Saturday, 2 July 2011

The crisis narrative

Arsenal in crisis, yet again. Cesc, Nasri, Clichy, even RvP to be sold? The first three, anyway. What can we make of this, other than the Arsenal really need some media managers who are (a) more competent at handling the traditional media outlets and (b) are more pro-active at getting positive stories across the Arse-blogosphere, even by (as some American sports teams do) by personally engaging with them in q & a's or other kinds of communication? At the moment, the club seem prepared to let the hysteria blow itself out, a risky stratgey considering the negativity around.

There's an excellent post at the Yankee Gunner blog about the 2007-8 team, which explores what happened to the side that nearly (and should have) won the title in 2008, then lost Flamini, Hleb, Adebayor, Rosicky and eventually Toure and Gallas and Eduardo over the next couple of years through a variety of reasons. What struck me was that the 2008 team was itself remarkably different from the 2006 Champions League finalists, which was the last hurrah for the Invincibles. Here are the two starting line-ups:

2006: Lehmann, Eboue, Toure, Campbell, Cole, Pires, Silva, Cesc, Hleb, Ljungberg, Henry. Subs: Almunia, Flamini, Reyes, Bergkamp, Van Persie, Senderos, Clichy.

2008: Lehmann, Sagna, Gallas, Toure, Clichy, Hleb, Flamini, Cesc, Rosicky, Adebayor, Eduardo.

and for purposes of comparison, a starting 2010-11 line-up:

Fabianski, Sagna, Koscielny, Djourou, Clichy, Song, Wilshere, Cesc, Walcott, Arshavin, van Persie.

In effect, Arsene has been forced to reconstruct the side twice in five years. Cesc and van Persie are the only points of continuity. In a previous post I noted the importance of player mobility and contract status, which has, if anything, accelerated in the interim. The problem now for Arsene isn't money - Arsenal have never spent the kind of sums that rivals like Man United and Liverpool (or latterly Chelsea and Man City) have afforded, in terms of fees and the wage bill - it's time. Not in the sense that Carlo Ancelotti might understand it, but in terms of building a team; a team not built from off-the-peg superstars, but from specific components that Arsene sees as re-shaping the dynamic of the team. If the right player costs £5 million rather than £30 million, all well and good, but it's the role they play in the overall shape of the team that's important.

And if Arsene has 'failed', I don't think it's in his unwillingness to fork over £30 million of the club's cash, nor in the 'youth project' (which I would understand at least in part as a response to the increasing problem of player mobility, as well as to the changing economic landscape of European football) - it's the shape of the team that has come into being since 2008. Recent acquisitions have placed technique over size and power, which is fine, if you want to play that way (it works for Vermaelen). However, what has been lost is pace, and penetration. There's no Overmars, there's no Henry. In terms of the squad, I think it's time to move Walcott off the wing and into a central role, as a striker - Arsenal need to rediscover the art of the through-pass and the searing burst of pace. The threat of this would make opposing defences play deeper, giving the midefield more room - and even if Cesc and Nasri go, we still have quite a few creators.

I'd also suggest a move back to 4-4-2, but the 2002-style formation, when we still had Ray Parlour on the right, tucking in to form a central 3 when necessary; and a goalscoring, attacking player wide left, switching with the support striker and the left midfielder as necessary. (Arshavin, bought to play there, doesn't like the role.) One possibility would be to switch Theo to the left - to play the Overmars role, cutting in from the left and striking with the right foot. The current Arsenal team need to pass and to move with greater pace, to switch positions with more creativity, to play on the counter more effectively. They need a tempo player in midfield, a strong centre-back and either a left-winger or a striker. Even losing Cesc and Nasri and Clichy, buying good, effective players in these positions would be an excellent first step towards undoing the damage of the end of last season.

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