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.
I don’t often write in the first person. Sharing my thoughts isn’t something that comes naturally when I put pen to paper. I’m not one for confrontation, in fact, I’ll do anything to steer clear of it. So, I try to keep people happy and off my back with facts rather than opinions. However, things have gotten to the point where I do need to break character for a minute.
I’ve been fairly quiet on the Van Persie situation since it’s not a particularly hard hitting one personally. Nothing will ever compare to the sorrow of seeing my idol, Dennis Bergkamp retire. Edu’s departure comes a close second, with watching him celebrate a goal in his final match at Highbury only making those feelings even more overwhelming.
We’ve heard the “leaving for trophies, not for money” spiel. Bullsh- who in their right mind wouldn’t take a few hundred thousand to sit on a bench and maybe sometimes play football regardless of trophies? I’d even take a fraction of that to sit on the bench at a mid-table Championship club but my skewed ethical views may be affecting that.
Frankly, there’s no way to talk about where the club stands without sounding completely redundant. We have a good player at the club, he doesn’t want to be here. Forcing him to stay isn’t going to solve anything. And with battle-hardened Arsenal fans being covered in a thick layer of cynicism there’s understandably an air of pessimism around a possible “u-turn” by the player. That’s that, nothing more can or needs to be said.
But if a player like Theo Walcott starts pulling stunts like this, things are just starting to get out of hand. I usually keep away from things like this so getting involved in it is quite hypocritical. But, the longer the contract talks are stretched out the worry that he could force his way out is ever present.
I’ve never really cared for the player. Not that I don’t like him; he does have his moments of magic but the winger is so inconsistent that it’s difficult not to feel fickle when it comes to whether you love or hate him. Similar to oil and water, his good and poor performances have created a fine balance of apathy in my mind.
There’s not much you can do though. Players are greedy; nay, people are greedy. Think about this: you offer the biggest loser you know the chance to be with the most attractive woman in the world. And not just that, you offer to pay for everything he needs to keep her happy. “Dinner and movies? Done. Flowers? No problem at all. Holiday in the Alps?! Getting a bit ambitious aren’t you, lad? Haha, just joking, let me get my cheque book,” you say.
Then a year passes and by now the shock and disbelief of passersby has inflated this man’s ego. He walks around thinking he’s some kind of Adonis and decides to leave thinking he has the ability to do better for himself. But no, the aura just disappears and he reverts to his original state.
Now don’t take this literally, because I know some of you morons will. But, Theo is our metaphoric little loser. Seven years have passed since his arrival at the club and all that potential has more or less gone, leaving us with a final product that isn’t actually a finished one yet. And still, with players like Van Persie creating and getting on the end of his chances, Theo racked up a decent tally. Cue higher wage demands.
Hold on, go back to the analogy. Mind blown, right?
The real question is if he can he even use the excuse for wanting to leave for trophies. At Liverpool? Okay. While you’re at it, do you want to paddle across the Atlantic on a 96 year-old man’s back too, Theo? Better start now if you want to make it to Brazil by 2014.
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 not been often that Arsenal have won in the league without a contribution from captain Robin van Persie – that being a goal or assist – in fact, just twice before Saturday had it happened (against Swansea and Sunderland, home and away respectively). It was different against Aston Villa though – the Gunners comfortably brushed them aside without needing so much as a nutmeg from van Persie.
In truth, when Arsenal were relying on van Persie to win matches, it was because the system wasn’t quite working. While they were doing well to supply him, the goals should have been being shared around more. It was only natural for Wenger’s men to look to van Persie seeing as it was a tried and tested method, but now the North London side are more confident in their own abilities.
Arsene Wenger had always put the lack of creativity early on at Arsenal down to a lack of confidence, and should be given credit for his faith that his players would eventually come good. Saturday was another victory for his apologists to enjoy, with much-maligned Theo Walcott grabbing an excellent goal. The football is once again free-flowing, and goals are coming from several different areas. The players feel less inclined to search for van Persie, and instead are more confident about doing things by themselves.
The first goal was borne out of a passing triangle you’d usually see on the training ground. Tomas Rosicky, Kieran Gibbs and Gervinho exchanged passes, untroubled by any Aston Villa players. The latter found Gibbs’ run into the box, and the English left back found the net via Shay Given’s glove. It showed how much Arsenal have missed the overlapping of the full backs, having had to cope with centre backs out wide in defence for months.
