by Tim Charlesworth
This is the first of two articles on the issues facing Arsene Wenger this summer. Part two, which deals with attacking players and the players whose positions are guaranteed will be published shortly.
As the new season approaches, I cannot remember ever being so uncertain about our ‘first choice starting eleven’. So I thought it might be useful to consider some of Wenger’s upcoming selection dilemmas.
For simplicity I have assumed a traditional back four; a defensive midfielder, a box to box midfielder and an attacking midfielder/no 10. I have then added two wingers/wide midfielders and a central striker/no 9. This is a bit of an over-simplification, but it is essentially the way that Arsenal have lined up for the last five years.
The lack of clear ‘first choice’ players is both a strength and a weakness. It indicates that we have good strength in depth, but also that we are short of real ‘stand-out’ performers who have proved themselves so consistently excellent in recent years that they are nailed-on starters. I think the Community Shield line up will give us the first real indication of what Wenger thinks our first 11 is (albeit Sanchez will not play following the Copa America)
GK – Szchezny or Ospina or Cech
You have to assume that Cech will get an opportunity to establish himself as first choice in goal. He left Chelsea due to a lack of first team games and surely Wenger gave him some assurances when he signed.
I remain to be convinced that Cech is as good as he used to be (and he was very good). I have a nagging doubt that Mourinho has tricked us into buying a dud. Maureen’s protests against selling Cech seemed a little surreal to me. At the end of the day, Mourinho is a good judge of players and will know if Cech is in decline or not, whereas Wenger is a less good position to conduct an objective judgement. (Of course the Tots thought Pat Jennings was in decline…)
That leaves Ospina and Szchezny. I don’t think many of us are convinced that Ospina is the long-term solution here, but he did finish the season as first choice in a successful team. Szchezny seems like a young keeper who may still be the long-term option in this position, but has not quite lived up to expectations yet. The general assumption is that Ospina will leave and Szchezny will settle in to play the long-game. This is probably correct. Wenger will probably allow one of them to play in cup games, but third choice keepers generally get very little opportunity, and I cannot see either of them settling for third choice.
CB – Mertesacker or Gabriel
I fear for Mertesacker. He is a lovely chap, and I really enjoyed his headed/shouldered goal in the cup final. His ‘Big Friendly Giant’ moniker is well earned (I reject alternative interpretations of BFG). But he lost his place in the German team on merit, and now looks under threat for Arsenal.
His ability to turn like an oil tanker, and his general lack of pace can expose our team on occasions. He seems to rely on Koscielny (and the full backs sometimes) to cover for him. This can work very well (teamwork being the essence of football after all), but is a potential point of failure when the team is really under the cosh. Wenger likes his defences to push high up the pitch and the BFGs lack of pace is a barrier to this.
On the other hand, Mertesacker is going to have a proper summer off for the first time in a while. Last season he played 49 games for us on the back of a long world cup campaign. He looked tired at the end of the season and a rest might make all the difference. He has also retired from the German team, and this will make next season easier for him. So let’s hope we see an improved BFG next season.
Gabriel looks like the real deal. He was a bit skittish and prone to errors when he played last season, but I think this might go away as he settles down and plays regularly. Athletically he looks superb. I suspect that Wenger will use pre-season to compare the two. My bet is that Gabriel will get more minutes than Mertesacker and that Chambers will get some minutes too. I have a sneaky suspicion that Gabriel will establish himself as a starter for Brazil as well. (Possible rotation/horses for courses)
LB – Monreal or Gibbs
Monreal has talked recently about feeling that he has finally settled in here. This struck me as a slightly strange thing to say. Was there something odd about his transfer? Did he not really want to come?
Cazorla and Monreal were both signed from Malaga in the period when we seemed to be looking for bargains. Malaga had financial problems and appeared to be forced to sell these players at knock down prices. Moving from Malaga to London is not a trivial change in life, and I wonder if Monreal was really ready for it, or expecting it. Did he just take a really long time to settle in?
