Does Arsene Really Know Best? – A Look Ahead at the 2009/2010 Season
If the recent performance at the Emirates’ Cup is a precursor for the 2009/2010 season then the lads from Ashbourton Grove might be better off than people expect. Let’s remember that the 2008/2009 campaign started with a 3rd place finish at the Emirates’ Cup and showed us all the agony we were in for last year.
The run up to this year has been frought with nervousness as want-way starlets have been sold to oil-rich Manchester City. Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure, both who have had issues at Arsenal are now part of the new group for that other Manchester team. Additionally, Phillipe Senderos is close to a move to Everton and Emmanuel Eboue could well be on his way to Fiorentina.
All this with only Ajax defender Thomas Vermaelen being our only signing to date.
With all this going on and the general apathy felt by some fans last season, pundits (real and arm-chair) are beginning to wonder if Arsene really knows best? In past years we have seen succesful Arsenal squads built on the beautiful football crafted by the master teacher, called Le Professor. However, since the Invincible season of 2004, stars like Henry, Viera, Pires, etc, were sold off and new and younger talent identified and brought to battle in the EPL. The fruits of this policy haven’t paid dividends yet and after 4 seasons of no silverware people are beginning to wonder about Le Professor’s plan.
There is a lot riding on this season. Many of the youthful players who were part of the surprising run from November to May of last season are going to be expected to deliver on their promise. Players like Rosicky and Eduardo, fresh from long convalesences will be called on as the season progresses to add to the Arsenal attack. Theo Walcott, who burst on the stage for Sven Goran Erickson and the national squad, needs to develop more than his speed. Robin Van Persie is going to be needed to build on his run from last season and be the “man” in terms of the attack.
Arsene Wenger looks set to roll out the squad using a 4-3-3 formation this year. This was the formation that was used by treble winning Barcelona as they won their league, the Spanish Cup and the UEFA Champions League. Given the overall tilt in favor of the attack at Arsenal and the flow of which they play football, Arsene thinks that this is likely the best formation for the club.
This formation will get one last test at the upcoming friendly against Valencia to make sure the squad understands its inner workings and that overall the squad are comfortable with it. Still there seems to be a problem with the backfield four and the midfield three and even Wenger admits he would like to see a tightening up between the two.
Therein lies the crux of the problem for Arsene’s young Gunners. In order to tighten up between the two groups, a strong holding midfielder will be required to make that happen. Right now our options are Alexandre Song, Samir Nasri or Diaby. Nasri is out due to a fractured tibula and Song is improved but in my estimation still an unproven entity. Diaby – well let’s just say, I still think he has some way to go to prove he deserves first team time.
What is needed is someone with the strength and ability of a Vierra or Flamini. And no – brining Patrick Vierra back (as much as I love him) is not the answer. This midfielder has to be able to support a roving Cesc Fabregas our gem of a playmaker and the likes of other midfielders, Denilson, Ramsey, Merida, and Wilshere. Arsene however, is finding it hard to fill the spot.
Roma midfielder, Danielle De Rossi has rejected a supposed bid and Roma have listed an asking price of about 30 million Euros which is well above what Arsene has ever dished out for a player. Phillipe Melo, who seemed like a perfect fit, was eventually sold off to Juventus and Xabi Alonso who Captain Cesc Fabregas championed for just signed with Real Madrid. Until Arsene finds someone for this position or one of our current players comes out of the wood work to show that they have the mettle for the position, then this will still be seen as a weak spot and could be an area for potential explotation by our opponents.
Arsenal however, are not lacking for attacking options. Robin Van Persie is coming off of one his best season’s at Arsenal. Russian goal machine Andrei Arshavin who scored at will against Liverpool, will be here for a full season and seems set for certain EPL stardom. Eduardo is back and his clinical touch seems to still be there as exhibited in the friendlies he has played in this pre-season. The mexican wunderkind, Carlos Vela, shows what we had hoped for from Ade, ice in the veins and the ability to make goalies and defenders looks silly. Throw in Rosicky, Ramsey, Wilshere, Fabregas, Bendtner, Walcott and from strikers to attacking midfielders our attack could be as lethal as any we have ever had.
However, all this could be thrown in to jeopardy, if Van Persie goes back to being crocked every other week, Rosicky and Eduardo aren’t as healed as we had hoped and Walcott doesn’t develop beyond his blistering speed. The kid has the skills, but he is still young and still makes basic mistakes in and around the penalty area which has led some to liken him to Adebayor who wasn’t the best of finishers. Additionally, our attacking options are lacking in size. With the departure of Adebayor, our only size up front, currently, is the great dane Nicholas Bendtner. Again, Nick is developing and still has some room for improvement but when he does score he shows real power and ability. He needs to improve on his first touch and some work around the net but overall good things should be and are expected from the striker.
With the lack in size up front it is no wonder that Arsene is out looking at Bourdeaux striker Marouane Chamakh. He fits the size requirement, listed at over 6 foot tall. He has shown improvement in his strike ratio every year and has experience and strength that we need up front. However, as of right now no move seems imminent. Bourdeaux values the striker at around 12 million Euros and Arsene has bid 5. Chamakh himself has come out and blasted his side for holding him hostage and has told him if they don’t let him go he will leave of his own accord next year when his contract is up. With the two stances from Arsenal and the player himself, Bourdeaux look set to come off their stance and settle for a price of around 7.5 – 9 million Euros.
