With a game almost every four days until May, the season now begins in earnest
“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men Gang aft agley.” – Robert Burns
Robert Burns sure knew what he was talking about. I had schemed to write this blog on a daily basis, but my need to earn a living made that “gang agley.” Now I must accept that this blog is a periodical. And in similar fashion, Arsenal’s scheme to win the premier league seemed to rely heavily on the contribution of in-form striker Robin Van Persie. But now that gang agley as well. So it’s time to find out what this team is really made of, as we enter a truely grueling period of Premier League football.
It’s laughable how willingly supposedly reputable media outlets will rush to print even the most dubious story. As soon as the news of Van Persie’s injury surfaced, there was a surplus of reports that he would miss the entire season. I must admit, given Van Persie’s injury history, I was quick to accept his fate. But it now appears that rumors of his demise were greatly exaggerated. And while six weeks without our main man in the middle wasn’t part of the plan, it’s certainly not the end of the world.
Maybe we should even keep our fingers crossed that RVP’s recovery could be more swift than any of us imagined. After all, he is going to see a Serbian houswife renowned as a healer. According to Van Persie, “She is vague about her methods but I know that she first massages you for a long time with placenta fluid. I am going to give it a try.” Sounds good to me. Of course, you could probably get the same treatment on a street corner in Amsterdam for about 20 Euros but who am I to judge? If it gets our striker back sooner, I say we start stocking up on placentas at Arsenal’s London Colney training ground.
But all kidding aside, this is when the season really gets going and we’re going to have to push on without the flying dutchman. We have Chelsea coming to the Emirates in twelve days, and it’s our first chance to show that we’re ready to contend for the title. Contrarians might argue that we have failed our biggests tests of the season, losing both matches in Manchester. Naturally, I would say those people should be hit by a bus. But they have a point. When you consider the relative weakness of our Champions League group, combined with the fairly straightforward league fixtures we’ve played since our last loss at Eastlands, maybe we do still have to prove that we’re ready to compete at the top level. Beating Chelsea would not only see us likely climb above them in the table (with a game in hand), but it would send a powerful message that we are legitimate title contenders. Losing to Chelsea wouldn’t deliver a fatal blow, but a win could be a springboard to better things.
There’s been a lot of speculation about how we’ll deal with Van Persie’s absence. Some have made the absurd suggestion that Wenger will now be forced to abandon the wildly successful 4-3-3 formation. Naturally, that’s ridiculous. As far as I’m concerned, the solution is straightforward and obvious. Eduardo will take Van Persie’s role as the central striker, and while his fitness and form might be in question, he is unquestionably the second in line for Van Persie’s position. Ironically, in the hours before the injury, stories had surfaced (most likely fabricated) that Eduardo was unhappy with his playing time. Now he should have more playing time than he knows how to manage.
With Eduardo in the center of the attacking trident, and Arshavin presumably entrenched on the left, that only leaves the right wing position to consider. Once Theo returns from injury, that position should be his to lose. Amazingly, this Arsenal side are short on pace in attack and Theo brings plenty of that into the team. Of course, if he’s not available, Wenger can call on either Diaby, Rosicky or Nasri to play on the right, and eventually Vela or Bentner as well. As far as I’m concerned, while we don’t have a better striker than Van Persie, a front three of Arshavin, Eduardo and Theo (or Nasri/Rosicky/Diaby/Vela/Bendtner) is still fearsome.
Moreover, with Nasri and Rosicky both back fit, either one can slot into the midfield alongside Cesc. Both players are better passers than Diaby who has been a fixture lately. Their presence in midfield should help offset some of the creativity we lose in Van Persie’s absence. Diaby has been this season’s polarizing player (much the same way Denilson was last year). Some supporters feel that he has been a weak link, while others praise him for the goals he has scored and his relative consistency. As far as I’m concerned, Diaby is probably better suited to play in the attacking trident rather than midfield. He has pace, power and can finish, but he rarely finds the pass to unlock a defense. Eduardo knows when to make a run and he can be a killer finisher. With both Cesc AND Rosicky providing the delivery from midfield, I think he’ll have plenty of chances to score.
While Eduardo is the natural choice to replace Van Persie during his convalescence, Arsene Wenger might also elect to give Arshavin a chance to play in the middle. Considering Eduardo’s fitness concerns, Wenger could be reluctant to play him every four days. In that case, Arshavin is capable of playing through the middle. He’s not exactly the prototype of a central striker, standing at roughly 4’7″ tall, but then again, long-balls and crosses aren’t exactly the Arsenal way these days.