For Arsenal’s second, the pressing from Tomas Rosicky paid off once again. He put Carlos Cuellar under pressure, which forced a poor ball to Gervinho, who knocked it inside to Alex Song. From then on it was classy stuff from Arsenal – a lovely curled, lobbed ball from Alex Song, which is fast becoming his trademark, to find the intelligent run inside of Theo Walcott, who cushioned the ball delightfully to finish expertly past Shay Given.
In games previous Walcott might have miscontrolled the ball, or scuffed the finish, so it showed how much his new confidence is affecting his game. Young footballers are often confidence players, and make no mistake, Walcott is still in that bracket at 23, but he’s recently shown the potential that made him so coveted as a teenager at Southampton – the clever run (the football brain is clearly there), the delicate touch and the clinical finish.
There is little to analyse about the third goal – although Arsene Wenger did a pretty good job by discussing the size of Mikel Arteta’s feet in the post-match press conference – so it’s probably best to throw some adjectives at it and be done with it; it was a simply superb strike, delightfully driven past Shay Given (sibilance, alliteration and a rhyme within eight words, my English teacher would be so proud of me) with absolutely zero ball rotation.
It was the second time Arsenal had restricted their opposition to no shots on target (hat-tip to @Orbinho) and while Aston Villa offered very little, it showed how the Gunners suffocated the away side by dominating possession. Pressing has come back into Arsenal’s game lately – it’s a mystery as to why it ever disappeared – and it’s helped them to monopolise possession and therefore limit the number of chances that come to the opponents. It also helps in attack of course, as Arsenal consistently won the ball close to Shay Given’s goal.
Analysis aside, it’s been seven league wins on the trot for Arsenal, a superb run of victories which makes them the Premier League’s form side. That’s the main thing – as well as the fact that I can now empty the recycling bin wearing my away shirt with Walcott on the back without my neighbours pointing and laughing.
While Arsenal usually start strongly and finish the season in a confused, stumbling daze, it appears that the reverse is panning out this season. After a false start that this guy would be proud of, they’ve gotten their season on track after a brief false dawn. Monday night’s victory over Newcastle was the fourth win having been behind in a row; a new Premier League record. The Gunners, with important players coming back left, right and centre, finally seem to be at their best.
The creativity, intensity and confidence had previously been very low in the season, but now the team seems to be finding the consistency in results and performances that they’ll need to overtake their deadly rivals; the enemy, as Bacary Sagna called them, Tottenham Hotspur in 3rd.
This can be put down mainly to the gelling of the team – after panicked deadline day deals, Arsenal were more a group of individuals as opposed to a unit, which seems to be what they are now. Skipper Robin van Persie has helped the players to bond, and they now seem a cohesive side, able to overcome any obstacle.
That unflappable quality was demonstrated perfectly against Newcastle, when Hatem Ben Arfa rifled in a goal for Newcastle against the run of play. Instead of retreating into their shells, Arsenal showed character and resilience by going up the other end and levelling the scores instantly. Going behind only seemed to motivate Arsenal further – like angering a wasp by swatting it. Arsene Wenger’s side didn’t seem fazed whatsoever by going behind, and even the fans were singing straight after the goal went in, highlighting the belief at the club right now.
The players have done a good job of getting the fans back on-side (the speculation about Lukas Podolski has helped too; more on him later this week), and having restored their broken image and pride against Tottenham, Milan and Liverpool, they now believe that third place is a realistic target and something that they might just end up achieving. They now believe that they’re a good team, and are ready to stand up to any team who threatens to damage the new aura around the club nowadays.
On the actual football, Arsenal were most dangerous when attacking down the right hand side, like against Milan. Theo Walcott and Bacary Sagna both had excellent games, with the former picking up the man of the match award, while Tomas Rosicky combined well with them both, particularly for the equaliser. Newcastle struggled to cope with Arsenal’s intensity and incisiveness, and Walcott was a large part of that.
He put some excellent balls into the box, making those who criticised his final ball tuck into some humble pie. What some don’t understand is that it takes two to make a good ball; the pass itself, and the run to get on the end of it. Analysing Walcott’s crosses yesterday, he got everything spot on – and not by luck as well, because the techniques were spot on for each of his balls in. Both of the goals were assisted by him, and credit rightly went his way. He now looks more confident, which is a vital part of his game, as he needs to be ready to take players on and whip the ball into the box.
