Thursday, 19 September 2013

The Arsenal Revival: From Wilderness to Winners?

It has been 8 long, dreary years in North London. The Gunners have been without a trophy since 2005 and their fans are not shy about reminding the club of that fact. Now though, the fans see the club as born anew. This season apparently promises hope of change and a return to the glory days. But why? Are the hopes and early claims of glory justified, or overoptimism?

At the start of the season things looked miserable at the Emirates. No big signings had been made, in fact only Yaya Sanogo had arrived on a free, and a 3-1 opening day loss against Aston Villa brought calls for the manager and the board to be ousted, in order to bring a fresh wave of ideas into Arsenal. How very quickly things change. It appears now that a day, deadline day specifically, can be a long time in football. The arrival of one man has put smiles on faces and will certainly guarantee bums on seats. Mesut Özil.

Those in North London wearing red seem to be touting him as the messiah to fire this mentally weak side to glory. This blogger remains unconvinced however. Though I would never be stupid enough to claim Özil is anything short of world class and a fantastic buy, this Arsenal side already has a wealth of attacking talent, and it is a weak spine in central midfield and centre-half particularly, that will again cost them this season. Flamini will help, but one suspects the same problems as always may still be evident. Furthermore, it is far from crass to suggest that this was a pressured buy. Would Mr. Wenger and the board have forked out £42.5 Million without being under such pressure? Perhaps not.

So what will he bring to the team? A man much lauded for his skillful play and assists, Özil can only perform in this team if there is someone to lap up the chances he creates. Whilst Walcott seems incredibly profligate early on this season (as we saw against Sunderland) in Olivier Giroud Arsenal have one of the Premier League's most underrated forwards. Having had a perfectly good debut season and arguably an impressive one, Giroud's 17 goals went somewhat under the radar. No-one made a fuss about such a good opening season and his 11 assists were unmentioned. When you consider the fuss that was made of Manchester United's Javier Hernandez, after he scored 20 in his first season, it is easy to see that something is amiss here. My suspicions that the Frenchman would be having a good season have been confirmed in the first few games. As long as Giroud stays fit, backed up by the likes of Walcott, Podolski and Wilshere, Arsenal should not be wanting for goals.

This sounds great then, plenty of goals and entertaining players. However, Arsenal are yet to fix their problems which have been costing them silverware for so long. Their shrewdest buy this window, for the tacticians out there, will no doubt be the returning Mathieu Flamini in central midfield. As appealing as a middle three of Wilshere, Cazorla and Arteta sounds, only Jack out of those three can tackle, even then not brilliantly. To waste his talents & use him as a defensive midfielder should bring tears to the eyes of any self-respecting football fan. Flamini provdes the necessary steel, a tough tackler, someone who won't be afraid to pick up a yellow for the team if it means taking points. This will give whoever his two midfield partners may be, licence to be as creative and fantastic to watch as we know Arsenal can be. Without this, Arsenal have not lived up to past successes because they have had to make up for defensive failings by scoring goals; the hardest thing there is in football. Equally important as this, I have said for four years now, is that Arsenal would not win any honours until they brought in someone who had trophy winning experience at the highest level. This mental issue has never been more evident than in the mistake between Koscielny and Szczeny in the Carling Cup final. Hope looms however, as added to his pre 2005 success with the Gunners, Flamini has won both Serie A and the Italian Supercup during his stint in Milan, meaning the team now has someone to drag them across the final hurdle and show them how it is done.

While Flamini will go someway to rectifying these issues, central defence is still also a problem. A first choice pairing of Koscielny and Mertesacker does not inspire confidence. Koscielny appears somewhat of an enigma. Despite looking very impressive in parts last season, his start to this season has been indifferent. It seems his issue, like most of the team, is mental. Technically as good as most other centre backs you could care to mention, it is concentration and decision making that seems to blight his game. Against both Aston Villa and Sunderland so far this season, we have seen the same situation whereby Koscielny has been beaten by the attacker so he faces his own goal in the box. When this has happened, he has dived in both times, and twice conceded penalties. This is a frailty that a team chasing titles can ill afford. When paired with his German counterpart, again a good defender, but a player who will unfortunately always be exposed by a pacey forward, it makes for a defence which does not invoke trust in those before them. Equally, the form of Thomas Vermaelen, who made such a scintillating start to his Arsenal career, does little to boost the prospects of a flaky back-line. Beyond this in fact, the first team has no more recognised centre backs, meaning any January additions must surely be in this position. Add a back up to Flamini in another defensive midfielder and Arsenal really would be back to the big time.

Only one thing makes me think Arsenal could be contenders right now, despite all the above. He's called Aaron Ramsey. A player I readily admit I said had not been the same since his horrific leg break suffered against Stoke, this season he looks to be something special. Having scored 5 goals in all competitions from midfield already this season, it is not a surprise to see him making headlines. Though it will never get the coverage it deserves, he has been ready to put a foot in to help out Arsenal's beleaguered defence too, showing that he could be on the cusp of developing into the complete midfielder. A midfield three comprising Ramsey, Flamini and Wilshere, should strike fear into the hearts of any opponent this season. If Cazorla is used to replace Oxlade-Chamberlain whilst he is injured also, Arsenal may see a raft of wins heading their way.

 Its easy to be wrong in football, but when its about someone who can play like this, I really don't mind.

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