On the back of a winged horse

On the back of a winged horse
Through the sky of pearly grey
Love is leaf-like…
You and me, baby
Twinkle, twinkle
Blah, blah, blah
E! T! C!
– Minutemen, #1 Hit Song

My favorite poetry is anti-poetry. My favorite comedy is anti-comedy. My favorite heroes are anti-heroes. My favorite line from any move is “what do you got?” I’m so painfully Generation X that I think the song that epitomizes my outlook is the Queers, I hate everything. And so, whenever I hear the hipsters say “Arsenal need a winger”, my initial reaction is “no.”

I have learned that just hating everything is wrong and dumb. That doesn’t mean that my initial reaction has changed, just that I’ve learned to shut up before I say something stupid (usually).

About once a day I get asked if Arsenal need a winger and my initial reaction is “which podcast did you hear this on?” The phrase “winger” is so specific that it makes me bristle. We don’t want a Lennon, bursting down the wings, whipping in crosses to some oafish center forward, that’s a winger. But if we nuance this a bit and ask, does Arsenal need another creative player, the answer is yes.

Arsenal are stuck with a small problem. Teams perform best when they have multiples that they can use to beat you up. France won the world cup, not just because they had Mbappe but because they had Mbappe and Griezmann. They won the final not just because they had N’Golo Kante, but because they were able to bring in Steven N’zonzi as well, who gave them a different physical profile and much better passing.

Looking at the squad, Arsenal lost a lot of creative talent last season. Ozil is number one in terms of key passes (3.2 per game) but Alexis was #2 with 2.7 per game and his replacement, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, while a fantastic all around worker only brings 1.5 key passes per game. Arsenal also lost Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott, and Jack Wilshere all of whom were widely panned by Arsenal fans but who brought 1.7 key passes, 2 key passes (in EL) and 1.8 key passes (in EL) per game respectively.

This point about having multiple players doing the creative work is bets illustrated by Arsenal’s best recent season in terms of shot creation. Ozil was at his best when Cazorla was on the pitch. This is because teams couldn’t just mark Ozil, or Santi would open them up and vice-versa.

Arsene Wenger wanted Alex Iwobi to be that player but the Nigerian hasn’t made the step up. He was featured for one game in the World Cup but was pulled off at 62 minutes and then dropped for their final two matches. That’s as bad a World Cup as imaginable.

Iwobi is actually Arsenal’s second most creative player in the Europa League and third in the Premier League. So, if you say “does Arsenal need a winger” my answer is “no. But we need an upgrade on Iwobi.”

Harsh on the young man, perhaps. The thing is that it’s difficult to find young players who offer as much as Iwobi does going forward. That sounds contradictory to my previous statement but it’s not.

Anthony Martial is mooted and I think he’s an upgrade on Iwobi but I can’t see United selling him to Arsenal. Dembele is being packaged into some kind of deal with Chelsea to get Eden Hazard so I think he’s out.

There are some interesting players out there but as far as I can tell they would all be pretty big gambles. Emre Mor was a highly rated prospect at BvB but has since had numerous discipline problems at Celta Vigo and is looking for a new club this summer. He’s one of the most technically gifted young players in the world but clearly not easy to work with.

Another chancer is Allan Saint-Maximin. He’s described as “raw” but also as the player pushing Mbappe and Neymar for best player in Ligue Un. 1.5 key passes and 3.6 dribbles per game tells you why. Joaquin Correa played for Sevilla last season and had a decent year. His p90 stats are up there with the best but he’s not been able to play more than 1300 minutes a season.

Some names will inevitably pop up: Wilfried Zaha, is the one I think of. And his stats are quite impressive: 1.6 key passes p90 from open play, 7 dribbles attempted p90 (4.2 successful), and he did score 9 goals last season. But something about the way he plays is just.. I’m not a fan.

I don’t see anything in the reliable newspapers linking Arsenal to anyone at the moment. That could be because we are preparing for a sneak attack or because we are done (unless something falls in our laps). I think it’s the latter.

