation is completely different, and for us it’s changed for the better.

Last season, we relied on van Persie for goals, and he duly supplied them, winning the Golden Boot and, let’s be honest, firing us into the Champions League. But the team was imbalanced – we relied on him far too heavily. There was a massive disproportion in our list of goal scorers – only Theo Walcott also reached double figures in all competitions.

What was clear as we entered the Robin van Persie saga was that any replacement would be under huge pressure to deliver – van Persie’s role was unique in its style and also importance. Whoever we signed to take his place, assuming we had to replace him, would be thrust into the headlights and would be required to hit the ground running. If not, we’d have another season of transition and if we fell further from our position of last season, we’d most likely miss out on the Champions League.

The statement changed things. It changed van Persie’s status at Arsenal from the king of the current crop to, in the eyes of some, a traitor. Money-grabber was a bit far, but he had let down everyone at the Emirates Stadium, from the fans all the way up to Arsene Wenger. Suddenly he became a bit more dispensable – he hadn’t become a worse player over night but his commitment could be openly questioned after the statement.

Still, on the pitch not much was different. We still had to replace him with a great player if he left, and even then his influence wouldn’t quite be replicated.

The signing of Santi Cazorla was a game-changer. All of last season we had lacked a player to define us – a playmaker. Cesc Fabregas was a massive loss, and we didn’t make up for the sale with a similar player. By all accounts, Arsene tried hard – the size of the bids it’s suggested he made for the likes of Cazorla and Juan Mata back that up – but in the end we were left to rely on Tomas Rosicky and Aaron Ramsey. Both good players, but not capable of running the team. Rosicky came into form in the second half of the season, but still didn’t quite do the job, while Ramsey suffered under the pressure of the role.

Cazorla, though, was a fantastic signing. Finally, we had someone to replace Fabregas in that playmaker role. The problem with van Persie being our talisman – the problem with any striker being a talisman – is that, no matter how good he is, he needs service to thrive. Van Persie often did so, with our suppliers focussing their passes and crosses in his direction, but it wasn’t always enough. Sometimes he was off form, and at those times we often struggled.

But when your key player is a central playmaker, like Cazorla, it’s a bit different. A playmaker, by definition, makes those around him play. Fabregas did exactly that, and at his best, goals came from all around the pitch. Whoever made a run would be found, and it would then be up to them to supply the finish. The goals weren’t shared around last season – all of the players knew that they just had to pass to van Persie.

This may have meant that they didn’t take responsibility themselves. Why try and score yourself when it’s so much easier to pass to your captain and best player? Besides, at the beginning of the season especially, we lacked confidence after a poor spell, so a lot of players played within themselves (or should I say with the hand-brake on Arsene?) and van Persie ended up having to rescue us on several occasions.

And don’t let van Persie’s massive goal total fool you – creatively Arsenal were lacking a lot last season. The majority of his goals weren’t simply down to good midfield play, but superb movement from the Dutch striker. Without that we suffered, although luckily we didn’t go without it too often during the season.

Having Cazorla will change things. Our wingers won’t have to focus on feeding the striker, and will instead be able to make more runs. Alex Song won’t have to bomb forwards as much because his passes won’t be so important. We’ll become far less predictable – the theory was that if you stopped van Persie, you stop Arsenal, and while this was a lot easier said than done, it was still managed. The game against Wigan is the best example – at the Emirates they took van Persie out of the game perfectly, and we looked as if we had no idea how to score in the second half.

Finally the balance of the squad is a lot more even. The restructuring with the signings of Podolski and Giroud to shoulder the attacking burden and Cazorla to create have been excellent, especially for a reported total of £35 million (Andy Carroll yadah yadah yadah), but most importantly Cazorla fills the hole that’s been gaping since Cesc Fabregas went back home.

This vital puzzle piece being missing last season meant an increased reliance on our best player, but now, in theory at least, we won’t need to rely on a striker for all of our goals. They should be coming in from all angles now that we have a proper creator. Players don’t always have to be replaced like-for-like; simply their influence has to be replaced, and the signings of Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski and, in particular, Santi Cazorla will surely do that for the apparently imminent departure of van Persie.

