The post I made about Arsenal after their match versus Chelsea was a post about how fans of sports teams need something to make them believe their team could win before full emotional support could be given. I said that while the win against Chelsea was a big step, I wasn't quite ready to commit yet and as if to prove my hesitation an act of prescience, Arsenal managed to draw 0-0 at home on Tuesday against Marseille. Don't misunderstand me, this wasn't a collapse of epic proportions or a terrible misstep by a team that needed a win. Though a win at home is the obvious desire and though Marseille were happy to get a point out of this match, Arsenal had just come off an emotional win against Chelsea on Saturday and has an important match (to their Premiership hopes, not in terms of the level of competition) with West Bromwich Albion on Saturday. It is understandable that Arsene Wenger would rest the most important player to his team, Robin Van Persie, and put faith in the rest of his squad to do what was needed to get the win. The only problem was, this faith was misplaced.
In the past few years, there have been two main complaints against Arsenal: they are sloppy on defense and they can't finish the chances they create. Both are fairly self-explanatory, but allow me to explain. While some have honed in on Arsenal's lack of ability to defend set pieces (a valid point, trust me), it's more important to take this as a whole and understand that Arsenal has trouble picking up the correct runs to defend, when to stop the ball, tracking runs through midfield, and so on. Attackers are often left unmarked or shaded incorrectly and Arsenal give up goals when it looks like all they had to do was have a basic understanding of defensive positioning. At the front, Arsenal simply don't score. Well, that's perhaps the wrong way to say things. Last year the Gunners scored 72 goals, second only to the 78 of Manchester United, the Premiere League champions. I suppose the right way to say this is that they score their goals in bunches or not at all, often mirroring what their opponent does and no more. It's fantastic to win 6-0 over Blackpool and 4-1 over Bolton in the beginning of the season, but it is indefensible to draw both Sunderland and Blackburn 0-0 at the Emirates in the latter third of the year. Arsenal often dominate possession and put chances on goal, but can't finish the job. Regardless of these problems, Arsenal finished 4th on the table last year and qualified for Champions League play. What then is the outlook for this year?
Needless to say, both based on the start to the season and the talent that left before the season started, the outlook is not so good. It is far from dire, but Arsenal cannot expect to leave these issues unresolved and slide into Champions League play again. Looking at the defense, they have gotten off to their bad start partly due to injuries. Thomas Vermaelen is a spectacular center full. When he is on the field, he organizes the team and can single-handedly save chances and goals for Arsenal. The problem is that he is only one man. At the best of times last years, he was playing with Laurent Koscielny, a maddeningly inconsistent counterpart who has had similar problems this year. And when Vermaelen is injured, as he often is, Koscielny must play and at times must lead the defense. This year, there is a more viable second center full in Per Mertesacker. Vermaelen and Mertesacker is the obvious center pair and they looked quite good against Marseille on Tuesday. However if one of them is out of the lineup, as Vermaelen was the first part of this year with an injury, then the defense is downgraded significantly and the middle of the defense is no better than last year. Flank play is something that saved Arsenal at times during the 2010-2011 season because both Gael Clichey and Bacaray Sagna are fantastic two way players. The problem this year is that Clichey has moved on to Manchester City while Sagna is out for months with a foot injury. Now Arsenal must deal with Carl Jenkinson and Andre Santos, players who love to get forward but are very suspect with their on-the-ball defending. This is the problem that Arsenal faces this year. The wings will be less solid because of the personnel available, so Vermaelen and Mertesacker must work with defensive midfielder Alex Song to lock down the middle of the field, stop runs before they start, track players through effectively, and avoid giving up cheap goals off of free kicks. If these players can stay healthy and play cohesively, Arsenal might be slightly better on defense than they were last year.
