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Monday, 6 January 2014

Arsenal's striker shortage and Wenger's January options

At the start of the season many of us were thinking it. Though Mesut Özil was a surprising and extremely welcome gift to the Arsenal fans, there was no denying that this dazzling addition to an already star-studded midfield masked Arsène Wenger's failure to sign a new striker.

Olivier Giroud had had a promising first season in the Premier League, with Wenger's other two striking options: Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott also chipping in plenty of goals. The youngster Yaya Sanogo arrived over the summer as backup along with Nicklas Bendtner who returned from loan. Yet since the beginning of the season, all four of these deputies have suffered from unfortunate and overlapping injuries. With Giroud himself now succumbing to a combination of injury and illness (most likely caused by fatigue), Podolski, himself only recently back from injury, is currently Arsenal's only available striker.

Giroud made a positive start to 2013/14 with seven goals and four assists by the start of December helping Arsenal streak ahead at the top of the league. In his past six league appearances however, he has struggled to find the net, scoring just once more, whilst the teams immediately behind Arsenal have ominously closed up the gap.

The main reason behind Giroud's dip in form is almost certainly that he has been overplayed. The seasonal fixture pile-up has resulted in the team having to play five games in twelve days. Before being ruled out of last week's game against Cardiff, Giroud had missed just one of Arsenal's twenty-seven Premier League and European fixtures this season. As the table below confirms, no striker has played more minutes in the Premier League since August.

The reason for this is that Wenger has not had at his disposal a match-fit and reliable replacement for his French talisman all season. With Bendtner unavailable for a month and Walcott now ruled out for the rest of the season, it is imperative that if Arsenal want to retain their now diminished lead over Man City and Chelsea, Wenger must buy in January.

True, this Arsenal squad has enviable depth in most other positions on the pitch. Perhaps Ramsey and Mertesacker could do with a rest but the team now has the strength to allow for this when playing the smaller teams without drastically weakening the starting eleven. Yet to compete with City, who boast the most prolific strike-force in the league, Arsenal badly need that extra man to bring in when Giroud is overtired and under-performing.

More potential names have been thrown around than can be listed here, and I won't add to the speculation by reeling them off. It does look increasingly like Wenger will be forced into the transfer market, though he and several other managers have already stressed that options are more limited than in previous years. At this stage, the priority should be finding a proven goalscorer that can match or better Giroud's strength, shooting, and ability to hold up the ball. There are a few such players currently playing at England's elite clubs, though I don't expect any of the top teams to be as naïve as to sell to their rivals (as we were a season ago). None of them need the money, so there would be nothing in it for them. Another option would be a raid on a mid-table Premier League club. There you can find a lot of experienced pros, though we would probably be held to ransom over the asking price for many of them.

Then you can look abroad. There is a whole world of players out there, many of whom would relish the chance to link up with Arsenal in what is becoming their most exciting season for years. Abroad too though, prices are high for proven scorers, and young inexperienced players, however promising, are not the most suitable acquisitions when guaranteed goals are paramount.

In my view, the best option would be a short-term loan deal. There are a few players out there who, whilst probably not available to buy (at a reasonable price at least), could be permitted to join until the end of the season. Someone with experience in a top league and a hunger for success would be a perfect fit.

If Wenger abstains from January window-shopping however, he does have another option. Whilst reserve forwards Ju-Young Park and Ryo Miyaichi appear to be out of favour with the boss, the eighteen year-old Chuba Akpom, whose goals impressed during Arsenal's pre-season tour, netted a hattrick in a match for the under-18s earlier tonight. With another eighteen year-old, Serge Gnabry causing the Tottenham defence serious problems at the weekend, why not also give Akpom a chance in the cup or against the lower Premier League teams? Something needs to change in order for Giroud to get back to scoring ways, and the prospect of being usurped by a player ten years his junior might be just the trick.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Arsenal vs. Man United: van Persie and the dangers of over-reliance

A little over a year ago, I wrote a piece about Arsenal's underwhelming start to the 2012/13 season, attributing their frustrations mainly to the loss of Robin van Persie's goalscoring talents. At the time Arsenal had been struggling to score, whilst van Persie's goals already had Man United team out in front as the league's top scorers and just one point off the top spot. It was evident that Arsenal had been over-reliant on the dutchman's goals in the 2011/12 season, and the team were unable to compete with United's enviable quartet of goalscorers (with Rooney, Hernández, and to a far lesser extent, Welbeck, making up the numbers).

