By Waleed Ahmed
This article is not meant as an exercise in fantasy, but rather as a discussion of Arsenal’s strengths and weaknesses, and our approach next season, based on signings.
So starting from that point, this is what I would like to happen this summer.
- Cesc, Nasri, and Clichy stay. Cesc does not have to sign a new contract but the other two do.
- The players who have been pushed to the very fringe of the squad – Almunia, Denilson, Vela, Bendtner, Squillaci – they can be moved on.
- We sign Gervinho and Samba and Oxlade.
- We promote Frimpong and JET to the senior squad.
To explain the above choices, let’s look first at crossing. Our crossing is criticized a lot, but I don’t think we are worse at it than anyone else in the league. It’s just that our bad crosses are emphasized because we don’t attempt as many as the usual Premiership team.
In fact, crossing is just not part of our plan A. For good reason too. Crossing is a tedious form of chance creation. It is also inefficient. Baines is a good crosser right? Well yes, he put in 100 accurate crosses last season according to one figure (out of who knows how many attempts). But he only had 11 assists, and probably not all came directly from crosses. So for Baines, that’s an 11% success rate, at best.
But it turns out it is very above average, because from what I read on the excellent Arsenal Column blog, only 1% of crosses last season resulted in goals. So it’s a good thing we don’t cross as much.
And if it were up to me I’d tell our players not to cross the ball at all. Not to ever play a pass longer than 20 feet. Our strength is in short passing and movement. All too often last season we abandoned that in favour of launching aimless balls into the box when faced with a parked bus.
The Spanish U-21 players taught us a great lesson in sticking to your passing game. They were 1-0 down for most of the game. In the first half they attempted too many long passes, too many speculative shots – they were panicking a bit. In the second half though, after a word with their coach, they came out calmer, kept passing and passing and passing until the breakthrough came. We need to go back to that.
Our fullbacks need to advance to provide width, and allow our wingers to cut inside and become more of a goal threat. But they don’t need to cross the ball (cross to whom anyway?). As long as our fullbacks can play a simple passing game high up the pitch, and have enough stamina to run back and forth down the touchline, they are contributing perfectly to our attack.
Now let’s look at our weaker left flank. For most of the season, the right flank was patrolled by Nasri/Walcott, Song, and Sagna. Our left flank, however, had Arshavin and Wilshere ahead of Clichy. Perhaps teams don’t purposely target our left flank, perhaps it just happens because that’s where we allow the attacks to build up. I would say that if Wilshere improves defensively and a more defensively aware forward plays ahead of him, Clichy would fare much better. A possible solution for this would be for Wilshere and Song to switch sides in a match where we are letting too much develop down the left.
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Our defense has taken most of the criticism this season, but we still have issues that need to be resolved in attack. One problem I noticed was our distinct lack of pace in the absence of Walcott. We need someone else with that speed. Nasri is quick, but not so quick that his pace becomes a strength all by itself. With Walcott it is.
Forget all the ironically brainless attacks on Walcott’s lack of brains. That is irrelevant. Walcott is a tactical player. A tactical player (a term I just invented) is a player who isn’t so important for the individual contribution he makes, but rather for what he does to allow the team to flourish as a whole. And what Walcott does is help is greatly in attack and defence, even if he has a crap game. Here’s why:
Just his mere presence scares the opposition. They drop back and defend deeper, which has the effect of not being able to press high up. It means we are better able to build from the back as our defenders have more time on the ball. If they do play a high line, they leave themselves vulnerable to his pace. If they press high up and still play a deep line, they leave too much space in the middle for us to exploit. Just by being on the pitch, even before kick off, Walcott has improved our attack.
Then there’s the defence. He contributes a lot to our stronger right flank. Again because defenders are scared of his pace, they tend to sit deep, not making as many runs forward. As I mentioned before, fullbacks in today’s game are required to make forward runs and stretch the defence. Without them the attack suffers. So by pinning the fullback back, Walcott shuts down that entire flank. And then there’s his work rate. He uses his pace well to track back and knick balls off midfielders. Or harry defenders and give them no time on the ball. If he can improve his stamina he can be a sort of a Dirk Kuyt for us, except one who scores goals.
