Arsenal: In search of the missing ingredients.

Arsenal football club. A name known around the world by millions of people, it is a name associated with beautiful football and rightly so. While Arsenal’s trophy cabinet may not be half as full as that of Manchester United or Liverpool, there is no doubt that the brand of football played at the Emirates is of a calibre that cannot be matched in many other football grounds. Most lovers of the game put Arsenal as the second most entertaining team to watch currently, behind the record-breaking and all-encompassing Barcelona side of Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and co.

While this sense of pride may have kept Arsenal fans relatively content over the last few seasons of Arsène Wenger’s reign, the 2010-2011 season has seen a dramatic tidal wave of supporter anger and frustration. However, it is not the fact that we have ended another campaign trophy-less which has angered supporters so much, but the utter capitulation of a team that only a few months ago was part of 4 winnable competitions.

Now the Champions League exit can be forgiven. We came up against the strongest side in the world at the moment for the second year in a row and undoubtedly performed better than we did last year. The 2-1 comeback at the Emirates has to be one of the most nail-biting, enthralling, captivating games that I have witnessed as an Arsenal fan. Nobody gave us a chance at the outset, and in the first half Barcelona dominated just as they had done the year before. However, this Arsenal team showed that Barcelona are not invincible; that they do have weaknesses that can be exploited by other top sides. The 2nd leg showed a side of Arsenal that I have rarely seen; a team set up to defend a lead and working hard to do that  but committing little to attack. Now while I wouldn’t want us to play that way each week, nobody would have cared in the slightest if we had gone on to win the tie. We didn’t, for many reasons, but we came out of the match with our heads held high.

The same cannot be said for the other competitions however. The League Cup was seen as in-the-bag by everyone and we failed at the final hurdle due to a ridiculous defensive error. The FA Cup saw us predictably lose to United at Old Trafford after struggling to knock-out lower-league opponents in Huddersfield and Leeds. Even these defeats pale in comparison to our end of season league form though, where we self-destructed nearly every week against mediocre opposition. A mix of defensive recklessness and lack of mental strength have been deemed the culprits in a run of games that saw us draw 6 and lose 3 of our last 11 fixtures. Wins over Blackpool and Man Utd were the only high points in a miserable April and May for Arsenal fans. Wenger now has no more excuses to hide behind as it is clear that something went fundamentally wrong in that dressing room.

So, where next for Arsenal F.C.? Well for Arsenal fans, Wenger is thankfully making all the right noises about spending money this summer on recruits. It remains to be seen who these recruits will be, as he will most certainly not break the bank in the same way Man Utd, Man City, Chelsea and Liverpool often do. Defence is the key position this summer. A strong, tall, dominating Centre-Back is a must, but after £6.5m Squillaci bombed so horribly this season I can understand if Wenger takes as long as he possibly can before choosing the right player.

Not too long ago, many fans were adamant that a top-class Keeper was needed. Now, with the emergence of Wojciech Szczesny, I do feel more confident about our man between the posts. That being said, he is only 20 and has plenty of time to develop, so signing an older, reliable Keeper wouldn’t be a bad move because I couldn’t trust Fabianski or Almunia if Szczesny were to get injured.

We could also do with another 15 goal-a-season Striker, as we rely far too heavily on Robin Van Persie. Chamakh had a fantastic start to the season, but looked very jaded and almost lost after January – the pace of the game here had obviously caught up with him. I would like to see Carlos Vela being given more game time next season. He’s a fantastic talent, and scored important goals for West Brom when he went there on loan.

Let’s have a look at a few names that Arsenal have been linked to already:

Chris Samba (Blackburn):

I like Samba a lot. Tall, strong, powerful, commanding and with a few goals to his name, I think this would be a very good signing. It’s rumoured that we’ve placed an £8m bid to test the waters, but it remains to be seen whether Blackburn will want to do business.

Gary Cahill (Bolton):

Strong English Centre-Back, his name seems to come up every time the Transfer Window opens. I don’t know how likely this deal is though, because the ‘English Tax’ will drive his fee up very highly, maybe too highly for Wenger’s short arms.

Scott Parker (West Ham):

Mr. Give-Everything-Every-Game would be a superb addition in my opinion. He’s just the type of player we lack, he gives 100% to the cause and has had a tremendous season despite being part of a poor West Ham side. Motivational character.

Gervinho (Lille):

Not a household name in England, but the Ivorian with the funny hair has just won the French League Title with Lille. He plays as both a Winger and a Striker and has bundles of pace. Wenger seems to have been keen on him for a while, and from what I’ve seen of him he looks like a good player, with 16 goals last term highlighting his goalscoring ability.

