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’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.
Hello Almunia-ites. The blog has been rather bare lately, because I’ve started my internship with Sabotage Times in London. But fear not! I’ve still been tapping away at my keyboard and articles have been flowing freely from my finger-tips. I’ve not had the time to commit stuff exclusively to CoA, but please enjoy Sabotage Times’ sloppy seconds over the last week or so…
June 27th – a piece on Francis Coquelin & Emmanuel Frimpong, comparing the two and weighing up their chances of breaking into the first team proper.
June 29th – why I think Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will eventually be a central midfielder for Arsenal.
June 30th – thoughts on Steve Bould‘s appointment as assistant manager.
July 2nd – in praise of Cesare Prandelli after the EURO 2012 final.
July 4th – some words on Cesc Fabregas‘ role for Arsenal, Barcelona and finally Spain.
July 5th – and of course my reaction to the Robin van Persie statement.
Bonus piece! Have a read of my review of the new Futures album, The Karma Album.