Return of the J: Questions

By Jonathan Blaustein 

First thing’s first. Let’s set the record straight. I write for 7am kickoff, and Tim writes for Arseblog. But there is no transitive property here.

I don’t know those guys.

So when I give shout outs or compliments, please know that I’m being honest. The Arseblog crew are not my mates.

That said, did you read Tim Stillman’s column this week about Arsene Wenger being his surrogate dad? Holy shit! That is as thoughtful, honest, and slightly tragic a piece of Arsenal blogging as you are going to see.

I nearly teared up, myself, but it also made me feel less awkward about my Arsene-Wenger-man-crush. Now listen, I’m not trying to make this sexual, nor oedipal. (It’s more swooning admiration than any curiosity about what’s under the puffy coat.)

I think a lot of us value that we root for such an erudite, Renaissance-man sports hero. Is he not the model for many of us in the hipster-fan contingent? A polyglot, an economist, and he seems to represent a type of integrity that makes us feel good about ourselves.

If you haven’t seen the new HBO franchise “Westworld” yet, please do, as there’s a great scene in Episode 2 in which a man is forced to choose between the white hat, or the black hat, and his decision clues us in to his character.

Arsene Wenger is a classic, white-hat good-guy, and assholes like Jose Mourinho make the perfect foil. I honestly have no idea whether Wenger will slay his demons this year and win a major title. (Bill Belichick went 10 years without a Superbowl victory, and people still hail him as a genius.)

Will Arsene have his redemption? We’ll certainly find out over the next 7 months. And to carry you through on a Sunday, here are a few other questions I have, now that we’ve had a proper chance to see the squad. (But before Saturday’s Swansea game, fyi.)

  1. How good is Aaron Ramsey? Those of us who watched the 2013–14 season were gifted with scenes of such splendor. Volleyed goals, headed assists. Welsh Jesus played like that for how many months? How can you be that good, and then forget how to play that way?

Is it just that his legs are made of styrofoam? Did you know that styrofoam is made from oil?

Just how good is Aaron Ramsey? He made the team of the tournament at the Euros, ahead of some pretty excellent footballers. Can he be a super-star? Does he need to ply his trade elsewhere to make that happen? Is he Cazorla’s replacement next year? Has Wenger ever made a better purchase than little Santi?

  1. Is Monreal, Koscielny, Mustafi and Bellerin the best backline in the Premier League? If not, who’s better? We all know that Eric Bailly looks like he’s going to be a nuisance for years, but he’s just one guy.

Tottenham? No, because Kyle Walker is fast, but so is a racing dog, and they’re not too bright either. Chelsea? Please. Man City? Bacary Sagna still plays for them. And Vincent Kompany is 72 years old.

So if Arsenal does have the best back four, how long can they stay healthy?

  1. Will Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain ever come good? Are we not tired of asking? Everybody sees that he’s quick, fast, strong, technical, and he’s got a powerful shot. So what’s holding him back? Furthermore, does it even matter if he stagnates, now that Alex Iwobi is so badass, and we have other talented youngsters in the wings?
  1. Will Arsene Wenger’s gambit on tough-minded players pay off? Look back a few years. He bought Alexis and Ozil, and each has since won 2 Copa Americas and a World Cup. That’s major winning.

This year, he bought an Egyptian who grew up playing street ball in sweltering Cairo, and 2 ethnic Albanians who were raised as immigrants in Switzerland and Germany. Weren’t we always jealous of the Ivanovich-types? The Kolorovs? The ugly sons-of-bitches who got away with murder?

Lucas Perez matured late, so he had to work out his game in the hinterlands. He had to believe in himself. You know he’s going to shake this Arsenal opportunity in his teeth like a chihuahua hopped up on crystal meth.

Rob Holding’s from the North of England. Enough said. Gabriel, who sucks, unfortunately, played in the favelas of Sao Paulo.

The pattern is blatantly obvious. Arsene Wenger imported a junkyard dog spine into his team, and if it works, Arsenal might finally compete for a Premier League or Champions League title.

Do I think that will happen? Probably not. But we can’t know that for sure, can we? So let’s see these questions get answered between now and May, and you guys can debate as you like down below.


24 Comments on Return of the J: Questions

  1. It’s probably not a coincidence that we’ve got in such personalities, though I think it’s also a feature of being able to buy at the right age and right end of the market.

    I mentioned at the start of the season that Wenger will relish the challenge of all the incoming high profile managers, and will view his chance to win the title as a realistic possibility. Something he knew wasn’t the case even as we fought the good fight for a few years.

    It’s worth noting how he isn’t over-protective of his players in the media anymore. He’ll bring up faults on his own and ask players to improve. He’s said this team is more mature, and maybe that will help in getting us over the line in first place. Champions League? Now that would be a real dream come true, for the man himself, as much as (or even more than) all the Arsenal supporters.

