I don’t know about you, but after a birthing process almost as horrific as that of the titular Alien in Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece, I feel like this Arsenal team is in a pretty good place right about now*.
If they haven’t quite gestated into the lethal killing machine that the Alien becomes overnight, then they’re a lot closer to it than they are the Nostromo’s resident cat, Jones. Which, I think, is where we started the season.
With that in mind- seeing as it’s international boredom fortnight- I thought it might be fun to look at who has cemented their place in the first team for next season and who hasn’t.
Who is in the death throes of their Arsenal career- chest bursting face hugging xenomorph optional- and who can look forward to beginning next season with a spring in their step.
Last August, the FA Cup winners kicked off the 2014/15 campaign with a home fixture against Crystal Palace and it was only a late Aaron Ramsey goal which saw us take all three points. The team that day was;
Szczesny, Debuchy, Gibbs, Koscielny, Chambers; Arteta, Ramsey, Wilshere, Cazorla, Alexis; Sanogo. On the bench we had Martinez, Monreal, Coquelin, Campbell, Rosicky, The Ox and Oli G.
The team which beat Newcastle to record our sixth win on the spin- having played four on the road:
Ospina, Chambers, Monreal, Koscielny, Gabriel; Coquelin, Ramsey, Cazorla, Welbeck, Alexis; Giroud. On the bench that day were Szczesny, Mertesacker, Bellerin, Gibbs, Flamini, Rosicky and Walcott.
Looking at those two teams, it’s obvious that the first eleven has evolved somewhat over the last six months and for the better too.
The first team was, obviously, the core of last season’s first team plus three new signings and Sanogo. Six months down the line, as the effects of having quality alternatives in every position take hold, the picture is slightly different; Koscielny, Ramsey, Cazorla and Giroud were the only first team regulars from last season to start on last weekend.
Okay, there may be reasons for that.
Mertesacker was rotated out after a tough game in midweek and a tiring campaign in general, whilst Mesut Özil missed out because he was
nightclubbing, we’re nightclubbing sick. Nonetheless, the likes of Ospina, Monreal, Bellerin and Coquelin have come in and made unexpected impacts on the first team.
With this in mind, who has cemented their place in the line up for Arsenal’s sure-to-be-glorious 2015-16 campaign?
However I might feel about him- Roger Chesney’s future at Arsenal looks pretty bleak at present. On the other hand, Ospina has done little obviously wrong during his stint between the sticks.
Whilst accepting things can change, I don’t think Ospina is overly convincing. If, in the manager’s eyes, the same holds true for Sczczesny, then shouldn’t the Arsenal go out and sign someone who is? A player who really is worthy of our number one jersey in the same way that David Seaman, or Jens Lehmann were? Someone like Petr Cech, perhaps?
Cech, for me, is the fantasy signing.
Perhaps he’s not as dominant as he once was, but Mourinho still regards him as one of the three best goalkeepers in the world and he’d improve us at a stroke.
However, with a year to go on his Chelsea contract and bearing in mind the fact Mourinho is the manager who wouldn’t sell us Demba Ba, what odds us being able to prise him away from south west London? And if not him, then who else? Honestly, I don’t know. Fraser Forster, perhaps? All this said, I don’t see a signing here unless Szczsesny forces the issue and leaves.
Come summertime, we are- as I wrote recently– set fair for a battle royale between Hector Bellerin and Mathieu Debuchy at right back. I still make Debuchy the man in control of that one, for now, but Bellerin has been one of the finds of the season.
It’s early days for the impressive Gabriel, but his January signing was a move that should, in time, relegate Per Mertesacker to a rotational role. I think we need to see a bit more of him paired with Koscielny- our defensive kingpin- but there are hugely promising signs in this partnership.
Lest we forget, there is also Calum Chambers whose early season performances saw him anointed the latest successor to the legendary Tony Adams. Of course, when called on to deputise at right back, he was then denounced as the next Carl Jenkinson. Or something like that.
Nonetheless, I’ve seen enough of Chambers at centre back to believe that he is more than adequate as a third, or fourth choice, centre back and with huge potential for improvement.
At left back, I don’t think I’m alone in beginning to wonder if it’s ever going to really happen for Kieran Gibbs.
Like Jack Wilshere, he’s been around the first team for ages, and like Jack, injuries have prevented him from really progressing.
Three months of Hector Bellerin have been much more exciting than five or six years of Kieran.
Nacho on the other hand, what he lacks in ground speed, he gains in his positional play, his defensive ability and, as he raids down the left, his understanding with his international colleague, Santi Cazorla.
He’s rightly holding the shirt at the moment, but perhaps this is one area we might look to improve on in the summer.
The Midfield Puzzle
It’s a tricky one to untangle, this.
Simply reciting the names of the players who can play in this area would take up a paragraph, maybe two. The simplest way through it, I think, is to look at the midfield which has resurrected what was turning into a horrible season and start from there.
In front of the defence sits Francis Coquelin.
Has he done enough to keep his shirt for next season? I would say, without hesitation, yes. If his attritional style is not for everybody, it has certainly provided a shot in the arm for the first team.
However, bearing in mind his is perhaps the most combative role on the pitch, I’m not sure we can, or should, rely on him to play 60 games a season. As you know, I’m not convinced Arteta has it in him to play this role anymore, so I would like to see a signing in this area of the pitch. Schneiderlin seems the obvious call- too obvious, perhaps?
