Think Deep

You better get to know us...

Aristotle had it. Barry White’s voice had it. The Marianas Trench has it and so do Manchester United. It’s depth. And it’s an absolute necessity for a football club that wants to win a major trophy.

Despite all the fatuous stories in the press this summer, there’s still a surfeit of talent at Arsenal. But the real question is whether this squad has enough depth to compete on multiple fronts from August to May. Things rarely go exactly to plan in football, and every club is forced to rely on less favored players from time to time. When that time comes, the backup players must be capable of maintaining the club’s competitive level as established by the regular starters.

But that is rarely the case. While fans bemoan Arsenal’s lack of silverware over the past six years, few give credit for the challenges we’ve made. Arsenal put up genuine battles for the Premier League title in 2008, 2010 and 2011. In each case, the team faded badly as the finishing line approached. Whether it was because of injuries or fatigue, in each case, the squad was clearly the weakest of the top sides at the business end of the season. I would suggest that our late season capitulations weren’t down to a lack of character as much as a lack of depth.

Take the case of Aston Villa during the 2008-2009 season. They were a strong side with a great first-choice XI. As the season progressed, they started to threaten the top of the table. But Villa couldn’t focus exclusively on the Premier League. They also had UEFA Cup and FA Cup campaigns that season that stretched into February. As the season wore on, and their heavily used players started to fatigue, Villa’s decline was swift. Take a look at this snap shot of their performance over the last 13 games of the season:

Games played Place  Points From Top Points From AFC

25

3rd

-5

+7

28

4th

-13

+3

31

5th

-16

-6

38

6th

-28

-10

Villa’s squad was small and lacking quality beyond the starting XI. Martin O’Neil relied heavily on players like Agbonlahor, Barry, Ashley Young, Milner and Petrov. When their form started to decline late in the season, there was no stopping the team’s inevitable collapse.

Arsenal have seen a similar fate befall them in recent campaigns. Our first choice XI has proven itself against the best competition in Europe. But squad players forced into action have often disappointed. We’ve watched defenses lead by Squillaci or Silvestre ship goals left and right, while midfields marshaled by Denilson or Diaby failed to find a cutting edge. It’s the reason why one Arsenal side can defeat Barca, United, City and Chelsea, while another throws away matches against WBA and Newcastle home and away.

This summer, almost all the focus has been on Arsenal’s failed transfer business and expected departures. It’s been such a hot topic, that there hasn’t really been much time to stop and think about the players we definitely will have available this season. As usual, there’s plenty of reason for optimism.

Let’s take a look at a potential match-day team sheet for the upcoming season. I’m going to assume the worst-case scenario where Nasri and Cesc are both sold and not replaced and no further signings are made. However, I’m also going to assume every player is fit. Under those circumstances, our team would probably look something like this:

Gervinho – RVP – Theo

Wilshere – Ramsey

Song

Gibbs – Koscielny – Vermaelen – Sagna

Szczesny

Subs: Arshavin, Chamakh, Diaby, Frimpong, Djourou, Jenkinson, Fabianski

That’s a strong starting XI with plenty of quality, but it’s the depth of the squad that once again has to be called into question. For the time being, let’s continue to operate on the assumption that Cesc, Nasri and Bendtner will be sold. It’s possible that won’t be the case, but working from that assumption makes it easier to examine the position we would be in without them. That also makes it easier to see where we would need to strengthen the side in the transfer market.

Right now, our second choice striker is Marouane Chamakh. Unfortunately, there’s not a player at the club who looks more out-of-form and lacking confidence than the Moroccan. He is certainly a shadow of the player he was at the start of last season. But due to RVP’s ban from the first leg of our Champions League playoff, Chamakh will likely start that pivotal fixture.

After Chamakh, it starts to look grim. There’s not another prototypical center-forward at the club. Carlos Vela can play there but has shown little sign that he’s ready. Theo and Gervinho can certainly move into the position, which means Arshavin would come in to replace one of them on the wing. But neither Walcott nor our new Ivorian speedster have much experience in the center of the park. And we have some idea of how quickly things can go pear-shaped in attack without a proper striker. Two seasons ago, thanks to injury, we were forced to spend a few matches lining up in a rather unsuccessful 4-5-0 formation.

