Time to fess up. I wrote this yesterday, copied it into wordpress, and then got a phone call about some work before I published it, and saw it still waiting for me after the last tube home. Oops….
So here we are again mercifully limping towards the end of another round of tedious and largely pointless international fixtures, counting the walking wounding and crossing fingers for others.
Quite apart from the joys of Jet lag and match fatigue, Arsenal’s still paper thin squad has been trimmed a little further, with Rosicky picking up a first half thigh injury for the Czech Republic, and Yaya Sanogo a back strain with France under 21′s. There are also question marks over Ramsey following a heavy collision with the advertising hoardings, and both Wilshere and Walcott. The latter has become so important to our tactical set up, that we have to hope that he has recovered from last night’s attempted maiming by the Ukraine Captain, a disgusting foul aimed specifically to injure. It reminded me of the one an Aston Villa player did on Hleb in the 2007-08 season that put him out for a while and started the injury dictated demise of that season’s title challenge.
Speaking of England, when one is used to the international fusion cuisine available for tasting at the Emirates (albeit fragile and frustrating), returning to the pickled eggs of the national side is always something of a shock. England remain one of the least cohesive major sides in world football, whose tactical integration is about as successful as your average U.S.A sponsored Middle Eastern peace talks. We all know the parts are not currently a match for Spanish, Brazillian, German or Dutch craftsmanship, but their sum is an endless disappointment. Like a Morris Minor built in a Jaguar factory.
I try to not to talk about the national side on the whole, except when it is relevant to Arsenal. Which at present it is.
In addition to the usual media pretence at introspection that follows every turgid England display (despite a half decent result), there has been a lot of criticism aimed at Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere.
Regarding the former, most football watchers are used to the constant threat and regular wastefulness of our lightning quick wide man, so expectations are mixed. There have been new calls today for him to be dropped, by those stupid enough to overlook the complete lack of any attacking threat from any other source last night, barring set-pieces. We all know Theo’s strengths and weaknesses by now, but if you utilise him correctly, he’s still difficult to stop. Given that his England team-mates still haven’t worked out that a straight ball between full-back and centre-half meeting his diagonal run is a tactical goldmine, I don’t hold much hope for England getting as much out of him as Arsenal.
In North London he is a specialist weapon, a single rapier in a packed armoury, and as such is expected to primarily play to his strengths. Pace, off the ball movement, finishing. No wasting time trying to get him to dribble round a whole defence. It’s hardly rocket science when it comes to utilising the lad with the jet heels.
As for Jack the lad, England followers are starting to see the tactical conundrum we have with him at Arsenal. For all his talent, drive and bravery, the young midfielder has missed a lot of football over the last three years, which unsurprisingly has hampered his development somewhat. Directly aligned to this is the fact that his best position and role within his club and national team are yet to be fully defined. England currently seem to be working on the premise that his club shirt number reflects his best position, whilst most Arsenal fans would agree that he is not yet ready for the Zidane/Platini/Baggio role. He doesn’t score enough goals, and his final ball is a little inconsistent in its execution. Not only that, but having him that far upfield, reduces the impact of his midfield transition play and his largely unique capacity to carry the ball effectively between the two final thirds. Of course the problem he has is that he currently lacks the physical strength or caution on the ball to really prosper in a deep lying midfield role, as currently in vogue in the Arsenal and England set ups.
That said, the way he has been cast to the wolves by some after one disappointing display in a poor team performance is a damning indictment of our sports media machine. Having been hailed as a saviour of English football after a couple of decent showings, and then having his absence mourned by those watching a midfield failing to function, it is apparently now time to banish him to the purgatory of the u21s (thankfully now out of the clutches of the deluded Stuart Pearce).
DietmarHamann tweeted (fairly reasonably):
England media hyped up Wilshere to be world class when he’s a talent, no more.I wonder what Mr.Cross and co got to say.
