I wrote, on the eve of the new season, that Arsenal’s squad depth gave them an excellent chance of winning their first league title since 2004.
Not being blessed with the best timing (my friends and family can testify to that), I then sat and watched, horrified, as Arsenal contrived to lose at home to West Ham.
To add insult to injury, in an apparently direct rebuttal to my claims of Arsenal’s superior squad strength, we were ‘treated’ to the sight of a barely half fit Alexis Sanchez scampering around the pitch in an effort to salvage something, anything, from that match. Even he couldn’t do it. It’s interesting to note that over a month into the season, he is only now starting to produce the form we know he is capable of.
Was I, therefore, wrong to talk up our squad depth?
You might expect me to say this, but actually, no, I don’t think I was.
Allow me to explain.
Just after the transfer window shut, Arsenal announced that Danny Welbeck was going to be out for months after a knee surgery. They have also just announced that Jack Wilshere, poor plexiglass Jack, will also require yet another surgery on his ankle.
As frustrating as the Welbeck news was in the context of Arsenal’s failure to sign the mythical super striker come to deliver us from the jaws of missed sitter after missed sitter, it barely made a ripple on the state of the Arsenal squad.
You can’t look at a midfield featuring the likes of Alexis, Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil and where Aaron Ramsey can’t get a game in his favoured central midfield position and think that what we’re really missing is Jack.
Let me put that remark into context, as I know some of you will have trouble with it.
Simply put, for all the precocity Jack displayed against Barcelona in February 2011, it is still that display, over four years ago now, which is held up as the mark of what Jack could, and should, be.
The odd game, Manchester City at home last year, aside, he hasn’t really progressed. I know this is down to his injury travails as much as anything else. However, I still believe that, as I said in an article for The Gooner around two years ago, Arsenal have better players than Jack in every midfield position.
I wrote this article, obviously, before Francis Coquelin’s return ended any illusion Jack may have harboured about becoming this team’s defensive midfielder. Not that it was a realistic notion to begin with.
None of this is to say that Jack isn’t a good squad option, of course he is. However, at the moment, that’s all he is – when fit. There may come a day when he becomes an integral part of this Arsenal side, but we’re not there yet.
Likewise, Danny Welbeck has yet to establish himself as a bona fide first team starter. His injury now leaves the way open for Theo Walcott to mount a sustained challenge on Olivier Giroud’s status as striker #1.
Again, I know there’s probably a few of you reading this barely able to believe me capable of such open mouthed stupidity (maybe you’re not surprised at all) – did I not see the Stoke game? Well, as it happens, no, I didn’t. I was working in Birmingham. I did see Match of the Day though, so I saw Ian Wright’s withering analysis of Theo’s finishing in that centre forward position and I agreed with much of what Wrighty had to say.
A particular highlight being, of course, his dismissal of Theo’s header as being a chance he would have scored, “Even now. With a fused ankle.”
This from a man famous for not wanting to head the ball in training, albeit someone who did score more than a few headers despite his diminutive 5’8″ stature.
However, the Arsenal legend did also say that he felt Theo needed to be given time to adapt to playing centre forward. This is obvious. Theo has been insisting he is a striker for most of his decade at the club. Okay, yes, I know he signed in January 2006. I don’t want to get into a Blackburn George type argument, but… Despite these repeated claims, Arsène has, till now, only played him there when trying to persuade him to “sign da ting”. Though I sort of doubt he’s put it like that that to him. Can you imagine?
However, with Welbeck absent and with realisation apparently dawning that, actually, you may not need a playmaking type striker in front of a midfield full of playmakers, Mr. Wenger now seems set to give Theo the run he needs.
It may also be the run the team needs him to have. Wrighty made an observation about Theo needing to learn to make a run for a defender and then the run for himself. He also noted that someone like Mesut Özil turned down the chance to play Theo in on the edge of the box, preferring to spread the play. Now, I believe Mesut does everything for a reason, so I guess his decision to go wide instead was arrived at as he is used to playing the ball into Giroud and seeing the ball held up. Though I must also concede the possibility that he was fed up of seeing Theo missing chance after chance.
An Özil more tuned into Walcott’s wavelength would surely have released the ball to the English speedster. This will only come with time and practice. The same applies to the rest of the midfield. In fact, I also believe it also applies to Theo and how he finishes chances. After years of coming in off the right flank, mugging defenders with his pace, he is now being thrust into centre stage. Getting used to that will take time and work. It may not work out, but if it does, I expect him to become a much more lethal striker. He may even become the striker we’ve all craved since Dutch Judas left us in 2012.
Let me put it this way, though I do like Olivier Giroud, I don’t expect the thought of facing him on Saturday is worrying John Terry & co. too much, whatever state Chelsea are in right now.
*brief pause so we can all laugh at Chelsea* [Editor – can you tell Paul wrote this before Wednesday night?]
Done? Great. I think an Arsenal team going to Stamford Bridge with Walcott up front becomes an instantly less predictable, more dangerous one.
With all the focus from last weekend lasered on the amount of chances Arsenal missed, it seems nobody has considered what might happen if Arsenal start taking even half of the chances they created on Saturday.
Bearing in mind how porous Chelsea have become almost overnight, this seems an oversight only explained by our dismal record at the Bridge over the last decade.
It doesn’t seem that we’ll get many better chances than this weekend to right that wrong, but much will depend on the mindset of the team, as well as the players selected. I believe that if we go there, prepared to defend but equally prepared to attack with pace and aggression, we will have an excellent chance of putting daylight between ourselves and Chelsea.
A defeat for the Blues would clearly not be terminal in the title race, but it would make things very, very, complicated for them. For once, the pressure is on them, so it will be fascinating to see how they react. Indeed, if they are capable of reacting.
Only a brave man would write the champions off, I’m not sure I’m there just yet…