Ramsey and Walcott: Key Players in Arsenal's New Future
Most of us can't wait for the new football season to start up again, and we've been offered a small taste of the possible nature of the squad we'll see this year and perhaps even a few clues as to the future of Arsenal's lineup.
Arsene Wenger played nearly his entire squad in a few intriguing configurations today, including the new squad players along with established members and up-and-coming youngsters. The results were mixed, with Arsenal in the end able to pull out a 2-1 victory at the RheinEnergieStadion.
Here's a quick look at some of the things we've learned from the preseason friendly.
Gervinho: Maybe the defense is busy looking at his hair
The most obvious conclusion from this match was the emergence of Gervinho in Arsenal colors.
In interviews with Arsenal.com, the Ivorian had mentioned how he had been "educated the Arsenal way" as a youth, ever since his days at ASEC Mimosas. Indeed, he even mentioned that Thierry Henry was his idol growing up.
His statements don't seem to have been in vain. Arsenal's newest signing slipped immediately into the flowing attacking style exhibited by those around him, and though he had a couple bad touches, he was a constant threat.
Within 30 minutes, he had put the Gunners up 2-0 and was substituted by Wenger, who had by then no doubt made up his mind about the Ivorian.
His first goal came off a sublime chip pass by Jack Wilshere, who picked out the Gervinho's slanting run right outside the center of the FC Cologne penalty area.
Hardly even needing to look, the striker struck the ball first time off the bounce with a sure shot that buzzed over the onrushing Michael Rensing and into the back of the net.
A few minutes later, he scored again from close range after a frantic spell for the FC Cologne defense. A beautiful volleyed pass by Wilshere saw the ball fall wide right to Theo Walcott who was able to easily pick out the imposing form of Gervinho running down the center of the box.
Both goals showed the Ivorian's skill in timing his runs in addition to his cool head while finishing his chances.
Indeed, his type of play seems to be exactly what Arsenal needs. He seems to play best in the type of role Cristiano Ronaldo enjoys at Real Madrid, an attacking player with the freedom to drift all the way across the front line, making runs at will.
When combined with the fluid interchangeable play of the midfield duo of Ramsey and Wilshere, this style presents itself as a dizzying maze of short passing and through balls that wears down defenses and puts goaltenders on edge.
This is the type of play Arsenal fans love and cherish, and indeed, in a mere 30 minutes, Gervinho has made a strong case of his right to a first team spot and a place in the hearts of the supporters.
Carl Jenkinson: Living every Arsenal fan's dream
Carl Jenkinson's transfer from Charlton Athletic raised several eyebrows around the Arsenal community. The young defender could hardly be said to have a glittering list of credentials.
In two years, he had only a handful of appearances for Charlton and indeed had been loaned out twice—to Eastbourne Borough and Welling United—both of whom play in the Conference South, which is effectively the sixth tier of the English football league system.
His sudden jump to Arsenal's first team is nothing short of miraculous. But more miraculous still is the fact that Jenkinson seems to be able to hold his own against tough opposition.
Additionally, he fits quite well into the Arsenal system. He plays tirelessly and aggressively at right-back, eagerly making overlapping runs with the midfielders in front of him to help out in attack, while always remembering to track back and help out his fellow defenders.
The physical play of the German FC Cologne team did not seem to phase him, as he went blow for blow with Podolski and Co. without giving up an inch.
He seems to play with more passion than almost anyone else on the team, something that cannot be simply attributed to his desire to challenge for a place in the first team, something that stood as quite surprising until a recent interview with Arsenal.com.
In the interview, he described his "emotional" first match against the Malaysia XI. Coming from a family of die-hard Arsenal supporters, it was a dream come true for him to play for the team that he loved growing up.
He is, essentially, living every young Arsenal fan's dream.
How motivated would you be if you got a chance to feature for the first team?
Of course, nobody can forget his freak own goal in this game. And although Samir Nasri seemed to be comforting the youngster as they walked into the locker room for the halftime break, Jenkinson looked positively inconsolable.
But Arsenal fans can take heart that they have added yet another talented teenager to the squad, one that shows real promise and drive to grow into a bright prospect for the future.
At the very least, he will provide capable cover for Bacary Sagna and could very well feature in several matches this season, given Wenger's eagerness to play him this preseason.
The Emirates Cup next week will be another test for the young English (and Finnish) defender, as he goes up against the lineups of the NY Red Bulls, PSG and Boca Juniors.
The Verminator: He DID say he'd be back
With the return of Thomas Vermaelen, the central defense seems to be set. It may be presumptuous to say this so early on in the season, but there does not seem to be too much debate as to which players Arsenal fans would like to see in front of Wojciech Szczesny next season.
