So here we are with the first game of the new season, the opener against Liverpool, 13 days away and the Arsenal squad still isn’t settled. With Giroud not yet back in full training, and with Özil, Alexis, and others recovering from their various international duties, it looks like Arsenal are going to start the season with Theo Walcott as our center forward.
The match against Chivas was a good example of the good, bad, and ugly of this current squad. The good is that Cazorla returned and showed us what we were missing in midfield. Despite the fact that he’s the smallest player on the team, he’s so lighting fast and has such incredible ball control that he’s able to skip past most other midfielders and create space for himself and his teammates. It’s not just his stats (KPs, dribbles, shots, passing) but it’s the fact that he offers a second choice for teams to have to try to cover when Arsenal play with Özil up front. Having that second player on the pitch opens the game up for everyone and makes Arsenal more dangerous. As Wenger put it,
He is our technical security in midfield and we missed him for five or six months last season. At the moment he is not completely there on the fitness front.
Oxlade-Chamberlain has also been fantastic in these first two matches. I’ve long said that Ox is the real deal. He’s got all the qualities you want from a wide player: he’s quick, he’s tricky, and he’s got a powerful shot. He reads the passing lanes wonderfully, he can run onto through balls, or play through balls to teammates. He’s also got a good cross, and if he can get to the end line, his drag backs are dangerous. He’s added left-footed shooting to his game over the last two years and uses his ambipedal talents to great effect, as we saw with his goal against Chivas. The frustrating thing about Ox is that he’s shown us this brilliance in pre-season before and after the promise of pre-season then he’s dropped off physically and/or picked up an injury and never fully recovered form. And again, Wenger gave praise to the youngster;
It’s a very important season for him. He has been out for a long, long time. He has been injured and did not go to the European Championship, like he should have done if he had been fit. That’s why I’m cautious with him. I gave him 45 minutes [against MLS All-Stars], now 70 minutes. I hope I can get him through and fit for the start of the season. [He gives us] power, penetration. He has it all, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. It’s difficult what he doesn’t have – that’s why I would like him to get to the level he can go to. Maybe he doesn’t completely believe himself how good he can be and that’s the final step for him.
I also quite like the young center backs that Arsenal are promoting. Chambers can be frustrating with his awful tackling and Holding has managed to give the ball away on simple passes several times, both are things which cannot be tolerated at the Arsenal level. But they, along with Bielik, represent a great chance of having some future homegrown stars in the Arsenal defense. As for the fullbacks, we have two automatic starters in Bellerin and Monreal, with one decent backup in Gibbs. Wenger was effusive in the praise for Holding and I can see why.
Another good is that Arsenal have too many central midfielders! Özil, Cazorla, and Wilshere, along with Iwobi, all want to play in the #10 spot. Cazorla has been moved back in midfield but then he’s competing with Xhaka, Elneny, and Ramsey for the #8. Xhaka does play a bit deeper so, I’m comfortable calling him a #6 — though with his range of passing, he’s much more Pirlo than Makelele. So, by my account Arsenal have the #6 position well stocked with Xhaka and Coquelin. In the #8, you have three players, Elneny, Ramsey, and Cazorla — if he’s fit, I give Cazorla the starting spot. And in the #10 you have Özil starting with Wilshere playing backup.
Ramsey can also be used wide right which is good because Arsenal really need options. Right now, the only viable starter down the right is Ox. Campbell hasn’t really improved in the last two years and we saw all of the same weaknesses in his game that we have seen throughout his career. He’s not really able to break down a defense, not the way Ox can, though he does offer a solid defensive presence. Walcott could play on the right but what you gain in speed you lose in almost all of the other qualities you want from a wide player.
Iwobi on the left didn’t really work. He was simply anonymous throughout the match until he moved inside. So, Arsenal need to find a left-sided backup for Alexis. Many of the other young players that Arsenal have given time to, like Akpom, have been a sort of mixed bag. I can see why people like The Jeff and Akpom has scored twice, but I just don’t see them as ready to play in a Premier League game. Maybe we will see more over the next two weeks as Arsenal play in Norway and Sweden, with the latter a match against Man City, our first real test of the pre-season.
One of the bads is Debuchy. I thought he was a decent fullback up until he had his shoulder broken by Arnautovic. Then he lost his starting position to Bellerin and has never seemed to recover. I’m not just judging him based on the fact that he gave away a penalty against Chivas. This is how he has played in nearly every match since returning. And even in his loan spell at Bordeaux, he was poor. I don’t know if it’s mental or what the problem is, but Arsenal need him to recover or for Wenger to splurge on his replacement.
The ugly is Walcott. It’s a tragic tale, really. He was a player that showed so much promise from such a young age. And then he was called up to the World Cup squad. Then he was injured or he had surgery on his shoulders and sat out for a few years. Then he had a good season. There was all that “sign da ting” stuff. Then he got this huge new contract. And now, he looks like a player who has had bricks installed on the ends of his legs. He is still a threat with his speed but unless he’s running onto a ball served up on a plate, he’s a turnover machine. He cannot hold the ball up, his decision making is almost always bad, and when he tries to break a team down with a dribble it’s basically just going to be a turnover. If there was ever a time when we needed Les Crang to write us a Rogues Gallery piece it would be now and the topic would have to be Walcott.
I’m going to get a lot of grief now for “hammering” Walcott. Most of which will follow the logic of “it’s only pre-season.” But I never get grief for saying that a player has looked good during pre-season, so unless you reject all pre-season discussion (and one wonders why you read anything about Arsenal at all before the season starts in that case), then I can’t really accept your “it’s only pre-season” argument. But more to the point, it’s not just pre-season. Walcott and Debuchy have been bad for years. I’m not denying that they both play well in patches but the most important thing about being a player at the Arsenal level is consistency and neither of them have found that.
But, unless Wenger pulls a Lacazette or an iCardi out of his hat, Walcott is probably going to be Arsenal’s starting center forward in 13 days. So, let’s hope he finds one of those rare purple patches. And soon.