By David Edwards
Well we did it – just. For most clubs ‘squeaky bum’ time comes in April, but for Arsenal fans it arrived in August. With a couple of minutes to go against Besiktas, Ba just missed a cross that would have consigned us to Thursday evenings on ITV4, but with a show of resilience and maximum effort from all the players (not always our strongest points) we scraped through for our 17th consecutive year in the Champions League.
Looking back over the last seven days, we can now say that we’ve successfully negotiated a couple of real tests, even if at various points this wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Everton are a very decent side and we won’t be the first good team to struggle at Goodison. The major plus, after going two nil down, was the team showed real backbone, fighting to get back into the match. If we’d been sharper in front of goal during the Giroud inspired second half we could even have taken three points. The down side apart from Giroud’s injury – how many players have a leg broken by having a ball kicked against them? – was our lack of any planned response for Lukaku monstering Monreal for the second time. Surely it must have crossed Arsene’s mind that this might happen again, but we seemed just as hapless as we were in last season’s away game.
The general consensus was that the ‘experiment’ of playing Alexis as the main striker had not succeeded and there was no doubt that we looked a more potent attacking force with Giroud on. However as the information about Giroud’s injury leaked out day by day, it became clear that playing the big Frenchman was not going to be an option for Besiktas. It was assumed that Sanogo would lead the line instead, but Arsene being Arsene, we lined up with Alexis down the middle again.
The two strikers require different types of service to function at their best. Giroud is less mobile, but has the strength to hold up the ball under pressure, and act as a central point around which the attacking midfield players revolve. Alexis is a more elusive option, running the channels and looking for balls played behind the opposition’s defence, and the Everton game suggested that the team had not yet fully adapted to the different requirements. This is still a work in progress but the Besiktas game saw a definite improvement. Apart from the decisive goal, there were some neat interchanges, and in the final, tense, closing minutes – Alexis held up the ball well, running down the clock, and showing impressive resilience as he was regularly decked by the none too fussy Besiktas defenders.
The other attribute that Alexis brings is a relentless pressing of the opposition, attacking the task for the whole 90 minutes with an energy that wouldn’t have disgraced a Duracell Bunny on amphetamines. The rest of the team aren’t quite on the same wavelength yet in terms of maintaining a co-ordinated high press, but the work ethic of the Chilean does seem to be rubbing off. I haven’t seen Carzola work so hard without the ball for some time, and even Ozil was tracking back more assiduously.
Santi generally had a much better game than lately, with and without the ball, and another plus was a sharp performance from Wiltshire. Arsene spoke afterwards about Jack starting to regain his acceleration over the first few strides, and it was great to see him starting to burst clear of his markers again. Let’s hope that this is the start of the sustained improvement we have all been waiting for.
Having secured our participation in the Champions League, attention now turns to the remaining days of the transfer window. Arsene was his usual gnomic self when asked about potential targets after the Besiktas game. We clearly need another centre back as back up, and there are good arguments for a target man who can score regularly and a defensive midfielder, so we can probably expect Arsene to sign an 18 year old, nine stone creative midfielder. Let’s hope not, but second guessing Arsene’s transfer strategy is pretty hard to do even at this point of the transfer window.