Since I’m pulling double duty for this week in previewing the Arsenal match, this columns introduction should be much shorter. Chelsea travel our North London neighbors with the intent of maintaining our unbeaten record in the league, having taken 13 of a possible 15 points this season. However, Arsenal are also unbeaten, though mustering 3 draws from their first 5 matches.
This is the first real league test for the Blues, though one could argue that both Atletico Madrid and Juventus provided sterner challenges overall. The difference is that this Arsenal team doesn’t quite resemble the free-flowing passing team of the past few years. This team has a bit more organization to it, with Wenger having to alter things slightly after the departure of Robin van Persie to Manchester United.
Arsenal’s resurgence this year starts with perhaps the bargain of this summer: Santi Cazorla from Malaga for what is believed to be around £16M.
If Arsene Wenger could rightly be criticised last season for not preparing better to replace the departed Cesc Fabregas, he could be rightly praised this season for increasing the depth to his squad in the wake of losing van Persie.
The key cog in the equation is a combination of the purchase of Santi Cazorla from cash-strapped Malaga and the reinvention of Mikel Arteta, the man believed to be the replacement for Fabregas, as a deeper distributor rather than a forward playmaker.
In watching Arsenal, it’s clear that Cazorla is the close to Fabregas that Arsenal has found in the second transfer window since he’s left, and it’s provided them with chances that their midfield were not quite able to create at times last year. Cazorla has played wide right at times for Spain and Villarreal, but that’s more of a product of the depth of the Spanish side that good central playmakers get pushed into the wide areas because of the brilliance of Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Andres Iniesta, and Sergio Busquets. The fact that given that depth, Cazorla has won 48 caps for Spain at age 27 is a testament to his abilities.
It’s also clear that Cazorla’s arrival has been something of a positive for Arteta, who even at Everton proved to be a bit more adept at a deeper role with Tim Cahill playing slightly in advance of him. With Cazorla ahead of him, Arteta’s composure on the ball has provided a vital second pivot in the Arsenal midfield and has made their ball retention much improved from last year.
While their midfield have been creating more chances, the finishing from their new strike force has let them down.
Wenger has insisted that the purchase of Lukas Poldoski was not in preparation for the departure of van Persie, and I, for one, believe him, especially after watching the performances of Poldoski and Olivier Giroud so far this season. While both have contributed goals (1 in the League Cup for Giroud and 3 overall for Poldoski), the number of chances that they’ve missed has you wondering how many van Persie would have put away with that same service. Granted, as we’re finding out, replacing a striking talisman and 37 goals is not easy, but right now, Arsenal are finding it tough to do.
The dangerous thing for us is that they both do have quality, despite their lack of form in front of goal. Poldoski, along with Wayne Rooney, was considered one of the breakout striking stars of the 2006 World Cup, and Giroud is coming off a 25-goal season with Montpellier and helped guide them to last season’s Ligue 1 title.
Arsenal’s inability to score goals has been offset by the newfound organization at the back from the Gunners.
When Pat Rice announced his retirement last season and Steve Bould was announced as Wenger’s new number-one assistant, the belief was that he would improve the defensive record for Arsenal by introducing organization to a unit that sometimes lacked it. They were right.
Ironically, coming into this match, both sides have identical goal differentials of +7, with the same number of goals scored, 9, and goals conceded, 2. And while sometimes numbers can be deceiving, they’re backed up by the fact that Arsenal’s defence have not been, as a whole, caught out of position as many times as they were last year. In fact, against City, you could argue that they stifled many of the creativity that City brings between the lines with good defensive discipline and strategy. That’s something that we should take note of, given that Oscar, Eden Hazard, and Juan Mata play in a similar fashion.
If Arsenal have one main structural weakness, it’s their lack of a ball-winner to play alongside the passers in their midfield.
With Alex Song being sold to Barcelona, Wenger managed to sell one of his most trusted defensive midfielders and one of his better players in breaking up the opponents play. Without Song, the lion’s share of that duty falls on the shoulders of Abou Diaby, who has missed long periods of time due to injury, and Emmanuel Frimpong, who’s coming back from injury himself.
While Diaby was compared in his early days to Patrick Vieira, injuries have taken their toll, and he’s not quite the same footballer he was three years ago. Questions also surround his sharpness and his ability to stay fit, though he has looked good this season.
Frimpong might be the most suited to replacing Song, but his injury will take some time to return to match sharpness from, and he must learn some discipline, as he’s a red card waiting to happen at times with his penchant for being over-eager,
Arteta being deployed deeper has offset this weakness, but I still am not sure that area has been tested. Even against City, I didn’t think City played the personnel that could give them problems by overrunning their two holding midfielders with playmakers, rather City pushed David Silva wide right, played Sergio Aguero as a shadow striker, and used Scott Sinclair as an orthodox left winger.
Against us, there’s a very good possibility that Diaby and Arteta will have to deal with a trio of Hazard, Mata, and Ramires playing around them
The League Cup match against Wolves isn’t a great barometer for individual performances, but it did provide a good barometer for the mentality of the younger players and the fringe players.
What I took from the League Cup match wasn’t the six goals, wasn’t the brilliance of the build-up, and wasn’t that Wolves were horribly outclassed. What I took was that there is some fight and some hunger amongst a number of players on the fringes.
At 3-0 up after Mata’s brilliant goal that would have made Spain proud with his two wall passes before the finish, the team very well could have been content to pass it around and just enjoy the run out and the gulf in class. But what I saw was a side that had a number of players who were making a statement of intent to the manager in hopes of staking a claim for a place in the side against Arsenal. Even at 3-0 up, players like Victor Moses and others were still out there with the intent of proving a point, and it wasn’t until the last 20 minutes that I felt we took our foot off the gas.
The other interesting thing was the sign of camaraderie that the side enjoys. Aside from Marin and Piazon, first goals for the club were scored by Moses and Oriol Romeu, with the latter being given his 21st birthday gift of his first goal from the penalty spot, which I believe was the plan, and what seemed like attempts to get many players a goal when goals were there to be had.
I personally think that it bodes well for the side, and it will be needed as this side continues to gel together in the coming weeks.