Arsenal: 7 Attention Areas for Arsene Wenger
If ever a board of directors wished there was a law permitting last-minute rescheduling of an Annual General Meeting, it would have been yesterday.
Though many readers will vehemently disagree, I almost felt sorry for the board as they stood exposed to the shareholders' wrath after two of the most toothless, insipid and uninspiring Arsenal performances in many-a season.
As expected, one and all have gone to town deriding the quality of the squad, the Chairman, the CEO, the Manager, and yes, even he who can do no wrong, Steve Bould.
Yes, the same squad that was the toast of north London just one month ago is now apparently so mediocre that everyone holding any kind of office at Arsenal needs to step down immediately.
Leading the dimwits' chorus is, of course, Piers Morgan, a man so deluded by his apparent knowledge of football and so consumed by his own opinion, that he should be handed a lifetime ban from all forms of social networking.
I know you don't read Bleacher Report, Piers—if you did, you'd be better informed—but if by some freak chance you come across this article, do understand that unlike you, Arsene Wenger is an intelligent man. He knows that qualifying for the Champions League is not "a trophy." What he means is that it's more important to qualify, than to win the FA Cup. And he's right.
Anyway, back to the apparent shambles that is Arsenal today. I'm not for one moment thrilled by our recent performances. I'd like a win as much as any one else. But I don't believe we're on the brink of complete implosion.
For starters, I'm surprised this hasn't been mentioned enough, but we have suddenly found ourselves with a massive injury list. Fortunately, all or most are going to be back soon, but ANY team without players like Wojciech Szczesny, Bacary Sagna, Kieran Gibbs, Abou Diaby, Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Tomas Rosicky is going to struggle somewhat.
I know there's the whole "squad" concept these days, but I dare you to show me any squad that would easily cope with the loss of all these players at one time.
That aside, I believe there are a few areas of concern, some of which can and must be addressed NOW, while others may need to wait until the transfer window re-opens.
1. The Goal Keeping Situation
The more I see of Vito Mannone, the more he reminds me of Manuel Almunia.
And that's not a good thing.
Mannone, like Almunia, has way too many average moments during the course of a season to be a top flight goal keeper, let alone a "top four" keeper. Going through the list of all premier league keepers, I'm struggling to name one regular starter he's better than. Even QPR, bottom of the league, have two better keepers.
Now I understand that Mannone is third choice at Arsenal, but if, come January, there is even a remote chance that Wojciech Szczesny may not be fit, Arsene Wenger must sign someone. Szczesny will be world class sooner rather than later, but Lukasz Fabianski doesn't instill any kind of confidence in me.
At top clubs, keepers are rarely tested, which is why they need to be even more mentally alert. Both Fabianski and Mannone do not have what it takes to make it to the very top.
Not only do the best keepers earn their teams crucial points, but their very presence gives their teams a massive psychological boost. As we have seen time and again, every champion club has a champion keeper.
Unless you're Barcelona.
2. Concerns at Left Back
If there's one stat I'd love to get my hands on after the disastrous Schalke game, it's the one comparing "touches" for Jefferson Farfan and Ibrahim Afellay. I don't know the exact numbers, but I wouldn't be surprised if Farfan had at least three or four times the number of touches that Afellay did.
Schalke realized, and realized early, that Arsenal had a massive weakness at left back, and they did everything they could to expose it. It helped in no small measure that Arsenal did absolutely nothing in response.
A year ago, I was laying into Kieran Gibbs in many of my pieces for not making the most of Arsene Wenger's leap of faith. I was of the opinion that Andre Santos would and should usurp his starting role.
12 months on, I stand corrected. Gibbs has made massive progress, especially during pre-season, and for my money, was Arsenal's stand-out performer in August and September.
Santos, on the other hand, has gone nowhere.
He still looks short of fitness for this level. His defending is still too high-risk to be a source of any comfort, and as we saw against Schalke, his presence in the team will encourage every opponent to concentrate most of their attacking focus down Arsenal's left.
So what does Arsene Wenger do?
Well, for starters, get Gibbs fit and playing again. But if he isn't playing, Santos cannot be the stand-in. And honestly, there are plenty of other options. With two top-quality right backs in the squad, and both now fit, either will do a better defensive job than Santos. Alternately, Thomas Vermaelen could play at LB, with Laurent Koscielny filling in for him in the middle.