Vermaelen seems be recovering well after his long absence and will most likely be assured a spot next season due to the resurgence of his strong, confident play against FC Cologne.
With him will most likely be Johan Djourou. While the Swiss defender has had his share of critics in the past, he put together a string of solid performances last season and made a strong case for his inclusion in the squad as a first team regular.
Laurent Koscielny had mixed reviews coming off of last season, with several highs (like the header against Everton) as well as lows (the mishit in the all-important Carling Cup final that sunk millions of Arsenal hearts).
Yet most will agree that he is a competent defender who can perform admirably in the spotlight. He will most likely interchange with Vermaelen or Djourou if either of the two leading men are injured or require rest.
The real dark spot in defense lies with Sebastian Squillaci. The Frenchman looked like a decent buy last year but ended up largely being a dud, having turned in very few assured performances for the Arsenal first team.
Indeed, most Arsenal fans would be more eager to turn to Ignasi Miquel or even the recently-returned Kyle Bartley before handing the reigns over to the former Sevilla man.
Indeed, the trio of Vermaelen, Djourou, and Koscielny all had decent performances in today's match, while Sebastian Squillaci ended up getting in a tussle with Lukas Podolski after putting in a rough tackle and then grabbing the German striker's shirt as he struggled to get free.
Even against Hangzhou Greentown, Squillaci was the culprit as the Chinese club nearly opened the scoring early on, wildly missing a tackle on a Greentown striker, who went on to curl a shot that would have gone in if not for the staunch defending of the left upright.
Wojciech Szczesny: Can he even pronounce his own name?
Arsenal fans around the world are breathing a sign of relief that Manuel Almunia finally seems to be on his way out of North London.
Meanwhile in Cologne, the other three first-team keepers for Arsenal were performing admirably. Wojciech Szczesny was tested in the air, and was able to keep a clean sheet until right before halftime, when Carl Jenkinson's wonderstrike of an own goal left him powerless.
Vito Mannone, who had only a handful of performances for the Arsenal first team in the past, also performed well, smothering several tricky balls before FC Cologne strikers could get their boots on them.
However, his performances, while effective, showed perhaps a small shred of shakiness.
The last few minutes saw Lukasz Fabianski take up the gloves after a long recovery process from his shoulder injury. He kept a clean sheet as well, although he was not rigorously tested.
Despite the fact that all three goalkeepers put in solid minutes, and despite the fact that Wenger has reiterated that the goalkeeper position is still "open," there seems to be little doubt that it will the the younger of the two Poles who will take up the place between the uprights next season.
When Szczesny plays, one can never presume a goal is imminent until the ball is indeed spinning in the back of the net.
The Pole seems to treat any ball that is in play in his half of the field as a threat to his goal and as a result, does not stop playing until the ball is either safely punted away or taken out of play.
Mannone is a solid talent as well, but seems to lack that extra bit of quality that makes him stellar, as evidenced by his performance against Hangzhou Greentown, where a gaffed grab resulted in the ball bouncing off his chest of all places and being returned to him by way of a strike to the bottom left corner of his net as he stood watching.
The jury still seems to be out on Fabianski, who has put in both horrendous and fantastic performances in an Arsenal shirt.
He certainly seems to have the capability to be a top-notch goalkeeper, but putting him in goal nonetheless seems to be somewhat of a gamble, and as a result, his compatriot will probably be higher on the pecking order in the season to come.
He will probably beat out Mannone for second place, however.
Meanwhile, Almunia will fight it out for a place on the Junior Gunners squad with some seven-year-old. And lose.
Fabregas, Ramsey, and Wilshere: Collectively the Past, Present, and Future for Arsenal FC
In the first half of the FC Cologne game, we got a glimpse into the future of Arsenal as Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere took center stage and orchestrated a beautiful flowing attack for 45 minutes.
Many fans have been concerned over the purported departures of both Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri this summer, feeling that Arsenal's midfield will take a severe blow if both players leave.
Indeed, the Fabregas saga has gone on so long, that some fans would just as well take the transfer papers to his doorstep themselves.
But most would agree that the loss of Samir Nasri would be huge. The midfielder showed that he could run the midfield is his own fashion in the absence of Fabregas in the first couple months of last season as the Spanish playmaker recovered from injury and has resented being shunted out wide as a winger.
His raw dribbling and finishing talents allow him to work well with other members of the Arsenal front line (eg. his beautiful one-two with Arshavin against Manchester City last season), as well as score ridiculous individual goals out of nowhere (eg. his goal on FC Porto or his brace against Fulham).
