Now that the transfer window has closed for a few months, it’s time to take stock of the team that we have. Predictably, there are those that believe our chance of winning trophies was lost when Arsene Wenger chose not to bring in any further reinforcements. I don’t subscribe to that theory.
In this era of Football Manager and Pro Evolution Soccer, and EA Sports FIFA games, it seems that some fans have lost touch with the realities of pro sports. Millions of Euros are not just imaginary or hypothetical sums that live in an Xbox or Playstation. Players don’t come with rankings for each of their skills. I can almost hear some fans saying, “we really should have signed Hangeland because he has a 93 for tackling and a 91 for headers.” If it were that easy then you’d be sitting in an executive suite at the Emirates rather than a sofa chair in your basement. But it’s not that easy and the money is more than a passing consideration.
In order to sign any player, a few criteria should be met. The player should possess skills that are presently in short supply at the club. The player should be eager to join the club. The transfer fee and wage demands should not be greater than the player’s logical value and should not jeopardize the financial viability of the club. Only when all of these critera can be met does a player warrant signing. It doesn’t take much effort to find instances where a club has failed to adhere to these standards and the results are predictably dire. I won’t bore you with the usual list of terrible signings but you get the idea. If Arsene Wenger doesn’t believe that such a player was available in this transfer period (other than Vermaelen of course) then I’m inclined to believe him. And for those of you that want to criticize Wenger’s dealings, let me ask you this question; can you name two better signings by a Premier League club in the last year than Arshavin and Vermaelen? Probably not.
So now that we know there won’t be new arrivals for a least a few months, let’s quickly take stock of what we have.
Despite the loss of Greedybayor, we’ve got plenty of firepower up front. Eduardo, Van Persie, Bendtner, Arshavin and possibly even Diaby can all play the central striker role. Van Persie, Bendtner, Diaby, Walcott, Arshavin, Vela, Wilshere and even Rosicky (hopefully) can all play in the wide positions. When you look at that list we have a first choice lineup of Arshavin, Van Persie, and Walcott. Pretty impressive. Even if all three were unavailable, we’d have a second choice of Diaby, Eduardo and Bendtner. Not too shabby. That leaves Rosicky, Vela and Wilshere as third options. Admittedly, it’d be a dire situation if we got that far, but it’s plenty of talent and certainly not worth overspending for Chamakh, who might still arrive in January or next summer for free.
This is the area where it was most commonly claimed that we needed to strengthen. I won’t pretend I didn’t make the claim, like many others, that we could use another defensive midfielder. But I made those claims when two things were different. First, I hadn’t counted on Song and Denilson making what seems to be a genuinely massive step forward in performance. Second, I hadn’t been able to see how the 4-3-3 would work and what a difference it would make to the way the team plays. With Song and Denilson showing dramatic improvement so far, and the 4-3-3 changing the role of our midfielders to some degree, I think the pressing need for another defensive midfielder has abated.
Our midfield options include, Cesc, Song, Denilson, Diaby, Nasri, Ramsey, Merida, Eboue. Is it an overwhelming collection of talent? No. Compared to our assortment of forwards, it’s obviously less impressive. The biggest difference here is that our first choice, second choice and third choice lineups are miles apart. I think it has to be said that our first choice midfield probably includes Cesc, Nasri and Song. And I can’t wait to see that pairing. Denilson is first choice off the bench. Diaby and Eboue are close behind. Ramsey and Merida are there if the situation is desperate or less pressurized.
For me, the lynchpin to this midfield is Nasri. When Nasri is healthy, he can be cover for Cesc in the creative role. Against United I was pleasantly surprised by how effective we were in midfield without Cesc. But just imagine if it had been Nasri on the pitch instead of Eboue. I think that’s a huge upgrade. A Nasri, Song, Denilson lineup doesn’t look quite as thin. Some would argue that we’ll struggle when Song leaves for the ACN. But again, if Nasri is fit, then we have a midfield trio including Cesc, Nasri and Denilson. In the 4-3-3, when Nasri and Cesc are both available, any one of Song, Diaby, Denilson or Eboue can very capably fill the last spot. It’s when Cesc or Nasri isn’t available that the midfield becomes less appealing. Then two from Song, Diaby, Denilson and Eboue must play together. But as we showed at Old Trafford, maybe that’s not a worst-case scenario. Our midfield was almost as depleted as it can get against United, and it still looked formidable.
If we had signed a defensive midfielder, when would he have played? Let’s assume for a moment that we signed Matuidi. Are we certain that he’s better than Song or Diaby or Denilson? If not, then he’d struggle to play. Cesc, Nasri and Song would start. Denilson and Diaby would be first in line to replace those three. That means Matuidi might conceivably have been the third midfield option off the bench. Is that something we should overpay to acquire? I don’t think so. We’re a team that’s constrained by limits that don’t effect clubs like Chelski and Citeh, and we can’t let their spending influence our behavior. Just consider this; did you see United or Liverpool make any key signings this summer? Quite the opposite, they lost key players. So I think we should be happy with this midfield. Provided that we continue to get the level of performance from Song and Denilson that we’ve seen so far, we’re going to be just fine.
