Post-Everton thoughts on Ospina, Gabriel, Walcott and more

Give David Ospina his dues…
Would I pick him over Wojciech Szczesny? No. Am I convinced he’ll be Arsenal’s long-term number one? Not even nearly. However, credit where credit is due: he was excellent against Everton.

As anticipated, Arsene Wenger dropped Per Mertesacker for Gabriel. However, what was arguably more intriguing about his team selection was the players who retained his trust. Ospina and Olivier Giroud, both disappointing in midweek, kept their spots.

In Giroud’s case, that wasn’t a huge surprise. Arsene has a longstanding admiration for the striker, who has established himself as the club’s undisputed first-choice centre-forward at the club.

Ospina is a different case. Although he has been a regular in the team since January, Arsene has never publicly declared him the new “No. 1”. There has been a lingering suspicion that the manager was simply waiting for Ospina’s first substandard display to reintroduce Szczesny.

The Monaco debacle made this an easy time to justify a change, yet Wenger stuck with the Colombian. That’s a significant show of faith. It begs the question: if the boss didn’t see fit to change after Monaco, does that suggest Ospina is likely to retain his place until May? And if so, what does that mean for Szczesny’s future?

Gabriel had a decent game…
I think there’s a danger that assessment of his performance falls victim to hyperbole. He made a couple of outstanding tackles, but those eye-catching contributions were balanced out by some glaring errors.

His decision to let the ball bounce in the first half, allowing Romelu Lukaku to steal in and run at David Ospina, was particularly bizarre. There was also a wildly misplaced pass and a couple of mistimed jumps for headers. Perhaps nerves were a factor for a guy making his first start in the Premier League.

There’s a lot to like about Gabriel, but he looks very much like a player still adapting to the demands of a new league. Koscielny suffered from plenty of teething problems; Mertesacker too. It may be next season before the begin to see the best of the Brazilian. His adaptation will certainly be accelerated if he retains his place ahead of the jaded German.

Theo Walcott must be worried…
If he can’t get off the bench in a game like this, when the manager has made a definitive decision to rotate his squad, he’s in trouble.

For weeks debate has raged about which of he or Danny Welbeck is more deserving of a first-team place. That dichotomy was a disservice to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who was one of few bright spots in the first half of the campaign.

It now feels as if both Welbeck and Chamberlain are more prominent in Wenger’s thoughts. Some have suggested a connection with Walcott’s contract situation — when he stalled on a new deal in the Autumn of 2012, Walcott was excluded from the XI until form and fitness forced Wenger’s hand.

However, I believe it’s more to do with Walcott’s lack of defensive contribution. Speaking before the Everton match, Wenger said:

Offensively we have lots of solutions. We have to find a team balance. It is more about team balance than any individual.

When you have the ball in the modern game you have to attack, when you don’t have the ball you have to defend. All the players who can’t do that, cannot play.”

Until Walcott’s all-round contribution improves, it seems he will be confined to the sidelines.

Gunnerblog is 10 today

To my considerable surprise, Gunnerblog is 10 years old today.

I can’t believe that it was fully a decade ago when I took my first faltering steps in to the world of blogging. Although I have neither the time nor inventiveness to blog on a daily basis, the site (and its accompanying Twitter feed) has been a pretty consistent presence in my adult life. It’s brought me huge satisfaction, and I’m incredibly grateful to everyone who has looked in along the way. Without the support, the debate and the encouragement I almost certainly wouldn’t have made it this far. Thankyou. It continues to be a pleasure.

Writing about Arsenal is a particular joy this summer, with the club conducting it’s transfer business in an unfamiliarly efficient manner. Today, the club added David Ospina to a growing list of signings alongside Mathieu Debuchy and Alexis Sanchez.

Ospina looks to be a fantastic acquisition, especially at the bargain price of around £3m. His signing follows the growing trend for every elite club to have two top class goalkeepers. With Ospina around, Wojciech Szczesny faces a real battle to keep hold of the No. 1 shirt.

Another announcement could be just around the corner. Arsenal are also on the verge of declaring a deal over Southampton’s England U-19 captain Calum Chambers.

I have to say, I’m enormously excited about this one. I watched Chambers play right-back against Arsenal back in January, and was struck by his athleticism, technical ability and poise on the ball. The youngster obviously made a similar impression on Arsene Wenger, who is prepared to spend in excess of £10 million to get his man.

Speaking to The Daily Mail, Wenger admitted that Chambers’ versatility was one of the main attractions:

“He hasn’t played many games but the English players on the market in England are very expensive. At the end of the day I was ready to take a gamble because he is a one for the future.  