With QPR awaiting this weekend, I shudder to imagine what Shaun Wright-Phillips will do to Santos, should he start. Please, Arsene, we need a new left "Bac".
3. Lukas Podolski
Lukas Podolski is a fantastic football player. He is a winner. And he is a proven performer at the highest level.
Right now, he is tired, and needs a rest.
Maybe because he's played every game for Arsenal this season—yes, besides the Capital One Cup. Maybe because the standard of the Premier League and Champions League is a notch above the Bundesliga. And probably because he's done more defensive work in the last two months than ever before in his career.
Whatever the reason, he's looked jaded of late. He was a peripheral figure against both Norwich and Schalke, and the sooner he gets back to early-season form, the better.
Time to give him a week off and have him fit and firing at Old Trafford.
4. Olivier Giroud
Contrary to the Podolski situation, Giroud actually needs game time.
For a striker who's been misfiring, there's nothing more frustrating than being asked to sit on the bench just as he's started to find form. For a striker, form means goals. Giroud has scored against Coventry, West Ham and for France against Spain in recent weeks. What he needs is more time on the field, more chances and more goals.
Furthermore, with Arsenal lacking physicality in most areas of the pitch, Giroud adds that much needed presence, especially at the defensive end.
And, lest you forget, he is also our assist leader this season.
5. A "Plan B"
How often, in recent seasons, has Arsenal been left frustrated by opponents who have landed up only to defend? And how often have we criticized them for this negative approach?
Personally, I see nothing wrong with this approach. Every team must do what they can for their own benefit. They have no obligation to entertain, especially if they are a relatively smaller club. Ask any mid to lower table club's fan. Would they rather draw 0-0 at the Emirates Stadium, or lose 3-5?
So what should Arsenal do when faced with this so-called "negative" opposition?
Two options spring to mind immediately. First, the "direct approach" that propagates the usage of the long aerial ball. Unfortunately, this is not well-suited to Arsenal's personnel, and to make it work, we'd probably need to have Giroud, Diaby and Marouane Chamakh on the field at the same time. Which will probably happen on a cold day in hell.
The other approach, which doesn't seem to find favour with the pundits, is to shoot from distance. In Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski and Mikel Arteta, Arsenal have three players who can kick hard and accurately. Unfortunately, they don't do it often enough. Even Vermaelen, Diaby, Rosicky and the Ox are reasonable practitioners of this art.
Now while this approach is not guaranteed to succeed, it has another benefit. It will draw the opposition's defense out a bit, thereby creating space for our quicker players to exploit.
At any rate, it's a better option than passing the ball from side to side and not attempting a shot on target for 93 minutes.
6. Need for Speed
One of the key success factors of Arsenal squads in earlier years was the presence of pacy players, especially on the wings.
The ability of Arsenal to convert defence to attack in a matter of seconds was both deadly effective and thrilling to watch.
Today, in the absence of Walcott, Chamberlain, Rosicky, Gibbs and Sagna, Arsenal find themselves very one-dimensional, from a speed perspective. It is essential to keep such players fit, and to ensure that two or more are always on the pitch.
There's nothing more frustrating than to watch an Arsenal counter attack come to a grinding halt because of a lack of bodies bombing forward.
7. Thomas Vermaelen
When the money-grabbing Dutchman jumped ship in August, Thomas Vermaelen was an obvious and popular choice to replace him as captain.
However, two months on, this seems to have given rise to an unforeseen problem.
Vermaelen's cavalier and committed approach to football is extremely endearing. It reminds one of the Arsenal defenders of the George Graham era. Fearless, aggressive and presenting no mean attacking threat.
However, more often now than ever before, Vermaelen is displaying lapses in judgement and concentration that are proving costly. If you look at the goals Arsenal has conceded this season, he is probably more culpable than any other player.
And because he is captain, he cannot be dropped. Or so it seems.
A captain's role in football is nowhere near as important than in, say, cricket. Therefore, a better approach, in my opinion, is to pick the best XI, and then select a captain from among those 11 players. In Arteta, Mertesacker, Sagna, Rosicky and Podolski, Arsenal have more than enough options.
Last season, Laurent Koscielny was our best defender by some margin. This term, due to Mertesacker's performances and Vermaelen's leadership status, he has barely got a look in. That doesn't seem to make any sense whatsoever.
And the absence of a clean sheet since the 2nd of September validates that.