Overreactions to the Emirates Cup

Well finally the nay-sayers have been put in their place. We persevered. We stood by while Arsene Wenger built a team from a pool of talented young players. And finally we have a trophy. Yet another Emirates Cup can go in our trophy case. Champions of Europe? Bah! We are the champions of Emirates Airlines. May all our flights to the middle east be free!

While the joy of winning a trophy is always special, there’s also a lot to be learned from the two games in two days during the Emirates Cup. There’s also the massive opportunity for overreaction. Considering that the matches are still only preseason tuneups, and that our best players continue to sun themselves rather than earn a pay check, any conclusions about the state of the squad should be measured. But it’s certainly acceptable to evaluate players individually, and then wildly overreact based on those evaluations.

I’m not going to recap the games, because you either watched them or read a recap already. Suffice it to say that I believe we were decidedly the better side in both matches. But Arsenal were kind enough to provide us some cause for alarm and panic. First, allow me to summarize the team effort. Then I can give you my take on the individual performances.

Despite missing Cesc, RVP, Bendtner, Denilson, Diaby, and Song, I thought we showed considerable fluency in attack in both matches. The passing was slick, the movement was good, and the team seemed to be sharper than they looked in austria. Considering the talent that was missing, it’s almost not worth discussing our attacking displays because there’s little cause for concern in that department.

Defensively, however, there is always cause for concern. I’ll deal with the individuals in a moment, but the team’s defensive approach is worrying. As much as we dominate possession, the concern for Arsenal is what happens when we give it away cheaply in midfield. Particularly in the Celtic game, it seemed that whenever we lost the ball we were suddenly outnumbered at the back. Last season we gave up the second most counter attacking goals and it’s easy to see why. Even teams like Chelsea and United have started playing a counter-attacking style against Arsenal.

In the 4-3-3 formation, as we start to grow in confidence, the two attack-minded midfielders push higher and higher up the pitch. The full backs join the attack to provide width, with the hope of eventually delivering one of the worst crosses ever seen. But if our defensive midfielder is caught in possession, or there is a sloppy pass near the middle of the park, our defense is suddenly massively outnumbered. Only the center-backs, and possibly one of the full-backs is in position to protect our poorly guarded goal. Eventually the numerical disadvantage is bound to be telling.

Sometimes I wonder if our defense is that bad, or if it’s just put in terrible situations on a regular basis. Remember, Gallas and Vermalen looked pretty good together last season, yet we conceded far too many goals. When you add together the goals from set-pieces, often due to poor goal-keeping, and the counter-attacking goals, often due to our tactics, maybe the defense isn’t the primary culprit. When we play the 4-3-3, even when the FBs stay back, and Song sits in front of the CBs, we’re still very vulnerable to attacks coming from the wings because the two remaining midfielders tend to move into a more central position, and our wide attacking players tend not to be great at tracking back. That means we see more crosses delivered into our box and that’s another opportunity for our goal-keeper to make a mess of things.

Having said that, I’m a fan of the 4-3-3. It puts pressure on the defense and goal-keeper at times, but I think it makes the best use of our talent. Some want to see more of a 4-2-3-1, but I thought we looked terrible playing in that formation at the end of the 2008-2009 season. We don’t have two defensive midfielders that I would start. Certainly not at the expense of one of our more skilled players. Additionally, we got the best out of our best players in the 4-3-3. Cesc and RVP really shine in that formation. Cesc in particular really struggled when he was asked to come from a deeper position.

So from my viewpoint, I’d like to see us stay in the 4-3-3 and do the one thing that we must do if we don’t want to concede buckets of goals; press the ball. Barcelona (everyone’s favorite DNA laboratory), plays a 4-3-3 and they defend from the front. It gets much easier to create scoring opportunities against Barca once you get that ball across midfield, but it’s next to impossible to get the ball into the attacking area at times. When Barca came to the Emirates, we were pinned in our own half for nearly the entire first 45 minutes. And it was all down to work-rate and aggressive ball pressure. We did that at the start of last season, and then mysteriously lost the appetite. We must do that for 90 minutes of every match this season or it’s going to be another long winter of complaining about giving away bad goals.