That means that this is yet another area which Unai Emery has his work cut out for him. Unless we buy some big star player, Emery is going to have to improve the ones we have and get them creating more: Iwobi, Nelson, Maitland-Niles, Rene-Adelaide, Torreira, Xhaka, Ramsey, Guendouzi, Lacazette, Aubameyang, and maybe even Lucas Perez.

That’s what the club said they bought him to do, folks.



  1. This was my exact logic when I said Mahrez was the player Arsenal needed not Kante when Leicester won their title.
    Not that I didn’t like Kante, quite the opposite in fact.
    I like him very much but whether with or without Kante in the Arsenal line up Wenger was never going to truly set his team in a proper defensive structure.
    Mahrez on the other hand ,while light on the defensive side of things ,provides so much offensively that the £40m price tag rumored for him two years ago would’ve been a great get.

  2. You forgot arsenal KDB, young smith Rowe. That’s why he’s being elevated to first team.must say he’s quite direct aand does have a good dribble on him.so you have our next creator

    1. I loved seeing him play for 30 seconds on Saturday but he’s rawer than an antelope being brought down in the jaws of a matron lioness.

  3. What do folks think about making a play for Christian Pulisic? He’s wingerish, creative, young, and proven at a relatively high level.
    He would be expensive, but that might easily be offset by increased by giving Arsenal more exposure in the American market.
    Plus we’d be snatching him from under the noses of Spurs, who are rumored to be keen on him.

    1. I’m all for it, but good luck paying BVB enough money to lose another talent like that. It will start at the 95 mil that Dembele commanded two years ago.

  4. I think winger refers more to the longitudinal area of the pitch that they like to operate in.

    Wenger played Mhykitaryan as a “left wing” but in truth he operated in the half-channel. City by contrast have Sane and Sterling with strict instructions to stay super wide, almost on the sideline – it creates one v one match-ups, pins opposing fullbacks and creates space inside for DeBruyne and Silva.

    In the City sense then – we do need a winger. A one v. one specialist that can hug the sideline and force interior defenders to come wide and help, thereby opening up the middle for Ramsey et al. If only as a strategic option. Ozil, Mhyki, Iwobi… these are all half-channel attacking midfielders that drift inside and allow defenses to compact the middle.

    I think Nelson has winger traits but needs to be developed. Zaha would be a great fit because he’s a trickster, a great one v. one player and homegrown so helps with the quota. I would love Martial, but truthfully he should be played up the middle.

    I thought this Portuguese kid was available on a free from Sporting?

  5. I agree, I hate the word winger, not because it’s too specific but because it’s no longer a relevant term in modern football. Football has passed by the traditional concept of a “winger” a long time ago, much like “full back” and “centre half,” but the change has been recent enough that the term is still widely used. Nobody plays 4-4-2 like they did in the days of Rocastle and Armstrong, but it wasn’t that long ago that a player like Damien Duff, an old school McManaman throwback, was an important part of a championship winning outfit. But Duff was the last knocking of that breed. Blame Wenger! He was one of the first, certainly in England, to do away with traditional wingers in lieu of wide playmakers like Pires who didn’t try to beat people off the dribble or cross as much, and wide “inside” forwards like Henry and Ljungberg who scored goals not with their size but their speed and skill. Since then, players who would’ve been “wingers” in the 80’s because of their dribbling prowess and speed, like Robben, Neymar and Messi, have instead become the focal points of their teams with systems around them designed to exploit their best traits. We live in an age where footballers at the very top level are more universal in their skillsets than ever, no longer asked to hone and develop a 1-2 traits only as they were in prior years. Oh, how Giggs or McManaman must rue the decade they were born into!

    Anyway, viewed with that lens, Arsenal’s needs in wide areas completely depend on the system that Unai Emery wants to implement. It’s true that the cupboard is a little lacking in players who are excellent dribblers, and certainly we lack the devastating prowess of a Hazard for example. I would point out though that Manchester City won the league at a canter without a player primarily known for his dribbling, instead relying on stretching the field of play with the pace of their wide players, Sane and Sterling, and crucially, dominating the play utterly with their skillful, hard working midfield three. That seems closer to the blueprint Unai is likely to follow, especially given the players he has at his disposal. Lacazette fits the profile of a penalty box predator in the mould of Aguero, while Aubameyang still has the speed to stretch defenses as Sane does, if not necessarily the same quickness or first step as the young German (anymore). On the other side, a player like Mkhitaryan or Ozil profiles well to fill what is likely to be a physically demanding but positionally more withdrawn role. I personally favor Mkhitaryan, but Ozil almost has to have a place in the starting XI and my bet is that’s where he’ll find a home. If that is Emery’s tactical setup, then the true width, as it did for Wenger’s teams, will come from the backs, probably Bellerin most of all. The more robust and physically imposing Kolasinac would be a good counterbalance on the other side, and as we know he is also quite handy coming forward. Still, it’s probably Monreal’s position to lose given the Spaniard’s greater experience and quality in the buildup.

