Arsenal: Transfers Aside, 5 Gunners Who Must Up the Ante in 2012-13
All the talk on Arsenal these days surrounds the transfer of players in and out of the club. And, I suppose, that is but natural.
Fans want new players to come in to freshen things up and make the team stronger. At the same time, we'd like the club to get rid of the so called "dead wood" to free up some places in the squad, lighten the wage bill and bring in some money to spend on the aforementioned new signings.
Can't argue with that. We'd all like the team to get better year on year.
However, in the midst of all this transfer hullabaloo, one important aspect is often underplayed—the performance of the existing squad members.
Us fans are an emotional bunch—in the heat of close-season postmortem, we heap blame on the manager, the CEO, the owner, the referees, other fans, the press and even our opponents, but we often tend to spare the rod with the players we idolize. Not surprising, but at the same time, not perfectly fair.
Some of us have our favorite whipping boys, who we tend to blame for everything that goes wrong, even when they don't play—Chamakh and Park, for example. But for the most part, we do not objectively analyze each individual's performance to see how they could contribute better.
If we assess the performances of Arsenal's squad last season, the only players who, in my opinion, would emerge with their heads held high are Robin Van Persie, Wojciech Szczesny, Laurent Koscielny, Bacary Sagna, Alex Song and Mikel Arteta.
Thomas Vermaelen, Theo Walcott and Tomas Rosicky were just behind this group due to inconsistencies in their performances, while the rest do not make the cut for a variety of reasons, injury included.
Here are five players who should be key members of Arsenal's 2012-13 squad, but who, at the same time, need to raise their game by a couple of notches to take the team's performances to the next level.
5. Thomas Vermaelen
I can see some raised eyebrows.
So let's quickly get some things straight. I'm a massive fan of the Verminator. Love his passion. Love his commitment. Love his forward surges. The best choice for Arsenal's next captain. And he's a really good defender too.
He's on this list because he needs to sort out certain facets of his defending. His positioning is occasionally suspect. He gets the offside trap horribly wrong at times. And he leaves the defence exposed when he makes his forward forays. Of course, those forays often lead to Arsenal goals, so I'm not discouraging them—I'm just suggesting that adequate cover exists when he bombs forward.
Vermaelen's performances are going to be crucial this season. Arsenal's defence has been at the receiving end of plenty of criticism—most of it justified—over the past few years, and if this team is going to make a credible charge at trophies, we're going to have to stop being so leaky at the back.
As captain, his performances will be scrutinized more than ever before. So it's vital that today's No. 5 absorbs all that he can from one of yesteryear—Steve Bould—and irons out the few deficiencies that exist in his game.
When TV5 joined Arsenal, I was at the Emirates to watch his first game for the club. I believed, within the first 10 minutes, that we had signed one of the top five defenders—potentially, at least—in the world. Three years on, it's time to translate that potential into reality. What better time than now?
4. Kieran Gibbs
Those who have read much of my writing over the past few months will believe that I have a personal grudge against Kieran Gibbs. I don't. As a Gooner, I only wish him well.
However, as a football critic, I believe that he has much improving to do this season.
Arsene Wenger took a massive leap of faith at the beginning of last season, entrusting the vacant left-back position to Gibbs, a player who had made just 13 league starts. Injuries aside, I don't think the player repaid his manager last season.
History will ensure that the one abiding memory of Gibbs last season will be this block against West Brom during the season finale, but that would be doing him a massive favor.
For inspiration, Gibbs need only look across to the right-back position to watch his teammate Bacary Sagna busting a gut from the first minute to the last. Getting forward to attack, then storming back when possession is lost.
Too often last season, I noticed the 22-year-old sauntering back to defend, while Gervinho, Arteta, Song and even van Persie overtook him and mopped up at left back. That's simply not acceptable for a youngster who has barely established himself in the first team.
Gibbs has great talent and undoubted potential, but at 22, he's a far cry from where either of predecessors—Gael Clichy and Ashley Cole—were at the same age. He will do well to remember that.
Quite recently, he was considered to be breathing down Cole's neck in the race to be England's first choice No. 3. Now he's way behind Cole, Leighton Baines and even Chelsea's Ryan Bertrand.
