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Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Mid-season review

Father Christmas - three points for us on Monday would be a decent start

So here we are at Christmas with Arsenal in a seemingly healthy position, challenging at the top of the Premier League, semi-final of the Carling Cup, last 16 of the European Cup, and a home draw against lower league opposition in the FA Cup. Why then are so many of us looking at a glass that is half-empty? For me the reason many Gooners feel so disappointed is that, for what feels like the third or fourth year in a row, we can all see where the deficiencies are, yet still they remain unchecked. I firmly believe that the addition of a goalkeeper of quality, and some defensive tactics/coaching/organisation would have seen us picking up silverware these past few years. Having already lost five times in the League we have no right to be where we are. The thing now is to take advantage of the fact that we are somehow in the hunt by making the necessary signings in January to try and make the challenge a successful one.

I'm going to go through some good things and some negative things from this season so far as I review the first half of it. Let's start with the bad stuff:

Goalkeeping continues to be an issue that will not go away for Arsenal. Manuel Almunia has surely played his final game for the Club and anyone who actually believes he is injured should be shown the way to the nearest clinic for those who are gullible. Following his horror-show in the West Brom game I think we can safely say that the Spaniard will not be darkening our six-yard box again, barring a truly horrific run of injuries to the other 'keepers. Fabianski has had a mixed bag since coming in (which is an improvement on last season where it seemed every appearance included a howler). He cost us a goal against Newcastle (though the performance of the entire team in that match was woeful) but followed it up with two match-winning performances (make no mistake, he won us the points) away to Villa and Everton. Having seen Szczesny come in at Old Trafford and perform very well last week I was keen to see him stay in goal for the physical battle against Stoke, as he surely would have done but for the snow. According to www.arsenal.com Fabianski is fit for the Chelsea game on Monday night, so we will see how Wenger plays it. I had begun to think that he wanted to be fair to Fabianski, but was waiting for the opportunity to play the younger Pole. However, I am not quite so sure now - we will see on Monday evening.

The defence is still ponderous and porous. Johan Djourou has begun to impress as the season has gone on, though not enough for the Manager to put him in ahead of the disappointing Koscielny. Djourou has now not played for weeks so will be rusty when he does eventually get a game. It will be a surprise if the mistakes are not back in his game due to the lack of regular activity. There is no question that we miss the leadership and hard-man qualities of Thomas Vermaelen in the back-four, but to talk too much about that would be to neglect the fact that we were pretty crap at the back when he was playing last season. That said, I would really like to see a regular combination of Vermaelen, organising from the middle, and Djourou. Sadly we are not likely to see Vermaelen until at least February, though I fear he won't be there at all this season - a replacement must be signed and big Chris Samba wants out at Blackburn.
What can I say about our full-backs that hasn't already been said? I honestly think it's time for Gael Clichy to move on. The problem is that Kieran Gibbs is seemingly made of glass. On the other side Bacary Sagna has consistently failed to rival the form of his first season at Arsenal whilst Eboue is regressing at an alarming rate towards the player who was booed two years ago. As badly as three of those have played, I firmly believe that some organisation and communication on the pitch would make them so much better - Clichy wasn't always a bad player, far from it in fact. The other thing I must say in their defence is that they get no protection in this system with Walcott, Nasri (though he is working hard on it) and especially Arshavin making no effort to help their full-back.

The Manager has taken a conscious decision to allow Alex Song a more attacking role. As bad as our central defenders may be they get precious little protection from in front. For all of Jack Wilshere's great qualities, and Denilson's more natural aptitude to the defensive side of the game, Song is the best defensive midfield player we have by quite some distance. For the Manager to allow him to push on in to attack is like signing your own suicide note. Even the best defence needs midfield cover. Chelsea's strong defence under Mourinho was protected expertly by Makalele - it's no coincidence that they let in so few goals. Alex Song has ended up scoring a few goals thanks to his more free role but he is, more often than not, the weak link in Arsenal's attacking moves - I'd far rather see Jack Wilshere being advanced, after all he is the one with the football talent.
Arguably our most talented two players are Fabregas and Arshavin. Sadly the pair are having a poor season. Arshavin's problems are, I am convinced, completely down to his attitude. If he doesn't buck up his ideas then he must be dropped and given the necessary kick up the backside. For Fabregas the doubts over his future must surely hang heavy on him. When you add his recurring hamstring problems I think his last season at the Club will continue to largely pass him by.
Up front we still wait for a fit Robin Van Persie to show his form. Will he ever get it back? Is it worth waiting for him to do so? I hope he does start to show his true quality as he is World Class. When he does click then Arsenal might just do something a bit special.

