So, we are going to hit the San Siro – one of the real Meccas of world football for me – at 4th place in the league, on a little run of three games unbeaten, and quite a lot of the vocal minority (i) would not have predicted that, and (ii) seem to have shut up, for a few days at least. But what have the last month and a half told us?
Not a surprise, but firstly, we need our better players, in their best positions, playing for us. I have banged on about how important Mikel Arteta has been for us – linking the play in the “water carrier” role, but we really missed him in those three games we lost. It is great to see him back doing his excellent work in the middle of the park. I also think his experience is helping the younger players. He is a great example he just keeps moving into space, getting the ball and laying it off. He even got a deflected goal against Blackburn, and his shot led to the equaliser against the Mackems. If you look at his career, he’s not really won much outside Scotland: I think he is desperate to win big prizes. He thinks that joining Arsenal is his last throw of the dice and that’s what’s driving him on. Arteta has settled very quickly, and almost instantly become a very influential player, taking some of the burden off Alex Song.
The second really important player to return for me is Bacary Sagna. If you’ve read my posts before you’ll know I’m a massive fan of his: he is top class and having a right back at right back has made a real difference: he defends superbly but he adds to the attack as well – something Djourou didn’t do, although Francis Coquelin got a good assist against Blackburn. Thomas Vermaelen filling in at left back has given us experience at the back, but I don’t really like him at full back: I think he gets drawn in too narrow, and he doesn’t overlap enough for the system we play. I think he has been at least partly to blame for 3 or 4 of the goals we conceded (including both vs Man Utd) while he’s been covering. Unfortunately, it looks like Per Mertesacker has picked up quite a bad injury – another player who looked to be just settling like Eduardo and Ramsey before him. With Gibbs ready for the bench yesterday, it looks like the Verminator will be moving back to the centre against Milan, which is good news if Ibrahimovic plays he’s caused us problems before.
I also think we have shown some character in the last 3 games. Going 1-0 down, losing your centre back away to a Sunderland team with 3 wins under their belt, under a new and very good manager, is not a great position to be in. But the players dug deep, and not only carved out the equaliser, but managed to sneak the winner at the end. Arteta’s heavily deflected shot from outside the box fell to Aaron Ramsey, on as sub, who hit the leveller from outside the box. The strike couldn’t have been more accurate: it hit the post, landed on the goal line, hit the other post and span in, not even getting as far as the back of the net. He’s had a lot of criticism lately, I think unfairly: people forget how young Ramsey is, 21, and that he is still recovering from a very bad injury. I love the way he plays: he gets up and down, and he has done a job for the team this season, playing in a role that isn’t his natural position. I think he is more of a holding midfielder, who likes to arrive late into the box, and not the creative “Cesc” player that he’s been asked to be this season. Most fans I’ve spoken to agree he’s been overplayed this year, and has just run out of gas. It was really great to see him get such an important goal, that should shut his critics up for a while.
There was also a bit of the much fabled “mental strength” shown in not losing the 0-0 at Bolton. We had missed a lot of chances in the first half, and they had quite a few good chances near the end. So to let that point go would have been a psychological disaster – a real confidence sapper. And the reason for the displays with a bit more character? Well I think Thierry Henry has certainly made a difference. He either does genuinely love the club, or he’s a bloody good liar. I simply don’t believe any modern players love the clubs: it’s total rubbish. The prime example of this is Wayne Rooney: he grew up on merseyside, plays for Man Utd. He’s a professional and yes he “loves” playing for Man Utd – they pay his handome wages – but I bet at family barbecues he doesn’t go on about how much he loves Man Utd. Professional footballers “love” the club they’re playing for – the days of them coming from round the corner, cleaning the boots as a YTS trainee, and making the first team are long gone. I remember Henry getting a standing ovation from the Portsmouth fans when he was subbed once down there. He had just destroyed them with a hat-trick, a superb performance, and they respected him enough to stand up and applaud the man as he left the field. There arent many opposition players that are held in that regard, and he responded by applauding them too. His goals and performances, his passion and his class wearing our famous shirt makes Thierry Henry so special to us, and to English football. A true legend.
The character has not all been from Henry though: Laurent Koscielny has shown it week in week out. Many a player would have buckled with the problems we’ve had in defence since he joined the club, but he’s been a rock. If he was English, the media would be going mad about him, but so far he seems to have slipped under the radar, largely unnoticed. If he carries on, it’s just a question of time before the media pick up on how good he is. Still early in his Arsenal career of course, and a long way to go, but he could be a top central defender, and one of Wenger’s best ever centre back signings.