Expect energetic Gervinho to exceed Emirates expectations

With most of Arsenal’s pre-season talk centring around the Robin van Persie saga, not to mention the signing of Santi Cazorla – which should be announced in the next couple of days – the actual football displayed by the Gunners has somewhat sneaked under the radar.

While it’s never wise to read too far into friendlies, especially those against Asian minnows Kitchee among others, Gervinho has impressed enough for him to be firmly in Arsène Wenger’s thoughts for the new season. Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will provide sterling competition for the Ivorian winger, not to mention the (literally) left-field option of Andre Santos, but after his pre-season showing, he should be confident of his chances of a regular place.

His first season was a little tricky. After signing for Lille for roughly £10.5 million (the exact same as Thierry Henry when he joined from Juventus), hopes were high – after all, it seemed to some as if Arsène Wenger had opted for Gervinho over team-mate Eden Hazard, even though this was probably not the case.

Even so, according to experts he’d been just as impressive as Hazard in Lille’s successful title tilt, so expectations were fairly high for the new number 27. After all, he’d taken Emmanuel Eboue’s old number, so he had big shoes to fill; clown shoes to be precise.

Arsenal began the season with Gervinho as first choice left-winger, with Oxlade-Chamberlain deemed not ready, Yossi Benayoun not yet trusted, and Andrey Arshavin falling rapidly more out of favour with Arsène Wenger by the week. However, a red card on his competitive debut against Newcastle after a tussle with Joey Barton stalled Gervinho’s Arsenal career before it had even properly begun.

In and around his domestic ban, though, he began to make a good impression – he provided a vital assist for Robin van Persie in the Champions League qualifier against Udinese when the Gunners were struggling to find a way through. A goal against Blackburn after his ban ended was another high point, before he turned in arguably his best performance of the season against Stoke.

Having put the Gunners ahead early on with a smart bit of control and subsequent finish, having jinked his way into the penalty area he set up van Persie to score twice, inspiring his side to a 3-1 victory.

A woeful miss against Chelsea didn’t help his cause, but the performance surrounding it certainly did, as he helped earn his side a 5-3 win with an assist and some all-round good play. Goals against Wigan and Wolves followed, and although he didn’t score any more after that, he continued to impress intermittently with his superb dribbling skills.

As is customary with most African players though, the African Cup of Nations didn’t help his season though. Not only did it interfere with his progress with his club, missing the crucial penalty in the final clearly had a sizeable effect on the winger mentally.

Because of this, and perhaps because he still hadn’t adapted to the league fully, he struggled on occasion – at times his play was slightly timid, and the lack of final product he had at times displayed in Ligue Un was as prominent as ever.

If inconsistency was a problem in his first season though, it wasn’t in pre-season. The mazy runs were more common than ever, with several dribbles leading to chances in their numerous pre-season friendlies. A similar bit of play led to a goal for himself too, as he danced past a few Southampton defenders to fire home at St Mary’s late in a 45 minute match.

This season, Gervinho should have adapted properly to the Premier League – it often takes Premier League players to settle in 100% to English football, as Laurent Koscielny and Didier Drogba would probably attest to. With a year surrounded by the likes of Robin van Persie and coached by Arsène Wenger under his belt, there’s no doubt that he’ll have improved as a player as well.

The fundamental problems with Gervinho’s game are mostly things that can be ironed out – poor decision making, for example, will fade away the more he trains with his side and the more that he learns from those around him. His finishing still seems to need work, but practice makes perfect, and Wenger will be sure that his Ivorian wide-man is working tirelessly on his shooting.

People may mock him for the size of his forehead – sadly it doesn’t seem to help with his heading – and also focus on the errors in his game, but after a season of quiet improvement and a pre-season of showing it, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to chuck Gervinho into your fantasy team.

This article first appeared on Sabotage Times