Arsecast Extra 35: Derby Day Edition

I’m interrupting my holiday on the stormy isle of Mallorca to bring you the latest Arsecast Extra, recorded between Dublin and the wee town of Pollensa.

Unsurprisingly, the focus is primarily on that slightly underwhelming 1-1 derby draw. We discuss the bizarre team selection, Flamini’s costly error, and our feelings about a slightly disappointing start to the campaign. It’s a barrel of laughs.

Don’t forget, you can subscribe to the Arsecast Extra on iTunes by clicking here. Alternatively, if you want to subscribe directly to the feed URL you can do so too (I’m told this spares you the dastardly delays from iTunes).

Haven’t had time to put together a proper blog on the game – I actually missed a good chunk of the first-half due to delayed flight – but here are some other bits and pieces I wrote for it.

On Alexis Sanchez, for ESPN:

Alexis calculates that his drag-backs and dribbles are a chance worth taking. In future, Wenger must show similar courage in his team selections.

And on a potential solution to our midfield injury problems, for Bleacher Report:

Oxlade-Chamberlain was excellent against Tottenham, with his powerful running posing a constant menace to the Spurs defence. However,Wenger has long insisted that the England international might develop into a top central midfielder. The spate of injuries could be a chance to test that theory once again.

Galatasaray tomorrow. A win is needed. Come on Arsenal.

Arsenal 1-2 Southampton: Alexis is a maverick, Podolski is a misfit

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Whatever you think of the League Cup…

…it’s never good to go out of any competition. It amazes me that some can greet a cup exit with a shrug. A few fans even expressed relief. It seems they forget that in each season there are only four potential prizes, and that’s one gone.

Had we beaten Southampton we’d be just four games away from another Wembley final. Any Arsenal fan who experienced the elation of May 17th — or indeed the despair of the Birmingham game in 2011 — will know what an occasion those matches can be. Yes, it’s “only the League Cup”. For a long time it was “only the FA Cup too”, and yet I didn’t see too many muted celebrations at the end of last season. We haven’t yet looked like convincing contenders for either the Premier League or Champions League. Beggars can’t afford to be choosers, and Gooners can’t afford to be snobbish about trophies.

That’s not to say I don’t understand the decision to rotate the side. Arsenal have a hectic schedule, and the point of assembling a big squad is that it enables you to mix it up on a game-by-game basis.

The team Arsenal put out was good enough to win the game, even against a strong and slick Southampton XI. I can’t fault Arsene Wenger there. The front six was packed with players of international calibre, but too many of them underperformed.

The League Cup is an opportunity not just to lift a trophy, but to give squad players a chance to put pressure on regular first-teamers. Last night, Arsenal failed on both counts.

The senior players let down the kids…

The likes of Lukas Podolski and Tomas Rosicky might have hoped that impressive showings against the Saints could force them in to contention for a Premier League place. Unfortunately, both were dire. Rosicky at least compensated for his errors with effort. Podolski, on the other hand…

However, the bright spot was undoubtedly the work done by a very young back four. Arsene Wenger was forced to pick three 19-year-olds and a left-back, and they did not let him down. Calum Chambers grew in to the game alongside the impressive Isaac Hayden, while Francis Coquelin did a superb job at left-back. I made him Arsenal’s best player on the night.

Don’t get your hopes up over Abou Diaby…

The Frenchman got an hour under his belt as a holding midfielder, with Arsene Wenger admitting after the game that he hopes to “transform” him in to a deep-lying anchor man.

After the match, I had a flurry of tweets from fans asking if I think Diaby could be ready to replace Mikel Arteta in the first XI. In a word, “No”. For starters, deploying our most injury-prone player in the most combative area of the pitch is begging for trouble.

This appearance felt more like a testimonial for Diaby’s services than a testament to his abilities. There were moments where you saw flashes of the player Diaby might have been, but it’s difficult to imagine he’ll ever fulfill his potential at Arsenal now.

Don’t pin your hopes on him — and that’s aimed at fans and manager alike.

Alexis Sanchez is a gifted soloist…

Alexis opened the scoring with a stunning free-kick and generally hared about the pitch with his customary vigour. It’s rare to see such a gifted player show that kind of desire. Sanchez is a South American striker in the mould of Luis Suarez and Carlos Tevez. There’s guile, but there’s guts and graft too.

His game isn’t perfect. His passing is erratic and he can be guilty of holding on to the ball too long. It’s partly why he never quite settled in Barcelona’s system. I’m not sure it’s a massive problem for us, though. He’s not a continuity player, he’s a maverick. He’s not a playmaker, he’s a game-breaker.

Every team can afford one maverick, one matador. At times Arsenal can be too guilty of conforming to their intricate passing game. Alexis brings contrast and some welcome chaos to proceedings.

