Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
So goes the proverb, and never was it more true in football – as Google defines it: “that which one person finds beautiful or admirable may not appeal to another.”
Arsenal’s formal completion of the most talked about deal of the summer to date – Petr Cech – and the consequent comparisons to Wojciech Szczesny and David Ospina only served to outline this point as far as I’m concerned.
Now, I’d be the first to admit I don’t rate Mr Ospina – if you’ve read any of my past mutterings, you’ll know that I think he’s too small, too weak (kicking) and takes the easy and safe option rather than the best. Yes, he’s continued to demonstrate his shot-stopping abilities in the Copa America, but that has never been in doubt. At a top level club you need a significantly better all round game.
By following those same mutterings you’ll also know that I rate Szczesny significantly higher, that he has all the necessary ingredients (height, strength and confidence) to be the best keeper in the league. He just needs a bit more experience and a few less cigarettes.
But I’ve read a lot of wider perceptions recently that Ospina has come in and steadied the ship where Szczesny has just not shown enough improvement to warrant further chances. Meanwhile, by those same measuring sticks, Petr Cech is apparently approaching messiah status.
Somewhere in between
I don’t want to put a down on a great signing – I’m glad we’ve signed Cech. But if you’ll allow me a controversial moment, I wouldn’t have been glad if we’d sold Szczesny to facilitate that deal.
The wider perception of our Pole is that he is error prone, overly fond of Cruyff turns on his own goalline, has regular concentration lapses and a save percentage that would embarrass a four year old. It ignores that just one season ago he was the proud owner of a Golden Glove, has shown steady signs of improvement year on year and is still just 25.
For a goalkeeper, he’s practically still in nappies. Just as we forgive Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain his brain failure against Monaco, so we should forgive Szczesny’s poor half season.
Likewise, the perception of Cech among Arsenal fans is that he is going to improve us so much that it will basically hand us the title on a plate. He’s a great keeper, he’s probably better than our other options available right now, and he has a few good years left in him. However, he is still a relatively short term option.*
*Being short term does not mean I think he is a bad signing. I don’t.
Ultimately, if you ask Chelsea fans who they would rather have sold out of Courtois and Cech, I don’t think I am taking too many chances in suggesting they would sell their grannies* before selling Courtois. Again, that’s not to say that I think it’s a bad idea to sign Cech, but it’s just an illustration of how perception can be coloured.
*This is the kind of thing a Chelsea fan would do. Trust me, I know – my brother was allowed to go down that road in possibly the greatest parenting failure ever.
But I digress. This column is not intended to be about our goalkeeping situation, currently in its best state for many, many years and as long as Ospina is the one to go I’ll be happy.
No, the way our goalkeepers are perceived just got me thinking about which of our outfield players are most undervalued, either by the Arsenal fanbase or by the outside world. It’s important to make the distinction between the two, as often the answers are very different.
The Centre Backs
Arguably, both of Arsenal’s main centre backs don’t always get the credit they deserve, albeit in slightly different ways.
Per Mertesacker takes a lot of stick from both Arsenal fans and the general public, with his obvious lack of pace often clouding his ability to read the game and make interceptions. Those of us who watch him week in week out tend to have a bit more respect for the BFG – after all, the beauty of never having pace is to have never relied upon it – and Monaco aside, he has been a rock at the heart of the defence.
Externally though, I have seen him utterly lambasted for that lack of pace, and cruelly likened to any number of slow and heavy animals. There are better defenders in the world, but equally he is a top level centre back with over 100 national caps for the current World Champions. Underrated.
Fellow centre half Laurent Koscielny is also undervalued, but in this instance only by the wider public. The first time I heard someone (a Liverpool fan, no less!) describe Koscielny as error prone, I was almost stunned into silence. Yet there are many who view our number one defender as someone who overcommits to challenges, lunges in and concedes freekicks and penalties with great regularity.
The likes of Vincent Kompany and John Terry continue to be lauded as bastions of the English game, yet our Frenchie’s understated style goes unapplauded. How the likes of Gary Cahill got into the Team of the Year ahead of Laurent continues to astound me, but such is perception. Underrated.
Another pair who divide opinion are the senior duo of Mikel Arteta and Tomas Rosicky. Over at Daily Cannon Towers, a frequent debate is over the role the current club captain should play in the next few seasons, and externally there are those who also question his value.
Arteta’s legs have started to go, and his injury record over the last 18 months doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, but few agree that he still has a significant amount to offer as a squad player. Not only is he a great pro to have around, but he is a good option to have on the bench if you need to shore up a game, and get it under control. Underrated.
Tomas Rosicky is also entering his twilight years with the club, but he is in a very different situation to Arteta. With not much mileage under his belt, the Czech remains full of buzz, and his role in the squad is more as an impact player.
The general perception is often that he has never quite lived up to his potential and doesn’t offer enough compared to some of the younger names. However, if I needed one player to change a game, I would choose Little Mozart. He has an unparalleled ability to up the tempo, whether turning on a sixpence, bursting past a player or unleashing a pass between the lines, and he is showing no signs of slowing down. Underrated.
Olivier Giroud is an interesting case – regularly undervalued by Arsenal fans who take the view that we need (and deserve) an upgrade, he is however a player who opposing fans recognise as an important cog in the Arsenal machine.
He might have the odd game where less than nothing goes right for him, but his height and strength are unmatched in our squad, and while there may be better finishers in the game, somehow his touch in and around the box just works for the style of football we play. One of the few who is valued more by the outside world than by those closest to home. Underrated.
Our other wannabe forward, Theo Walcott, tells a similar story. His record against the biggest clubs and on the biggest stages doesn’t lie, and he is by far and away the best finisher at the club.*
*Yes, I firmly believe this is still true despite Alexis signing – I’ll write about it soon, promise!
However, his contract gripes and his early indifferent form on returning from injury have seen Arsenal fans turn against him, and on occasion even suggesting that a straight swap for Raheem Sterling would be a good idea. Opposition fans will tell you: the sight of Walcott’s name on the teamsheet scares them silly.
Pace and a deadly touch combine in a player who can make the difference in the moments that matter, as he ably demonstrated in the FA Cup final, yet too often the fans closest to home focus on the things he lacks rather than the things that make him a dangerous player. Underrated.
The Ultimate Conundrum
However, if there is one player who divides opinion more than any other, it has to be the mysterious Mesut Özil. When you sign for £42m for a club whose previous record signing was £15m it sets a certain (unrealistic) expectation, but in his early games at the club Özil lived up to those expectations and then some.
Since then he has struggled for consistency, with spells in and out of the team with injury hardly helping his acclimatisation and understanding with teammates. However, because his talents are more subtle than running 20km a game and shooting at 100mph they can sometimes go underappreciated.
Arsenal fans have started to see that more and more in 2015, with the standout performances recognised, and the less showy ones given the benefit of the doubt. However, the external world expects far more demonstrative feats from our number 11, and their view of him changes like the British weather – regularly and unpredictably! They should try rewatching the games. Underrated.
Silent but deadly
At the end of the day, I’m pretty comfortable right now with our opponents underestimating our players – it means that we can sneak up on them and cause an upset.
However, that needs to have changed by this time next year.
2014/15 was a success in my mind because we saw league progress, improved our squad and retained the FA Cup. It still doesn’t get away from the fact that we were never really and truly in the title race. We need more in 2015/16, and that kind of improvement can’t come unless we disabuse people of the way they underrate our players.
So come on boys, show us what you’re made of. Silent but deadly is the way – for now.