So anyway, pace is important. And we need another Theo Walcott. Another forward who has frightening pace.
There was another weakness in our attack – too many ball players. It’s good to have so many players who are good on the ball and can pass it around, but the problem with ball players is that they always want the ball. They always move toward the ball. All too often last season, we played in front of the defence. Everyone coming to the ball, and not enough moving away from it. Again, we need another Walcott, someone who is comfortable focusing on making off the ball runs in behind the defence. Nasri did more of that and got more goals, but not enough at times. And we can use another player besides those two who can do that. Bendtner is one but he doesn’t have the pace to play like that effectively for us.
I also need to discuss our creative centre forward. The creative centre forward is the reason Bendtner never made it, why Eduardo was moved on, why Walcott will never play centrally, and possibly why Arshavin was dropped.
By creative I mean who creates chances for others. Watch Walcott’s goal against Blackburn. RvP drops deep, Walcott makes a diagonal run into the vacated space, RvP finds him with a pass, he scores with a precise finish. And we’ve seen the same thing repeat itself often, with RvP (along with Cesc) creating goals for players around them, especially the wingers.
So if you take our formation to be sort of a 4-3-3, the center of the front 3 does not play as an arrow head, but rather as a creator. The wide forwards are the ones burdened with the goal scoring.
The focus of Nasri and Walcott was not to stay back and play through balls, but rather to make direct runs behind the defence.
Chamakh was brought in as back up to RvP, and it’s no surprise that he is not a goal scoring center forward. Both strikers are not the fox in the box type, they do most of their work outside the box – holding up the ball, bringing others into the game, and creating chances. They don’t have to score goals, but RvP is so amazing that he manages to score every game.
Bendtner is more of a goal scoring forward, not a good enough link up player, That is why Wenger shoved him out to the wing. Same with Walcott, who is also more of a finisher than a creator. Eduardo, in his last season, never worked in a central role. He played on the wing, and was then sold. Arshavin is more of a creator than a scorer, as is evident in his numbers, as well as if you compare his numbers with Nasri’s from the same position. Arshavin got 17 assists and Nasri only 1. Arshavin the creator was dropped from the left flank. And he was the preferred center forward in the 09-10 season when RvP was injured.
And that’s why, if we buy goal scorer, he will play on the wing. Which is not a bad thing, because our wingers will be scoring most of our goals in the coming seasons.
Now to our defence. It has to be mentioned that in the sub-category of goals allowed from open play, we did rather well. So there is quality in there, just one weakness. And that brings us to set-pieces. The figure quoted around of 53 or percent was misleading, because it included penalties as set-pieces.
And a high number of goals allowed from set-pieces could very well mean that we give away a lot of dangerous free kicks. A better indication would be to study how many we concede per free kick or corner. 7amkickoff did an analysis of this and found that we still do worse than other top teams. So there is certainly room for improvement in that regard.
One reason we are bad at set-piece defending is simply because we are a rather short team. I do believe height, as well as aerial ability, is the main issue here, rather than lack of practice or organization.
So how do you fix it? You bring in one or two tactical players. Players who maybe aren’t better than what you have, but offer you something different. We don’t need quick, ball playing defenders against Stoke and Bolton, do we? So why not play a huge, lumbering center back who can head balls away all day long?
Finally, Cesc hasn’t had a proper summer’s rest in 2007. Perhaps his injury problems and poor form are down to that, and not that his head is in Barcelona. He is still one of our best players and I think he can return to his best form next season. So if we can, we need to hold on to him.
So that explains why I want Cesc to stay.
Clichy the poor crosser should stay, too, because he does a lot of unrecognized good work defensively.
Oxlade-Chamberlain and Samba come in as tactical options. The former for the pace, the latter for his aerial ability.
Gervinho comes in as a pacey goal scorer. Someone who makes runs in behind defences and clings on to through balls from RvP and Arshavin.
Frimpong is promoted to the role of back up midfielder, behind Wilshere, Ramsey, Song, and Diaby.
JET replaces Bendtner, as a wide target man who can score goals.
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