An international break for friendly matches in the middle of the season is as pointless as it is tiresome. It breaks up any momentum a team is in, and forces players to traverse the world, often gaining jetlag or injuries, for matches which serve no purpose other than for to bolster FIFA’s bank account.
It does however, provide a brief moment of clarity and respite from domestic club affairs, and offers a few quieter days for the fans who are so heavily invested in the everyday news of a particular club.
When you support an elite club who play in excess of 60 games a season, often playing every three days, it can become easy to forget about the bigger picture. During a season, every point matters, every goal, every injury, every card, no matter how insignificant it may seem at the time, anything can come back to deliver wider consequences. We have become so engrossed in the day-to-day happenings at the clubs we support, that it becomes hard to form a fair evaluation of a bigger picture.
We’re all subjective, and it’s just as easy to be blindly optimistic after a winning streak as it is to become overly pessimistic after a run of losses. So the international break provides us a reprieve, albeit only brief, where it’s possible to take a breath and analyse the current status quo.
It is impossible to predict where this Arsenal team will finish this season; we’re capable of unbelievable play, but equally incapable to produce any kind of consistency so far. It is possible, however, to accurately estimate the progression of our playing staff, and what we can expect over a longer period of time.
For the first time in a while, it appears we now have a settled squad. For years we were subject to the inevitability of Fabregas leaving, coupled with Nasri’s flirting with new pastures. The following season there was a question mark over Van Persie’s head, and even this season we were unsure what the future held for Theo. It seems there was something in the Zaha rumours, and maybe he was being touted as a long term replacement for Walcott.
So for the first time in a while it appears we have, for the time being at least, a settled and stable squad. There are question marks over Sagna’s future, and I’m sure I speak for all Gooners when I say he’s been outstanding for us, but his potential exit won’t hit in the same vein as the aforementioned mercenaries.
It’s hard to know how far in advance a football club makes plans for. At Arsenal we seem to be always desperately holding onto players, never being able to form a long term strategy as the turnover of playing staff is so high. Every year key players depart, and it takes time for their replacements to adjust to their new team. We seem to always spend the first few months of the season adapting.
When Fabregas left Arsenal in the summer of 2011, it was highlighted at the time that his age was a crucial factor in Barcelona signing him. Xavi was 31, Iniesta was 27, and it was seen that Fabregas, 24 at the time, could bridge the gap, between his elders and the young apprentice Thiago, 21.
At the time I felt it was a curious analysis of a transfer strategy, and wondered if the same long term thinking was ever applied at Arsenal.
For a long time, it did appear we had an age policy. The move to the new Stadium, and the consequences that had on transfer funds, meant we had to embark on project youth. It seemed that as a pre-requisite to get into the Arsenal side, you had to be younger than 23. The few older heads we had at the time, Lehmann, Gallas, although experienced, where hardly the most stable of characters. We’ll never know what that 2008 team could have achieved with a few wiser heads, but by the summer of 2011, when the poster-child and literal captain of project youth, Fabregas was sold, it seemed to signify a change in approach.
Arteta, Mertesacker, Santos, Benayoun and Park were all signed that summer, all of whom could be considered experienced. Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jenkinson also joined signifying that project youth was still being employed, though to a much lesser extent.
Fast forward to this year, and we have four new signings in the squad, all of a similar age. Podolski (27), Giroud (26), Cazorla(28) and Monreal(26) show that Arsene Wenger is now signing players in the prime of their career, not simply players which will take two or three years to develop.
This policy of signing more experiences players, coupled with a stability among the first team squad not seen for many a season, makes this author wonder if there is a long term plan at Arsenal, much like that in operation at Barcelona.
When looking at the current Arsenal team and the ages of the players, and also considering Arsene Wenger’s past of offloading players of a certain age, it’s quite clear that Wenger see’s little use in players over 30. Of the current first team squad, Mikel Arteta , who is 30, is the only player of that age bracket who regularly appears. (Rosicky is 32, Arshavin is 31 and Squillaci is 32, but based on appearances this season, none of those players can consider themselves first team regulars, although I personally believe Rosicky still has lots to offer).
Whereas Barcelona have Xavi, Puyol and Villa playing into their mid thirties, and Manchester United have Ferdinand, Giggs, Carrick and Scholes providing names on the team-sheet at 30 plus, Arsenal seem to have no room in its squad for elder statesmen.
Whether this is a reason for our lack of recent success is a debate for another day, but there seems to be a definite cut-off point for most Arsenal players. Many of the Invincibles, a team whose break up the Arsenal fans often lament as premature, were sold as soon as they reached 30. Pires, Henry, Campbell, Vieira, Lauren, Gilberto and Ljungberg were all sold around the ages of 29-31.
