Assessing Arsenal's Current Squad: A Pale Shadow of the 'Invincibles'
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When it comes to Arsenal, my timing sucks!
Last Friday I wrote a piece on Theo Walcott being Arsenal's most overrated player this season, and you know what he went and did the next day. I still stand by what I wrote, but admittedly, the timing of my article made me feel a tad silly.
And here I go again. Three days after the Gunners' most resounding win in ages, I am about to indulge in a bit of squad-bashing. In all honesty, I planned this article last week, and irrespective of the 7-1 thrashing of Blackburn, the theme rings as true as ever.
For starters, I'd like to make a point about football analysis. This first struck me six or seven years ago after I watched a somewhat under-strength Arsenal team defeat (coincidentally) Blackburn 3-0 in an FA Cup semifinal.
The game was fairly one-sided, and the commentators got into an in-depth analysis on Blackburn being tactically poor, how their players didn't work hard enough and how Sam Allardyce had got things wrong. And I remember saying to myself, "what a load of rubbish!"
The reason for the Gunners' victory was that Arsenal had far too much quality on the field that day as compared to Blackburn. And when the better team plays well, then 99 times out of 100 they are going to beat a weaker team, irrespective of how the latter plays. Fact.
Think about it: How often will a team that plays well, and includes Vieira, Pires, Ljungberg, Bergkamp, Reyes, Cole and Gilberto lose to one whose best players are Morten Gamst Pedersen and Paul Dickov?
Let's now move to the present day, and look at Arsenal itself. Theories abound as to why this Arsenal team cannot recapture the glories that were almost the birthright of the Invincibles. I've heard so many different reasons—financial fair play, the age of the squad, defensive coaching, the lack of goal scorers, the fact that no one has ever won anything before, Wenger's transfer budget—I could go on and on.
The cold hard fact, however, is that man for man, this Arsenal team just doesn't stack up well enough against any of Arsene Wenger's previous squads. Now this isn't rocket science—we all know that this squad is relatively weak.
But if we look back at the Invincibles, and compare each player to his successor today, we will realize two things: (a) Just how strong that team was; and (b) Exactly how much weaker we are today.
1. Goal Keeper: Jens Lehmann vs. Wojciech Szczesny
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A toughie to start things off.
I loved Jens—good keeper, bit of a nutter, great character to have around the squad. But irrespective of age and experience, I think Szczesny is a superior keeper. He has looked susceptible to long-range shots, and occasionally takes a risk too many with his fancy footwork.
But all said and done, in an Arsenal career spanning just 57 games, he has put an end to every whisper, thought or suggestion that Arsenal's goalkeeping position is one to cause worry.
What's more, Szczesny will only improve with age and experience. So here's hoping that No. 13 remains Arsenal's No. 1 for the next 15 years and more.
2. Right-Back: Lauren vs. Bacary Sagna
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Bacary Sagna is one of the top three right-backs in world football. Philip Lahm, the German captain, and Barca's Dani Alves, for his attacking threat, would be the other two.
But yes, that's how good I think Bac is. A solid defender, a threatening attacker down the right, loads of speed and energy and ever ready to put his head or foot in where it hurts, for the sake of the team.
Lauren was a decent right-back, and a cool penalty taker, but Bacary Sagna is a class apart, and he gets my vote.
3. Left-Back: Ashley Cole vs. Kieran Gibbs
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Kieran Gibbs was Arsenal's nominated first choice left-back at the start of the season, and given that he and Andre Santos have played as much (or little) football this season, I'll stick with the Englishman as the representative of the class of 2012.
Love him or loathe him (mostly the latter), there's no doubt that Ashley Cole is (and was in 2004) an outstanding left-back. While we haven't missed his off-field antics at all, there's no doubt that some of his character, aggression, quality and consistency would have done the playing side of the club no harm at all.
Gibbs has talent and plenty of promise, but is far from the finished article physically or tactically (or even "footballistically," as Arsene Wenger famously once said).
With close to 500 club appearances and 93 England caps (all starts) under his belt, Cole remains one of world football's pre-eminent left-backs, and at the moment is several steps ahead of his present successor in the Arsenal team.
4. Center Half: Sol Campbell vs. Thomas Vermaelen
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This was a close call, and I'm still not sure whether I've got it right.
Thomas Vermaelen is Arsenal's current defensive leader, and for me, one of the top three central defenders in the Premier League, along with Nemanja Vidic and Vincent Kompany. He is solid defensively, aggressive in mindset, strong in the air and more than capable in the opponent's penalty box. His dedication to Arsenal is also an example for others to follow (I'm looking at you, Theo), having signed a contract extension without much fuss.
I can't say that Sol Campbell was far superior to Vermaelen as a defender, not at least during his Arsenal days. It's almost too close to call. But for his experience and sheer volume of consistent defensive excellence, he just about gets my vote.
Plus, he made that wonderful journey down the Seven Sisters Road! That sealed it for me...
5. Center Half: Kolo Toure vs. Laurent Koscielny
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Laurent Koscielny owns one of the most incredible pieces of statistics in football.
During the 2009-10 season, while playing for Lorient in the French first division, he did not lose a single tackle. Quite astounding.
After making the switch to North London, it took the Frenchman a while to be appreciated by the Gunners faithful. Being sent off in his first game, and being a key contributor to Obafemi Martins' last-minute Carling Cup final goal for Birmingham last season did not help at all.
But gradually, the Arsenal supporters have begun to see Laurent Koscielny for what he is—a hard-as-nails defender with immense courage, great anticipation, aerial ability and no mean speed. He makes the occasional tactical blunder, but is well on his way to becoming one of the best defenders in the Premier League.
