So; the summer’s international tournament has concluded, with Portugal playing Greece to France’s Portugal.
Some reputations have been enhanced and others, particularly managers, have been undermined. And from an Arsenal perspective it has been interesting to see familiar faces flourishing (or not) in other teams. This has also raised questions for the team set up for the domestic season ahead.
The most obvious Gooner to have his reputation boosters was new boy Granit Xhaka, who despite being a little one paced, showed all the steel and composure we hoped for. Except from the penalty spot. A bad moment for him in an otherwise excellent tournament, where he was, by some distance, Switzerland’s best player. As a tougher, bigger, slightly quicker and decade younger Arteta, he fills a quite obvious place in the squad, and takes some of the pressure off Cazorla regarding distribution from central areas. His signing has to be seen as a clear reflection that the manager understands that it was the demise of the Coq-zorla midfield that most cost us the league title in 2015/16.
Elsewhere, the decision of a certain Mr. Ramsey to go bright blonde seems more justified in hindsight, as he provided enough highlights on the pitch to merit those artificially added. By any measure, he was one of the top midfielders at the tournament, and his combination of energy and vision was a demonstration of him at his best. However, his role for Wales is not one really available in the Arsenal first team without significant tactical changes. As illustrated in his breakthrough with Cardiff and with his best Arsenal form, he is a player who is best utilised in a way that doesn’t really suit flatter 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 formations, as essentially he is a hybrid between the classical number 8 and number 10.
He lacks the defensive reliability of a true number 8, and he ain’t going to be a first choice numero dix for Arsenal any time soon. So Arsene is going to have to be a little more creative with his midfield shape to maximise the Welshman’s ability.
Of course, our undoubted number 10 had a tournament for Germany that was reminiscent of his mid season form for the Arsenal. Bar possibly the imperious Toni Kroos and the transformed man mountain that is Jerome Boateng, Ozil was Germany’s best player, and was undoubtedly the team’s most effective creative force as the tournament went on. His passing range, work rate (defensively as well) and awareness of teammates was truly astonishing, but his efforts were undermined by the terrible stodginess of Germany’s other options in the final third. Accordingly, according to the stats he was outperformed by the either excellent or invisible Payet, but for all the Frenchman’s goals and assists, he remains a player of brilliant moments, rather than the constant control and probing of magical Mesut.
But Germany’s front line made the Giroud/Walcott combo look world class, and as soon as Mario Gomez got injured they looked toothless. If Luis Suarez was German and played for Arsenal, it’s quite plausible that Ozil could have broken every club and international assist record going. His frustrated excellence for his country is as clear a reminder for Arsenal’s striking need for a summer signing.
Speaking of such things, the tournament was a largely positive mixed bag of no great surprises for Giroud and Koscielny.
The former demonstrated all his strengths and weakness perfectly. Against lesser defences, the man denied the tricolore beard was able to bully them into submission through a combination of good work-rate, decent movement and sheer physical strength. Equally, when combining with multiple players in close proximity or with runners getting beyond him (aka Griezmann), he looked an incredibly selfless team player and an effective creator of space for others. Sort of the opposite to the physically similar Gignac, who offered more goal threat but absolutely no competent link play.
Against the best defences, or when left isolated up front, all Giroud’s limitations once again came into sharp focus. Through no fault of his own, there just isn’t much he can do about his lack of pace or nimble trickery. Accordingly, his best performances for France were where he could be the second fiddle to a quick and nimble main man, including against Germany and in the early exchanges against Portugal. Before they found their go-to guy or when Griezmann disappeared in the final, Giroud was reduced to trying half chances himself and running around a lot to no great effect. Of course, under different circumstances he would have been second fiddle to or alongside Benzema, which probably would have been more fruitful.
Which is, as we’ve all known for three years, is the position he should hold at Arsenal. A second choice striker who can provide great impact off the bench or in certain games, who you can run with when he’s on one of his hot streaks. Should that role materialise due to an arrival, I have no doubt he will be more widely appreciated as a selfless, intelligent team player with certain impressive strengths.