    If Emery feels he still needs a player who can reliably win 1v1 situations in wide areas, he would do well to have a look at Jeff Reine-Adelaide, back from loan in Ligue 2 after his season was cut short by injuries. He posted 11 successful dribbles in one game (against Bordeaux) and looks difficult to dispossess as well as handy in the air.

  6. Yeah, I think our business is done, and, as you say, we’ll be looking at the likes of Iwobi and AMN to make the step up. I’ve spoken my mind about the former. He’s not just stagnated, he’s regressed, and it will take a miracle for him to improve to a level deemed acceptable at a club with top four ambitions. As to AMN, I’m very curious as to how Emery will use him. Everyone talks about him being a DM, but I don’t think Emery will see him as such, and I’ve thought he looks quite useful as an attacking player.

    While I see it as a problem that we’re not (or I don’t think we are) on the lookout for another creative player — perhaps someone who can occupy a wide forward position (I’m carefully avoiding the term ‘winger’ here!) — I’m sort of resigned to what we are and have right now, and hope that we can eventually get into the CL spots that might attract better talent than what we currently have. (I’m going to make a very unpopular statement, but Reiss Nelson — whom one might expect to be the player to step into that creative wide forward position — is a tad overhyped, in my opinion. I’ve seen him do a couple of nifty things, but he’s years away from the first team, and I’m not confident it will be at Arsenal. Still, we should see him used frequently in pre-season, along with a lot of other young players, so maybe I’ll get a different picture of his talent in the coming weeks. I have similar reservations about Nketiah, though I know most people think he’s the bee’s knees.)

    Looking at the other end of the pitch, I see there might be some GK merry-go-around shenanigans in the works, which might see Cech return to Chelsea. Interesting. Oh, and Liverpool signing Alisson? Give them the title now!

    1. I agree on Nelson. He’s got the skillzz down, but not sure he’s ready for the actual football at the top level. He’s also out of contract I think, and might be sold if he’s trying to pressure his way into the first team.

      I think Nketiah is great. He’s one of those old school strikers I think. Who seem to not do anything special, except score. A striker like that is exactly what football lacks these days. Just stick it in the net as they used to say. I expect him to get some good game time this season.

      Liverpool have a great squad. If they don’t win the title in the next 2 seasons Klopp will face some tough questions. I still think ManCity will be the team to beat. Hopefully we can do just that on opening day.

  7. I typed a response and it seems to have disappeared in the ether, so apologies if this is a rehash and the earlier comment appears.

    Winger is more in reference to what longitudinal zone of the pitch a player likes to operate in. Wenger played Mhyki on the “left wing” but in truth he was in the left half-channel. You contrast that with City that have Sane and Sterling with strict instructions to stay wide and hug the sideline, thereby pinning the opposing fullbacks, forcing central defenders to come wide and help and making more room in the middle for DeBruyne and Silva to operate.

    In that sense it wouldn’t hurt for us to have a “winger” at least as a strategic option – a trickster dribbler that excels in one v one duels with fullbacks and can force teams to spread out defensively. Ozil, Mhyki, Iwobi… these are all half-channel operators that drift inside and allow defenses to compact the middle.

    I think Nelson has some winger traits, but needs development. I would like Zaha; he is a great one v one player and being homegrown would help with the quota. Martial is not a winger unless Mourinho (i.e. an idiot) is his coach.

    What happened to this Portuguese kid from Sporting that was available on a free?