But if that examination of our front line has you a little concerned, don’t worry, it gets worse. Because everyone’s favorite international tournament, the African Cup of Nations takes place this January. That means we’ll be waving goodbye to Gervinho and Chamakh at that time. If RVP is injured, then you could well be looking at a front three of Arshavin, Vela and Walcott for most of January. God forbid one of those three gets injured because then it gets really scary. And no offense to Benik Afobe, but if we’re depending on him to get us through January, then we could be in very big trouble.

In midfield, we know we’ll miss Cesc, but the problems don’t stop there. Here’s a list of midfielders at the club, with legitimate first-team experience, other than the three starters named above: Abou Diaby, Tomas Rosicky. Want me to continue? I can’t. There aren’t any others. The official website lists Arshavin as a midfielder but I’ve already discussed him as a wide-forward and that’s how we use him.

Here’s the list of midfielders I didn’t name: Craig Eastmond, Emmanuel Frimpong. That’s it. They also list Eboue but he will be sold, and Henri Lansbury looks very close to a move himself.

So Arsenal’s midfield options beyond the starting three are: Rosicky, Diaby, Eastmond and Frimpong. That’s not just insufficient, it’s downright terrifying. You can’t go into a 50+ match season with four spare midfielders. And that’s forgetting momentarily that Diaby is out until some time in September (or later), and neither Eastmond nor Frimpong have played any meaningful minutes for the first team. (I’m ignoring Eastmond’s dreadful appearance in the Champions League last season.)

I’m sure some readers will want to leap to the defense of Emmanuel Frimpong who had a great preseason last year and is having another one this summer. But let’s not forget that he’s coming of a season-long injury and we know the risk of set-backs in those cases. Not to mention the fact that he’s another young, untested player once again being asked to potentially shoulder a heavy load.

And that load gets even heavier if Cameroon miraculously qualify for the ACN, taking Alex Song with them. But then again, Frimpong may not have to worry about that because he could be off to the ACN also. That leave’s Craig Eastmond as the stalwart in the middle of Arsenal’s midfield for a month. I can almost hear the commentator now: “Eastmond, charging through the midfield…he’s stopped for Nandos…” (Eastmond tweets quite frequently that he’s at Nandos.)

If our injury situation right now doesn’t change, and Jack Wilshere isn’t ready for the start of the season, then we can expect a midfield trio of Rosicky, Ramsey and Song at St. James’ park in one week’s time. But don’t ask what happens if Rosicky or Ramsey is injured. There’s really no solution at that point. Before you say we could move Arshavin into midfield, consider that he might already be taking the place of the currently injured Walcott. It’s not a pretty picture.

On that happy note, we’ve reached the back four. Ironically, it’s probably less bleak at the back than it is further up the pitch. We have three quality center-backs in my opinion. Regardless of your current feelings about Johan Djourou, it’s worth remembering that he was one of the best CBs in the league for much of last season. Yes he dropped off in form and has looked a bit shaky in preseason, but I’m willing to back him to regain form. As it stands, he’s likely backing up Vermaelen and Koscielny.

There’s no denying that Sebastien Squillaci is a liability. Any game he starts is a game where I’d doubt our chances to get a result. But it’s rare that teams have four top-quality center-backs. It’s also possible that Miquel will push Squillaci out of the fourth-choice position, which would be entirely acceptable to me.

Right-back is probably the most reassuring position at the club. Bacary Sagna is as good as they come, while Carl Jenkinson looks a really astute purchase by Arsene Wenger. It’s on the other side of defense that the panic sets in.

I like Kieran Gibbs. I think he has the ability to give us more going forward than Gael Clichy ever did, but his defending is undeniably suspect. He doesn’t have any real experience and enters the season as our first choice left-back. But the real worry with Gibbs is his injury record. He simply can’t stay fit. Even now it seems he’s suffering from an ankle injury that’s already been described as chronic. It’s unrealistic to simply assume he’ll play more than 20 matches this season and that means Armand Traore should see plenty of playing time.