Defense is where we’ve gone from relative weakness, to improbable strength. We might not be perfect at the back, but we look light years from where we were. It’s clear (to me at least) that Kolo Toure needed to go. I would never have guessed that, but it seems obvious now. We look like a different team in defense this season and only one player has changed. I have to laugh at everyone bemoaning our lack of signings while arguably our best player of the season so far is a new signing.
Thomas Vermaelen has been brilliant. He brings a toughness, a work ethic, and an enthusiasm for defending that’s been missing at Arsenal lately. But maybe as important as what he brings to the team, is the impact he seems to have had on William Gallas. There’s no denying that Gallas has been in masterful form. Besides using unique body parts to score goals, Gallas has been working hard on defense. His current form is the best of his Arsenal tenure and his attitude has been spot on. With Vermaelen and Gallas at the back, and Song in midfield, Arsenal seems to have gotten its spine back.
Our wide defensive players are top quality as well. Clichy might not be playing his best football, and he’s still prone to some lapses in judgment, but he’s generally an impressive left-back. (However, he had another worrying moment against United when he nearly had the ball taken off him in the penalty area following an ill-advised attempt to play the ball out of trouble rather than kicking it up the pitch.) Barcary Sagna is quietly one of the best right-backs in all of football. He’s so terribly under appreciated but his consistency in that position is remarkable. There’s no denying that his contributions to the attack could be improved and his crossing tends to be woeful, but when it comes to defending his position, he’s as good as anyone in the game.
We have excellent cover for Sagna and Clichy as well. Traore and Gibbs are both hugely talented left backs and could be starting for several Premier League teams. They offer great depth on the left. We aren’t quite as deep on the right, but Eboue can certainly fill in for Sagna. I’ve said before that I thought he was a top right-back and our only concern is that Sagna stays healthy while Eboue is at the ACN.
What seems to have many supporters worried is our lack of depth in the central defense. Phillipe Senderos might not be everyone’s favorite option, but now that he’s staying with the club, he’s a viable backup to Gallas and Vermaelen. Keep in mind, Senderos would only be the second option behind Djourou once Johan returns from injury. The most important aspect of Senderos’ availability is that it pushes Silvestre further down the depth chart.
With Djourou and Senderos at the club, we could lose all four starting defenders and still start a back four of Gibbs, Djourou, Senderos and Eboue. It would take a very bad set of circumstances for that lineup to be necessary, but nevertheless, it doesn’t fill me with dread or panic. Compare that with our starting defense towards the end of last season of Gibbs, Silvestre, Toure and Sagna and you can see that we’re much better off now.
I’m not going to spend much time on this, but ironically, this is the area where we have the least depth or talent. Fabianski will be out for a while longer. Mannone doesn’t look ready and Szczesny isn’t much better. If Almunia were to suffer an injury at this point, we’d almost have to find a ‘keeper somewhere. I can’t believe that Wenger is prepared to go long stretches in the league or in Europe with Mannone or Szczesny at ‘keeper. And it’s not as if Fabianski is the second coming of Seaman. He cost us a chance in the FA Cup final last season. I’m not saying he should be written off, but he’s probably not ready to carry the load.
That means it’s down to Almunia staying healthy. Admittedly he’s been durable, but no keeper plays every match over the entire season. And frankly, he’s not in the best form of his life. He had a lot of critics heading into last season and despite Arsenal’s struggles, he acquitted himself admirably and silenced many of those critics. But his form to start this season has been uneven at best. He doesn’t look particularly confident and he’s been spared criticism by our avalanche of goals. He gave away the goal to Pompey and should never have been charging Rooney when he gave away the penalty at Old Trafford. There have been some worrying signs with Almunia and hopefully he can get himself back into proper form sooner rather than later. Better yet, maybe we can just keep scoring enough goals that it doesn’t matter.
So there you have it. That’s the team the way I see it at the moment. Injuries and changes in form might make a difference, but I think it’s clear that we have the tools we need to bring home serious silverware this season. Are we as deep as Barcelona or Madrid? Not on paper. Are we as deep as Chelsea or Citeh? Maybe not. But how a team looks on paper seldom matters. Just ask Bayern Munich how many points you get for looking good on paper. That team is a disaster and they have all the talent in the world…on paper. What matters is that we are Arsenal. We have young players that are just now blossoming into world class talent. We have the most brilliant football mind on the planet managing our club. And we have a chip on our shoulder to motivate. Those sound like the ingredients for a successful season to me.
I won’t be blogging for the next few days. Then again, there won’t be anything worth blogging about. (Hopefully. No good news comes out during an international break.) We’ll see what develops with Arshavin’s injury and Cesc’s call-up to the Spain team. Other than that, it should be a quiet week. I’ll be on twitter if anything worthy of mention is happening.
Enjoy the international matches, and fingers crossed for a healthy week for our players.