He is a player I wanted because I rated his quality and intelligence. He is only 19 and can play at centre-back, right-back and central midfield. I hope he will give us competition for the players in those three positions.”

Wenger was disappointed to miss out on Phil Jones a couple of years back, but now it seems he has the promising, powerful, adaptable English defensive player he’s been craving.

On that note, I’d better depart. Thanks again, and here’s to the next decade of drivel.

Alexis Sanchez: The Brilliance Without The Biting

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The signing of Alexis Sanchez has left me elated, but it shouldn’t leave anyone surprised. Looking back at the last 12 months, we should all be kicking ourselves for not calling it sooner. The clues were there all along.

The trail begins last summer, when Arsene Wenger gave us the clearest indication as to the sort of striker he was interested in signing. He abandoned negotiations over Gonzalo Higuain to focus all his energies on Liverpool’s Luis Suarez. He even went as far to claim he was never “especially” interested in the Argentine. At the time I dismissed it as mere rhetoric; now I wonder.

In Suarez, he found almost everything he was looking for. A striker with pace, mobility and versatility. Someone who could play alongside Olivier Giroud as well as instead of him. Someone with the desire to hound defenders as well as the skill to baffle them.

There was no point adding another hulking number nine. For better or worse, the Suarez deal collapsed. Months passed and rumours linked us with the likes of Marios Mandzukic and Balotelli. I remained dubious. Like Higuain, they’re principally target men in the Giroud mould. They’re nothing like Suarez, the player Wenger was prepared to break both the bank and an unspoken ethical code to get.

There was another clue, too. In November of 2013, the manager told the assembled journalists.

I have said many times that Europe still produces many fantastic football players, but if you look well we do not produce strikers well. Very few, all of the big strikers come from South America.

The criteria were clear. Quick, nimble, tigrish and mobile – and possibly, given Wenger’s comments, South American. You didn’t need to be Sherlock. Hell, you didn’t even need to be Sherwood.

Enter Alexis Sanchez. Without wanting to blow my own trumpet (I haven’t the flexibility, for one thing) I first mentioned his name back in April. Even then, I should’ve arrived at it sooner. I watched Sanchez produce a masterclass at Wembley for the Chilean national team in the very same month Arsene Wenger heralded South American strikers. That came halfway through an outstanding season for Barcelona, in which he scored 20-odd goals and made nearly as many assists.

The World Cup confirmed that this was a player whose star was very much on the rise. He was superb for Chile, playing a crucial role in their victory over Spain and almost knocking out Brazil long before the Germans humiliated them on home soil.

While the rest of the world woke up to Sanchez this summer, I suspect Arsene was on the case long before. The World Cup’s not what will have brought him in to Wenger’s sights. It will, however, have brought up the price considerably. Those who know best say the deal could total £35m. Even as a huge fan of the player I’d say that’s a bit steep.

But we paid it. And sometimes, that’s what you have to do. We bullied Liverpool and Juventus out of the reckoning because we wanted the player enough. We were bullish, we were bold and we got the deal done. I like that. I’ve missed that.

For Barcelona, Sanchez has played predominantly on the right-hand side of the attack. I expect him to start his Arsenal career there too, covering for the injured Theo Walcott. However, it’s my firm belief that when Walcott returns it will be Sanchez, not Theo, who gets a run as a centre-forward.

He’s much more suited to it than the Englishman. He has the touch required to receive passes fizzed in to him from a distance. He has the desire to chase down lost causes, and the dribbling ability to squeeze between markers. In recent months, he has added a coolness in front of goal to his game. Some may question his size, but there is not an ounce of fat on Sanchez’s stocky frame. There’s not an ounce of cowardice in his character either. I watched the likes of Gary Cahill and Phil Jones bounce off him at Wembley. I saw Thiago Silva chasing shadows in Belo Horizonte.

If Luis Suarez can thrive as a centre-forward in the Premier League, so too can Sanchez. Our man has much of the brilliance, without the biting. He has the tenacity, without the teeth. For all those times when off-field issues intervened with on-field matters, I never wanted Suarez. In Sanchez, I feel like we’ve got the next best thing.

Arsene does too. It’s taken 12 months, but in Alexis Sanchez he’s finally found the man to fit the mould. I can’t wait to see him in action.

Alexis Sanchez is wearing the new Arsenal Puma kit, which is available from JD Sports.

Mikel Arteta on Alexis Sanchez, contract talks, & more transfers

Last night I was fortunate enough to be invited down to the kit launch by Puma, and was one of several bloggers able to grab a few words with Mikel Arteta. Here’s what he had to say.