Just one year on, however, the situation looks very different. As the chart below shows, after eleven games this season, United have scored just eighteen goals, seven of which were provided by van Persie. If you took those seven out of the equation, the team would have the fifth worst scoring record in the league. 

By contrast, if you took the six goals scored by Arsenal's top scorer so far, Aaron Ramsey, away from their total of twenty-two, the Gunners would still have the fifth highest goal count. van Persie's recent goals against Arsenal, Stoke, and Southampton, meant that United have won two and drawn one, instead of drawing two and losing one. Without those five points saved, the team would find themselves wallowing in ninth place. Arsenal, even without the four extra points secured against Sunderland and Swansea by Ramsey's goals, would still be in the Champions League places.

Although last season United set a Premier League record by having twenty different goalscorers throughout the year, just six players have found the net since August. As you can see from the chart above, Arsenal have in fact already had ten different goalscorers this time round.

This gives the impression that it is Arsenal who have the more evenly-balanced squad. The team appears much less dependent on top scorers Ramsey and Olivier Giroud than United are on van Persie and Rooney. Even Liverpool, who are just one goal and two points behind Arsenal, are heavily reliant on the goals of their two strikers, Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge, who have provided sixteen of the squad's twenty-one goals.

Many fans have voiced concerns that unlike United and Liverpool, who have two prolific strikers apiece, Arsenal rely too much on Giroud for their goals. Yet Arsenal's other attackers have shown that they are extremely capable of supporting the Frenchman, contributing fifteen goals between them. This is a tally not even matched by Chelsea's formidable group of midfielders.

Despite their many different scorers last season, the only United midfielder to makes a significant contribution to the team's goal count was Shinji Kagawa with six. And the only real change to their ranks has been replacing Paul Scholes with Maroune Fellaini, who has yet to replicate the form that saw him score eleven for Everton last season.

There is still more good news for Arsenal fans, who have been without two of last seasons three top scorers, Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski, for most of their games so far. With these two forwards, who can both play in the central striker position, due to return from injury in the coming weeks, Wenger will have even more goalscoring options available.

Liverpool and United may have the best strike partnerships in the league, yet it is Arsenal's attacking line that has looked the strongest overall in the start to the season. van Persie and Rooney made the difference when the two sides played each other last weekend, but with injured players returning, Arsenal's squad looks much less vulnerable than in recent years. The prospect of signing another striker in January, which already has the papers speculating, would be the icing on the cake. It is now United who are reliant on van Persie's goals, and Arsenal who have the better squad depth.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Özil at Arsenal: What a difference a month makes

Apologies (to anyone that's noticed) for the fact that I haven't written in almost a month. Malfunctioning laptop issues combined with starting my third year of uni have meant that I've only just got around to writing...

AND WHAT A MONTH TO HAVE MISSED! If I'd stated my hopes for Arsenal's upcoming results at the start of September, I don't think I could have written events any better than they have in reality turned out to be. OK, maybe I wouldn't have had us going to penalties against West Brom... but anyway, let's take a look at the best stuff from the last 30 days:

1) 10th September - Arsenal players demonstrate international quality

Wilshere and Walcott started both of England's World Cup qualifiers in which they kept two clean sheets. Mertesacker and Özil started both of Germany's games in which they kept two clean sheets and scored a goal apiece. Koscielny, Sagna and Giroud started both of France's games and kept one clean sheet. Rosicky captained the Czech Republic in both their games, scoring in the first but going off injured in the second. Ramsey captained Wales for both their games and scored once. Cazorla and Monreal both started one of Spain's matches.

It's a laborious way of putting it but the point being made is that those arguing that Arsenal don't possess world class players might soon be having to eat their words. That's eleven Arsenal players starting for their respective countries. Four scored goals. Two were captains. This is a group of footballers that can play, score and lead at the highest level of the game.

From this perspective there's only one negative: Szczesny and Fabianski were sat on the bench for Poland in both their games. That our first and second choice keepers are only second and third choice for Poland doesn't quite have the right ring to it (especially when their number one plays for Southampton).