Some players shined over the weekend and a few struggled. For me, the biggest winner in the race to secure a first team spot was Frimpong. Since he’s English, cue the soul-crushing expectations. Theo will be happy to hand the weight of that expectation to anyone who is willing to take it. But Frimpong looked strong, self-assured, and seemed to have a decent grasp of tackling. While that should come naturally to a DM, you need only to look at Denilson to realize that it’s not always that simple. Whether Frimpong is ready to be the second choice to Alex Song is unclear. His first half against Celtic was suspect. He was a little to fancy with the ball at his feet and the one thing you absolutely cannot do when you’re playing DM for Arsenal is get caught in possession. Celtic’s best scoring opportunities of the first half came from Frimpong turnovers. But some consideration must be given to the fact that Frimpong played two games in two days. So if you make some allowances for tired legs, then I think you’d have to say that he earned place in Wenger’s plans this season.

Jack Wilshere is another player that most people believe to have excelled over the weekend. I thought Wilshere was solid but unspectacular. He is still a little over-elaborate with the ball and a bit slow to distribute. His aggression is good but his tackling is very raw. The reason I tend to be very critical of Wilshere is because he’s not just some young prospect. People aren’t just tipping him for a place in the squad. They want to see him starting. Some suggest that he’s a ready made replacement for Cesc. That’s patently ridiculous. For me, Wilshere is still one for the future. There are too many players with more polish and experience ahead of Wilshere at the moment. And if Ramsey returns in early November with any kind of form, than he’s another player that Wilshere would have to climb past before he can play. It’s clear that Wilshere is going to stay at Arsenal, but I don’t see him contributing much to the team in the league or in Europe.

It was a tale of two center-backs at the Emirates Cup. Johan Djourou made me exceedingly nervous, while Laurent Koscielny showed some encouraging signs. The biggest disparity in their performances was their positioning. For the most part, Kos was in good position to make tackles and when called upon, he showed real proficiency in dispossessing his opponent. People constantly point to his lack of size, but sometimes defending is about attitude and it’s clear that he has no aversion to the physical side of the game.

As reassured as I was by Koscielny’s contribution, I was equally concerned by Djourou. He looked slow, confused and generally uncertain about what to do in some very basic situations. At one point in the celtic match he stepped up for no reason and created a perfect space for a simple through ball behind him. The finish was poor and the bullet dodged, but it was a real warning sign. The question with Djourou is whether his struggles are due to a lack of form, or whether he simply isn’t very good. Remember, we hadn’t seen much of Djourou before his injury last season, and now he’s coming back from a year out of action. Not the perfect recipe for a starting defender. At this point, I’d say he’s rooted to the subs bench behind Vermalen and Kos. But if another CB does come into the squad, as AW has promised, then Djourou is a far better fourth option than Silvestre…who is rumored to be coming back.

Although the CB situation is still worrying, the Emirates Cup proved once again that we are flush with FB talent. It’s hard to say which full back had the best tournament, but you could make an argument that Eboue and Gibbs played better than Sagna and Clichy. Regardless, it’s an area that doesn’t really provide cause for much concern. But if you had to nitpick, I suppose you could point out that our FBs, and Sagna in particular must start delivering better crosses. With a player like Chamakh in the middle, crossing opportunities now provide better scoring chances than ever and those chances shouldn’t be squandered.

The brightest star of the Emirates cup was probably Marouane Chamakh. He had a masterful performance against AC Milan and looks every bit the bargain buy of the century. While his heading and finishing are as good as expected, I was surprised by the quality of his movement, first touch and distribution. At one point he instantly controlled a long pass and sent Arshavin in on goal with a beautiful back flick. He worked hard, and scored a goal that wasn’t spectacular for its difficulty but for the calmness that he displayed. Considering the number of clear goal-scoring chances that are squandered at Arsenal, a CF with composure will be a welcome addition. It speaks volumes about Marouane’s performance that he received a standing ovation from an otherwise somnambulant Emirates crowd.

Some have suggested that Chamakh will share time with RVP. I think that’s an insane suggestion. If we play a 4-3-3 again this season, I can see Wenger employing a very fluid front three of Arshavin, Chamakh, and RVP. I can also see Wenger experimenting with Nasri in attack and Arshavin in the midfield, although his lack of interest in defending might be too great a liability. Regardless, I think the Moroccan is slated to be a first choice forward.

If Chamakh was the star of the Cup, then Nasri was a close second, and has probably been the star of the preseason. He received mixed reviews last season after so much was expected. But he was robbed of his preseason and most of the first few months with a broken leg. It’s tough to come into the team under those conditions. Now he has had a rest thanks to his inexplicable omission from the France squad, and he’s getting the chance to have a proper preseason. He looks to be in imperious form and if this is what we can expect when the season starts then he will surely rise to new heights. Sometimes you have to agree with Wenger when he says that buying players isn’t the only way to strengthen your team. Sometimes your team gets stronger through the natural development of your personnel. That happened with Alex Song last season and it looks certain to happen with Samir this season.