Kolo Toure was an extremely likable all-purpose player who was transformed into a good central defender by Arsene Wenger. He had a long and successful Arsenal career, and formed a solid partnership at the back with Sol Campbell.
But I would rate Koscielny as a marginally better defender at the moment, and he will definitely improve in the coming years. So the Frenchman gets my vote over the Ivorian.
6. Central Midfield: Gilberto Silva vs. Alex Song
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This was another close call.
I really admire both players. Selfless, hard working, tough-as-nails. Put the team before personal glory. Underappreciated.
But one thing settled it for me.
Defensive footballers and newspapers aren't the best of friends. The only time they have any newsprint devoted to them is when they make a mistake. And Gilberto rarely, if ever, got any column space in his first three or four years at Arsenal. And that's no surprise, because for those few years he was one of Arsenal's most consistent performers. He rarely gave you a nine out of 10 performance, but he equally rarely produced anything less than a seven.
Alex Song is a similar player, but he has not yet been able to match Gilberto for consistency. His performances are still dotted by the odd lazy tackle or careless pass.
And for that reason, the Brazilian gets my vote over the Cameroonian.
7. Central Midfield: Patrick Vieira vs. Mikel Arteta
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Mikel Arteta has been one of Arsenal's most consistent players this season. In fact, few Gunners could claim to have had a better 2011-12, besides the extraordinarily prolific RVP, of course.
Unfortunately, 99.99 percent of central midfielders would come off second best when compared to our legendary skipper, and the same fate must befall Arteta as well.
All I'll say is that he's done a fantastic job for Arsenal since he joined on deadline day, and long may that continue. No shame in losing out to the legendary Patrick.
8. Right Wing: Freddie Ljungberg vs. Theo Walcott
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In terms of athletic or footballing skills, Freddie Ljungberg was one of the least gifted of Arsenal's 2003-04 squad. He didn't have a booming shot either, with either foot.
But what he had was a razor sharp brain that almost always got him to the right place at the right time. Added to that, a drive to succeed that lifted not only his but the entire team's performance level. And finally, the priceless gift of being able to perform when it mattered most.
Cup finals, championship run-ins, six-pointers against title rivals—that was Ljungberg time. Time and time again.
Theo Walcott is a fantastic athlete, and on his day, a decent provider of assists and goal scorer. But he is far from being the finished article. He does have a penchant for the big stage, having performed creditably in a number of key matches (Carling Cup final, Barcelona, Chelsea, Milan, Liverpool), but lacks consistency.
The right wing spot, therefore, goes to the super-Swede.
9. Left Wing: Robert Pires vs. Gervinho
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I'm not going to waste too much time on this one.
Gervinho is promising, and may go on to emulate Pires on Arsenal's left wing. But for the moment, the French No. 7 wins hands down. Goal scorer, creator and all-round terroriser of opposing defenders.
Super Robert Pires....
10. Attacking Midfielder/Withdrawn Striker: Dennis Bergkamp vs. Jack Wilshere
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If things go as I hope they will, Jack Wilshere will go on to become one of Arsenal's and England's best ever players.
Arsene Wenger started him off in a withdrawn midfield role, but once he is back from injury, I believe he will operate further forward, in what is now called the "Cesc role."
For this exercise, he finds himself plotted against one of the best players ever. A legend for Ajax, Arsenal and Holland. And if, in the years to come, Wilshere becomes even 80 percent of the player that Dennis Bergkamp was at his best, he can be very satisfied indeed.
Dennis gets my vote here.
11. Striker: Thierry Henry vs. Robin Van Persie
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Over the past 14 months, Arsenal fans have witnessed exactly what Arsene Wenger visualized when he plucked a raw, tempestuous 20-year-old from Feyenoord. Robin van Persie is arguably the best striker in world football today. He is scoring goals for fun. Fifty, in fact, over the past season and a bit.
But it will take something TRULY exceptional (yes, even better than what Robin is doing at the moment) to surpass Thierry Henry in his pomp. A man who scored over 30 goals a term in five consecutive seasons for Arsenal. And had almost as many assists.
The Premier League may never see a better player. Take a bow, King Henry...
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2003-04: Stuart Taylor, Martin Keown, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Edu, Ray Parlour, Sylvain Wiltord, Jose Antonio Reyes (and I haven't even said Kanu and Clichy)
2011-12: Fabianski, Mertesacker, Santos, Ramsey, Arshavin, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Chamakh
The present lot doesn't stack up (no pun intended) too badly, but if you look at just the striking options, the difference is marked, particularly on current form. To have the option to bring on Wiltord, Reyes or Kanu when you need a goal, or defensively, the vast experience of Keown and Parlour is just fantastic.
The subs of 2003-04 win.
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Well, you didn't need to go through this to know that the Invincibles would win easily, did you?
The final score was 8-3, and their bench won too.
But what surprised me the most while reviewing my analysis (which is, admittedly, very subjective), was that the area where the present lot scores over the class of 03-04 is defense. I've rated Szczesny, Sagna and Koscielny above their predecessors, and I'm not sure how many of you can argue with that.
And yet, the 2003-04 team had a far better defensive record. That team conceded 26 goals in 38 league games. I don't want to remind myself about how many we've let in this season, but trust me, it's more than 26. That too, in only 24 games played.
And that brings me back to something I've repeated often and aloud these past few weeks. We're weaker defensively, as a team, because we don't keep the ball long enough, and we don't frighten our opponents enough. We're under pressure more often.
It wasn't a fool who said that attack is the best form of defense.
You can follow me on Twitter @ratanpostwalla.