Arsenal 2 – 1 Athletico Madrid

It’s time to draw some grossly premature conclusions from a single pre-season match

Before I even get started, I want to issue a major disclaimer. This was one single, solitary, lone pre-season match. Many players participated that will not be significant contributors during the season, and some key first team regulars were missing. But despite those obvious qualifications, there are still observations to be made from today’s game that are important at this stage of pre-season.

Since I’m am somewhat prone to excessively long blog entries, I’m going to submit my observations from today’s game in bullet form. But the first point I want to make concerns today’s formation. It seems that the consensus on twitter is that we lined up in a 4-3-3. But to me, it looked like Wenger’s latest creation, the 4-2-3-1. I won’t bother re-hashing my feelings about the 4-2-3-1 formation in full. I’ve devoted a more than adequate number of inches to that topic. But suffice it to say that I’m not a fan whatsoever.

My reasons for opposing this formation are varied and influenced by what I saw at the end of last season. My primary concern is simply a matter of personnel. I believe that any team should strive to have its best players on the pitch as much as possible. But in the 4-2-3-1, the use of two holding midfielders leaves one of our better attacking options forced to sit on the bench. If Denilson AND Song play at the same time, that means there’s room for four of our better attacking options rather than the five attacking players we would deploy in a 4-4-2. If RVP plays the lone striker and Arshavin, Cesc and Theo lineup behind him, then there’s no room for Rosicky, Nasri, Bendtner, or Eduardo. I believe that is why Wenger experimented with Nasri in a holding role late last season. He wanted to find a way to get Nasri on the field instead of Denilson while maintaining the 4-2-3-1. But as it currently stands, Wenger is essentially choosing to play Denilson or Song OVER Rosicky, Nasri, Bendtner or Eduardo.

I just don’t agree with that philosophy, particularly in the League. In Europe, a more cautious approach might be warranted, but in the League, draws are as good as losses. You need all three points every week and you need goals to get three points. In the 4-2-3-1, (or 4-3-3 if you must call it that) our buildup is much slower and more deliberate and Van Persie looks hoplessly isolated up front. I just don’t see a bevy of goals coming from this lineup. The other problem is that many of our players look out of position in this formation. Bendtner is not a wide player and Cesc is not a support striker. Arshavin’s least impressive performances have come in this formation (yes, I realize he scored twice today) because he seems to drift out of the game the wider he plays.

But here’s the single biggest reason why I don’t like this formation: it doesn’t seem to provide the defensive protection we need. You would think that playing two defensive midfielders in front of the back four would lead to a stingier defensive record, but some of our most appalling defending late last season ocurred in games where Wenger employed the 4-2-3-1. If playing Song and Denilson together doesn’t lead to a better defensive record, then, as far as I’m concerned, the strategy falls apart.

That’s my feeling about this formation. Is it a total disaster? Of course not. But it’s not our most aggressive lineup, and if we want to win the league, we need our best players on the pitch and the team that’s going to score the most goals. No matter what we’d like to think, we’re not going to have the best defensive record in the league and that’s not required to win games.

So let’s cover the rest of my observations about today’s victory over Althletico Madrid. (In brief…by my standards.)