Theo Walcott and Andrei Arshavin are a study in contrast. Walcott gets into more dangerous positions in five minutes than Arshavin does in an entire match. Yet Arshavin can take a single opportunity and score or create a goal brilliantly. Theo, on the other hand, can turn a relatively simply finish or pull-back into a wasted chance. Arshavin takes some criticism for his work-rate, but I think a 28 year old player is entitled to pick his spots in a preseason game. The counter-argument is that he does the same thing during regular season games, and that’s not acceptable. But I was extremely encouraged by the interplay between Chamakh and Arshavin. They have clearly developed a rapport in their short time together and perhaps having more talent around him will bring out more creativity from the little Russian. It certainly means that we won’t have to see him at CF any time soon.

As for Theo, I choose to be encouraged by his performance over the weekend. You can complain about the squandered opportunities, but it’s worth pointing out that those opportunities were created because of his talent. He terrifies FBs, pulls defenders out of position as they try to help cope with his pace, and creates acres of space for his teammates. Yes, he needs to learn to pick the right final ball and he needs to learn when to shoot and when to pass. Right now, he seems to do the opposite of what is needed. But Theo changes games. There’s no getting around that fact. He was the player that most frightened Barcelona, and he was the player that most punished them. Given a run of a few games, maybe the decision making will improve. It’s also worth pointing out that when you run really really really fast, it’s harder to make the easy pass. (That’s a reach.)

The fact is that Arsenal sometimes mesmerize themselves with the neat little passes. It’s pretty to watch but doesn’t always lead to results. Theo gives us a more direct approach and if teams are going to try to crowd our penalty area on set pieces, then they risk watching Theo blaze down the pitch behind them. (If we manage to clear the ball.) His presence on the right can neutralize the threat from opposing FB’s like Cashley, or Evra. He’s probably not going to get many starts, but he should be the first player off the bench.

I could discuss every player at length but there really isn’t much point. I was hoping to have something to write about JET but he was apparently ill over the weekend and only took part in the Celtic game. He didn’t last the entire 90 minutes and was totally ineffectual in his time on the pitch.

Rosicky was solid and I see a player who is returning to some semblance of form after an injury nightmare that lasted nearly two seasons. People are so eager to dismiss him but if you consider what he was before the injuries, it’s lunacy to write him off. If he returns to even 75% of his old form, he will be a very valuable part of the squad.

Carlos Vela scored a nice poachers goal but did little else. What worries me with the Mexican is his penchant for disappearing from games entirely. However, it was encouraging to see him score a goal that wasn’t a lob. No one likes a one-trick pony.

So that brings us to the most depressing part of the conversation, the goal-keepers. Fabianski started on Saturday and Almunia started on Sunday. The big problem is that neither keeper committed a howler. That means Arsene Wenger is already convincing himself that he doesn’t need to buy a new GK. Had they each scored 3 own-goals while discussing Cesc’s Barcelona DNA, that might have helped our cause.

What I don’t understand is the suggestion that Fabianski is the better choice than Manuel Almunia. Not only don’t I understand it, it makes me chuckle. But not in a good way. Fabianski might be some amazing shot stopper, but frankly, every top-flight keeper is a great shot stopper. The two things we need most are a keeper that can command his box and convey a sense of serenity and composure to the back four. Neither of our keepers can do those things well, but Almunia is certainly the more composed of the two, and his wild punching on set-pieces is better than Fabianski’s wild nothing. I can think of matches that Almunia lost for us, but I can also think of matches he saved. Fabianski, on the other hand, has lost almost every game he’s started single-handedly. It’s hard to find an example of a match he has played that didn’t result in calamity. Without a new GK I don’t know if we can lift a trophy. But with Lukas in net, I don’t know if we can win a match.

So that about sums it up. There’s still reason for concern but I left the weekend feeling more optimistic than worried. We have performed well this preseason without our best players. Assuming Cesc’s return isn’t a massive distraction, we’ll only get better. And considering the dismal performances I’ve seen from some of our rivals, I think we should be relatively pleased. Fabregas returns to the team this week along with RVP. It’s Legia Warsaw at the weekend and then we’ll be off to Anfield to start the season. I have a feeling that it will be a very active fortnight for Arsenal but it’s will seem like an eternity.

That’s it for now. In my next post I intend to give my thoughts on our two new CBs and new GK. But my initial reaction is that they are all brilliant signings.

About Yankee Gunner

Loyal Arsenal Supporter, Obscure Television Personality
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