Does anyone remember the Arsenal-Newcastle Carling Cup game last season? The one where Bendtner scored that thumping header? Or the Arsenal-Everton game – the last home game of the season? The one where Bendtner scored that thumping header?
In the 2007 season Arsenal supporters were introduced to another incredibly exciting youth prospect. Signed from Monaco a year earlier, aged 15, to virtually no fanfare whatsoever, Armand Traore managed to put together a string of electric performances in the Carling Cup that had some of us thinking that somehow Messrs Brady and Wenger had cracked the genetic code for the position of left-back. First, Ashley Cole, then Gael Clichy, now this?? Three incredibly fast, agile and skilful left full backs, educated the Arsenal way. Attacking full backs in the most literal sense, with an intuitive reading of Arsenal’s forward play, dangerously effective on the overlap, and as a result, occasionally caught napping when the other team was in possession.
But as we saw with Cole and Clichy, the defensive element seems to be the one that comes with experience in the repertoire of an Arsenal full-back. In my opinion Traore was the player of that particular cup run and many had already decided we had ample cover at left back after the departure of Cashley Cole.
Not so. We had ample talent at left back, but Armand was 16 days into his 17th year on his Arsenal debut, and had not played enough professional football to know exactly how to play the position week in, week out.
The trouble with Arsenal fans is that we are spoiled in some ways. Having watched Ashley Cole’s performances for years, thinking things would never be the same again after losing Ashley, and then slowly coming to the realisation that Gael Clichy was actually going to be much much better, the glimpse we got of Traore that year had us salivating in expectation for the following season.
As it did with Denilson, incidentally… to the point that I’ve actually read on some sites that people think Denilson had regressed this year, that he didn’t look like he could cut it, etc. etc.
For crying out loud... a 20-year-old old centre-midfielder who’s not getting into the Arsenal squad ahead of Cesc Fabregas, Matthieu Flamini and Gilberto Silva is NOT below standard. He’s 20. Fabregas is a one-off guys, you’re not meant to even be playing that position at this standard at that age, let alone bossing it! But that’s another article (it is now…).
So... the following season came along, Armand didn’t manage to displace Gael Clichy (shocking!), and dare I say it: in the cold light of day he actually showed some major frailties on the defensive side of his game.
Clichy played virtually every game for the 1st team, the Carling Cup run was halted by that freak of nature at White Hart Lane, and people forgot about Armand, or at least they summarised his performances, decided he wasn’t ready to play left-back, and put him to the back of their minds. But one thing that screams at me about this kid every time he plays, is the stuff he’s good at.
He is the fastest sprinter at the club. Yes, even faster than Clichy, Walcott, Adebayor. Much faster over 40 yards than the latter two. He has a rocket of a left foot that is very accurate in the cross and in the shot.
He is, believe it or not, one of our more skilful players: he combines poise and balance on the ball with an array of tricks that surpass even Theo – proper tricks…stepovers, turns and flicks designed to leave you on your ass.
He has skinned right backs in virtually every game he has played for us... the trouble is that hasn’t always been his job. But it is highly likely that that will change.
I have a feeling that Armand is potentially the left-footer we have been dreaming of at the club since Reyes caught the sniffles after that Gary Neville hatchet job. And crucially – he is Arsenal educated.
He understands the systems we employ when going forward. The 1-2-3 pass, pass, release that has Gael Clichy galloping beyond back lines time and time again. The angles and spaces that all our players seem to look for and run into when looking to receive the ball from a teammate. It’s already bred into him.
And crucially, he can defend. He’s not as disciplined as Clichy and as a result he was often caught out at left-back, but as cover for Clichy when he bombs forward I think he’s a better option than most players Arsenal would consider buying.
Let me elaborate. I really feel that of the reasons Bacary Sagna looked so good last year was the fact that he had Eboue ahead of him and Eboue understands what it is to be a right-back.