  2. Some good questions there. Over all I think this team is less confounding than Wenger sides in the past and that’s not because we’re just behind City on GD.

    We play with a verve and bite that was missing for ages. Xhaka exemplifies what I’m talking about . Yes , losing possession was terrible but it was hardly as some one put it yesterday “gifting” Swansea a goal. The truth it was a marvelously composed piece of football to hit that strike.A rare and precious highlight reel goal that no one could have predicted.

    And the foul was clearly not a red card incident. Not even “dark yellow”. A foul to be sure but a professional one taken for the team. If he has to do it again I hope he does.

    Xhaka wants it and he shows that when he plays. That desire is what I really see coming out in the boys now. Look at Walcott, look at Ozil become a goal scoring fool. They all want it.

    • Yes, and beating Chelsea (soundly) and now Swansea definitely goes a long way to building belief. I also thought that Burnley win was so huge. That was “typical Arsenal” until the flukey injury time goal. It’s the kind of goal that makes you think this season was meant to be.

      • I was so ridiculous yesterday in my “Sanchez sucks: discuss” post. I guess I’m just frustrated that he hasn’t been able to finish some golden chances that have his way.

        This man is a 20 goal a season scorer. But the way he’s gelling with Ozil and destroying the shape of opposition defenses is a treat to watch.

        The panic he creates in centre backs when he’s on the ball is Wengerball.

        • Yes, he’s amazing, and we’re lucky to have two World Class players who so enjoy working together. We’re seeing glimpses of Chile-level Alexis Sanchez this season, and it bodes very well. That was the one question I had that I didn’t list above. Will we see that Alexis? If you caught Chile’s 7-0 blitzing of Mexico, he was an all action offensive dynamo. Equal parts goal scorer, creator, and pressing wizard.

          • Thanks doc. Me and my brother just discovered a trove of letters my Dad, a radiologist who died of cancer (there is something there – has to be with all that radiation exposure in the 1980s). He said in a letter to a colleague that your whole career will depend on the mistakes you can recover from.An Arsenal blog is not life and death but it really made me think about how we can admit fault and be better for it. Something that is sorely missing from the US election no?

  3. fun, fun!

    1. aaron ramsey is a very talented player and he does need to leave to become a superstar. he doesn’t fit at arsenal. i said this years ago. the problem is, as a coach, do you have the audacity to release a player knowing he has the potential to become a superstar? i’ve deferred that decision to the man paid £8 million a year to make that call.

    2. going into the season, i thought totts had the best defense (back 5) in the league. their stingy defense kept guardiola’s team from scoring while arsenal’s allowed the second bottom team to score two at home. bellerin is still young and mustafi is still new. bottom line, i think it still goes to totts but the jury’s still out.

    3. alex chamberlain coming good will be down to him. he has an abundance of talent but it takes more than just talent to come good at one of the best teams in the world. wenger’s given him the opportunity so it will depend on his temperament and how patient arsenal will be with him.

    4. his gambit on certain players will certainly pay off. his draw to a more read and seemingly more sophisticated players has not always paid dividends. players with a more raw and seemingly unforgiving background has always been where his heart has been. these players have displayed not only talent (chamberlain) but the courage to step outside of their comfort zone into the wilderness and the resilience to thrive. wenger’s always talked admirably about players who have come from the proverbial gutter; players from koscielny and drogba with equal zest and excitement. he loves those folks. they’re winners.

  4. I also strongly doubt if Ramsey will ever regain a truly central role in the Arsenal machine. The problem with Ramsey’s game is his lack of a sense of rhythm and timing essential to the kind of game Arsenal currently play. He lacks the technical finesse to engage in the intricate one-twos and selfless central overloads that the Arsenal front four are required to play. In his mind, Ramsey is THE star. He is not extravagantly talented enough to be the Chosen One for Arsenal or warrant a re-configuration of the system around him. It’s difficult to say which of Ramsey and Wilshere will eventually make it big at Arsenal. Wenger’s great fear, and nightmare scenario, is that the grim answer could ultimately be NEITHER.

    • If you watch Ozil this season, he’s roaming everywhere. It’s one constant game of link up, and give and go. He’s anywhere and everywhere, and so secure with the ball. But now he’s going for goal as often as trying to set up someone else. (Yesterday’s volley being the perfect example.) Couldn’t Ramsey play this same role whenever Ozil is rested or hurt? It would allow Arsene to rotate more often too. Just let Ramsey be a creative, offensive player. Give him a fair amount of games there. Maybe he becomes the new Ozil in 3 years, as he’s several years younger.

