Variety is the spice of life and Arsenal’s attack is capable of producing that. With the calibre of player at the club there’s no surprise in Per Mertesacker’s view that this is a pivotal reason for the strong end of season finish. I know you can only beat the opposition on the pitch at the time but Monday night’s win over Hull might well have been the best performance of the season with the struggling hosts made to lo0k as bad as they were.
The BFG observed,
We are so unpredictable in what we are doing, even for me at the back sometimes it looks a bit weird! Sometimes we lose balance but sometimes it is really good so we have to keep going and focus on our game, especially defensively.
Sanchez, Özil and Cazorla are hugely talented players. Their skill without the ball, has been to marry themselves into the team environment without losing the individualism which has made them stand out.
Chief beneficiary has been Aaron Ramsey. The Welshman enjoys the space that the three players create for him with their runs and passes, drifting inside from the right. It worked on Monday with Hull leaving gaps to be exploited and against Liverpool for the same reason. Better organised sides neuter his threat; Chelsea and Reading were able to render him impotent and leave Arsenal without any natural width to stretch their well-marshalled defences.
It’s that balance which Arsène has to find and Ramsey may find himself rotating with Oxlade-Chamberlain – fitness permitting – in future games, depending on how the opposition set themselves. The two games it has worked well were noticeably against defences shaped with three central defenders.
But as Mertesacker observed, the biggest improvement in the second half of the season has been the defensive shape and concentration. As with Wenger’s title-winning sides, concentration at the back has been the foundation for success. It underlines the folly of last summer when the manager failed to sign another centre back, choosing to leave the situation to chance as he had done in previous years. It backfired spectacularly this time around with Monreal and Debuchy both taking the central role.
If, as everyone hopes, we are to progress, a decisive summer’s work is needed off the pitch to strengthen the squad. It’s inevitable that there will be a larger number of departures than arrivals with contract positions and the quality of some of the loanees returning. The likes of Podolski, Sanogo and Campbell, judging by reports, don’t seem to have done anything to change the view that their futures lie away from The Emirates.
Much of the talk surrounds the spine of the team and I wouldn’t disagree with most of those arguments. The one I do concerns the goalkeeper. David Ospina has proved more than competent since taking over between the sticks from Wojciech Szczesny and is, I feel, harshly judged.
We live in an age when the sobriquet ‘world-class’ underpins opinions on players and is readily bandied around but without a solid defence in front of him, a goalkeeper is going to struggle. And Arsenal’s defence in the first half of the season was anything but solid. I would also contend that there are very few ‘world-class’ goalkeepers around at the moment. It’s one of those times when having an international between the sticks may well be enough.
Petr Cech’s reputation has seduced everyone. He is a good goalkeeper but I don’t think he would have gained us any more points that Ospina has since the turn of the year. If Szczesny leaves then Cech is a more than capable replacement for a couple of seasons whilst a longer-term alternative is sourced.
It’s for the summer though. As Mertesacker said, it’s about finishing second and winning the FA Cup this season. If Liverpool fail to win at Stamford Bridge this weekend, the top four finish is secure. If United fail to win also, the top three can be secured if we beat Swansea on Monday. A small but tangible step forward.
Quite quickly, rivals are dropping away and the focus on the top two becomes sharper. As I’ve said previously, quite a lot of the assessment on whether improvements have been made will be subjective but improvement is a meaningless term if we don’t use it as a building block to a stronger future.