BROKEN cannons and cracked crests were the theme of last summer and now, just one game into this season, pages such as the following are appearing in the nation’s tabloids:
Yet while 12 months ago the situation at Arsenal was indisputably awful, even for the most optimistic Gooners, it is by no means as clear cut this time around. Last summer the protracted departure of the team’s captain and best player was worsened by the failure to capture Juan Mata, or any kind of replacement. Before the frantic deadline day activity, the only mitigation for the loss of both Cesc and Nasri was the arrival of Gervinho.
This time around, however, the early and efficient signings of Podolski, Giroud and Cazorla gave the sense that the club has learned its lesson, while even the nature of the departures – swift and seemingly ruthless – have been more promising. And the promise will be augmented if the club have indeed secured a loan deal for Sahin, as reported this afternoon.
Moreover, a goalless draw against Martin O’Neill’s obdurate Sunderland is by no means equivalent to the four demoralising defeats suffered in the opening seven games of last season.
The feeling among fans, therefore, appears to be nuanced – or, to put it a less flattering way, divided. Already it seems as if one camp stands ready to pounce upon another summer of low (or negative) net spending, while another can’t help but remain quietly optimistic that the boss is slowly reforming the squad for the better.
As tempting as it may be to make a reactionary leap into one of the two corners, sometimes it’s better to adopt former-PM John Major’s favoured approach of “wait and see”. So let’s attempt to evaluate the latest developments with a cool head:
The Departure of Song
As Alex Song prepares to be the latest player to quit Islington for Catalonia, it’s notable that this move in itself is dividing opinion along fairly stark lines.
In the purple corner, we have those who ask why the club has chosen to sell its most creative player of last season (in terms of assists), having already lost its top goalscorer. Song was being severely underpaid, so we’re led to believe, while the usual “deadwood” names are still floating around on their inflated deals. Song is only 24, marking yet another loss of a player approaching what should be his prime years.
Meanwhile in the red and white corner, with a dark blue collar, we have those who cite the alleged change in attitude that Song is believed to have adopted in recent months. He is said to have acted appallingly and entirely lost the confidence and respect of the manager. The transfer reveals Arsene’s new hardline, uncompromising approach to pampered prima donnas who aren’t committed to the club, we’re told.
So which to believe?
Personally I’m a strong advocate of the argument that squads benefit from continuity; that teams can only become greater than the sum of their parts if given time to develop close understandings. Song’s own relationship with Stapleton Mark II last season came after years of playing and training alongside each other. Sometimes an understanding between two players can be struck up very swiftly, but across a whole team it is preferable if time is allowed to build up tactical relationships as well as strong morale. To this extent, losing Song is another blow and worryingly in-trend with previous years that have also seen us lose two to three key first team players.
That said, I’m inclined to believe what I heard last week with regards to Song’s disappointing change in attitude (and for clarity – when I say “heard”, I don’t mean “read on Twitter”). One thing that seems clear is that this deal does show Wenger acting ruthlessly, and – although I wanted Song to stay – for now I’m willing to give the boss the benefit of the doubt. It’s extremely hard to believe that the player would not have been offered more than £55k a week, if that really was his current wage, and if all was hunky-dory with his performances and progress. Arsene is known for looking after his players, especially the ones he has developed from a young age. Hell, Arsene wanted ASHLEY COLE to be given his much-coveted £60k a week, arguing against a board who insisted it be capped at £55k. So why would he be stingy towards Song in particular?
As boring as it may be, the truth is that only time will tell whether or not this is a good footballing move by the manager. It is certainly a proactive move – we’re told that Song had three years left to run on his contract – with Arsene presumably thinking he can create a better midfield with new and/or “LANS” players. I’ll discuss theoretical aspects of the midfield in greater depth during the week (and by then we may know for certain if Sahin is set to arrive), but yesterday we had a real life example of how Arsenal might fare without Song, so let’s take a butcher’s at that game as a whole:
Arsenal 0-0 Sunderland
This game was frustrating. But as annoying as it may have been, we must accept that an opening day draw is hardly a disaster. The 1997-98 Double season began with a draw. In fact three of that team’s opening five games were draws. Often in the early stages of the season, the team “lacks sharpness”, and it wasn’t surprising to hear the boss roll out this line in his post match conference. That said, it was also he reason he gave for the draws at the end of last season, such as at Stoke away.
While it is a reasonable excuse to some extent, one wishes that we had more tactical tricks up our sleeve to deal with situations such as yesterday’s game. Despite the considerable changes in personnel the team has suddenly experienced, yesterday irritation was largely a case of “deja vu all over again”.
Sunderland simply deployed a tactic that has so often worked against us: sit deep, defend tight, hit on the break. They let us have possession up to the half way line, sometimes up to their third. Yet despite having over 70% of possession, Arsenal managed just three shots on target (Sunderland themselves had two) and all three were from outside the box. To be clear: we didn’t manage a single effort on target from within the penalty area.