2) 14th September -  Özil gets his first assist in his first game for Arsenal

We signed the player who has provided more goal assists than anyone else in Europe over the last five seasons. What did you think was going to happen?

3) 22nd September - Özil gets ALL THREE assists in his third game for Arsenal

The man is a genius.

4) 1st August - Özil scores one, assists one as Arsenal beat Napoli 2-0

This is the Napoli that are currently second-placed in Italy, above Juventus, AC Milan and Inter.

So in his first five games for Arsenal, the team has scored twelve, and Özil was involved in 6 of those. Arsenal have been far from a one-man team this season though: Aaron Ramsey has scored eight goals and contributed three assists in ten games so far, and has won more tackles than any other player in the league. Olivier Giroud also has six goals and two assists to his name already.

Most would still argue that Arsenal are far from a team of world class players but there are few players in England right now whose form matches that of these three. And this is before we've got last season's top scorers Cazorla, Walcott and Podolski back and firing on all cylinders again.

There are as always areas that could be improved. Despite our internationals' impressive rate of clean sheets for their countries, Tuesday's victory was the first game that Arsenal hadn't conceded in for a whole month. That could do with being addressed. And I'm refusing to get carried away until Arsenal PROVE that they can beat United, City and Chelsea this season.

But still...

Arsenal currently sit two points clear at the top of the league, five points above City and eight above United. Only City have bettered our goals scored and goal difference. In short this has been Arsenal's best start to a season in recent memory; hopefully this won't go to the players' heads and we can keep this form going. At the end of this month and the start of November the fixture list reads Chelsea, Liverpool, Dortmund, United. That will be a huge test for this team.

But for now let's remain hopeful. It's been a while since we've had the luxury of optimism.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Mesut Özil joins the German Revolution / If the Premier League was won by spending money...

First things first: it would be impossible to write anything about Arsenal FC today without making reference to one particular event which occurred yesterday evening. I am of course talking about the last minute deadline day arrival of £42 million Real Madrid playmaker Mesut Özil. After months of rising anger amongst fans over the club's lack of transfer activity, the majority have now been sent into near delirium by Wenger's audacious move, which obliterates Arsenal's former transfer record by £25 million.

In fact this is the most un-Arsène thing Wenger has ever done.

Le Professeur made his name in this country by signing relatively unknown players for modest fees and turning them into world-beaters á la Nicolas Anelka, Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie. Splashing out over £40 million on one player was seen as an insane risk, best left to the Manchester Citys and Chelseas of this world.

But things have changed at Arsenal. After losing many of the team's best players to big spenders City, United and Barca in recent years, the message seems to finally have sunk in that to compete at the top of the modern game, you need players with star quality. And the last Arsenal player that had that headed north to Manchester twelve months ago.

Though many see the Özil transfer as a game-changer at the Emirates, fans shouldn't get too carried away just yet. At the start of summer it was clear that Arsenal ideally needed strengthening all the way through with attacking midfield ironically already our strongest position. Goalkeeper Emiliano Viviano has been brought in on loan presumably to keep Szczesny on his toes, Mathieu Flamini will temporarily provide defensive midfield back-up and Yaya Sanogo will fill in for Giroud if he gets injured. Whilst those options sound slightly more promising than what we had in place a month or two ago, Arsenal still look weak on the bench. Simultaneous injuries to Giroud and the centre-backs would pose a serious problem.

The other slight concern is the pressure that comes with such a price tag. Taking a look at some previous Premier League signings in the same price region as Özil's (Torres, Robinho, Veron), we are reminded that not all of them are successful. A cynic would also say that after failing in their attempted pursuits of stars like Rooney, Higuain and Suarez, when Bale's transfer freed up Madrid's other attackers Arsenal resorted to taking whichever big-name player they could get. However, the last time Arsenal smashed their transfer record by paying for an established European superstar (Dennis Bergkamp in 1995),  he went on to become one of the club's greatest ever players. Besides, it feels great to finally have a buzz of excitement back at the Emirates.

Özil is the third German international in as many years to join the Gunners, linking up with Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski as well as youth players Thomas Eisfeld, Serge Gnabry and Gedion Zelalem. The German football team are currently ranked second only to Spain in the world, having reached the semi-finals of both the World Cup in 2010 and Euro 2012. 

