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Sunday, 26 May 2013

Squad Review Part 3 - Midfielders

Arteta - crucial role this season

I really enjoyed the European Cup Final last night. The two German sides played football that looked like it was from a different, more exciting, planet than we've seen in the Premier League this season. The success of the Bayern Munich team has given me an idea for  an article that I will try to write at some point later this week, work hours depending. In the meantime here's the third instalment of the squad review, concentrating on our plethora of midfield players. This is quite a lengthy piece, but I hope you can stick with it and enjoy. Feel free to agree or disagree in the comments or on Twitter or Facebook.
Abou Diaby
How do you talk about Abou Diaby without constantly repeating yourself? How long do Arsenal kick the can down the road with him? We've been told twice in recent years that Abou was having a "make or break" operation to save his Arsenal career. I strongly suspect Arsene Wenger had finally concluded on the "break" option at the end of Abou's latest niggles, only for him to suffer a cruciate ligament injury. Arsenal do things the right way, of course, and that means Diaby will remain an Arsenal employee next season.
The game at Liverpool early on showed how good Diaby is. He put in a display so dominant that the comparisons to Patrick Vieira had never been more accurate. His performance was one of such pace, power and football ability that Liverpool couldn't get close. He tackled, he passed and he carried the ball with such quality that you knew just how good he could have been. This attracted opponents to him and allowed Cazorla the yard or two of space he needs to dictate the play in the attacking third. A similar performance followed for half-an-hour at home to Chelsea. Then it happened. Abou Diaby seriously injured himself in the act of kicking the football at goal from distance. It's such a shame because Diaby really is that good. The fact is, however, that he will only ever be genuinely "fit" to play maybe three or four games per season. When you're being paid what he is that is clearly unacceptable. I hope Dan Smith struggles to sleep at night.
Tomas Rosicky
Tommy came back in to the side, as with last year, for the final push and was seen as fairly instrumental in the run-in. He got both goals in the crucial win at West Brom and worked hard in a number of other matches - Man Utd and Newcastle being the two that stick out for me. I don't quite agree that he had the same impact as last season, and his presence pushed Cazorla out of the middle and stunted the Spaniard's impact on the side. I think Rosicky has one year left on his contract and he will be a very valuable squad member if he completes his spell at the Club next season. His willingness to run at defenders often provides us with something different in tight games, though I think Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain would be a better bet for that sort of thing from now on.
Mikel Arteta
This will surprise regular readers but Arteta is my player of the season at Arsenal. I usually moan about the way he crabs the play across the pitch rather than playing the ball forward more often. However, Arteta has made such a sacrifice in his game this year in order to benefit the team that he is worthy of significant praise.
When Alex Song was sold we had no player who you would consider anything like a defensive midfield player. Indeed, we are all still of the opinion that Arsene must spend money to sign one (or, in my view, convert Thomas Vermaelen for the role). Arteta was asked to curb his attacking instincts for the season in order to fill Song's shoes. For me we have missed Song's ability, but Arteta has done the job pretty capably. He has done it without any semblance of a complaint about having to play out of position. He has also led the team in the absence of Vermaelen with great distinction.
If you want an illustration of Arteta's new "contribution" to the side it can be seen in the fact that he hasn't scored a single goal from open play this season. In fairness he's barely crossed the halfway line. In terms of how he's gone about his defensive duties he has made more than his share of tackles. He has become increasingly adept at getting a foot in around the edge of our penalty area, and has learned more and more to sit in should somebody else from the back launch an attack. He has also made a lot of fouls, often getting away with them. Arteta is one of these people with a reputation for not fouling. The fact is that he is more than prepared to mix it, and Arsenal have benefited from referees failure to brandish yellow cards for him.
Next season we have to see Arteta not playing in the defensive midfield position, if we are to be successful in terms of winning things and beating the top sides. That may mean he finds himself on the margins of the first-team a little more. If that's the case, then such is the way football goes, but this season he has been an outstanding and consistent performer.
Jack Wilshere
It's something of a riddle with Jack. Early in the season, without him, we were okay(ish). At the end of the season, without him, we were pretty good, in terms of results at least. In the middle of the season, with him, we played game after game after game where Wilshere was the shining beacon in a sea of mediocrity. Yet we couldn't win matches. With Jack playing his heart out we were a team that lacked something. Could it be that Jack's presence intimidated his own team? Were they immediately over-reliant on the only World Class player in the squad? Or is it that this formation needs to change to make the most of Wilshere's skills? These are all questions to which Arsene Wenger must find an answer.
When he was in the side Jack was kicked all over the pitch by just about every opponent. Those opponents largely went unpunished, and yet we watched it week after week. Perhaps Roy Hodgson should make himself vocal about the physical stuff meted out to his star player - his fitness ahead of a World Cup (and the need for England to qualify for it in the first place) are crucial to Hodgson's future, I would say.
If I can criticise Jack it is to say that his goals and assists (and even shots at goal) are woefully lacking. Considering the way he dominates matches his statistics are pretty woeful. I know he can shoot. I know he can create. I know he can score goals. I just wish he would start doing it as he did when he was a youngster. I see people saying he's not as good as Lampard because of his lack of goals. When I've finished laughing and foaming at the mouth at the sheer ludicrous nature of such statements I start to wish he would just score goals and shut these cretins up. First of all, he needs to get fit. That may be easier said than done, and I have a real fear that Jack Wilshere may never get to fulfil his potential.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