This season, Wenger has again installed him as first-choice left-back, if preseason is anything to go by. It's a massive responsibility, and one he needs to fulfill.
Pull up your socks, Kieran—Andre Santos isn't half as bad as people make him out to be.
3. Aaron Ramsey
Much has been written on Aaron Ramsey last season, some of it completely unjustified, particularly when criticizing his performances on Arsenal's left.
But it is beyond doubt that he had a subpar season, especially because he was a fixture in the first team during the first six months, and had enough time to play himself into form.
Many analysts correctly called for patience with Ramsey, given that it was his fist season back after his horrific injury.
However, now the time for patience is behind us.
Make no mistake, this is a player of considerable talent and potential. One who is capable of opening up defenses at will, of scoring ten goals a season and of being the box-to-box player Arsenal have craved ever since Abou Diaby made the treatment room his second home. None other than Cesc Fabregas marveled at Ramsey's stamina when he left the Gunners for Barcelona.
Ramsey will face severe competition for his place this season—from Rosicky, Jack Wilshere, Abou Diaby and, if they arrive, Santi Cazorla and Nuri Sahin. Even Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain might be used centrally from the look of Wenger's formations in preseason.
If Ramsey is the player I believe he can be, he will step up to the challenge and cement his place in the team for many years to come.
Good luck, Aaron—show us how special you really are.
I, for one, was bubbling with excitement when Arsenal signed Gervinho last season. And after witnessing his early performances, I was positively buzzing. Skill, flair, courage and the x-factor—he had it all. Yes, he couldn't really shoot, but I was hoping that some training sessions would sort that out.
Then he went for the African Cup of Nations with the Ivory Coast, scored a great goal (watch from 2:00), missed the decisive penalty in the final shoot-out (watch from 2:05) and came back to Arsenal a completely different player. He lacked confidence, appeared to lack quality and contributed almost nothing of note during the final three months of the season.
Fortunately, last season is well behind us. For more reasons than one.
Gervinho looks to be flying in preseason. He scored a fantastic goal at Southampton and provided moments of sheer class against FC Kitchee in Hong Kong. Most importantly, the swagger and confidence are back, and I fervently hope they remain till season end.
This is a player who needs to take the opposition on, and make defenses back-track. At his best, he can do that to any defense in Europe. He can score too—yes, Gooners, I kid you not—as 36 goals in 93 games for Lille will testify.
Here's looking forward to some twinkle-toed Ivorian magic on Arsenal's left in season 2012-13 and beyond.
1. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
If eyebrows were raised at Thomas Vermaelen's inclusion here, they've probably gone mental at the sight of The Ox!
Here's why he's on this list.
I understand that he is just 18. I am aware that he had never played in the Championship, let alone the Premier League, before he came to Arsenal. And to be perfectly honest, I'm not being critical of his performances last season.
He was sparingly used by Arsene Wenger, and did his best whenever he came on. It's tough to play well when you're given 10 minutes a game by your manager, and that showed, especially towards the end of last season.
The Ox's inclusion here is from a forward-looking perspective. He is undoubtedly the most exciting teen-aged British attacker since Wayne Rooney. He is streets ahead of Theo Walcott, Danny Welbeck and the rest, in terms of genuine talent and vision. And his aim must be to become one of the top 10 footballers in the world.
So now, with one season at Arsenal—and Euro 2012—behind him, it is time for the Ox to really step up. To become a fixture in the Arsenal first team, to stay fit, to learn and improve and to make meaningful and consistent contributions to Arsenal. Not to be an impact substitute.
And that is really the key—consistency. Walcott is a useful impact player to have in the team. On current evidence, he will never be a true "great." But if the Ox's name is to be taken in the same breath as former Gunner greats like Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg, he needs to put on his A-game almost every single time.
The really great ones are not fazed, even in their formative years—take Cesc, for example. The Ox can be in that league. He can be a fixture in the team of the season for the next 10-15 years. He can be a candidate for Player of the Year for the foreseeable future. Yes, he is that good.
He can carry this Arsenal team on his shoulders if he chooses to. He is not too young. The really great ones are never too young. The really great ones are never burdened by the weight of public expectation. This is an Arsenal and England legend-in-waiting.
And if I'm wrong, it would be a colossal waste of talent.