  • Welome back Tomas Rosicky. It was almost the dream debut for Rosicky as he was marginally offside when he put the ball in the net from a great turn and curling shot from the edge of the area. As Wenger pointed out after the game, Rosicky isn’t out of the woods yet. But if he can get through a few months, he could be a huge contributor to this team. In just the first half today, we saw glimpses of talent that we’ve badly missed.
  • Our defense is still a very big concern. After the game we learned that Senderos is on his way to Everton. While this doesn’t come as a big surprise, it leaves us undeniably thin at center-half. Essentially we have Djourou, Gallas and Vermaelen. Any other option you want to mention is someone we simply don’t want to be using in meaninful games. And as it turns out, Vermaelen has already picked up a muscle injury that might sideline him for our next few pre-season matches. We weren’t great defending set pieces today and while Athletico were very poor in this match, the goal they scored was absurdly easy. Gallas and Djourou parted like the Red Sea. (Thought about going with some reference to a lady’s thighs there but I thought better of it…wait, I just did it, didn’t I?) The defending was really bad the last 10 or 15 minutes in particular. Hopefully, what we saw today was just some pre-season rust and not foreshadowing another season of shaky defending
  • We still need a lot of work crossing the ball into the box. We passed well today. We held the ball well today. And, as usual, we got into great wide positions in the final third. But more often than not, the crossing is wasteful. Considering how much pace we posess and the number of chances we have to put good crosses into the box, we simply must convert those opportunities into meaningful scoring chances.
  • Vito Mannone scares the hell out of me. Enough said.
  • Jack Wilshire is a remarkable talent and it will be hard to keep him out of the squad this season. Wilshire was named the man of the match and it considering Arshavin scored two goals, you might say he didn’t deserve it. But he did. He injected something different into the team in the second half and got loose down the right on several occassions with combinations of good passing, good footwork, and most impressively, good strength. After the match Wenger conceeded that it’s difficult to balance his desire to play with his youth and place in the pecking order. It might be easiest to send him out on loan, but I think he could actually help the team this season. That’s how good he looks right now.
  • Emmanuel Eboue continues to drive me nuts. He’s got talent. You simply can’t ignore that. He gets past defenders, he causes problems with his runs and he can be good cover for Sagna at right back. But his approach to the game is maddening. Just once I would like to see him fight to stay on his feet instead of taking the easy free kick. If Eboue ever gets his mind right, he could be a fearsome footballer. The question remains whether he will get that chance at Arsenal. Right now, I hope he stays with us because we’re starting to get really thin defensively and I’m not sure we have another geniune right back after Sagna.
  • Signing Andrey Arshavin when we did was a stroke of genius by Arsene Wenger. Some questioned the timing of the signing because Arshavin was cup-tied. Those people said we could have waited until the summer to sign him. But can you even imagine what he would have cost in this summer’s wacky transfer market? What makes Arshavin so remarkable is that he doesn’t have to be very involved in a match to make a dramatic impact. His brief time on the pitch today was fairly innocuous. He didn’t look particularly sharp or dangerous. But with literally three touches he scored our only two goals. Both finishes were absolutely clinical and I’m still watching replays to figure out how he scored the second. In some ways he’s the anti-Bendtner. Bendtner gets very involved in matches but too often squanders gilt-edged chances to score. Arshavin rarely misses his opportunities. Maybe his best quality is his awareness. He seems to find the right spot on the pitch all the time. Against Liverpool he scored his goals by being in the right places at the right times. Today, he got the winner with an inspired bit of anticipation. He’s a special talent and I think I’m more excited to see what he can do this season than any other player on the roster.
  • Speaking of Arshavin…NO MORE JUMPING ON HIS BACK WHEN HE SCORES. For goodness sake he’s barely bigger than my black lab puppy and watching Eduardo jump on him I half-expected to see Arshavin crumple to the ground.
  • Our central midfield options still leave something to be desired. If I must get used to this 4-2-3-1 (or 4-3-3) then I’m not convinced by some of the players that will see a lot of playing time. I’m not a Denilson fan. Period. I know there are a lot of Denilson fans out there and they’re very loyal and vocal. I’ve heard all the arguments and most of them center around an endless stream of statistics. (Many of which are taken completely out of context but that’s another story.) But you get a lot from simply watching a game, and Denilson isn’t great at anything. He’s decent at many things. But he doesn’t have that one great quality. He doesn’t have the pace of Theo, or the passing of Cesc, or the shot of Nasri, or the vision and anticipation of Arshavin, etc. Each of those players bring something special to the pitch. Denilson just makes up the numbers in many ways. He’s the kind of player a midtable team would be happy to start every weekend as a holding midfielder, but not a top team. He’s not Essien, or Mascherano, or Carrick. That’s the problem. It’s a key position and it’s one that he’s not suited to play regularly. At least not at this point in his career. We need an inspired holding midfielder. Maybe Song or Diaby or Denilson will become that player. Maybe Nasri will convert into that player. But at the moment, I don’t see that player on the roster.

So that’s about it. It might sound like I’m being overly negative after a nice win that puts us in the pole position to win the Emirates Cup. But I’m not being negative. I liked a lot of what I saw. I was thrilled for Rosicky. I was amazed by Arshavin as usual. And I was incredibly impressed by Jack Wilshire. (Looking at the tweets during the game, everyone was impressed with Wilshire.) But the pre-season is about taking stock. It’s about sizing up your team and confronting the weaknesses. I believe this team is good enough to win every major trophy. I really do. It might sound like a pipe dream, but we have as much talent as any team in England to be sure. Our players are younger, but just as talented. My comments today are based on a single pre-season match so they can be taken with a bathtub full of salt. But it was fun to watch the Arsenal play today. That’s the most important point of all. The season is around the corner and our football fast is almost over.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Arsene Wenger suggested in his post-match interview that our transfer business will be concluded by next Saturday’s match against Valencia. He said that we might bring in one or two more players by that time. If that is the case, then he must have identified those players and talks must be underway. We must protect against the mentality that any new signing is a good thing. But right now, I would love to see a defensive midfielder and center-half come into the side before the season starts. I suppose the waiting will soon be over. For better or worse.

Hope you enjoyed the game. And, best of all…More Arsenal football in a few hours!

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About Yankee Gunner

Loyal Arsenal Supporter, Obscure Television Personality
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