Ahead of him, the four spots have been largely shared between six players recently. Santi Cazorla is in the form of his career, Alexis is… well, Alexis, Mesut Özil is having a much better season than certain people would have you believe and the Ox was, until his injury, having a very good season. I think it’s significant that our two wins in Manchester saw us with these four players on the pitch ahead of Coquelin.
Although they employ very different methods, Cazorla and Özil are keep ball masters capable of finding runners anywhere on the pitch. Which is where Alexis and the Ox come in.
Again, I think it’s significant that both of these players were missing in our defeat at Spurs. Not only are these two extremely quick, but they- unlike say Welbeck, or Walcott- are very accomplished dribblers. We have seen how devastating that particular combination can be all season long.
Looking at this four objectively, unless you’re talking going out and spending silly money again, I find it difficult to believe they could be improved on. Although certain people are telling me Arsenal should sell Özil in the summer- ha!
I mentioned six players, didn’t I?
It seems incredible to me that, a year on from his season mirabilis, I can’t find a space in the team for Aaron Ramsey. However, with the team set up as it is, he’s competing with Cazorla and- I’m sorry- I take the little genius all day every day. Unless Santi is not playing well, or there is a need for Ramsey’s speed and strength over Cazorla’s guile.
In this case, Rambo is a more than adequate replacement. Besides, the nature of form and fitness means that Ramsey will almost certainly find himself in the team more often than not.
The sixth man, Danny Welbeck has found himself, the FA Cup tie at Manchester United aside, shunted out to the wing as Olivier Giroud has returned with an absolute bang. I’m not sure he’s enjoying himself massively out there, and his touch needs to improve, but he works very hard and his speed is a very obvious asset.
Given time he could become a huge asset to this football club. Arsène Wenger clearly thinks so too, as Danny has nudged ahead of Walcott in the pecking order, both on the wing and up top. If Danny is not quite a guaranteed starter, he’s very handy guy to have on the bench.
We know that, although Theo is at pains to deny that there is an issue, there is a political element to this situation. Shades of 2012 all over again.
The difference this time, with Arsène able to call on the likes of Alexis, the Ox, Welbeck and even Özil instead of, er, Gervinho, Arsenal aren’t missing the England winger. I wouldn’t be surprised if Arsenal cashed in on him in the summer.
We have seen how devastating Theo can be, in the right conditions. In the wrong conditions, he’s useless.
He’s a bit like the football equivalent of Jimmy Anderson, only not as skillful. For me. Theo is a squad player now- is he prepared to accept squad player wages?
Or is it TJ and the P45?
Don’t forget there is the hugely talented Serge Gnabry waiting on the wings- I’d find room for him in the 18, no question.
There are other who are part of the midfield equation, albeit less involved.
Mathieu Flamini has basically been rendered redundant by Francis Coquelin and will, I think, play little part in next season- if he stays. Then we’ve got Tomas Rosicky and Jack Wilshere. Jack’s light has dimmed considerably over the last few years and only some of it is his fault.
Part of me wonders, slightly, if Rosicky’s fate this summer depends a little on Jack’s fitness. We know they like to play from the same type of areas, albeit with quite different styles. Rosicky hasn’t featured much this season, but been generally excellent when he has and that’s despite Wilshere’s injuries. He’s become audibly disenchanted this season and it’s difficult to blame him.
If Jack can get himself fit again, then the need for Rosicky is further reduced and I think he’s almost certain to leave north London this summer.
But it is, I think, a very big ‘if’ as far as Jack’s fitness is concerned. I wouldn’t sell him, yet, but I don’t see him as a regular first teamer next season either.
Then there is club captain Arteta.
I speculated recently that he might be off in the summer, due to Coquelin’s emergence. I’d be happy for him to stick around, as it occurs to me that he could very easily do a job alongside, or even ahead of the young Frenchman. The rules that govern any Arsenal central midfielder dictate that you’re almost certain to miss at least three months of a given season, which makes someone with Arteta’s experience very handy to have around.
Na na na naaaaa…
Finally, yes.. finally, we come to Olivier Giroud. We’ve saved the best for last- ha!
I’m only slightly tongue in cheek there.
It’s difficult to know whether Giroud has just hit a purple patch, or if we are seeing the flowering of another top quality Arsenal centre forward. However, 17 goals in a season where he’s missed three months with a broken leg is outstanding by anyone’s standards. 13 goals in 14 Premier League starts even more so.
I can see the argument that at the top level he might let you down, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone unimpressed by the 28-year-old this season.
His link up play is brilliant and his finishing really has improved. Again, I come back to the argument that, if you want to replace, and improve upon, the Frenchman, you’re looking at silly money.
It may be that Arsenal have that money to spend, they almost certainly do. However, I think Olivier Giroud is far from being the worst of this team’s problems. For me, he’s in the team come August.
There you have it.
The only spots I think we might be looking for external solutions are at left back and goalkeeper, although I do think a Schneiderlin type midfielder would add some serious depth.
The only other area we might look at, I suppose, is centre forward but, bearing in mind the players already vying for one position, I wouldn’t be surprised if we signed nobody.
We really are in excellent shape, you know.
*I deleted a Larry David reference here on the basis that an intro referencing both Alien and Curb Your Enthusiasm would not, in fact, be prettyyyy, prettyyyy, pretty good. Thank me later.