As for ‘Lolo’, with Varane injured and Sakho under investigation, he became France’s main man at the back, and for the most part was very impressive. But, as with Giroud and Ozil, were saw much that we are all familiar with in North London. The mobility, aggression and technique were all fully on display, but so were the weaknesses that illustrate why he works better with Mertesacker than any of the other options we’ve tried.
His aggressive desire to make interceptions and win the ball early is a very valuable trait, but relies heavily on a defensive partner’s ability to read danger and cover in behind (as Umtiti did better as his tournament went on). Koscielny’s other weakness is, much like Giroud’s, not something he can do anything about. He’s just not that big for a central defender. As soon as faced with a comparatively limited but physically blessed target man in Eder, he struggled. Much as he did with the Portuguese’s erstwhile Swansea colleague Gomis in the Premier League. With Umtiti already booked and struggling, Koscielny had to try to take charge and was found wanting (as was Lloris, whose lateral foot movement wasn’t great). Alongside the bigger and stronger Sakho or Varane, or indeed Mertesacker, Koscielny can focus on using the many excellent traits he has. This has been a reminder that while Wenger has seemingly lost a little faith in the BFG, his other defensive options only serve to slightly hamstring the strengths of his best centre-half.
There wasn’t much else to follow from a club-centric view point. England’s incompetence showed that picking a half-fit Jack Wilshere as a Pirlo clone in a team with zero off the ball movement doesn’t do anyone any favours. And is a situation that will only happen at Arsenal in the middle of whatever next freakish injury crises we have that doesn’t involve the man himself. We also saw another tournament where, for all his appalling form, an England manager might regret not taking Theo Walcott, who at least offers width and movement, even at his worst.
Petr Cech was ok for a gutsy but seriously crap Czech Republic, where Rosicky summed up his last decade by being their best player in one game, ok in another and then getting injured. And unsurprisingly, last minute understudy replacement Hector Bellerin saw no game time in a Spain team that picked itself no matter how well or badly it was playing. Szczesny was very good for one game and then got injured.
So no real surprises. But some issues were raised (or re-raised) from an Arsenal perspective.
– What will next season’s first choice midfield pairing be, and is Xhaka one of them?
– How do we get the most out of Ramsey without destroying the more successful parts of the team’s balance?
– How do we maximise the output of Ozil’s genius?
– Can we find a striker that can both complement Giroud and replace him?
– How do we achieve the correct balance in central defence as Mertesacker shows slight signs of decline?
– Where the hell do we play Jack Wilshere if he can stay fit? And how do we make Theo an asset once more?
Plenty for the manager to ponder and act upon, particularly with the Mourinho/Manchester United bile brand combo in full effect buying quality players, and the arrival of another structural smart cookie in Antonio Conte.
As the transfer window rolls on without a star man arriving the heat will increase on Arsene, but there have been enough high profile cock-ups at this tournament to mean other bosses fared far worse.
Joachim Low – entered a tournament with a world class midfield but only one inconsistent, injury prone striker.
Vincent Del Bosque – seemingly entirely incapable of making any changes when things didn’t go to plan, including sticking with Nolito, who was rubbish.
Antonio Conte – tactically and team spirit-wise was brilliant. Putting on an out of form and low confidence striker for a shoot-out without giving him even a couple of minutes to touch the ball or even run around? Not so clever. Awful penalty, but give the guy a chance!
Didier Deschamps – accidentally stumbling upon his best team twice, then making ill-judged and poorly timed substitutions in the final, without actually encouraging his team to really attack until the 110th minute. Oh and playing the most dynamic, explosive athletic and talented box to box midfielder in Europe as a water carrier for the entire final, despite multiple substitutions, on the basis of a successful enforced change against Iceland. Genius!
Roy Hodgson – managing to pick a squad without anyone who can beat a man bar an 18-year-old kid that he only gave five minutes to try and avoid the most embarrassing defeat in the nation’s history, only for him to look the team’s best player. Changing his team every game in order to perfectly crash against the rocks of that team’s strengths. Building the spine of your team around three totally mentally shot kids who endured one of the most dispiriting, pathetic and ill-disciplined end of season collapses in recent history. Having no idea of best team, formation of tactical approach, despite having a 100% qualifying record.
So while we all quite rightly criticise le boss for those familiar weaknesses and blindspots, he’s not that bad. *
* providing he finds a striker by the end of August…