  8. I still have big hopes for Iwobi. He’s young & strong, can beat opponents (with the ball), has a powerful shot on either foot and just keeps on going.
    On the minus….he doesn’t always pick the right pass (or perhaps he does, but his team mates don’t read it) and a bit off target with his goal attempts.
    I hope he doesn’t go out on loan & is given a chance (again) this season.

      1. I agree, I think what he’s going through are some growing pains that all young players experience. I think he was also struggling with confidence at times. The talent is clearly there and I’m excited to see how he gets on with his new coaches. The Cazorla comparison is not far fetched but he has a long way to go to get there. As for his struggles with Nigeria, I just felt like he didn’t really fit with what that team was trying to do. They seemed to want their wide players to stretch the defense and that’s just not Alex’s game. Also, he only played in their one game when they were collectively awful and I can’t really hold him entirely responsible for that.

        1. Doc – the Cazorla comparison is VERY far-fetched. It goes beyond decision-making. Cazorla saw the play developing before it happened. Iwobi takes too many touches while pondering where to go. I like the guy, and I hope he progresses under Unai, but I don’t see Iwobi realizing his potential.

          1. I don’t mean right now, I mean in 5-6 years.. he could profile as a version of Cazorla given his build, two footedness and eye for a pass. He may never get there, it’s just the potential that I see.

    1. Yup, it’s his decision-making that lets him down more often than not. He was very frustrating when he played last season.

  9. I think Miki should improve. He barely played at ManU, and played in a Mourinho team. With a full pre-season and greater understanding with his teammates, I think his key passes stat will show improvement. The other guy who will be creative for us under Emery, I think is Xhaka. I think we’ll be playing with him as a regista, and Ramsey/AMN and Elneny/Torreira in front of him to press/cover.

    Ozil might be better too if he’s over his back injury.

    The point is I don’t think we’re signing anyone. But just for fun, I’m going to say let’s go for Adama Traore. Yes he’s basically just Theo with muscles minus goals, and is playing under Tony Pulis (last I heard at least), but he’s got some experience at Barcelona, and he can be unplayable with his speed and dribbling at times. Which traits are what I suspect people mean by wingers.

    Speaking of which, I think Iwobi is a real talent, but now has to start making ‘goal contributions’. Better decision making is what he needs. Hopefully

    1. I’m interested in Adama Traore too. He’s the guy bring something fun if AFC got. He doesn’t have a skill set we need, passing or shooting… but he’s a crazy addict as for dribbling.

  10. Oh, Tim, surely Hazard is heading to Madrid rather than Barcelona? (Not that we’re signing Dembele, mind.)

    1. He’s VERY VERY high on my list. I’d put him above Dembele. Would be the signing of the season if we pulled it off. I’ll wait for the sounding of the Orn.

      1. Yes, he’s really been biding his time at Bayern behind Ribery, and he’s progressed a ton in the last 2 years. Speed to burn, excellent dribbler and his crosses have improved significantly. This would be huge. Much better than the Juan Bernat rumors. God save us.

      2. Allan Saint-Maximin is a really interesting player – I’d gamble on him. Simone Verdi is another one who had a breakout season with Bologna but Napoli have already closed a deal for him.

        It’s interesting that Klopp and Guardiola have gone for Mahrez and Shaquiri. Two wingers who might not be “world-class” but their ability to put the opposition on the back foot means pressing those teams will be even harder this year.

        1. Forgot to mention 20-yr old Federico Chiesa, son of Enrico Chiesa, one of the great strikers from the halcyon days of Football Italia.

          Properly two-footed, great acceleration. Looks like he can do everything Pulisic can do and he’s just a just a few months older. Won’t stay at Forentina for much longer.

    2. No chance, before he got injured he was having a breakout season, he’s considered Bayern’s future, they’re getting another season out of Ribery and Robben but he’s going to take over. Bayern are looking to rather add another winger, possibly Martial, they won’t let anyone go.

      1. That was my thinking as well. I don’t understand why this rumor even started (beIN isn’t trashy). Is he looking for an improved contract, perhaps?

        1. Beats me. Maybe to remind the world he’s still there after missing out on the WC? Arsenal is always good for exposure.

