By David Edwards
Arsenal supporters have had the unaccustomed experience of an enjoyable pre-season. No key players pushing to leave, deals already done for Sanchez, Debuchy, Chambers and Ospina and the possibility of a couple more signings before the end of August. Just to round things off nicely we put three past an admittedly rather disinterested looking Man City in the Community Shield.
Whilst Debuchy, Chambers and Ospina all look good signings it’s the arrival of Sanchez that has generated the most excitement. At Barcelona he looked good, but playing in a team designed around Messi arguably limited his impact. Playing for Chile in the World Cup gave him a better platform and he looked a class act – skill, pace, work rate and a real desire to win – Suarez without the carnivore tendencies.
After Walcott (and Ramsey and the Ox) were injured last season, the lack of pace to get behind opposition defences meant that we struggled to threaten teams even when dominating possession. This also allowed other teams to play a higher line against us, compressing the space for our midfield, and reducing their effectiveness. The prospect of Sanchez, Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain all looking to break behind opponent’s back lines should see our passing game move back up a gear this season.
Apart from the question of who is going to replace Vermaelen, (and we clearly do need more cover at centre back), the other outstanding issue is whether we are going to bring in a specialist defensive midfielder. The need for Arsenal to acquire a strong, hard tackling midfielder, good in the air and who can play a bit – essentially Vieira v2.0 – has been a constant theme for the last few years. The demand intensified when, for a number of seasons, we were bullied out of key games by the physically more imposing sides that Man U and Chelsea had assembled. By 2008 it was clear that football was going the way of rugby with players under 6’ surplus to requirements, and then – Spain’s hyper skilful hobbits passed their way to the European Championship, and defeated the Dutch orcs two years later to win the World Cup.
Tika-taka notwithstanding, the desire to see a Vieira clone at the heart of our midfield persists, and the calls became louder after the sorry performances against Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea last season. There have been rumours linking us with Khedira, Bender and Carvalho. I’d be happy to see any of them at the Emirates, but I’m not convinced that one signing would resolve the frailties that dogged our performances against the better Premier teams last season. I had the misfortune to be at the Etihad in December where we played with both full backs bombing forward and Ramsey, playing in the ‘runner’ role alongside Flamini, regularly being caught out 15 metres further up the pitch than was sensible. Playing 2-1-6-1 left us laughably open and even Patrick in his pomp wouldn’t have been able to stem the tide of blue shirts, although I suspect he would have been rather more vocal about the lack of defensive responsibility shown by several key players.
You could argue this was a one off performance if we hadn’t repeated it against both Chelsea and Liverpool, so fundamentally it comes back to a question of team shape and discipline and that brings us back to Wenger. I love what Arsene has done for the club, and he is still a key factor in enabling us to attract the likes of Ozil and Sanchez, but he has seemed reluctant to address some glaring defensive deficiencies. This was the manager who accepted Arshavin’s abandonment of all defensive responsibilities over several seasons. At the Emirates Cup, Carzola seemed to be taking a similarly relaxed interpretation of the need to track back, and my impression was that Ozil responded to the German team’s expectations and work ethic by being far more defensively diligent in Brazil than he was for us last year.
So – by all means let’s sign up a new holding player (although Arsene’s latest musings suggest that this is where Chambers will end up), but unless we work harder collectively and keep a better shape in the transitions from attack to defence, I’d still be worried about our fortunes against the very best Premiership teams.
In this respect also, Sanchez may have a key role. Sanchez is only half fit but already his desire to press and track back were evident. When Barcelona were in their prime, their desire to win back the ball was as impressive as their play with it, and Messi led the way. If the best player in the world is busting a gut to press the opposition, everyone in the team knows that they are going to have to raise that part of their game. Let’s hope Sanchez has a similar impact for us.