Still, even if the worst were to happen, Arsenal fans can take heart after seeing the preseason performances of the Welsh and English duo working together in midfield.
Both players have fantastic ball control and rarely give the ball away easily in midfield. This allows them to hold on until the perfect moment and then unleash a devastating cross, chip, or pass that cuts open opposing defenses and threatens the goal.
Especially with the addition of Gervinho, Arsenal's game with these two in midfield becomes increasingly fluid and beautiful, something all fans of football love to watch.
However, that is not to say they don't have flaws. The two are still very young and as such do not have the experience to keep up a consistent vein of form throughout an entire season.
Wilshere, for instance, could be seen to have tired out a bit by the end of last season (indeed, both players are key members of their national squads in addition to Arsenal, with Ramsey being promoted to Welsh captain, and Wilshere carrying the weight of a nation on his shoulders).
But their partnership seems to be the way of the future for Arsenal, a new chapter in the history of Wenger's tenure. The two will most likely feature in many games together in the upcoming season, as a gradual "changing of the guard" eventually sees them take the reigns of North London's future.
How and when this change will happen (and how the two will fit into the lineup this summer) is a secret only Wenger knows.
Kieran Gibbs: I'll give him $100 if he stays fit this season
Kieran Gibbs has come a long way from the little youngster who infamously stumbled against Manchester United in the Champions League semifinal.
A good number of solid performances for Arsenal and even the England National Team have proven that he has the ability to make both the Arsenal and England left back positions his own.
Given the departure of Gael Clichy, and Wenger's lack of an interest in buying a left back, Gibbs looks set to feature for the first team regularly.
However, thus far through his career, the world most closely associated with him is simply "injured." Gibbs does indeed have a habit of getting hits and knocks more often than most, which may hurt his chances of making a mark this season.
Still, when he is fit, he displays promising talent and a level of competence that eases the nerves of Arsenal supporters.
He has surprisingly good ball control, as evidenced when he makes overlapping runs up the left side and cuts into the penalty box. Indeed, sometimes he may get too ambitious and ventures too far ahead, something he must learn not to do as he develops his game and gets more mature.
His backup, Armand Traore, is also capable, featuring a few times for the Arsenal first team in the absence of Gibbs and Clichy. However, he has not proven himself enough to outmuscle Gibbs for a spot on the first team.
In all, Gibbs' performances this preseason have shown Arsenal fans that they do indeed have a competent and capable left back who is ready to take the next step and become a first team regular.
He has also shown glimpses of abilities that may indeed make him a more talented left back than Clichy, such as his ability to penetrate defenses and join in the attack.
If he works on his crossing abilities and is able to stay fit for the majority of the season, he may prove to be a revelation in the months to come.
Ryo Miyaichi: Hailed the Japanese "Ronaldo" - minus the diving and the hissy fits
Arsenal fans have been salivating over the thought of Ryo Miyaichi finally joining the Gunners in North London, given his terrific performances for Feyenoord, despite being a wide-eyed youngster straight out of high school.
The speedy midfielder contributed greatly to Feyenoord's season last year, using his pace and fancy footwork to speed past opposing defenders and linking up well with his fellow teammates, playing up the left side of the field.
The problem is, his speed and tricks alone will not get him by in the English Premier League. The EPL is notorious for having one of the most physical games in Europe, and defenders are far more seasoned than those in Japanese high schools or even the Dutch Eredivisie.
This gap in ability was present during the game with FC Cologne, where Miyaichi failed to put forth a significant contribution, being pushed out too far on the left, and left to attempt to take on defenders one on one.
In short, the physical play of the German defenders did not suit him well, and he struggled to find answers.
Miyaichi's style is slightly reminiscent of a young Andrei Arshavin. It may do him well to talk to the Russian, as well as the other speedster on the team, Theo Walcott, and gain some insight as to how to improve his game and become more multifaceted.
He has the skills, the talent, and the quick feet to make it in the EPL. He needs to adapt his approach, however, to bring himself up to the next level.
Emmanuel Frimpong: Emerging a season late
Emmanuel Frimpong was in the exact same place a year ago. At the end of the Emirates Cup, he had won over many new fans, who hailed him as the next Alex Song or Michael Essien.
He looked certain to feature for the Gunners in the upcoming season, adding much-needed steel to the Arsenal defense and serving as a capable cover for Arsenal's Cameroonian midfielder. Unfortunately, an injury to his ACL in training left him on the bench for the better part of nine months.
However, he seems to be recovering well—both mentally and physically—and looks in line to feature yet again in the Emirates Cup and hopefully further on into the season.