  11. informative and interesting post Tim, and it would seem that my musings regarding the lets say ‘creative winger’ position are in alignment to yours.
    like you i believe that if possible we should invest in a “starter creative winger”. As Tom said Mahrez would have fitted my perfect definition of the type of ‘winger’ we should have targeted earlier.

    Of the the market now, Dembele & Martial are probably as good as it gets in terms of quality but as bad as it gets in terms of recruiting one of them for reasons you’ve explained.

    So the key question for me is will Emery buy in the market below the Dembele’s and Martial’s ( Zaha, Saint-Maximin,Mor etc) or will he work with what he has (Iwobi, Perez, THE JEFF, Nelson. Maybe even Aubameyang) and hope that one or two of them can produce what he demands of that position on a consistent basis.

    Im curious as to what he’ll do.

  12. Doc made a comment several posts back that I challenged him on. How Arsene failed with the current crop of French players (or words to that effect). I’ve been thinking about that a lot and want to walk that challenge back a bit (hopefully more artfully than Trump’s would/wouldn’t explainer:) )

    We scouted Kante, before he was a teenager, I think. Why isnt he ours? Cant think of a non Arsenal player Ive liked more these past 3 years. When Pogba left United disgruntled over playing time, did we move for him? If not, why not? Why, of all the players who left United, do we end up with an old Silvestre and Danny Welbeck?

    Lloris. How did he end up at Spurs with Le Professor in residence a few miles down the road?

    And we used to be able to spot rough diamonds like Dembele. We did have a few Aliadieres among the Anelkas and Henrys, but apart from the fact that other clubs acquired the market intelligence that used to be unique to us, I wonder.

    1. i think Wenger had intimate knowledge of a single generation of players. After that, he spent too long in England and relied on his scouts, to which he was overly loyal.

      1. “Overly loyal” sums up Wenger’s attitude to most things and people, and I loved him for it.

      2. Plus I think his contacts in France just dried up. Football’s a fast moving business, the turnover in personnel is constant and rapid, agents, coaches, etc.

      3. I don’t know.
        I think he was more loyal to his players than anything else.
        Some reports said the scouting network worked just fine in regards to identifying talented players before they became too expensive / well known for Arsenal to have a relatively free shot at them but Wenger just couldn’t pull the trigger.

        It must be difficult telling your own players how much you believe in them day in and day out and then turn around and sign someone to play in their spot.
        When it’s someone like Ozil or Sanchez then it’s one thing, but when it’s a Kante or Mahrez before their blow out season at Leicester, then it’s a totally different story.
        Incidentally, the three most often given reasons for not signing Mahrez , if Wenger was even interested in him at all, were that we already had players filling his role.
        Sanchez on the left ( sort of) , Walcott on the right, and Ox occasionally playing in advanced position on the right wing.

        All three are no longer with the club.
        Sanchez and Ox wanted out, something Wenger just couldn’t come to terms with, and Theo for all his well rounded personality just wasn’t good enough.

        In retrospect, Wenger’s declining abilities as a manager weren’t just obvious on the pitch on a game day, but also in his decision making when it came to signing new talent and keeping or getting rid of existing one.

    2. Yeah the proof is in the pudding and it wasn’t just in France that we couldn’t find players anymore. Mbappe is the one that really stings me, what with him coming from Wenger’s former club and all. And I know how highly touted he’s been for such a long time, but I feel like 10 years ago Wenger still has the inside track for a player like that and David Dein does what it takes to make sure he comes to Arsenal. I finally feel like we have the required bit of know how and elbow grease in the transfer marker again this summer for the first time since maybe 2008 when we got Nasri.

      Also spare a thought for poor old Koscielny, probably the last “diamond in the rough” “plucked” by Wenger from France. Imagine missing out on winning the friggin WORLD CUP because your gammy achilles finally gave out in like the last game of the regular season. Poor bloke. He may have been only a reserve the whole time but man, he would’ve deserved it.

      1. Giroud wasn’t exactly unknown, but I wouldn’t call him a failure either. Scored 100 goals for us.

        1. Sure, but not exactly diamond in the rough category after being the leading scorer for the unlikely champions of the league that year.