There is, of course, another alternative. Vermaelen can move over to left-back. I think there’s reason to believe that’s exactly what Wenger has in mind. But that means a return to the Djourou-Koscielny partnership in the center of defense. Which would naturally beg the question; how have we improved our defense over the one that wasn’t good enough last campaign? And once we suffer an injury or need to rest a player, we’re back to the same problems again.

When you look at the squad like that, it’s easy to see the problem. Once again Arsenal have a first-choice XI that can trouble any side in Europe. But beyond the starters, there’s precious little depth. There’s hardly any genuine back-up for RVP. There’s almost no back-up midfield whatsoever. And our reliance on untested, injury-prone left-backs threatens to destabilize a defense that could be much improved through the middle.

It’s easy to look at our first XI and see a side that should slice through Udinese in our Champions League playoff, while earning the tough points from our August domestic fixtures. But when you think about it more realistically, it’s just as easy to see the opposite scenario. Without fear-mongering, let’s just say for the moment that Jack, Theo and Koscielny aren’t able to get fit in time for the first leg against Udinese. This is the likely starting XI we’d see in that crucial matchup:

Gervinho – Chamakh – Arshavin

Rosicky – Ramsey

Song

Gibbs – Djourou – Vermaelen – Sagna

Szczesny

Subs: Afobe, Eastmond, Vela, Squillaci, Traore, Jenkinson, Fabianski

I’m not trying to be dramatic. I realize that Theo, Jack and Koscielny could all be fit. At the very least, some combination of them could be fit. And that would change the look of things significantly. But this article is about depth. And when you look at the options on the bench, it doesn’t take too many absences before you’re staring at a decidedly mediocre XI.

We’re looking at a 2011-12 campaign where much of the squad’s depth comes from young players promoted from within the club. It’s a source of pride that we are able to use our academy that way. But it’s also a concern that a young team, so desperate for experience and leadership, is getting even younger. We ended last season feeling that the squad needed more character. Now we have to hope the returning players find it within themselves.

Overall this analysis is far from conclusive. You can never predict what you’ll get from players who are still making massive strides in their development from season to season. But as we watch established Premier League players and global stars make the move to our main rivals, we are certainly taking a risk by relying on organic improvement. Teams like City have two senior international players at every position. That’s what we’re up against.

I realize some of my assumptions could be wide of the mark. Cesc could stay. Nasri could stay. Nik might not be sold. We could still buy another CB or even an attacking midfielder. It’s not out of the question that another striker could join the team. When you consider all of those potential moves, it’s clear this this article presents just one possible outcome.

But that doesn’t totally change the conclusion. Even if we do keep Cesc and Nasri, look at the list of players again. It still leaves us with only 5 backup midfielders and fails to address our paucity of center-forwards. One way or another, we’re going to need some special contributions from some unexpected places this season. And in all likelihood, if we want to challenge for a title, we’re going to need our least injury hit season in recent memory. Otherwise we should expect to get very familiar with players like Eastmond, Traore, and Vela.

As with most seasons, I love our starting XI. I think Arsene Wenger has once again assembled a team that can compete with the best and entertain as well. But history suggests that you need more than just eleven good players to win the big trophies. And that’s the area where this Arsenal side has me concerned.

In one week’s time we kickoff against Newcastle United. Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott, Laurent Koscielny and Kieran Gibbs are already small doubts for that match, and Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas have been essentially ruled out by the manager. As a result, we may get an early opportunity to see just what kind of depth we have in this side. And just maybe that will give us a sneak peak at whether this season’s title challenge can extend all the way until the final day of the season.