The problem on offense right now is quite simple: Robin Van Persie is the offense. When Danny Welbeck went down with an injury earlier this year for Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson had the oh-so-terrible front two of Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez. And if Man U needs to dip further into the well because of a number of games played in a row, they have the proven goalscoring talent of Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen on the bench. Manchester City has the luxury of starting Sergio Aguero, Mario Balotelli, or Edin Dzeko, and that's with Carlos Tevez essentially being kicked off the team. Who do Arsenal have when they need to rest Van Persie, either temporarily for a match to give him a breather, or, god forbid, long term if he goes down with an injury (and guess what: he's injury prone)? Marouane Charmakh, who can neither hold up the ball or stay involved in the run of play long enough to make a difference? Or perhaps Park Chu-Young, who was all but invisible during the Marseille match? Granted Park could improve and become better as time goes on, but he is hardly an option now. To underscore the point, Arsenal have scored twenty goals in the Premiership this year. Ten have been scored by Van Persie. Only Gervinho and Theo Walcott have multiple goals and each only have two. While that does speak to the brilliant season Van Persie is having, it also speaks to the complete lack of scoring depth for Arsenal.
What may be the most important component to this season may be something that hasn't recently been an issue: the midfield. Last year when Van Persie started the season injured, Arsenal was not only receiving better passes and set-ups orchestrated by Cesc Fabregas, but also additional scoring from the midfield through Fabregas and Samir Nasri. There was also the promise of a young Jack Wilshere growing into his role as a secondary midfield maestro. This year the midfield is being run by Mikel Arteta, who I am happy to have (though if I was shopping for a Spaniard during the transfer window I would have broke the bank on Juan Mata) but isn't the passer that Fabregas is. Once Wilshere gets back things may improve, but it will be interesting to see how Wenger fits Wilshere, Arteta, and Ramsey into that five-man midfield. Even if a proper rotation/formation is developed, it could take time for everything to come together, time Arsenal most likely will not have. I will say this: I think Arsenal will get more scoring from the midfield. Gervinho and Walcott have shown too much flair and promise to not score more in the future, and though his games can be hit or miss, Aaron Ramsey has proven he has a flair for the dramatic. There is also the possibilitt of contributions from young Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who will most likely see more chances as time goes on. Together, this midfield may not be as good as last year's squad, but they are fully capable for giving Van Persie the support he needs and carrying this Arsenal team through.
-For me, Gervinho was the man of the match against Marseille. He ran up and down the wings as well as into the center of field, not only beating defenders with his pace, but showing much more touch on his passes than he had at the beginning of the year. He was constantly leading Arsenal's counterattacks and can blame his teammates for some poor runs and bad touches that cost Arsenal solid chances on goal. If Gervinho can keep being this kind of a menace on the wing, the goals are going to come, not only for him but for his teammates as well.
-Running a close second to Gervinho was Thomas Vermaelen. Good god is it fantastic to have him back in the center of defense. Not only does he make great saving tackles on otherwise productive runs by the opposition, but he organizes his defense and keeps defenders like Mertesacker from having to do too much. I fully believe that if Mertesacker can be the second central defender who challenges in the air and slows down attacks, Arsenal will be fine because Vermaelen can do so much more. But if Vermaelen is out and either Mertesacker or Koscielny have to attempt to play above their level, it is trouble for the Gunners.
-Arsenal really needs to get more out of the substitutes that they send on the field. For the record, I'm not counting matches like the first leg against Marseille when Ramsey came on and eventually scored the game winner. Ramsey is a starter on this Arsenal squad and will not normally be coming off the bench. I'm talking about players like Andrei Arshavin, Yossi Benayoun, and Tomas Rosicky, who are supposed to give the team a lift when they come in, using their experience and fresh legs to expose a tiring defense. Instead we too often see them come into a match and immediately disappear, except when picking up awful yellow cards (looking at you Rosicky) or trying to take on three men on the flank (looking at you Arshavin). For Arsenal to succeed this season, both in England and in Europe, their substitutes need to be meaningful contributors. And if the veterans can't do it, Wenger should absolutely look further down the bench and give his young players a chance. As always, Go Gunners.