Falcao (Porto):

Apparently Falcao’s agent has said that both us and Spurs have already made bids for the Colombian. Whether this is just a ploy to try and raise his price isn’t clear, but he would be a welcome addition to Arsenal. He’s had an astonishing season goal-wise. He has close to a goal-a-game rate at Porto and broke a goal-scoring record held by Jurgen Klinsmann when he netted 17 times in 14 games in this year’s Europa League.

As well as new arrivals, what many Arsenal fans desperately want to see this close-season is the departure of a few familiar faces who we feel don’t make the grade. Top of my list are Bendtner, Denilson, Arshavin, and Almunia. Bendtner for me is an obvious choice. While many could argue that he’s played out of position on the wing (which is very true), he is miles away from being good enough as a Centre-Forward. I believe the reason Wenger decides to play him on the wing is because that’s where he tends to actually go anyway, when all you want him to do is to stand in the box and be a target for crosses! I could see Bendtner being a very useful addition to a middle/lower Premier League side, just not for one chasing titles.

Denilson is also quite self-explanatory. A Brazilian who doesn’t really have any of the skills we associate with Brazilians. He’s not an especially good passer of the ball, isn’t particularly pacy, and can’t list tackling as one of his strong points.

Arshavin had a season to forget, and while most fans may be sad to see a player of his skill leave, he just does not possess any sense of team work and makes fans around the country collectively hold their breath every time he steps into our own penalty area. Despite all this, I would only want Arshavin to leave if we could get close to the same price we payed for him. I could see his former club Zenit being interested.

Finally, Almunia. I do genuinely feel sorry for Manuel, as he seems like a stand-up guy, but even he has to admit that we can’t keep this charade going on any longer. With a tendency to fumble and make unforced errors, it has at times been painful to watch him. However, it has to be said that his best performances at Arsenal have come both this year and last year against Barcelona, where he on many occasions single-handedly kept us in the game.

For me, though, the biggest change that is needed is a change of formation. I just don’t think the current 4-5-1 system gets the best out of the players we have at our disposal, because it forces players like Nasri, Arshavin and Rosicky to play as Wingers, and too often leaves Van Persie isolated upfront. It would be a different story if RVP was your typical target man, à la Kevin Davies at Bolton, who could bring down the ball and hold it up until his teammates arrived, but he’s more of an offensive Attacking Midfielder to be honest. His natural instinct is to drop just outside the penalty area looking for the ball (just like 99% of the team) and this is what contributes to the massive congestion of Arsenal players in the same area of the field, with no-one to cross to in the box.

I know it’s easy to sit here and bash systems and tactics that have, in many cases, worked brilliantly. I’m not saying that we should abandon this 4-5-1, I’m just saying that we need an alternative too, as we are easily figured out by the majority of teams in the Premier League. If I were manager, I think I would try and implement a system more akin to a 4-2-2-2 that they use in Brazil a lot, because I think it suits the players we have. If no new signings are made and nobody leaves, this would be my first 11 next season:

Szczesny

      Sagna                Vermaelen                     Koscielny/Djourou                 Clichy

Song                     Wilshere

     Nasri                   Fabregas (c)

            Van Persie               Chamakh/Vela/Walcott

I think this system would work for a few main reasons:

1) It would allow Van Persie to drop deeper while still leaving a striker in the box to aim crosses at.

2) It gives Nasri and Fabregas the freedom to create without having to worry so much about defending. Nasri is a natural central Attacking Midfield player, as demonstrated by his role at Marseille as the heart of their attacking play. Wenger, however, has tried to mould him into a Winger because he doesn’t play a traditional Attacking Midfielder. While I’m not saying it hasn’t worked  – Nasri is a superb footballer and will naturally have gained from training in a different position – he is not a Winger who beats people with his pace before releasing a cross. Let him play more centrally and run at defences with Cesc alongside him. I think Cesc sacrifices some of his attacking play by playing alongside Song and Wilshere.

3) Song can continue to act as a defensive shield alongside Wilshere, who I think work well together. Wilshere has developed a huge new range of abilities since being deployed deeper by Wenger and I honestly think it was an inspired decision.

3) This system still gives both Sagna and Clichy space to bomb forward if they so choose, but while one advances the other needs to retreat so as the flanks aren’t left open. Song and Wilshere should stay deeper if the fullbacks choose to go forward.

4) We don’t need wingers because playing with wingers is not our strong point. We don’t cross exceptionally well, and it only ever seems to be a last resort. Having attacking fullbacks and wingers seems redundant.

These are just a few of my thoughts on Arsenal. I’m looking forward to both the transfer window and next season with optimism, even if that cannot be said of all Arsenal fans. I do believe in Wenger and the team, we’re just missing a few ingredients that could take us to the next level. Hopefully, by next season, they will be in place.

Until next time,

Maz

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