With a strong attacking capability we still have questions remaining regarding our defencive back four. If any game was clearly evident of our deficiencies in the back it was the 4-4 Liverpool game. At the 90th minute up a goal – we should’ve been in lock down mode and unfortunately our back four could not stop a quick attack from Liverpudllians.
In fairness it should be noted that only Bacary Sagna and Kolo Toure were part of the crew that ended the season, and Toure was not in form. William Gallas our volatile CB, was out with a a leg injury. I am in the minority, but ever since Gallas lost the captaincy, he was more solid, strong and showed the odd propensity for scoring. Bacary Sagna is by far the best RB in the league. He has pace down the side and most times is strong against all opponent. Gael Clichy who spent a lot of time out is returning on the left side and solid LB. His injury though did prompt the emergence of Kieran Gibbs. As a LB the 19 year old showed a lot of skill and when moving the ball forward showed great skill in feeding forward. His biggest flaw – inexperience – and it was never more evident in the CL Semi-Final against ManU – he got turned inside out and fell down allowing Ki-Sun Park to score. The good thing was that and until the end of the season he was hardly ever caught out of position.
Our weakest defencive point was at CB. With Toure in and out and Gallas out we had to rely to heavily on Mikhael Silvestre and Johann Djourou. Djourou has the makings of a competent CB but still needs time in the reserves to devleop. Silvestre is clearly past his prime and was constantly part of the reason why goals were scored when defencive lapses occured. Sir Alex Fergueson wouldn’t let a player go to an arch rival without good reason and frankly he knew what we were getting and it showed.
The addition of Thomas Vermaelen from Ajax was a step in the right direction to strengthen us. He is a true CB with the ability to play out on the left side. Though that is a rarity. From the early looks, this guy is a workhorse. Big and strong and what looks to be a bit of a nasty streak in him. It remains to be seen whether or not that translates to EPL success but I am hopeful that he will pan out.
Wenger still looks like he might add more strength to the defencive four with the team being linked to Borussia Dortmund starlet – Neven Suboptic. At 6’2″ and 20 years old. This guys looks like the real thing. He has shown presence on the international level and in 33 appearances with his Bundesliga club scored 6 goals. But goals are not what we need back there and its presence and he has it. A back four consisting of Sagna, Vermaelen, Suboptic/Gallas, and Gibbs/Clichy would fare pretty well.
We take our final look at the goalie situation. Manuel Almunia has established himself as a true number one. His biggest weakness to some is an inability to feed the ball well as the team moves up. He is the type of goalie who doesn’t extend himself to far so as to get caught out of position. The goals he has given up aren’t very weak ones and frankly, the ones he did have to be tied partially to the weak defence in front of him. Lukasz Fabianksi saw increased playing time last season, featuring prominently in some rather big games – the FA Cup tie versus Chelsea and the EPL match at Anfield. In each game his weaknesses were exploited and goals given. Against Chelsea, Florient Malouda’s first goal wasn’t sent with any strength, Fabianski was out of position and the ball squeaked on through but it was in the eventual game winner that Fabianski etched himself in FA Cup lore.
Coming out of the net reminiscent of Jens Lehmann – Fabianski went to take on a streaking Didier Drogba, who deked him out and had nothing but grass between him and an easy touch to the back of the net. Again in fairness to Fabianski – the defence were caught pinching up to press the attack and Didier was fed a nice long ball from Lampard. But once Fabianski overcomitted it was clear for everyone he would be beat.
So what does this all mean for 2009/2010? Well, that is a very good question. Overall I think the team is going to surprise people. I like the 4-3-3 and think it fits nicely with our squad and the way we play ball. It plays to the teams overall attacking strength and could allow for the emergence of Walcott and Arshavin as the work the sides for either Van Persie or Eduardo. While defence is still light – it is not aged, it is not weak and it is slightly improved over last season.
The only team around us to make any significant improvement is Man City realistically can Mark Hughes handle the egos of the players he has? How does he handle playing all the strikers he has? Additionally, he did nothing to the midfield. Gareth Barry while good is in my opnion on the down side of his career. Robinho – is simply put a petulent child. Defensively Man City are seriously weak. A run to the top four while it looks good on paper is not likely to happen any time soon. And if they miss out completely on European football – how long till all those new signings start thinking AC Milan are like Beyonce?
The big four are pretty much unimproved with no major signings and lots of losses. Man U lost significant output from the loss of Ronaldo and Tevez. Their squad is cagey and experienced and still have to be considered favourites until someone proves otherwise. Chelsea is a big question mark. Nothing major has happened there except the bringing in of manager Carlo Ancelotti. The club are still getting older and it is evident in their defense. However, their preseason form has been impressive and the do look more attack-minded than they have in recent times. Liverpool are a strong side with a good manager however with the loss of Xabi Alsono in the middle the playmaking ability of Torres and Gerrard could suffer as they have noone strong enough to replace what the spaniard brought to the team.
Overall, I think the status quo remains the same – the top four will be the top four and the rest will fight for Europa cup. I do really think that if Arsenal display the same form they did from November to May of last season then they will challenge where most people do not expect them to. If the team stays healthy (overall) then they could be in the running for silverware in the league and in Europe.
Alot rides on this season. If we do not end up with any silverware, you can expect a lot of changes – players will leave and it is likely that the board could see that maybe the boat has passed Arsene by. Or it could cause Arsene to rethink his youth policy and try to completely rebuild the team.
We shall see.
I expect the starting XI to be (assuming no new transfers):
Sagna – Gallas – Vermaelen – Clichy
Song – Fabregas – Rosicky
Arshavin – Van Perse – Walcott