Wednesday, 31 January 2018


Arsenal reached the two-thirds point of the season last night in classic style, losing 3-1 to bottom-placed Swansea, which allowed the Welsh club to leap out of the relegation zone for at least a day. Given that this was a match of barely credible cock-ups by the Gunners, fans were left fearing that the well-trailed transfer of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was about to go tits-up as Olivier Giroud came on. Surely he would get crocked within 5 minutes, so scuppering his move to Chelsea and Michy Batshuayi's linked transfer to Dortmund? In the event, Giroud remained typically unruffled and the Gabonese international's move to London was confirmed this morning, though it is doubtful a fresh striker is all that we need to turn around a season teetering between modest success and dull failure. The rumour that David Luiz might travel in the opposite direction to Giroud didn't help. Despite late-Wenger Arsenal's reputation for football as improvisational jazz, the last thing we need is another impulsive defender with a tendency to nod off at key moments. More positively, Mesut Ozil (football's Thelonious Monk) is reported to have extended his contract to 2021.

Our points tally for the first third of this season was 22; for the second it was 20. Last season we got 25-25-25 and finished fifth. The previous season we managed 26-22-23 and finished second. Given the higher number of points among this season's top-four at this stage, and assuming Arsenal don't dramatically improve and secure 30 in the final third, we're looking at a finish under 70 points for the first time since 2011 when we finished fourth on 68. I suspect this year such a total would secure no better than sixth, which means our continued presence in European competitions in the year of the Glorious Brexit may depend on winning the Europa League. That's not beyond a team that has proven capable of raising its game in cup competitions, but the early exit from the FA Cup against Nottingham Forest suggests we may even be losing that knack. The Carabao Cup may yet put a gloss on the season, and in many respects I'd rather we faced a team like Manchester City in the final rather than one determined to exploit our weaknesses more than rely on their own strengths, but finishing the campaign empty-handed and well off the pace is looking increasingly likely.

Given Petr Cech's recent mistakes, notably at Bournemouth and Swansea, and his increasingly forlorn search for that elusive 200th clean-sheet, I doubt he will be first-choice goalkeeper beyond the end of his current contract, which ends in June 2019, and perhaps not even beyond the end of this season if David Ospina leaves when his contract expires in July. With Emi Martinez and Matt Macey too young, Arsenal will need to buy an experienced 'keeper in the summer. That won't necessarily mean an immediate end to Cech's Arsenal years, and I'm sure many would welcome him eventually following the same route as Per Mertesacker into coaching at London Colney (though Jens Lehmann might have something to say about that), but you have to expect that the 35 year-old will spend a lot more time warming the bench in future, unless he chooses to drop a level or return to Sparta Prague. In retrospect, I still find it hard to understand why Wojech Szczesny was shipped off to Italy. He might have got on the wrong side of Arsene, but at 27 he is now entering his prime at Juventus and the current manager isn't likely to be around beyond 2019. That looks like a blunder by the club hierarchy, and evidence that they have been reluctant to over-rule Wenger.

Goalkeeping errors can cost you points, but the number depends on opportunity and therefore the quality of the defence generally. More worrying than Cech's slow decline is the increasing fragility of our central defenders. Arsenal hasn't been a strong defensive team for over a decade, but the current setup looks particularly erratic. If we look at the goals for and against at the end of the four seasons between 2013 and 2017, the progression is 68-41, 71-36, 65-36, 77-44, suggesting a significant drop-off in 2016-17 masked by attacking efficiency. The tally for the 25-game mark of those seasons was 48-26, 47-28, 39-22 and 54-28. The move to a back three was meant to provide greater defensive resiliency without impeding our goal-scoring, but it hasn't been as effective as Chelsea's switch in Autumn 2016, hence the chopping and changing in formations this season. At the 25-game mark we have scored 46 and conceded 34. While there is every reason to hope that we'll improve in attack and thus pick up points, at this rate we could finish the season with a goals against total of 50. If you want to win the league, you usually need to score over 80 and concede fewer than 30.

With Koscielny now limited by age and chronic injury, Mustafi unconvincing, and Holding and Chambers still raw, we are going to need to invest in at least one established central defender soon, notwithstanding the arrival of the promising Greek youngster, Konstantinos Mavropanos, at the start of the January transfer window (apparently a Sven Mislintat pick). Jonny Evans wouldn't be an upgrade, in my opinion, though Roma's Kostas Manolas might be. Counter-intuitively, a player like David Luiz might be able to fill the defensive midfielder slot that neither Francis Coquelin nor Mohamed Elneny has managed to make their own, though buying a specialist in that position would surely be the simpler option. The way that Elneny has moved between defence and midfield during recent games might suggest a conscious plan rather than improvisation, or perhaps just Wenger harking back to the flexible role played by Emmanuel Petit. On the flanks, we will almost certainly persist with attacking full-backs, which is fine by me, but this just increases the need for greater solidity in and around the penalty area, as well as more movement in attack to create short-passing combinations when they overlap.

Elsewhere in midfield, the question remains whether Granit Xhaka is worth Wenger's continued indulgence, given the number of times he is caught ball-watching as another opponent steals in to score. For all his passing accuracy (on his day), he remains too slow for my taste and too much of a liability if you want to accommodate Jack Wilshere or Aaron Ramsey. While those two never quite hit it off as a pair, not least because they instinctively made the same runs, I suspect that age and greater wisdom might make them more compatible now. While it would be fun to see them flanked by Ozil and Mkhitaryan and with Lacazette and Aubameyang up-front, I suspect that will be a Plan B only. Plan A will presumably sacrifice a striker for a holding midfielder and rotate Wilshere and Ramsey for a single slot alongside Xhaka. My own belief is that Arsenal's balance requires the Swiss international to be dropped to the bench. His utility has been blunted by opponents sitting deep, preventing him using his long-range passing to get attackers in behind, while he doesn't have the burst of speed to open up angles for shorter passes.

While Sven Mislintat, Huss Fahmy and Ivan Gazidis will get plaudits for the Aubameyang and Ozil deals, the real test for the new "talent acquisition" regime will come with long-term reinforcements for central defence and midfield, if not during this window then certainly in the summer. So far, Gazidis appears to have delivered on his promise of a shakeup while Wenger has remained diplomatic, a sign that he knows his tenure is coming to an end and that the new guys must be given a degree of autonomy during the transition. Assuming no more significant activity today (there's just under 5 hours to go before the transfer window shuts), I think it would be fair to say that the club is finally shaking off its recent torpor. The question now is whether a rejigged attack will be enough to compensate for a fragile defence and produce something close to 10 wins out of the remaining 13 league games, not to mention victories in the cups. I'd love to see it happen, but I suspect the need for bedding-in will make it difficult. We're going to be improvising for a while yet.

No comments:

Post a Comment