Looking at the current playing staff, it’s telling that all three first choice centre backs are of the same age, showing that there is currently few plans for a long term successor. Mertesacker is 28, and both Vermaelen and Koscielny are 27. There is probably a longer battery life in the career of a central defender than that of a midfielder or striker, so it can be assumed that those 3 centre halfs can continue playing at the top level for a considerable time to come.
In midfield, Arsenal fans envision Jack Wilshere to be at the heart of the midfield for the next decade, much in the same way Xavi and Iniesta have been, or Gerrard and Lampard have been on these shores. At 21 Wilshere should be the young protégé, fighting to get into the team, but as an old adage applies ‘when you’re good enough, you’re old enough’.
Arsenal have actually made some considerable strides forward in this area, as Wilshere has older heads to play alongside, a luxury never afforded to his predecessor Fabregas. While Cesc was in his early twenties, he was playing alongside Denilson, Diaby, Flamini, Song, Nasri, and latterly a teenage Wilshere. There was no older head to marshal the midfield, and as talented as Cesc was, he was a 21 year old carrying the team.
For Wilshere it’s different. He of course has the ability to carry this team, but alongside him, he has Arteta(30) and Cazorla (28). Wilshere is actually a product of long term planning, as he himself played alongside Fabregas for a season, allowing for an easier transition. (No-one could have foreseen Jack being injured for an entire season on Cesc’s departure).
Two years younger than Wilshere is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain(19) who will also hopefully be a key part of Arsenal’s first team for the next decade. Two years behind him is Serge Gnabry. They can learn off Wilshere, Cazorla and Arteta and one day command a first team place in midfield.
Whilst our forward line is probably short of another central striker, there is a lot of variation in terms of age and experience. While Theo Walcott is only 23, he’s been playing international football since 16, and is far more experienced in elite football than Olivier Giroud(26,) who has only been playing top-flight football since 2010, and is a relatively new presence on the international stage.
It’s an example that shows age doesn’t necessarily equal experience. Age also doesn’t necessarily equal quality. While most players tend to improve, Arsenal fans are all too aware of youngsters who promised much but ultimately failed to deliver.
Going back to the Barcelona comparison, they are in a relatively unique position, as their players don’t really want to leave. Most of them have an emotional attachment to the club, and the players they do bring in relish the chance of playing for the best team in the world, who pay high level wages and transfer fees. As a club, despite changes in manager and president, they have the luxury of being able to plan over the long term, as they have an extremely stable squad.
Arsenal seem to plan in some areas, but not others. It’s well documented how many big names have left over recent years, which makes it harder to craft a team around individuals and partnerships, but in some areas the club has shown remarkable foresight.
Some fans and members of the media criticised the signing of Nacho Monreal last week as reactionary, as Kieran Gibbs injury forced Arsenal into the transfer market. Considering the history of the Arsenal left back spot, it’s hard not to see the move for Monreal as some part of a greater plan. Winterburn was seamlessly replaced by Sylvinho. The Brazilian’s abrupt departure allowed his young understudy, Ashley Cole to come to prominence in the first team, and Cole was followed by his understudy, Gael Clichy, who himself was succeeded by his understudy, Kieran Gibbs.
It’s been asserted that Cole was close to a move before Syvinho’s passport issues became an issue, but over the last 15 years our left back spot has been very well tended, with a seamless transitions, and very little transfer expenditure. How much planning went into this specific area remains to be seen, but it already appears that current youth prospect Jernade Meade is being educated in exactly the same manner as Cole, Clichy and Gibbs before him.
It shows that with time and foresight, a club can adequately cover a position with a long term plan.
Ultimately, age isn’t, and never should be the main criteria for selecting football players, that should always be talent and attitude, but age can be a crucial component in a clubs success. As Arsenal fans we’ve seen first-hand what happens when a team is perpetually in transition. A smoother overlap of players can be a fundamental cornerstone in consistently winning trophies, as proved by Barcelona and Manchester United.
Football is a reactionary, emotional game where the memories are short. Yet with a bit of long term planning, as employed by Barcelona, and hopefully by Arsenal too, success can be attained.
If you happen to walk into the Arsenal megastore or go to their online shop, you’ll find t-shirts and memorabilia with the proud phrase “We don’t buy superstars, we make them”. Let’s hope the club use this rare occasion of squad stability to apply this mantra to the whole team, not just individuals, and we should have strength in depth for years to come.------------
If you’ve been having problems accessing this site on your work computer using the URLS globalgooners.com and gossip.globalgooners.com should sort that problem for you.
Get your free LadyArse app here for Android, BlackBerry and Windows phone [iPhone coming soon]
Get your free Arsenal wallpaper, Facebook covers and Twitter headers here