Here’s another one of those charts showing Arsenal’s passes. Just as on many occasions last season, it reveals an inability to “penetrate” in the final third:
The point is hammered home by the fact that only one in four of Arsenal’s passes occurred in the final third of the pitch. Around 75% of Arsenal’s play happened more than 40 yards from goal, often within our own half or along the half-way line. [All figures via @statszone]
Despite this, there was some impressive stuff further forward. Gervinho continued his lively pre-season form, attempting more “take-ons” (20) than any player in a Premier League game for around six years (according to Michael Cox). Santi Cazorla was excellent while also promising more once he gets used to his new surroundings.
Talking of the Spaniard, it was nice to note that the most frequent combination during the match was Arteta passing to Cazorla, which happened 29 times. However, a more depressing stat is that the second most common combination was Vermaelen passing to Mertesacker. And the third most common was Mertesacker passing to Vermaelen. They passed to each other 52 times during the game – no surprise to the fans who groaned as the centre backs knocked the ball about, reflecting the inability to break Sunderland down.
It’s easy to moan about this stuff, but, admittedly, much harder for the manager to fix. Wenger noted after the game that we could have used “maybe one more creative player to be a bit more accurate in the final third” – rather than the three centre forwards who played.
In the last year or so there’s been a move towards more direct attackers in the Arsenal line-up. Gone are the likes of Nasri, Fabregas, and now even Benayoun, and in are Gervinho and Podolski, while Theo has become more of a regular. Supporters often prefer more direct football, and bemoaned how the Arsenal of old would constantly “tippy-tappy” the ball around the final third. The new direct Arsenal was, we hoped, more likely to bring back an element of counter-attacking football, and at some stages last season this worked. Yet it’s little good when the opposition defends deep, and yesterday was one example of why all the top teams these days insist on having players who can keep the ball in the final third. This highly under-rated skill also tends to be present in players who can create clever openings in the final third, and this is what I believe Arsene was referring to in his aforementioned quotation.
While we all instinctively like to see direct, exciting football, yesterday perhaps showed that having three very direct forwards on the pitch won’t work under all circumstances. Our home fans used to frequently bellow “shoooot” – showing frustration at the “tippy-tappy” style – but yesterday over half of Arsenal’s shots were from distance (outside the area). Didn’t do us a lot of good, did it? The problem was an inability to pick through Sunderland’s deep and stubborn defence.
One tactical switch I would like to see us try under such circumstances is simply better use of wide areas. Yesterday’s three forwards have an inclination to attack towards goal, and thus play narrowly, meaning that often there were large wide spaces that went unexploited. Given how Sunderland often left zero players in our half, I wonder if Arsenal couldn’t have encouraged the full backs to get into these spaces more frequently.
Here is just one example which I noted late in the second half (when I thought that Arsenal should have been risking far more in search of a goal).
As Mertesacker comes forward with the ball, looking for a pass, Jenkinson actually stays behind him, even though there is no attacking threat from Sunderland. The still doesn’t show the whole story, but Mertesacker had the ball for some time:
As it happened, he actually failed to move the ball forward, and ended up passing it back to Jenkinson. For some this justifies CJ’s position, yet I think it reflects the excessive negativity of the side at the time.
Just 40 seconds later, Arsenal did manage to get the ball forward, with Gervinho running at the Sunderland defence. But because of CJ’s position (60 yards back) there was no one to offer an outlet on the right:
This image pretty much encapsulates the game. Sunderland have six players back, two for every Arsenal attacker, and their defence is tight and in line. The wide spaces are empty, and Arsenal’s three narrow attackers have no way of getting through. The attack broke down.
The above is just one small example. In itself it may be open to dispute, but overall I feel it’s fair to question why we didn’t expect more from the full backs going forward, especially as the game went on. Last season, come to think of it, there were several games where attacking full backs were key to Arsenal’s success – with Gibbs at times playing more like a winger than a full back.
At the moment it’s difficult to know whether to be up or downbeat with the Arsenal. It’s certainly a time of turbulence, and I expect (and hope) we’ll see both more arrivals and departures.
The club is currently in “the black”, having brought in more cash from sales and purchases this summer, leading some to complain of the board continuing their parsimonious ways. Earlier in the year the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust said that CL football this season would effectively keep £50m in the transfer kitty, while the sale of Queensland Road flats is thought to have contributed £20m.
Yet I’d beware moaning about unspent cash, this time around. The boss no doubt has players he is targeting this summer, with three having already arrived. If Sahin comes in and Theo signs an extension, it looks like we arguably have a better squad than this time last year. If that’s done on the cheap, then fair play to them. Irrespective of wider issues surrounding Kroenke et cetera, I wouldn’t want the club to “just spend the cash” because it’s there, as some are urging.
Issues on the pitch, related to tactics and training, are in a sense more important. We don’t have a decimated squad – it’s at least alright, even with no more additions – so we can expect them to start performing well. We can expect the defence to be tighter than last season, and we can expect them to do better at getting through parked buses. Whether they achieve these things remains to be seen.
When the full time whistle blows at Anfield in a fortnight’s time we’ll have played two more games and witnessed the crazy-as-ever closing of the transfer window. It’ll still be too premature a stage to judge the season’s prospects, but we will have a stronger idea of where we stand. Sometimes it’s best to wait and see.