That, I think, could be the reason Arsene persisted with him over Theo Walcott when it appeared the entire Premier League wanted his head (to the point that Eboue’s name was brought up in the shareholders meeting!!!!) How many goals did we concede from that side last year? I don’t have the stats but I can’t remember many.
Eboue knows how to hold the opposition play up on the wing and allow Sagna to recover. Theo doesn’t. Same for the more defensively-aware Diaby on the left wing, though Hleb was still some way ahead of Theo and Diaby in terms of the options he gave us going forward last year.
Unfortunately Arsenal are a possession team, so we are on the ball for most of the game, every game. Individual performances are magnified… when you’ve seen 15 perfect passes and one goes astray, you remember the player that got it wrong as the one that ruined everything (slight exaggeration but you get my point).
And that, unfortunately, is how we saw Eboue last year despite what he gave the side defensively, because unlike with other teams who are used to losing the ball and winning it back, we keep the ball. The player who made the wrong decision the most in important attacking positions, previously Hleb, was Eboue last season.
Going forward he had a very mediocre year. But it’s his first as a midfielder, he’ll improve, and despite his theatrics (which I know is the key reason for his dislikeability…incidentally I’m pretty sure I can see him trying to curb this – another article I’m sure), when he plays well we all know he’s very, very good.
Wenger decided Eboue was good enough going forward from full-back to be a midfielder, and in April last year, 18 year-old Armand came out publicly to offer the boss the same option on the left-hand side, as he’d been starring in that position for the reserve team.
Wenger promptly challenged him to put his money where his mouth was, throwing him into the fray during a stalemate against Everton. He completely changed the game, in the way that Theo made his trademark during the campaign.
Bringing new pace and thrust to the attack, he laid on Bendtners goal with a peach of a cross and was involved in virtually all our attacking play. Without betraying a hint of nervousness he put in an intelligent and energetic display giving Arsenal a new focal point for the attack. With fewer defensive responsibilities, Armand was very dangerous going forward and in proving the feasibility of his own theory, he had made a serious statement of intent for the coming season, in the best manner possible.
Wenger would have definitely taken notice of the potential in releasing Armand to focus on going past defenders, and he will have also been aware of a further benefit to the team - his general understanding of the rigours of the left-back position may do something to stop the breaks coming down our left side.
It’s no coincidence that Gael Clichy’s stats included some league-leading statistics in terms of tackles, blocked crosses, interceptions and yards… he had a hell of lot to do defensively for us last term. Also if I remember correctly, we conceded a fair few of our goals last season from deliveries from that side.
Interestingly, having Armand as an option on the left wing in the aftermath of Flamini’s departure may give Abou Diaby the opportunity to focus on competing for the second centre-midfield spot on a regular basis, as Wenger may feel he now has enough in the way of wide options. Nasri, Rosicky (he’s back with new legs apparently J), Eboue, Theo, Eduardo, Vela, RvP and Traore are all viable options for wide positions depending on who’s available and the formation we play.
Even Aaron Ramsey, Keiran Gibbs, Mark Randall, Nacer Barazite, Jack Wilshere & co from the young Guns are all technically blessed, and showing enough potential to play the Hleb/Rosicky roles to varying degrees. We can expect cameos from at least 3 of them this season I’m sure.
Meanwhile, Diaby has picked up a lot of attacking and interplay experience from the last couple of campaigns he’s spent out on the left, which are bound to serve him well when he comes inside and is presented with more distribution options.
Traore's pace and skill at left midfield potentially gives us so much more going forward, and with his relative lack of involvement in our Premier and Champions League campaigns until now, introducing him to the Premier League as a wide midfielder could be like having a new signing for next season.
He has all the ability – provided he has the right attitude and commitment to learning his new trade, he’s another one of our boys who could make it to the very, very top. Watching his progress will be very, very interesting.
P.S. This is my first article, so constructive comments will be greatly appreciated.