Advertisements

About Yankee Gunner

Loyal Arsenal Supporter, Obscure Television Personality
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Think Deep

  1. all valid points…was wondering about this myself yesterday. if cameroon somehow qualify for the ACN, we’re royally screwed. lack of depth is startling, especially with our CFs. ill not go into the great efforts and sleepless nights our board and staff have put into new signings. maybe if nothing’s happening, they have to change HOW they work and not HOW MUCH. as AW says, its about quality, not quantity. oh well, players may leave the club, and i dont care about that. all i care about is AFC. looking forward (somewhat) to the season!

  2. Stressed Out Gunner says:

    Could you please do a comparison with Man Utd, Chelsea, Liverpool and Man City to put the squad depths into perspective? I hope its not too much to ask. Top article, though!

  3. Isn’t Eastmond still hurt? either way he’ll never make it at Arsenal, he’s not good enough…but we do have two players in the U-20 World Cup who haven’t come back yet and haven’t for sure made loan moves…Coquelin is a very good midfielder although not experienced in the prem. Giles Sunu if he stayed has done excellent this summer and could be integrated into the first team if given the chance…all in all though good analysis and agree with you, we are thin!

    • Eastmond is hurt I believe. But part of the first team now I think. Coquelin could feature. Same with Sunu. But still leaves us blooding new talent to fill gaps.

      Sent from my iPhone

  4. egooner14 says:

    Well, i was feeling good today and now i feel crap…
    Jokes aside though, a great article and if i had to defend one of the “non regulars” it would be Frimpong. Im still hoping naively for transfers, but less talk than ever about that…

    (I know, many dots…but thats the way to write about Arsenal right now)

  5. Olumeday says:

    I love the write up, but the doom and gloom was just a bit too much to take… I dare say the ManUtd reserve team that won the EPL last season was also not that good… Bebe, Obertan… Even that of Chelsea… I think their is a limit that you can stick everybody with top quality into with a 25 man squad

  6. Great read as usual. When you write it down on paper, our squad rivals Everton in terms of threadbare with reliance on youngsters having amazing seasons to help us progress. This is what worries me, the pressure we’ve placed on Gibbs, Frimpong, Vela etc by having such a small first team now, they know they’re gonna have chances to shine no matter what, we’re Arsenal, we don’t go through seasons uninjured, especially the chocolate legged Dutchman that is Robin van Persie. I think Cameroon definitely won’t be going to the ACN, but rumours surfacing that even if they did, unless Song apologises to Eto’o, he won’t be going. Worth noting that, despite our small squad, we have a better squad than Liverpool, Spurs and for sake of argument, Everton and Aston Villa, this means 4th should be achievable with this squad at the very least, if we make it to January still in the race, I expect Wenger to do his business there. Don’t see much else happening this summer besides the sales of Cesc and Nasri.

  7. Val says:

    I think troare and fabianski will be starters. Not sure Lansbury is actually leavinnascence is likely to stay and Joel Campbell will probably arrive next week. But pretty much spot on. You need only compare our strikers with our rivals to figure out the scale of the problem.

  8. Homey says:

    Great article again. I agree with all points, except one. I’m terrified at right back. Jenkinson may have a bright future, but we’re talking about a guy with 8 appearances at Charlton, and a few more at lesser clubs on loan. That’s it. He’s one injury away from playing at Old Trafford in a couple of weeks. He may turn out good, but nobody knows that at this point. I have no idea what Wenger is thinking.

  9. JP says:

    Great article. I have been thinking along the same lines for some time. I was hoping the summer transfer window would offer opportuNity for genuine upgrading in squad depth, I guess not. I back our starters to beat anyone on their day. It’s the others that worry me. I would have preferred keeping denilson at this rate (that says a lot coming from me as I am not a fan of his). In years past I was never really concerned about the inevitable summer predictions of our demise. I’m worried this year.

  10. Elfa says:

    The article really underlines what we just saw on the pitch just now. Except, the starting XI didn’t look so great either in my opinion. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it more clearly why Cesc, Nasri and probably any decent player would want to leave. It’s easy to imagine how Arsenal could be out of the CL and bottom of the table without points by the end of August.

  11. What’s the deal with Ryo Miyaichi ? … Do we have him as a player for Arsenal this season or is there still a pending issue of his work permit ?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s