Whatever the reason, he appears to have displaced Gibbs for now, and to have done so on merit. However, Wenger seems to think that Gibbs is an important player in the long-term (English core etc). Gibbs doesn’t seem to be far behind, and I suspect he will rise to the challenge and win his place back at some point next set season. (possible rotation/horses for courses)
RB – Debuchy or Bellerin
This one is genuinely hard to call. Bellerin had a breakthrough season and was the man in possession at the end of last season. Many of our fans are very excited by his prospects, but he is still young and relatively inexperienced. Debuchy is a high class international player, who looked very good in his few appearances last season. Many of us were delighted to get an ‘upgrade’ on the excellent Sagna last summer. He will be fully recovered at the start of the season. I suspect Debuchy will start the season. (possible rotation/horses for courses)
DM – Coquelin or a new player
I thought that the emergence of Coquelin was the most exciting thing to happen last season. How long have we fans cried out for a genuinely brilliant defensive midfielder? Was the answer really under our noses all these years? The team looked completely different with him in it.
BC (Before Coquelin) I beat myself silly with frustration, as we got caught on the counter attack over and over again. With him, the counter attack problem has virtually disappeared (I think others, particularly Cazorla, must take some credit as well).
I am just so grateful to this enigmatic man. His positioning is freakishly good – next time you watch the mighty Arsenal, ignore the ball and just watch him – it’s nearly as good as watching Sanchez trying to get the ball back after he has lost it! His tackling is wonderful, and he seems to have magically eliminated the tendency to get carded for it.
He also seems to have strength, balance and pace in abundance. His aerial ability is fantastic. During the FA Cup quarter final, Man U pumped aerial balls up the middle and he dominated Fellaini in the air (apparently not even flinching when Fellaini used his elbow to break his nose). For a man listed as 5’10”, this is inexplicable.
During the FA Cup final, just like that, he decided to add Messi-like close control to his list of attributes. Is there no end to this man’s talents? Anyway, I must stop going on about this wonderful player or my wife will get suspicious.
The fact remains that he hasn’t played a full season for us, and thus hasn’t proved his ability to do so. I still have a nagging fear that he is ‘too good to be true’. Could he just be an illusory ‘flash in the pan’. Perhaps I don’t really understand what I am seeing? (I am an experienced observer, but I am just an amateur, and not always a good judge of players).
It is also very rare for players to suddenly become brilliant at the age of 24, after showing relatively little promise before that. I get the firm impression that Wenger was genuinely surprised at how well Le Coq played (if not, then why did he let his contract get so close to expiring?). Will opposition teams work out how to play against him, how to find his weaknesses? Will his body hold up to a full season? Will Wenger sign another DM – the rumours are incessant. Will our club captain even get his place in the team back?
Of all the ‘uncertain’ positions, this is probably the one where I feel most strongly that I do know what will happen next season. As the summer wears on, it increasingly looks like Wenger is not looking for another player in this position. I see no evidence that Arsenal ever expressed any serious interest in Khedira; Schneiderlin; Schweinsteiger; Vidal; Bender; Carvalho; Pogba; or anyone else who can play this position. All the rumours seem to be based on interest that was expressed BC, and that Tony would describe as ‘vapour rumours’.
Wenger is probably happy with Arteta as back up, and the experience of the Asia Cup suggests that he is considering alternatives such as Ramsey/Cazorla in deeper roles. Wenger has an odd tendency to deny that he plays a Defensive Midfielder at all, and I sometimes think he is looking for midfield arrangements that avoid the need for one. However, all things considered, I think Coquelin will be first choice and that he will have an excellent season.
From the anniversary files…
22 July 2006: The Emirates Stadium opened with the Dennis Bergkamp testimonial, Dennis’ father kicked off the match. Dennis had played 423 games for Arsenal, and was part of both Arsène Wenger’s two Doubles and the Unbeaten Season.