So what of the positives?

I've mentioned him a couple of times already, but Jack Wilshere has played his way in to the Arsenal first-team on merit and thoroughly deserves to be first-choice. I think he has looked a little jaded in recent weeks as any young boy would after so much football at the highest level, so the two weeks without a game might just be doing him some good. He needs to get his head switched on to being a professional footballer though as there have been more headlines this week with regards to his off the field behaviour. If he's in with the wrong crowd then he needs to get out of it quickly. The boy has a spirit and an attitude that makes him shine on the pitch. Hopefully Arsene Wenger can calm him down off the pitch and he will go on to be the great player we can all see him becoming.
Elsewhere in the midfield is the shining light of the season so far - Samir Nasri. What a season the little Frenchman is having. Where would we be were it not for his form? It doesn't really bear thinking about. I have been mightily impressed with Nasri since pre-season began in July. Fingers crossed that he keeps up that form. I think he is obviously more effective in the centre and seems a ready-made replacement for Fabregas.
Theo Walcott has certainly showed a marked improvement this season, despite his poor injury record continuing to cost him precious playing time. I believe he should be in the side at the moment, ahead of the woeful Arshavin. Walcott's pace, when he plays more towards the middle, gives us another dimension in attack. He is a very capable finisher, who needs to become more selfish. A change of formation with him playing as a centre-forward, particularly alongside Chamakh, would give us a more likely goalscoring combination in my opinion.
The other individual to shine so far is Marouane Chamakh. I have been so impressed by our new centre-forward. Leaving aside the obvious fact that his presence allows us to play more direct at times, he wins almost every aerial battle. His work-rate is second-to-none, something the likes of Arshavin should take note of. Chamakh holds the ball up for the midfield better than any forward we've had since Alan Smith. If there is a criticism it's that he looks unsure when in possession in front of goal - his decision to turn back toward his team-mates when clean through against Spurs (twice) was frustrating to say the least. Chamakh should benefit from the return of Nicklas Bendtner as he needs a rest right now. Bendtner, on the other hand, needs to do some of his talking on the pitch, rather than in The Sun.

Overall we have more strength in depth than in recent seasons. The Arsenal bench is usually full of international players, with people like Vela not even getting a look-in most weeks. Henri Lansbury looked first-rate against Tottenham in the League Cup, and a Norwich City supporting friend tells me he has been their best player since being loaned out, while Aaron Ramsey is hopefully going to get fit and come back in to the team in the New Year. Regular readers will know I'm a huge fan of Jay Emmanuel-Thomas who, if he is not going to get in front of Bendtner this season, needs to be loaned to a Premier League side for proper experience.

The progress made in the Carling Cup makes us the clear favourites to win the trophy. I often hear people on telly asking if the Carling Cup would be enough for Arsenal. Obviously, it wouldn't be "enough" but it's certainly better than winning nothing (unless of course an Arsenal win would render it completely meaningless, unlike last season when it was Man Utd's only pot). It would also be a start. It would show the players that they can do it, they can win the big games when they matter. If I could ask Father Christmas for anything football-wise, it would be to give us three points against Chelsea on Monday, followed by the Carling Cup. Who knows, if we could just hang in there in the Premier League, a Carling Cup win might just inspire these players to a League Title. Now wouldn't that be nice?

I don't know when the press conference will take place ahead of the Chelsea game. If there is one then it will be tomorrow or Friday, obviously. I hope to preview the Chelsea game before the weekend. With news that Abou Diaby has again found the miracle cure it is set to be an interesting selection dilemma for Wenger.

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