      • Ramsey does not have the mentality of a number two or a back-up. Which is not necessarily a bad thing by the way. He’s not cut out psychologically for that role, and lacks Ozil’s unique ability to interpret space and drift seamlessly between the lines. Besides, he’s only a couple of years younger than Ozil so why wait? In three years time, the Ozil role will be in the possession of Iwobi, Reine-Adelaide, or some other young phenom.

        • He can’t do exactly what Ozil does, true. But perhaps his skills do best translate as a 10. He has excellent interplay and passing abilities, and has a history of scoring. Like Alexis, perhaps his defensive skills can best be utilized by pressing from the front. That way, he can expend energy efficiently, rather than ruining his legs up and down the field. If Wenger believes this, I highly doubt he’ll sell Ramsey, which is the other option. I think he might integrate him into the team more as Wales-Ramsey than the guy we saw the last couple of years.

      • Ramsey is a fabulous talent. He has not been good enough in Arsenal colors lately. Those two are not mutually exclusive concepts. There’s a tendency in football to make a player’s recent performances a referendum on his career. I saw it with Theo Walcott on match of the day, probably the most watched program in football. Instead of talking about how he’s developing a knack for physical play and how he is scoring “fox in the box” goals now (and winning flick ons?? WTF) “expert analyst” Alan Shearer chose to sagely stroke his beard and admonish us that he will not consider Theo a “very good” player until he can keep up this scoring rate for a few years. For now, he intoned, Walcott is merely a “good” player. And with that, the book was closed on that topic. The critic has spoken, and Theo Walcott is merely a three star restaurant until further notice. Whether you agree with that or not is not the point; the point is that he misses out on the concept of growth and development and by taking the 10,000 foot view you miss the strides he has already made.

        Aaron Ramsey is such a rare talent. How many players can combine stamina, vision, touch, spatial awareness and finishing all on a high level? How many play for Arsenal? I count Alexis and maybe Ozil. After that, it’s Aaron Ramsey. He’s capable of being astonishingly good. He’s also capable of being extremely wasteful and/or careless with the ball and is prone to overelaborating. In a team full of possession oriented stars, he too needs the ball. This can lead to serious issues with balance in the team. However, he is also adept at darting between the lines and being in position to convert crosses, and that’s not something any of our current midfielders do well. He can be boneheaded and frustrating, but he is also special. He needs to earn his spot in the team, but we need to give him the opportunity to stick. His problem is one of mentality on the ball and discipline off it, and I back him to get it right.

        • I think it’s instructive to remember that prior to his fabulous 2013/14 season, Ramsey was oft criticized for many of the same things that we currently criticize him for, that he was positionally indisciplined and guilty of being wasteful in possession and of overcomplicating his play, However, at the tail end of 2013 he focused on simplifying his game and formed a very effective partnership with Mikel Arteta which helped us to finish the season on a ten game unbeaten run to overhaul spurs (and reverse our “negative spiral” as Andre Villas Boras put it). Both Ramsey and Wenger referred to that process of simplifying his game as the platform upon which his breakout season was built. I think that Ramsey’s problem is that he tends to try to force the action rather than be patient and allow the game to flow naturally and pick his moments when the time is right. Personally, I don’t think he’s selfish, I think he’s impatient.

      • ramsey doesn’t respect space well enough to be given a license to drift that özil has. mesut’s runs are purposeful, intelligent, and facilitate the attack. to quote thierry henry, özil does what the game asks of him. ramsey’s runs seem random and only facilitate him scoring with no regard to what his team mates are doing. once again, to reference henry, ramsey does what he wants regardless of what the game asks.

        the sad part is ramsey’s game wasn’t always so self-centered. when the rumors linking him to arsenal started, i began watching him. he always used the ball intelligently. did he get dumber as he got older? i don’t know.

    • I am not sure I agree that Ramsey thinks he is THE star. It implies a level of hubris which I don’t think he has. He is a good footballer but his style doesn’t seem to compliment Arsenal’s. He is an all-action type of midfielder who bombs forward at every opportunity rather than picking his forward runs. This makes his partnership with Cazorla a tricky one since Santi also likes to come forward when he can (which he should). His partnership with Arteta worked because Arteta always hung back and was technically sound enough. A partnership with Coquelin may also prove tricky especially when the Coq is pressing high to win the ball back. Will Ramsey have the positional discipline to cover the area in front of the back four when Coquelin is doing the dirty work higher up the pitch? I have my doubts but that’s something I feel he has lacked so far. Ramsey also has a bad habit of giving the ball away in our own half when pressed. With him and Coquelin in the center, we miss someone who can play their way out of danger when surrounded by more than one marker (something Cazorla is excellent at). A partnership with Xhaka may work. He seems the closest to Arteta except bigger and more aggressive. However, then you would need Ramsey himself to be the man who helps the front 4 in pressing the opposition. I think given the current set-up, his best position is on the right. Or maybe he plays the No.10 role when Ozil is out. The frustrating part with him is that he does a lot of things well but he isn’t world class level in any of them. A jack of all trades but master of none.