Rosicky was the recipient of a new contract at the Emirates just before the game, and instead of settling with his future sorted out, continued his fine form, linking up excellently with Mikel Arteta, and supplying the pass for Walcott to set up van Persie’s goal.
The equaliser from the Dutchman was expertly taken – the delicate, cushioning first touch, the second to place it in his path and away from the flailing Mike Williamson, and finally the punishing, accurate finish past Tim Krul. It was van Persie’s first touch, and showed his clinical finishing touch.
Someone else who showed an eye for goal was Gervinho, although the Sky cameras didn’t pick it up. While Howard Webb was booking Jonas Gutierrez, van Persie took a quick free-kick, giving it to Bacary Sagna, who whipped it in for Gervinho. The Ivorian, in one swift movement, leapt up into the air and flicked the ball into the far corner of the net. It was a shame the cameras missed it, as I have no proof of it. But trust me, it happened.
As for the negatives – somebody has to I suppose – defensively the first goal was a poor one to concede for Arsenal. When Vermaelen gave the ball away, the midfield were labouring and didn’t get back, leaving a large gap between themselves and the defenders. Kieran Gibbs allowed the tricky Ben Arfa onto his left foot, and the Frenchman punished him.
Arsenal can ill-afford to sell any more big players – every summer for a while now they’ve sold at least two key players, which has disrupted their long-term momentum and put paid to any hopes of real season-to-season progress. If Arsenal can get some seasonal continuity in their line-up, they may begin to become more consistent and competitive. Not only that, but it would send out the completely wrong message – especially if it was van Persie that was sold – as it was surely be an admission that they are no longer a big club; instead a club whose ambition has faded away.
For a while now, Arsenal have been rigid – the layout of their team has been rigid, their general play has been rigid and because of this, results have suffered. On Sunday, we saw the complete opposite.
One of the main reasons for this was the fact that Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs are both back and getting closer to full fitness. With centre-backs at full back, Arsenal suffered – their 4-3-3 never shifted shape, and therefore the Gunners were quite predictable. The wingers had to stay wide to give width in attack, which saw Robin van Persie isolated and the midfielders outnumbered many times.
With specialist full backs, who became wing backs in attack, all of that changed. The knock-on effect of Sagna and Gibbs being back cannot be understated. Instead of sticking to a rigid 4-3-3, Arsenal’s formation evolved on the attack into something resembling a 3-4-2-1.
Alex Song, the anchorman, dropped in front of the centre backs, at times playing between them for security in case Tottenham countered. The full backs became wing backs, and even wide midfielders at times, with the two central midfielders (in this case Tomas Rosicky and Mikel Arteta, who both had excellent games) in between. The wingers – Yossi Benayoun and two-goal hero Theo Walcott – could then come inside and offer support to Robin van Persie, who was by no means isolated.
It was vital that the full backs offered width for a few reasons. Firstly, it meant that the wide players – most notably Walcott, although Benayoun had a great chance by virtue of this – could come closer to Robin van Persie, and offer him support. As the full backs were available to put crosses into the box, the wide players were free to get into the box and it was a big help for Arsenal to have more numbers inside the area, instead of just van Persie.
Alex Song was another player who particularly saw the effects of having the full backs in the team again. With Gibbs and Sagna offering support, there was much less need for Song to bomb forward to make up the numbers in attack. This gave Arsenal some much needed security, with Rosicky and Arteta free to help in attack with Song sitting – although one of Rosicky and Arteta usually was more reserved while the other was the higher midfielder.
The role of Yossi Benayoun compared to the alternative of Gervinho cannot be understated, and it was clear that Arsene Wenger got that decision absolutely spot on. Rather than hugging the line, as Gervinho would have, he came inside to support van Persie and pressed relentlessly with Arteta and Rosicky in particular.
The full backs were vital in so many ways, and Sagna was a massive help in attack too. As well as his goal, he did superbly to charge forward and to assist Tomas Rosicky for the third Arsenal goal. Kieran Gibbs helped Alex Song build up the move with a neat one-two early on, before Sagna bombed on on the other flank as Arsenal scored a thrilling team goal. Make no mistake – this was how Arsenal should be playing.