His defensive abilities, while still raw and unfinished, show promise. He is strong and fast enough to compete with top opponents, although his transition from aiding the defense to aiding the offense still needs some work.
Luckily, he has a perfect mentor in Alex Song, who himself transformed from a bright prospect to a first-team regular only a couple years ago.
The rise of Frimpong will give Wenger another option in the defensive midfield area, which will allow him to rest Alex Song more effectively and free up other players who might play in that position (such as Wilshere or Diaby) to play in more natural roles.
Hopefully he will continue to grow this season and become a regular contributor to the Gunner's first team.
Tomas Rosicky: Falling behind the talented youngsters
As painful as it may sound to many Arsenal fans, Tomas Rosicky and Andrei Arshavin must find a way to contribute or risk losing their place in the squad.
This may sound like an alarming condemnation (especially for Arshavin), but the fact is that the two players are becoming less efficient for the first team, now that they've hit the big Three-Oh.
But it doesn't have to be all downhill from here.
Arshavin had some very poor periods last season, but proponents will be quick to point out that he had a large amount of assists, in addition to pace and control, aspects which still make him valuable.
However, he fails to put away his chances when given, as he showed today against FC Cologne. Perhaps he was going through a period of tough luck, but regardless, the little Russian must improve his finishing if he is to retain a first-team spot, especially with the pressure of Nasri, Miyaichi and Gervinho challenging for the same position.
Rosicky is in a worse situation, however. At the moment, he is simply backup to the midfield maestros of Ramsey, Wilshere, Fabregas and Nasri. However, with the likely departure of Fabregas (and perhaps even Nasri), he has perhaps been given a lifeline to prove his worth once more.
The Czech vice-captain has many admirable qualities, such as great pace, good ball control, and a devastating long shot, but lately these qualities have not melded together well. Last season, his ball control skills were inconsistent, and his shooting abilities were woefully off-target.
However, a few good performances may allow him to re-enter the squad as a valuable option for Wenger to use.
Arsene Wenger: Alchemy is a tricky art
This is a point that is up for debate, as there may be many confounding factors contributing to this conclusion.
Arsenal were, no doubt, far more competent in the first half than in the second. The first half featured beautiful passing, fluid play, and two great goals resulting from that play (actually three, the Carl Jenkinson strike was technically an Arsenal goal!).
In the second half, the play was more reserved and not as fluid. The game became more direct.
One of the biggest changes was Wenger switching from a 4-3-3 in the first half, with Gervinho, Marouane Chamakh and Theo Walcott up front to something that resembled a 4-4-2 in the second half, with Robin van Persie and Carlos Vela in the box.
Of course, this also might have something to do with the fact that the squad also largely changed from one half to he next, but it raises an interesting question as to what the shape of the squad should be next year, given the players we have.
Gervinho seems to do exceedingly well when given the freedom to roam across the front, while both Robin van Persie and Marouane Chamakh play as front men. Walcott can play well on the right, and Arshavin, Nasri and maybe even Miyaichi round out the list of competent wingers that Wenger can use.
With two midfield maestros (take your pick of Fabregas, Wilshere, Ramsey and Nasri) and a defensive stalwart in either Song or Frimpong, things seem tailor-made for a 4-3-3 formation.
However, Walcott has expressed a strong desire to play up the middle, perhaps alongside van Persie. It doesn't take a genius to notice that this may be the Henry-Bergkamp partnership, version 2.0, with a speedy striker once more paired with a technically gifted Dutchman.
However, Wenger has yet to try that combination this preseason. In the Emirates Cup, maybe?
In short, today's game against FC Cologne showed us that Arsenal can definitely play well in a 4-3-3. Whether they can play better in a 4-4-2, provided they experiment with the lineup a bit, is up to debate.
Jack Wilshere: Kids, this is not how you pass a football. Unless you are Jack Wilshere
What's going on with Nicklas Bendtner? Last word was he might be sent to Everton on loan (if his ego will allow it)
Anyone else notice how much van Persie loved the backheel against FC Cologne today? He did it around five or six times, almost setting up a goal for Gibbs with one of them.
He can probably pass better with his backheel than most other players can with the inside of their feet
Hopefully Conor Henderson is all right. From the way he went down, it looked like a torn ACL or MCL, which would mean he misses a year, just like his compatriot Emmauel Frimpong.
Hopefully that isn't the case! He looked very promising while playing against Leyton Orient last year.
Wenger seems to be on the lookout for one more defender this summer. What will that mean for Kyle Bartley and Ignasi Miquel?
'Till next time, Go Gunners, Go Gooners.