    3. Continuing your thought process a bit Claude…

      We went for Vermaelen and ignored his teammate Vertonghen
      We went for Gervinho and ignored his teammate Hazard
      We were waiting on Carlos Vela while his teammate Griezmann was turning into a beast

      And with Lloris we kept faith with the two Poles just long enough for Spurs to snatch him up. Yeah they’re still Sp*ds and haven’t won jack but that’s not the point – Lloris would’ve made us a lot better.

      Here’s hoping we have a little more luck with our scouting in years to come and some of the youngsters we have blow up with us.

      1. Just as a point. We didn’t ignore either Vertonghen or Hazard. The former chose not to join us because he wasn’t sure he’d be first choice at Arsenal. We met Hazard’s transfer fee but lost out on wages. Plus Chelsea were more attractive anyway.

        As for Griezmann,, Wenger was dissuaded by the stats folks at Arsenal.

        Doesn’t take away from the issue under discussion but those examples aren’t exactly the same thing.

        1. They don’t have to be exactly the same thing to illustrate the point.

          While we’re being pedantic, “Chelsea were more attractive anyway” is absolute rubbish. If we lost out on wages as you say, then it was about money.

          I remember Hazard trying to finesse it by announcing he was joining “The European Champions”. We should have offered him more, but he went there for the money.

      2. Griezman – But StatsDNA told Wenger no, according to rumors.

        Hazard – I think Gervinho was the more realistic option

        Vertonghen – The one that got away. He is really, really good. Had a great WC.

        1. Meunier had the best world cup of the belgian back line (excepting Courtois). What a player. We already have young Hector, though. But at this point, the Belgian is a significantly better player than he is, good as Bellerin is.

        2. They all got away.

          It’s cool though – we have the Emirates and we’ve secured our financial future. Meanwhile Chelsea’s billion-pound stadium project is on hold because oligarchs are now politically vulnerable. Lovely.

  13. Nelson does not have it yet-
    Ox out for season, Arsenal got lucky.
    Coman in a second.
    AMN will develop swiftly now. He does have it.
    Still think the Arsenal need another center back as Kos ain’t never playing like he used to after that surgery.

  14. Great discussion on wingers. We’ll struggle to replicate signings for wide positions like Overmars and Ljungberg. Pires and early Thierry Henry weren’t wingers in the classic sense, but they played the position well. In fact Thierry, even as our nominal CF, liked to play wide left and empty his bag of tricks.

    These days if you can’t ally wing play with goal and (crossing but especially non-crossing) assist productivity in this day and age, you’re not in the game. So Mahrez is a fantastic signing for City (although I disagree with my friend Tom on the relative values of him and the priceless Kante 😊).

    Effective wingers have that burning pace to leave you for dead. Strikingly, that’s where Mbappe played for France. If he got clear, you weren’t catching him.

    Feel bad for Ox, because wing play is the area in which I think he can take his play to the next level, and he can become a really important player for England. But as good a ferryer of the ball as he is with his power and directness, i dont think that he has link play ability to play in the centre. If I could have him back as a wing option, I would. Iwobi is not a wide player to me. He’s the internal solution for replacing Jack Wilshere. Only with more speed and power. But he’s a far way from having Jack’s quick decision making brain in the final third.

    Germany didn’t go far, but I really liked the look of Brandt when he came on a sub.
    Speaking of which… Doc, what is Sane if not a winger?

    1. I just don’t like that term because to me that paints a picture of wide players that just isn’t true anymore, for all the reasons I went through above. You could loosely apply the term to anyone who plays in a wide forward position but there is such a spectrum of roles, styles and functions there… to me a “winger” is a player who lives to get to the byline and/or put service into the box, allergic to building possession and crossing at every opportunity with just the one foot, just like old Kevin Trippier for England. The way Sane is used to stretch defenses and recycle back to the midfielders to advance possession or find a killer pass off the dribble… well, you could call it winger play in the same way you’d call the Last Supper a painting. Sure, yes, it’s basically what it is. But that doesn’t come close to describing it.

  15. If you want a speedster who can dribble and shoot – check out 17 year old Alphonso Davies of Vancouver Whitecaps. Ridiculously fast, leaves people on their butts, and can shoot. Mbappe’s goal in the final? Davies against Washington this week was better.

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