The Ox would probably be the first to admit he struggled this season. His upward trajectory had been so steep that it had to level out at some point. He scored one of the goals of Arsenal's season in the League Cup tie against Coventry, but I thought he really let himself down that night. There was far too much "Billy Big B******s" stuff from him in the game. His season didn't much recover from that until the last few matches. Having said that he turned the game round at Bradford and was just about the only reason we put any pressure on at all that night - his pace and willingness to take on inferior players had been sorely lacking from the side to that point.
When he did finally make an impact on the season it came at home to Norwich in a game we were struggling badly in. The introduction of Ox and Podolski from the bench provided the bit of power and class required to keep the challenge for fourth place on track. On the final day he replaced Arteta early on and brought good energy and no small bit of guile to a tight midfield. It was a mark of the faith that Arsene has in him that he was trusted to take on that role in such a game, reprising his performance against AC Milan last year. There is better to come from Chamberlain, but in which position?
Aaron Ramsey
The Boyo has had something of a renaissance across this season. He was very much the new "Eboue" figure with the crowd early in the season (before being usurped by Gervinho in the game at Bradford) and came back strongly to be in the team as of right for the last couple of months. I still think he's often too slow, and his decision making in the final third makes Theo Walcott's look consistently good, but the work ethic Ramsey has is fantastic. Considering his injury problems he has an amazing stamina and desire to get involved. I don't know what's happened to a once impressive ability to shoot from range, but he made a crucial contribution alongside Arteta once Diaby and Wilshere were ruled out. I don't know that he's genuinely good enough to play regularly in a side that wants to challenge, but every team needs a reliable squad player.
Santi Cazorla
The man who is player of the season for most Gooners had an impressive impact on the Arsenal team. Cazorla was certainly the most successful of the signings from last year, announcing himself with a virtuoso display against Sunderland on the opening day. Given space he can destroy teams. One criticism is that he doesn't seem to have the ability to create that space for himself. In short, if the opposition tie him down he is completely ineffective.
For me Cazorla is terribly inconsistent. I have regularly compared him to Andrey Arshavin, though I don't think he's got as much ability as the Russian. Having said that he did provide many of the highlights of the season. From his pass to Giroud in that Sunderland game, to the win at Liverpool, the destruction of Spurs and his hat-trick at Reading, Cazorla often lit up Arsenal. He also scored a cracking goal to seal the win at Upton Park.
Considering it was his first season you'd have to say Cazorla was largely impressive. I still remain unconvinced that he is out of the top drawer but I'll be more than happily proved wrong. One note of caution, however - Manuel Pellegrini has twice signed Cazorla in Spain, and now he will have bottomless pockets at Man City. Don't be surprised if we've seen the last of Cazorla in an Arsenal shirt.
Francis Coquelin
It looks like Coquelin is on his way out of Arsenal this Summer. I don't blame him. For some reason Coquelin has seen little action across the season despite regularly being our best player when he did appear. If the team was selected, and allowed to play each game, based on performance then Coquelin would have been very much a part of things. Quite why he was taken off at Bradford remains a mystery that probably cost us the chance to win the game, and his absence from the matchday squad became a major bug bear of mine late on in the season. Coquelin is versatile and is by far the most capable utility player in the Arsenal squad. I am annoyed that he has not had his chance. Good luck to him.
Emmanuel Frimpong
I think Frimpong was heading for the exit door at Arsenal until last week when he had to have another knee operation. He couldn't get a regular game at Fulham when he joined them on loan, having not had a look-in at Arsenal. In his one start this season in the League Cup tie at Reading he had to be taken off as the weak link. You can't deny Frimpong puts in more effort than anyone else whenever he plays, but he just lacks a bit of quality.
Thomas Eisfeld
The young German burst on the scene in pre-season with a couple of goals and made a real impact. When he got his chance as a substitute at Reading he turned the game on its head with a fabulous display. Put together with his goalscoring exploits in the U21 side it seemed ridiculous that he couldn't get a chance to play in the first-team that was struggling so badly. However, when I saw some of the youth games towards the end of the season he seemed a shadow of the player from pre-season and was not really in the game at all. Next season will be make or break for Eisfeld.
Serge Gnabry
Gnabry made his Premier League bow as a sub in the awful defeat at Norwich. His willingness to have a go made a good impression on the watching Gooners and he was perhaps a little unfortunate not to get more chances as the season wore on. Serge is definitely the star of the youth and U21 teams and seems the most likely of them to have a shot at making it at Arsenal.
Nico Yennaris
Yennaris made his sole first-team appearance for the season at home to Coventry. He anchored the midfield very well that night, but I think his days are now numbered. Like Coquelin he is outstandingly versatile, as he showed against a rampant Man Utd in the Premier League last year. The fact that he had no other involvement with the first-team, other than as an unused sub at Reading, shows that Arsene Wenger doesn't really rate him that highly. Nico is not that young anymore and should really be banging on the door if he is going to make it. A born Gooner it would have been nice to see him come through, but perhaps it's time to move on and make a good career elsewhere.
That's the midfield covered for another year. Strikers to come over the next day or two.

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