Van Persie’s assists have been just as important as his goals this season and Arshavin can certainly distribute the ball just as effectively. Moreover, moving the diminutive Russian to the middle of the park would have two additional benefits. First, it would provide added cover for young Gibbs at left-back. Arshavin’s not exactly adept at helping defend (to be polite), and whoever took his place on the left (Rosicky or Nasri perhaps) would certainly be a bigger help defensively. Second, playing in the middle might keep Arshavin more involved in the match. At times this season he has drifted out of games or looked a little disinterested. Playing in the middle would let him see more of the ball and give him more chances to provide that moment of genius we’ve seen from him on occasion.
Regardless, of who plays in the middle, Arsenal still have a variety of attacking options. So many in fact, that the competition for starting places will still be fierce even without Van Persie and Bendtner. Consider that Wenger must choose six players from this list: Cesc, Song, Nasri, Rosicky, Denilson, Diaby, Ramsey, Vela, Theo, Eduardo, Arshavin, and even Wilshere and Merida. Naturally, Cesc, Song, and Arshavin are automatic first choice selections when available. Wilshere, Merida, and even Ramsey and Vela are probably still on the outside looking in. Denilson will likely provide cover for Song when he’s off to the ACN. But that leaves Nasri, Rosicky, Diaby, Eduardo and Theo fighting for three places. Not a bad competition there. No one can replace Van Persie considering his recent form, but we have enough options to make his absence more tolerable.
For me, the real wild-card player is Walcott. He’s played about 10 minutes this season and even in those 10 minutes he looked dangerous. So many questions surround him at this point. The most important questions are whether he can stay healthy for any length of time, and whether he can pick up where he left off before he was injured. If he hasn’t taken a step back in his development, then his return will be instrumental. While Bendtner has many important attributes, there’s no denying that Theo is better suited for the right wing. And considering the aforementioned lack of pace in the side, Theo gives us back an important quality that we’ve been missing despite our glut of goals. Consider this: can Cashley Cole, or Patrice Evra really feel comfortable rampaging forward against us if they know that they have to chase back after Theo? That’s something they don’t have to worry about when Bendtner is playing on the right.
Regardless of who plays what position and who is missing for how many games, there’s no denying that this Arsenal side have the look of a team capable of winning trophies. Two seasons ago we were unlucky. Last season we suffered injuries, but the young players weren’t ready and the senior players weren’t properly motivated. This season the young players are coming good and the spirit in the team is strong. Maybe just as importantly, the teams contending for top honors both in England and in Europe look weaker. In the Premier League, United has already lost to Burnley, Liverpool are a mess, and Chelsea have concerns that will only grow with the start of the ACN. In Europe, some of the perennial favorites have already suffered questionable defeats including holders Barcelona.
For Arsenal, success and failure may be as simple as surviving the winter, and thriving in the spring. I know that I’ve mentioned it before on this blog, but our schedule this season is peculiar. We play Aston Villa, Manchester United, Chelsea, and Liverpool within a fortnight at the end of January and beginning of February. But from that point, there isn’t another league fixture that should worry us. It is highly unlikely, but not impossible, that we could win every match we play in the league from the second week of february until the season ends. Certainly we could go without losing during that stretch of games. And while that would be a massive accomplishment, it will only bring us a title if we survive the period between now and the ninth of February. If we come through this gauntlet within sight of the top spot, then a league title will be well within our reach. Two seasons ago we suffered a brutal run-in that cost us the title. This season’s finish should prove much mor straightforward.
I have enjoyed watching Arsenal play football immensely this season. I assume most supporters have enjoyed what they’ve seen from this season’s Gunners. It makes me realize that while trophies are important, being proud of your team’s performance is almost equally satisfying. Last season it was difficult to take pride in what we saw from Arsenal on and off the pitch. This season has had a special feel about it. From the opening 6-goal demolition of Everton, to Thomas Vermaelen’s instant hero status, to Cesc’s return to dominant form, to our record goal-scoring pace, nearly everything about this season has been worth celebrating. Now we have a team to be proud of. In some ways, this Arsenal team is the envy of the league. Hopefully it will also be the team that ends our current trophy drought.
Wednesday there are more international matches to endure. Some will decide World Cup qualification, some are farcically meaningless. All that really matters is that our players come through unscathed. After that, there will be nonstop Arsenal football all the way until the end of the season.
Until next time…