On his reaction to the Alexis Sanchez news…

I was really happy. Everyone was waiting for a big signing like this. It’s a proper player – he’s got the experience, the technique, the pace. I met him this morning and he looked very excited. I think he’s going to be a good fit.

On Alexis’ English…

His English isn’t great as with 99% of the South Americans! But I think he will try. He was a bit worried about it but he will be fine. We have a very humble squad and the players will look after him. We have plenty of Spanish speakers too.

On beating stiff competition to land the player…

He had many options and he decided to join us which makes us really proud. I think he likes the style of Arsenal because it’s very similar to what he was used to in Barcelona. I’m excited to watch him play.

On the significance of the deal…

I think it’s a big statement from the club to say early on in the transfer window, “Ok, let’s go and get one of the best strikers in the world at the moment”. They have convinced him to come and we got him. I think we’ve been lacking that pace and that creativity that he can probably bring to the club, so I can’t wait.

On what Sanchez brings…

I think we were missing pace last season with Theo & Chambo injured. At some point we were playing with Cazorla, Wilshere & Giroud, all three coming in, you know? Arsenal was always a team who could play on the break and upfront had the speed to break people down. Now, I think we’re going to be more powerful and much harder to deal with.

On the possibility of more signings…

One of them is almost done I think – but we have to see. I don’t think it’s going to stop here, I think they’ve got more targets. I don’t think the players should get involved in that at all. They’re doing their work well. Let’s just be patient.

On this summer feeling different…

Yeah, when you win something it’s a different summer. I think it took a lot of the pressure off our shoulders. This has to be the start. It’s nowhere near good enough for Arsenal FC, we need to aim for much bigger things. We have the capacity to win things and we need to start showing that consistency in the next few years.

On a new contract…

I had my conversation with the manager – he knows my opinion, I know his opinion, and we are all good. That’s all I can say.

I can’t stop the rumours [about leaving] but I can be certain that I feel really happy here. I feel valued. I am given lots of responsibility here and I like it. Until the club thinks something different about me, I’m happy here.

On Arsene Wenger…

He’s a very demanding manager. He’s a very straightforward manager as well. You know what you’re getting with him, you know exactly what he wants from you. If you’re fair, you’re right and you’re honest then you’re never going to have a problem with him.

On Arsene’s beach football…

Yeah I was surprised. He looked younger than what he is! He is a very fit man though. He’s one of the few who would look OK in the new kit.

He’s coming back from Brazil on Monday. It shows you how much he loves football: even when he has a break he’s watching football.

On if Aaron Ramsey can still progress…

Yes. This year’s going to be very demanding for him because everyone’s going to expect something big from him, and those seasons are not easy. But Aaron has the character and the ability to go and do it again. The way he trains and prepares himself is top drawer. He knows that now he is one of the main guys, and he needs to stand firm on it and deal with it because now it’s going to be demanded from him.

On Diaby’s return…

Abou’s one of the players that I like most and I feel so sorry for him – he’s been very unlucky with injuries throughout his career. When you look at him when he’s had a month of training, some of the stuff he does is amazing. If we can add Abou to the squad I think he’ll be a great addition.

On his favourite World Cup moment…

Well being Spanish I haven’t had a favourite moment yet! Tim Cahill’s goal was fabulous, that’s the best so far. But hopefully the German’s lift the cup. It’ll be a nice moment and I’ll be very happy for them.

On Brazil’s heavy defeat…

I felt so sorry for them. Unfortunately last season we had some disappointing results against big teams. When I was watching that I was really feeling sorry for them because that was also in front of their home crowd which makes it even harder. I think it’s going to be tough to digest that one.

On how he digested Arsenal’s heavy defeats last season…

I don’t think you do digest it. As soon as you talk about those games I feel something in my stomach. In that moment you just want the ground to open up and swallow you because you’re not honouring your club, your shirt. It’s very frustrating but these things happen in football. You have to accept them and you have to learn, and it can not happen again.

On if he’s confident for next season…

Yes I am. Because I know the quality we have, the character, the desire. All the players have shown a good mentality when things aren’t going well. When everything’s going well it’s easy, but when people are criticising you and asking questions of you you need to see how people deal with that, and I’m telling you these guys are top drawer.

As ever, Mikel came across as a thoughtful and articulate guy. My take on the wonderful Alexis Sanchez news should be with you soon. Thanks again to Puma for a lovely evening.

The new kit is available from JD Sports.