It is easy to draw comparisons to Arsène's recruitment of French internationals during the late nineties, when Arsenal players featured heavily in the teams that won both the World Cup in 1998 and the Euros in 2000. Wenger grew up in the Alsace region in France and was interested in football clubs on the German side of the border just as much as on the French. Perhaps he is remembering his Germanic roots at just the right time.

With all this money flying around, I took the time to compile an alternative Premier League table, showing where each club would finish this season if money spent was all that counted.

As you can see, Spurs would have been runaway winners, though if you subtracted money received to find their net spend, they would be rock bottom. The table does show that even after the Özil transfer, aside from United, Arsenal are still the most frugal of the six big clubs. The squad's lack of depth is worryingly highlighted by the fact that only United, Southampton and Newcastle have signed fewer players than us.

I think realistically what the table suggests is that unless United sign big in January, City and Chelsea will almost certainly get the better of them this time around. After that, it looks as though Arsenal will have an equally large challenge fending off Spurs and Liverpool in the fight for the Champions League spots.

The table conceals the fact that Everton will also be stronger after their deadline day loan acquisitions of Gareth Barry and Romelu Lukaku. What is clear however is that Newcastle are extremely unlikely to replicate the scare they gave the top four two seasons ago.

It remains to be seen how much of a bearing money will really have on the season's outcome. The Gunners should take confidence from the fact that although Liverpool and Spurs have made good signings this summer, they will need time to gel, whilst the Arsenal squad should be one of the most stable in the league. In fact if we hit the ground running after the international break and make one or two signings in January, I can see Arsenal pushing their way back into the top three this year.

Welcome to Arsenal, Mesut. You're gonna love it here.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Arsenal beat Spurs and it's bye-bye Bale

Christmas comes early to the red half of North London. In fact yesterday was probably the best day to be a Gooner since the victory at Newcastle back in May.

It's amazing how fast the mood can change at Arsenal. After our opening game at Villa things were looking grim from every angle. We'd signed no-one, Spurs had signed everyone and we'd lost 3-1 on the first day of the season. Now just a few weeks on and although the team itself still hasn't been strengthened, the weekend's events will have calmed fans nerves considerably.

Going into the derby I was more concerned than ever about how we'd fare against our near neighbours. As their £100 million worth of shiny new players lined up against our vulnerable and already injury-hit squad I contemplated the scale of the anti-Wenger backlash if we were to lose. In these early season games it is likely that any defeat will be greeted by loud calls for his sacking and, whether these are justified or not, the pressure must be the most immense he's been under at the club. Not that he shows it.

A first half goal was what we needed and Olivier Giroud did the honours, grabbing his third in three Premier League matches to settle everyone's nerves. Or at least it should have done.

Instead the second half was an intense and nervous affair: high tempo, end-to-end attacking and good chances for both sides. We didn't commit too many forward for our attacks and got back to defend well. In the last quarter of the game we seemed to inexplicably lose the ability to clear the ball, and there were several rounds of pinball football inside our area that could have ended up anywhere. As we entered the final five I tensed up, remembering the number of last minute game-savers Bale scored for Spurs last year. Then I remembered that Bale was having a medical in Madrid...

The whistle went and the stadium erupted. Today was all about the three points and although the game could have gone either way at times, it proved to players and fans that whatever has happened off the pitch, when it gets down to eleven vs. eleven, Arsenal will still beat Tottenham.

Whilst missing five first team players.

The day got better when Bale's transfer was finalised a few hours later. The Welshman has been the biggest threat to the North London power balance in decades and though it is sad to see another great player leave the Premier League, the Gooner in me is breathing a sigh of relief. It remains to be seen whether his (seven) replacements will be able to keep Spurs in contention for a Champions League place but beating them at this early stage in the season ensures that we at least get a head start.

The icing on the Sunday dinner would have been a confirmed big-name transfer but with less than twenty-four hours left, we're still making do with rumours, this time of Mesut Özil, Demba Ba and Emiliano Viviano. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I expect at least one move will come off for us today but, unless it's a really good one I'm not going to let Arsène off that easily for what he's put us through this summer.

Yesterday was a good day but there's many more tests to come and we're currently only a few injuries away from a crisis. Today could be good or bad but until 11pm at least, I'm going to revel in what for once was a very fine weekend.