Returning to the role of Alex Song, it was interesting to notice his roles in four out of the five goals. While he did sit between or in front of the centre backs when Arsenal were on the attack, he helped to really turn the screw when Arsenal needed to up the pressure on their rivals. Although Song did venture forward at those times, crucially, he did not foray past Rosicky and Arteta, and this discipline was important. Song instead did what he’s best at – bringing the ball out of defence, playing balls into the box, and with more players around the area Arsenal were able to thrive on those balls.
It was Song’s pass, flicked on by Walcott, which led to van Persie striking the post, before Sagna (again in support) headed home. Song then, after some neat footwork, played the ball into the Spurs area for it to be cleared to van Persie, who of course turned and finished with aplomb. Song, as mentioned earlier, combined with Kieran Gibbs to get the ball into the captain and out of trouble for the third goal, before sprinting forward to make up the numbers in place of Benayoun. And then the fifth and final goal, a direct assist – more sumptuous, dancing footwork before an excellent ball for Walcott, who again was running through the middle as he does best.
Robin van Persie also reaped the rewards of the change. With Arsenal’s full backs overlapping, the wingers could come inside. Van Persie could then drop deep while the wingers made runs and occupied the centre backs. This was very difficult for Tottenham to handle, shown by Theo Walcott’s second goal especially.
I’ve not posted for a few days, mainly because I’ve been disillusioned and fairly uninspired with what’s been going on at the club of late.
Last night, that all changed. Finally, a performance that we could be proud of. Not spectacular by any means, but a hard-fought win when it mattered.
I’d like to think I was proven right in a couple of ways. For one, I’ve been backing Wenger throughout the summer, including here pre-match on Real Social Dad, and I think he showed how he deserves us to trust him still. He made all of the right calls – continuing with Jenkinson and Sagna despite the return of Traore, starting with two defensive midfielders to limit the damage from Udinese, then not being afraid to bring on Rosicky when we needed to up the tempo and keep the ball more.
He in particular had a good second half, Rosicky. He’s taken a lot of stick, and I’ve been one of few who’s stuck up for him so I was glad to see him come up with a performance. He played the link-up man role superbly, moving the ball on quickly, getting in good positions, and clearing up excellently in defence. It was a big performance from him that was desperately needed.
Something I said about Theo against Liverpool was that he should have moved onto the left flank at some point, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, he was being outnumbered on the right, and secondly, he’s a lot more effective on the left, in my opinion anyway. He can cut in and go for goal. That’s exactly what he did yesterday, and to brilliant effect. He took his goal so well, and reminded people why he’s compared to Thierry so often.
Gervinho was also impressive, coming up with the end product to match his dribbles. After setting up Theo brilliantly only for him to miss, he wasn’t let down the second time, beating his man to put the ball in for RVP, who duly finished to put us back on level terms on the night and ahead again on aggregate. It was a superb piece of play from Gervinho at a time we desperately needed it. Hopefully we’ll see him split open defences like that more often. We usually struggle in situations like those so it’s nice to have someone who can unpick the lock.
And what about that man Wojciech? How many pundits has he effectively laughed in the face of? Savage, Cascarino et Al(an Hansen) have been banging on about how we need a goalkeeper for months, and I think they will finally give up after Woj’s performance yesterday. Not only the penalty save, which was oustanding, but another solid all-round game for the Pole in goal. Bob Wilson has been raving about him for ages, and it must have been brilliant for him to watch his young protege come up trumps once more.
Likewise, it was brilliant to see Bob and David Seaman praising Szczesny on Twitter. Despite a few bumps in the gaps in between, it looks like Wojciech will be the third generation of top class Arsenal goalkeepers. Who needs to spend £20 million on David de Gea (who will struggle with crosses all season long I reckon) when you have a brilliant young Pole who’ll be in goal for decades to come?
So, as I said in the title, the feeling is of relief, happiness, and a bit of excitement. I’m excited because this young Arsenal team has been written off more than ever, and this time even the fans have been sceptical, but it looks like there’s something about the team that will help us go far. With three signings – Albiol, M’Vila and Marvin Martin would be lovely – I think we can prove a lot of people wrong this year.
Up the Arsenal.