Good morning boys and girls, James here wishing a happy new year to you. Pete did a pretty good job of surmising our 2016 – it felt like a year of ‘what could have been’ – clearly the title was there for the taking last season and after Welbz’s goal against Leicester in February, I had convinced myself we would win the title. There’s no point raking over old ground as it has been done to death, but the capitulation at Old Trafford and limp final third of that season still stings.
Personally, whilst I’m not writing off this season yet (it’s January!), Chelsea look imperious and I’m also worried about Man Utd who have been ominously solid in recent weeks. Nonetheless, this is the best squad Arsenal have had since we last won the title – some might say 2007/08 was stronger, but this team has more depth in my view. The quality in the squad is undoubted, but the composition and balance has looked off all season, give or take the odd excellent performance – this is hardly a surprise, given we have bedded in a new first choice centre half, central midfielder and effectively a new front-line.
As is so often the case with Arsenal, one can see that this squad is not far away from being a serious contender, but be it tactics, form or cohesion, we perennially fall short. There are actions I would like to see taken this year, be that personnel, tactics and transfers, which could make a difference. Clearly the manager has forgotten more about football than I know, but hey, this is my soapbox and I’m going to damn well use it. So, in no particular order:
1.) Fix the midfield
Our midfield is a bit of a mess at present. Those of you who have read any of my previous pieces for Le Grove will know I’m no fan of Coquelin and I remain bemused by his continued inclusion in the starting eleven, with his recent role in the side even more infuriating, with him playing as a genuine box-to-boxer, often finding himself in advanced positions and totally stifling our attacking fluency.
As a run-of-the-mill, midfield ball-winner Coquelin is fine – that’s it. If he was at any other top eight club, I doubt very much that we as Arsenal fans would be batting our eyes in his direction. Furthermore, I’m not convinced he is an especially good ball winner. He has good stamina, energy and aggression, no doubt, but his positioning and tackling is often exposed against the better sides – recent showings at Old Trafford and the Etihad where we were totally overrun in midfield pay testament to this (albeit he can’t be solely blamed for this).
Coquelin has tended to be paired with Xhaka this season, with the Swiss making a solid if unspectacular start to his Arsenal career. Xhaka’s passing is exceptional, but there have been games where he has struggled with the pace of the match (City away in particular); however he should be starting the majority of games for us given his ability to dictate the play from deep and pass between the lines.
Personally, I view the next few rounds of fixtures, beginning with today, as an ideal opportunity to properly trial a Xhaka – Ramsey partnership. The Welshman’s form has been patchy to say the least in 2016, with some mitigating circumstances – namely injury and being shunted onto the wing. He remains however, a bona fide top class midfielder on his day and he’s good enough to be afforded the opportunity to show how he can perform alongside a deep-lying distributor – don’t forget his best form in an Arsenal shirt came paired with Mikel Arteta. Ramsey isn’t to everyone’s taste, but if he could rediscover his best form, it can only be a good thing for Arsenal.
2.) Show up away from home to our rivals
Now, I don’t fully buy into the ‘Arsenal are shit in big games theory’, but our points haul in these games tell a pretty damning story. This season we were totally dominated in Manchester twice and pathetic at Goodison, and I would hold a significant level of trepidation about our forthcoming visits to Stamford Bridge, Anfield and White Hart Lane. The reasons for this are difficult to pinpoint, as in terms of quality we are as good as any side in the league. I am also (perhaps naively) of the view that it isn’t necessarily some mental block in the side – there are World Cup, La Liga and Premier League winners in the side – but more an issue regarding our approach to these games, which may require a rebalancing of the side.
Against the best sides away from home, given his contribution in those games, it is hard to justify giving Ozil a free role in the number ten position. He should undoubtedly be in the team for these games – it would be obtuse in the extreme to leave out our most talented player for the sake of a system, but he may need to adapt to a slightly different system, more akin to that in which he performed for Germany in their World Cup triumph in 2014.
In Manchester we enjoyed such little possession and were relatively porous in midfield that I am firmly of the view that we should be playing a 4-3-3 in these games instead of the 4-2-3-1, which is perfectly fine against 90% of the opposition we face. We certainly have the personnel to line-up with this system, and Ozil has performed well from the flanks enough time in his career. Whilst some may argue it stifles his creativity, I would counter that by saying he is going to have more opportunity to be creative if the team is able to win more turnovers in midfield and have genuine midfield runners breaking into the opposition final third (see Aaron Ramsey).
3.) Be pro-active regarding the left back situation
I should begin this segment by clarifying that I love Nacho Monreal – the last two seasons he’s been truly excellent. However, his levels have seen a worrying drop this season. I wouldn’t get overly scientific about this – the role of the modern fullback is physically demanding and Nacho turns 31 next month. I wouldn’t totally write him off and he remains an important member of the squad, but this should be the last season with him as first choice.
The question is then whether Kieran Gibbs is given another chance to establish himself as first choice or we delve into the transfer market in the summer. I like Gibbs and as an academy graduate and true Gooner, I’d like to see him given a full run in the side for the remainder of the season – as much as anything, his performances this season when he’s played have been good enough to justify his starting regularly. If he doesn’t prove either his form or fitness though over the following months, we should be buying a new starter for the position – it’s such an essential role in their team and the way we play that it would justify significant investment. There’s no point speculating on who that might be at this point, but it’s an issue that may be pressing by June.
I’ve gone on for long enough; so will keep the match preview succinct. Frankly, it’s a game where we should know exactly what to expect from our opposition – they are a team managed by Sam Allardyce – a man with the look of someone who has really terrible breath (I’m talking cheese and onion crisps, coffee, fags) – with pacey wingers, a physical midfield and a big lump up front.
I can’t imagine they will be hugely ambitious when they have the ball – they’ll look to counter us and get crosses into the box and probably not much else. Our full backs will need to be on their A-game, whilst whoever lines up in midfield will need to be alert and cover when Bellerin in particular is caught upfield. As mentioned ad nauseum above, Ramsey should start this game against Xhaka – his movement and intelligence of his runs could be crucial against what will likely be a compact side.
Up front, I would move Alexis back up front, flanked by one of Iwobi and Oxlade-Chamberlain on the left, with Lucas Perez given a chance on the right. It hasn’t clicked with Perez and Wenger clearly has reservations, but we need to rotate during this congested period and this is an eminently winnable game. I’d be interested to see what he can do, as whilst his output in goals has been good when he’s played, his general contribution in matches has been patchy at best – let’s see what he can do.
It will likely be a game in the mould of West Brom where patience will be key – it’s a must win game in a run of fixtures we have to be hoping to take maximum points in the run up to our trip to Chelsea in February.
Until next time and thanks for reading.
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