After a good run of recent results only punctured by the Bradford debacle (perhaps appointing the Dalai Lama as club president has contributed to the Bantams extraordinary run in shoot-outs), the Arsenal switch flicks off as quickly as it did on. After today’s visit to the south coast, the extraordinary goal-scoring displays against Reading and Newcastle already seem like half-remembered dreams.
Southampton are due a lot of credit for their tactical alterations to counter us and the work rate and ball retention of their team, and definitely deserved their draw today. Nigel Adkins set his team up man for man across the pitch, and I think he can be very pleased with the performance they put in. Arsenal, on the other hand, are still trying to work out who their preferred eleven are, what the individual players roles are and what the team strategy is, let alone how to counter committed tactically aware opponents.
After a promising start, the speed of Arsenal’s passing dropped off, and by half-time the Gunners were lucky to be level. The home side were on top in terms of possession, territory and goal attempts, and ignoring the Gunners shambolic defending leading to Ramirez’s goal, probably just about deserved to go in to the interval ahead. Arsenal had one of Walcott’s spasmodically excellent set-piece deliveries to thank for their equaliser, which combined with Koscielny’s positive burst, forced the attempted intervention that led to De Prado’s own goal.
The alteration of either Walcott or Giroud up front makes it easy to negate our attacking play as long as our opponents limit space to our midfield trio. Its either drop deep against Walcott or squeeze up against Giroud, and barring individual mistakes, our opponents can feel confident in their set-up. Arsene’s introduction of the Frenchman and pushing Walcott wide early in today’s second half made perfect sense, given the pattern of play. That said, replacing Podolski, with whom Giroud has a good understanding, rather than Oxlade-Chamberlain seemed to be a decision made out of sentiment. As for the other subs, taking Cazorla and the Ox off where hard to argue with, but in their replacements, Ramsey is a decent player who is trying too hard whilst desperately in search of a regular position, and Gervinho’s footballing brain vanishes when the clocks change. Neither are quick enough in thought to currently be worth their place in the side, and if Rosicky is fit he would have made a better choice than either.
Going through the team performance, there were a lot of six out of ten’s amongst the Gunners, with Arteta probably being the sides most influential player, especially in the second half. Sagna had one of those games that he will really want to forget. The Frenchman’s current erratic form is a definite concern, and that, combined with last season’s double leg break , is probably the reason why his contract renewal has not been resolved. Certainly tonight’s effort was a good advert for Carl Jenkinson. With the team’s malaise affecting one of our most consistent performers over the last half-decade, it has been very heartening to see our vice-captain recapture his composure after a dodgy November by his standards.
What to do, what to do, what to do…
Looking forwards, I think January needs to bring a number of signings, whether on loan or permanently. Our reserve keeper situation is still one that doesn’t inspire confidence, but is not the highest priority. It seems Wenger is already looking to replace Santos, which is one priority, but there are even more urgent issues regarding the first team. We still have the squad imbalance of a plethora of winger/strikers and inside forwards, and a lack of specialist wide men or strikers.
What the manager does has to be partly dependent on what he sees the long term roles of Podolski and Walcott as. Both are ideally suited to play alongside a target man or deep lying creative forward, or as advanced wide men who double up as auxiliary strikers. I can see the theory of deploying both in a 4-3-3, but too often we have seen that in practice they perform a very similar function in the team. In home games with the opposition pressed back, they can work as a wide pairing, but for me I firmly believe we need another, more reliably creative wide player. Oxlade-Chamberlain isn’t ready yet, Arshavin has clearly been written off by the manager, and Gervinho isn’t reliably anything. There is also a strong argument for signing another central midfield player with a real physical presence, given that the theoretically ideal Diaby is seen with all the regularity of a lunar eclipse. Another striker, preferably with a combination of size and mobility who can play as the spearhead or deeper (aka Robin Van Persie …), would be absolutely fantastic as well.
More than numbers though, the squad needs an upgrade in quality. In a lot of ways, on paper at least, we have less weak links than in some previous years, with internationals as both first choice and back up for almost every position, but in terms of the first team, we have more question marks than stars. The typical question has been “How many of this team would make the invincibles?”, and the answer quite obviously is none as far as the starting eleven goes, and not even Cazorla or Wilshere would have you questioning the fact in the way that RVP or Fabregas did. While assembling such a strong team is not a short term task, we are in a stable enough position to start pursuing this goal now, with the knowledge that transfer inflation means that the £10m we spent on Thierry Henry would be nearly £25 million in the equivalent market today.
The pursuit of top quality is not just about improving the players at the managers disposal, but also about having more players who can legitimately claim to be really first choice in their position. There is no consensus amongst the fans who the first and second choice for each position is, and this lack of certainty can be extended to the manager. Our schizophrenic team selection in attacking roles is leading to an equal lack of consistency in approach and performances, and for the first time in over four years this cannot be attributed to in any way to injuries.
While there is a far bigger question about what Arsenal many of the fans ‘want back’, it would a real step forward if the team could at least have some certainty about who it is now.------------
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