  5. Good stuff on Ramsey today. It is great problem to have: what do you do when he comes back into the side? We all know Wenger by now, he ain’t gonna mess with what is working just to put him back I to the side. Why do it? Cup games and subbing off the bench trying to gel with the midfield is his near term future.

  6. @Dr. Gooner: I respect your well articulated views. Ramsey indeed has a unique combination of qualities. However, he fails to put them fully and selflessly at the disposal of the team. The main reason for this is his mentality. Once he accepts a role as a cog, an important one but but not the centerpiece, he and Arsenal will be the better for it. Can he change that mindset? His success in the Arsenal machine depends on a reversion to a team-first game marked by simplicity and discipline. Wenger has always preferred his teams to function like an orchestra. He doesn’t like soloists if their presence detracts from the team ethic. You can indulge one or two soloists if they’re truly exceptional. Players like Alexis, although he wastes possession a bit too much and neglects better positioned team mates from time to time, can be humored because of their extraordinary work ethic and proven ability to get you out of jail with frequent moments of genius. They’re necessary outliers. The most successful players in the modern game, however, are those who “facilitate” others by setting the tempo of play and establishing a smooth recycling of the ball with the intention of creating the best offensive opportunities, not necessarily for themselves, but for their team. That’s why Wenger loved Rosicky so much. That’s why a technical but selfless genius like Cazorla has become our tactical fulcrum. That’s why Iwobi has emerged, why Ozil is magnificent, and why Welbeck will play a lot when he gets match-fit. As @Joshuad referenced Henry being on record as saying,” Ozil does what the game demands at any given time.” Incidentally, I’ve heard Wenger make that statement, not necessarily in respect of Ozil alone, a few times. That’s the Wenger player identikit. Indeed, he has gone on record to point to a need to reduce Alexis’s selfishness as one of the reasons and benefits of moving him away from the flanks to the center. Little wonder that Alexis’ assist stats are team-leading currently. If Ramsey wants to thrive in the current Arsenal set-up, he has to give up on his dream of winning a ballon d’Or from midfield…

    • Tochukwu, Thanks for your thoguhtful comment. I don’t disagree with what you say, except that I don’t think Ramsey is quite so selfish as you say. I think we can both agree his problem is one of mentality, not ability. However as I recall Ozil loves to play with Ramsey. They get each other’s game and they complement one another as well because Ramsey can be very direct with his running. I don’t think their game is mutually exclusive at all. I do think Ramsey needs a lot more positional discipline and really pick his moments to charge the box. He has to accept more defensive responsibility than he’s shown lately. I also agree that he needs to simplify his game in possession.

      What’s encouraging for his prospects is that the roving midfield role played by Coquelin of late would suit Ramsey’s game quite nicely. Coquelin may be a fierce competitor and the best ball winner we have, but Ramsey’s engine is also pretty great and he is more than capable of winning his share of tackles. Ramsey though would certainly make more of those positions that Coquelin has found himself in at times on the opposition’s 16.

      • As a central midfielder, he’s always going to need a proper defensive mid-fielder next to him. No Ramsey without Xhaka, Coquelin or El Neny. But what if we see him as an offensive player? Then his tenacity becomes a strength, rather than his lack of positional discipline a hindrance. Not reinventing the wheel here either, as he plays 10 for Wales. Rumblings are out today that Ozil’s contract situation might be sticky. I could easily be wrong, but wouldn’t be surprised if Ramsey gets to run the offense when Ozil gets a rest, both as a position change, like Alexis, and as a safeguard.

  7. Plenty of games to go around, but I remember a quote from arsene before..along the lines of when Ramsey is fit he plays…

  8. Those participating to this blog seem so knowledgeable that I hardly dare to intervene. But I’m fearless! I just wanted to express my surprise and disagreement to someone up there in the comments who wrote that the Xhaka red card was not warranted. Not true! this was an extremely cynical foul, more cynical than most, blatantly voluntary, not even disguised as a genuine challenge (the ball was more than a meter away when contact was made). Not dangerous, I grant you that, not hateful maybe (but he had been passed beautifully and did look a bit stupid. Players don’t like that!) but nevertheless unacceptable. These fouls must be rooted out.
    But enough on that topic. I want to thank the authors of the blog: entertaining, well informed, high quality, well written… A daily (or almost daily) pleasure. Thanks, guys!

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