Arsène Wenger, the board, Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud – all have faced a fair amount of criticism this year. After a miraculous recovery to claim third last season Arsenal yet again sold their best player. This time to a rival. It was a massive blow to the progress of the club and fanbase, and you only have to look at Robin van Persie’s form for Manchester Red (as Sensible Soccer would once have me believe their name to be) to see what they’re missing.
Arsenal’s summer business post RVP was good, better than good. A proven goalscorer arrived in Lucas Podolski, a rising talent had done so in Giroud, and in Santi Cazorla a smart, incisive Spaniard was on his way to finally put the ghost of Cesc to rest. It was a good time to be an Arsenal fan. They were looking towards the Horizon.
Cut to 6 months later and Arsenal sit in sixth place at the start of January and all is not well at Ashburton Grove. So what is the problem? Many point to defensive woes as the ongoing reason for Arsenal’s struggles but the problem lies not in their back line.
Despite the problems with handling set pieces Arsenal has the fourth tightest defence in the league (alongside everyone’s secret second team, Swansea) - superior in that department to both Utd and Spurs. Arsenal’s problems lie at the other end of the pitch – they just do not have a player who can make the difference in the games that matter.
There are positives, though. Theo Walcott is having his best year in an Arsenal shirt, having knocked in 10 goals and seven assists in 19 Premier League games, seven of which have come as a substitute. Giroud too has done his bit, notching eight goals in the first half of his debut Premier League season. Cazorla and Podolski have also turned up (eight and seven goals, and nine and seven assists respectively). This is a team that can create and score goals. Dig a little deeper and you find that Arsenal creates the fourth highest amount of clear cut chances in the league (ref: Opta Stats). Interestingly, they are tied in that position with Liverpool – we could have a bit of a game on.
Arsenal simply isn’t making enough of those chances. The top teams, the ones that win it all and win it often have one special player who makes the difference, one who gets the goal that counts. Arsenal enjoyed years of it with Ian Wright, Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry and most recently RVP. In fact, this is the first time for nearly 20 years that Arsenal haven’t had a truly exceptional goalscorer at the head of their attack. Walcott, Podolski, Giroud –they’re all very good, but none of them are close to RVP in terms of just putting the ball in the goal. He is quite possibly the most efficient striker in world football and it shows in Man Utd’s relatively easy time of it this year. He was their missing ingredient. He’s most team’s missing ingredient. It must kill Arsenal fans to see him banging them in for that lot up the M6.
What worries me for Arsenal is not that they haven’t got that 25-30 goal a year player, from what I’ve seen Giroud will get there eventually and Theo is well on his way. What worries me is that Arsenal can’t afford to wait. Chelsea have signed Ba in what looks like an inspired move; Tottenham have signed Lewis Holtby from Shalke and while he represents a bit of a gamble the boy certainly looks to have enough to keep Defoe honest next year.; and Liverpool have pulled off a bit of a coup in signing Daniel Sturridge. I was sceptical (as was everyone, I think) but he's started brightly and looks happy, motivated and ready to build on his form from Bolton a few years back. The lad certainly knows where the goal is and seems to have an instant understanding with the at times unplayable Luis Suarez. Arsenal is again waiting for next year before their current crop of players mature into the team they have shown glimpses of. Same as it ever was.
Perhaps more worrying still is that Arsenal have struggled to find goals and wins against the best sides - sides who are defensively organised and possess the attacking threat to really devastate them when they're hunting a goal against teams playing on the counter.
Part of the reason for this is that their midfield, when packed in close to a tightly organised defence, loses a lot of its edge. This is where a fully fit and raging Abou Diaby would be useful (see his early games this season. Also see his injury record. Sigh). Diaby's legs can't be relied upon as they are apparently made from the same stuff as a Moth's wing so instead Arsenal need to be looking for a player with pace, power, defensive solidity and an attacking threat (if only Paddy Vieira was still available). Back in the real world, though, Diame seems a good fit and it’s a crime that Wenger hasn’t snapped him up already.
The more crucial reason for their lack of goals and points against the top sides, though, is Giroud, Walcott and Podolski . None of them have the movement, balance or snap shot accuracy of RVP. Without a player of the Dutchman’s quality - who can take the ball on the run, into feet using tight control, dribble, score from distance, with his head or with a chest-height first-time volley. Without that ahead of them (or at least something closer to that than Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott) it forces the likes of Arteta, Wilshere, Cazorla and Chamberlaine to become two-dimensional. Hence the seemingly toothless midfield, the pushing further and further up, the passing around a packed defence and ultimately the exposure of their defence to the counter attack and more dropped points. Same as it ever was.
Brendan Rogers has this Liverpool side organised and efficient these days (well, the first team, anyway – the less said about their FA Cup performance the better) and with Lucas back in midfield they have a solid and tight defensive unit with a resurgent Steven Gerrard (having his best year in four, for me) and a vibrant attacking quartet ahead of them. It’ll be a tough test for the Gunners but if they can produce the kind of one off display they are capable of (which West Ham can attest too) then they have the ability to tear Liverpool a new one. Play like they did in the first half against Chelsea and it just might be them limping back to the team bus.