But this angle seemed to be pounced on by others from a range of publications, most concisely summed up by Jack Pitt-Brooke in The Independent. who stated as his number one post-match conclusion:
Jack Wilshere is not ready for international football.
Sure, it’s not working for him right now. But no-one seems to be trying to work out why.
Obviously his inexperience is a factor, but not one that people were drawing attention to when he was outplaying Xavi and Iniesta two and a half years ago. His indifferent club form and lack of full fitness are also issues, but primarily, much like Arsenal, the national team need to decide what they want him to be in their side. And whether he is a key component who should influence tactics, or is currently the case, another round peg to be bashed into existing square holes.
At present, Wilshere is being rendered largely ineffective for his country, regardless of form, for two reasons. Tactical rigidity and the limitations of his team-mates.
There appears to be a desperate attempt to either turn him into the English Pirlo, controlling the game from deep (forgetting that Pirlo was an underwhelming attacking midfielder totally lacking in pace until he shifted positions at Milan), or as sort of Gascoigne / Fabregas Hybrid. It’s either deep Alongside Gerrard or behind the frontman, In actualiity he is the architypal in-between player, who can provide a central creative spark whilst still putting his foot in, and link the deep playmaker and the Numero Dix. He is a 21st century box-to-box midfielder, and since his England debut, he hasn’t been allowed to perform that role.
He’s not helped by the chronic lack of mobility and close technique of some of the players around him. The aforementioned Walcott is not the best with the ball at his feet in tight situations, but is the only one bar the full-backs who seems to recognise the need to be mobile off it. It’s all well and good the likes of Milner, Gerrard and Lampard trundling up and down in straight lines against the ilk of Moldova, but they are horribly exposed against better opposition. Where before the problem with combining Gerrard and Lampard was that they both wanted to fill the same role in the attacking third, now they both have the tactical discipline they previously lacked, but no longer have the legs to alternate and dove-tail effectively.
This really isn’t helped by an obsession with a flat midfield within a team set-up whose geometric capacity seems to stop with squares, rectangles and lines, while the rest of the world have moved on to triangles and circles. Literally AND metaphorically.
The English coaching system is excellent at producing players who can do a few things very well, but are mostly artisans rather than artists. Wilshire has the capacity to be one of the latter, but so far only Maradona has been able to transform a mediocre footballing side via his brilliance, and for all Jack’s promise, Maradona he ain’t.
The truth is that Wilshere lies somewhere between the messiah and the very naughty boy that our beloved press are alternately presenting him as. He’s a 21 year old midfielder of immense promise who is recovering from a long-term injury. Expecting him to be the glue in a side that is fundamentally broken tactically and lacks the talent to really become cohesive, is as ludicrous as castigating him when he isn’t.
It is of course not just the supporters of the national team who need to be realistic in their outlook. Arsenal fans are still on the Ozil high, and rightly so, but assertions of a title challenge or a brave new dawn are wide of the mark.
We’ve added a key piece to an already partially completed puzzle, but we need good fortune with injuries, the maintenance of team spirit and further action in the transfer market in January to have Chelsea and the Mancs looking nervously over their shoulders, barring an unexpected implosion at any of those clubs. It will also take a big leap forward from the likes of Sanogo and Miyaichi (both of who have the capacity to kick on) to allow us to realistically compete in the cup competitions as well, as we don’t have the players to rotate effectively as things stand.
While I disagree with the assertion that the signing of Ozil was purely an opportunistic sop to quieten supporter discontent (how funny is it that parts of the AST are trying to somehow take credit for it?!), we need to see more action before we can be confident that it represents the first step in a new modus operandi. As is often the case, the response is, “Well that’s great – but what happens next?”.
We have taken one big step forward, but that was needed to stand still. I just hope the fans will continue to support the players as much as they did a fortnight ago, when the going gets tough, because with the best will in the world, they will need to keep improving for us to outperform last season.
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