You can’t write a piece about Arsenal’s fortunes these days without mentioning Robin van Persie. He has continued to take his chances, whenever they come. It’s a lot of responsibility, being the top striker, and he’s added the captaincy this season as well. To be honest he seems to be relishing it all – enjoying his football more than ever. With him, Mikel Arteta and Thomas Vermaelen in the side, that’s three quarters of a very strong “spine”, all those have the mental strength needed at the very top level. I leave out Wojciech Szczesny deliberately: he’s a prospect but not there yet. He’s made a couple of slight errors lately, and it will be interesting to see how he reacts to a little blip, but I think he will get there too, with a bit of experience.
The next thing is that the second string players have started to produce. Thomas Rosicky has finally strung two or three solid performances together, coming in for Ramsey who was looking very tired. Even the much lamented Andre Arshavin put a wonderful ball in for Henry to flick in the winner against Sunderland. Francis Coquelin has impressed everyone with his tenacity and importantly he looks to be a very useful player for his versatility: he has done well at full back and in midfield. Finally, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who, with perfect timing while Gervinho was away at the African Cup of Nations, has exploded into the first team. When Gervinho comes back I’d like to see him and the Ox on the wings. Theo Walcott started the season well, but his level has slipped a bit, and he has dropped down to 3rd choice winger for me. He’s not a natural footballer for me – betrayed by his decision making which is still a big achilles heel. Even just a few games into his Arsenal career, you can already see The Ox is much better at choosing the right option. Perhaps it’s a bit unfair for a winger who got 3 assists against Blackburn, but they were awful that day, and I think Theo could do with a bit of a wake up call.
Not a reason for the recent better results, but another thing to mention, is the appearance of a 4-4-2 formation at the end of the game against Sunderland. For me, this is genuinely exciting, and might be truly significant. This might be a separate blog topic, but I think it might be another sign that Arsène Wenger might have decided to abandon the experiment to build and grow a team from a group of young players. The signings in August 2011 of the experienced Arteta, Mertesacker and Bennayoun, and the decision to bring back King Henry, indicated a slight change in policy. If we see 4-4-2 again a few times in the 2nd half of the season, I think it’s not beyond the realms of possibility for it to be employed as either “Plan B” next season, or even the regular starting formation.
Looking forward, we have two massive games in Milan and Teeside coming up. The FA Cup game is more important for me. There are some top, top teams left in the Champions League – there’s very little chance we can win that. [Although I did remember the other day that Liverpool won it one year when they were the 2nd best team in Liverpool…]. If we can get past Sunderland, it’s just 3 more games to win it. With both Manchester clubs out, the FA Cup presents a real opportunity for us to get a piece of silverware. To win it though, I have a sneaky suspicion we will have to overcome the old enemy at Wembley, who got a bye into the quarters. It’s amazing: since their manager got off his tax evasion charges, and the bungling Italian resigned, how quickly Spurs have become “the most attractive team in the premier league”. If ever there has been a badge of convenience, that is one. Not mentioned once before he was in line for the England job, now presented as accepted fact. Anyway, hopefully, they will have picked up a few injuries by then, and will maybe have Joe Jordan as their manager, we can put them back in where they belong, in our shadow.
Returning to the original subject. There have been problems, but I personally think they have been blown up a bit. Having four full backs injured is a rarity that none of the clubs cater for, it shouldn’t happen again. Missing chances has been a problem for years – that’s just football. Heads going down is something that I’ve never seen before, but can be understood with so many young players out there. Bringing in experienced heads can help here, which has already started. What price buying out Henry’s contract with NY Red Bulls and keeping him until the end of the season…?
On the positive side then (as always 🙂 ) I’ve seen signs in the last 2-3 weeks that things are changing at the club. Tactics have been changed during games, a sub was made at half-time (Yennaris for Djourou vs Man Utd). 4-4-2 was used at the end at Sunderland. Experience has been used effectively (Henry). Ramsey being rested or dropped has been good as well – it gave Rosicky a chance which he’s taken. Generally, the team is a bit more pragmatic this year: we don’t always try to pass our way out of trouble, which is something that has frustrated the fans over the past couple of years when it goes wrong. Obviously as a result, we are a bit less attractive, but I think we are looking a bit more robust and able to grind out results a bit more.
If we can keep this run going through the Milan and Sunderland cup games, we will be well on the way. A clean sheet at the San Siro, or nick an away goal, or both, and we’ve got a chance of getting through to the last 8 there. For the 5th round tie at Sunderland, they will have had a full week’s rest, where we will have been to a hard European away match. It’s very difficult to call, depends a lot on the teams the managers pick, and I don’t think Wenger will pick his full strength team for that. Although we have suffered 7 years without a trophy, the club’s priorities are still the Premier League and Champions League.
Not back, not yet. But watch this space.
Wear your Red & White Scarf with Pride. Or Yellow in Milan.