Lukas Podolski is on borrowed time…

It is becoming increasingly difficult to envisage a role for Podolski in the Arsenal team. I’m a self-confessed fan of the player: he is generally efficient in the final third, and remains the best finisher in the squad.

However, he just doesn’t seem to fit. As Wenger seeks to reconstruct his attack around the pace and vibrancy of Welbeck, Walcott and Sanchez, Podolski looks wildly out of place.

On several occasions last night, Alexis could be seen cajoling his team-mates, urging them to offer more movement off the ball and press higher up the pitch. If he continues to play alongside Podolski, Sanchez will have to learn the English (or German) for “move yourself” pretty quickly.

He’s rusty, certainly. He might also be lacking a little confidence, having effectively been told he was surplus to requirements in the summer before Olivier Giroud’s injury scuppered a move.

The problem is that, given the options at Wenger’s disposal, Podolski is never likely to get the run of games he patently needs. At the moment he’s stuck in some strange limbo, being brought on as a centre-forward despite the manager having publicly stated that he can’t really play in that position.

It’s a situation that I expect to reach a head during the January transfer window. Podolski’s time in London looks to be approaching an end.

Ps. Now that the spam filters have been reinforced, comments are back. Do use them please, as I’ve greatly missed the interaction on here. Thanks for reading.

Examining why Arsene Wenger doesn’t want to buy a striker

Well, here we are. Another season is underway. I initially wrote ‘well and truly underway’, but then deleted it. In truth, this period between the opening fixture and the transfer deadline always feels like an extension of preseason. The window ends, there’s a flurry of late deals, and then club football goes on a two-week break while some dull internationals are played. When we return in mid-September, that’s when it really feels like the campaign has kicked off.

That seems truer this season than most. The fact that a large portion of our squad is still recovering from their exertions in the World Cup means we’ve had an unusually slow start. Our performances have yet to impress, but fortunately the results haven’t suffered too much. We’ve shown fight if not fluency, getting late goals to pick up valuable points against Crystal Palace and Everton.

I’ve been in Edinburgh throughout August, but returned this week to see my first live game of the season. Arsenal got the job done against Besiktas, but it wasn’t easy. Mathieu Debuchy was certainly unlucky to pick up that second booking, but he’d been wobbling uneasily on a disciplinary tight-rope all evening. He must curb his aggressive streak if he’s to avoid more red cards in future.

Watching our side in the flesh, it became apparent to me that we are very much a team in evolution. The midfield, for example, appears to have been slightly restructured over the summer. Last season, Arsenal typically played with two men in a double-pivot, with Mesut Ozil floating ahead. Mikel Arteta would hold with Aaron Ramsey given greater license to break from deep alongside him.

This season, there’s been a slight shift in emphasis. Rather than the customary 4-2-3-1, Arsenal have been employing something more akin to a 4-1-4-1. There is a pure designated holding player, with two dynamic midfielders deployed further ahead.

This system was presumably implemented in part because of the available personnel. Ozil missed the start of the season, and Arsene Wenger had to find a way to accommodate both Jack Wilshere and Ramsey. This formation allows both those players to break forward, secure in the knowledge that an anchor man is on hand at all times to fill in.

However, Ozil’s return has not prompted the expected reversion to last season’s shape. Instead, the German has twice been positioned on the left flank. Against Besiktas, Ozil found himself ousted to the wing, with Santi Cazorla asked to play a busy box-to-box role in the centre. Last season, that deployment would have seemed improbable at best. Throughout 2013-14, Cazorla was routinely used on the flank in order to grant Ozil a free role through the middle.

Perhaps during the international break Arsene will take the opportunity to restructure his midfield once again. However, it’s also possible that he has decided that playing Ozil as a pure number 10 leaves his midfield too exposed. This summer, Ozil played predominantly as a winger for the German national team, and that experiment turned out pretty well for Jogi Low’s side. A hypothetical central midfield three of Arteta, Ramsey and Cazorla certainly has more energy and commitment to the defensive side of the game than one containing Ozil.

The remodelling of the team does not end with the midfield. In the past week, there has been significant evidence that Arsene Wenger plans to renovate his attack too. When Arsenal signed Alexis Sanchez back in July, I said I thought he’d been bought as an alternative to Luis Suarez – the brilliance without the biting. His future, it seemed to me, was as a centre-forward.

However, I did not expect him to be picked there so early on in his Arsenal career. In just Sanchez’s second Premier League game, he was named at the point of the Gunners front-line. That initial experiment failed, but Wenger was forced to repeat it in midweek having lost Giroud to a broken tibia. Against Besiktas, Alexis fared rather better. Not only did he grab the winning goal, but he also showed class and courage to hold the ball up against defenders who towered above him.

With Giroud confirmed as being out until Christmas, many Arsenal fans are incredulous that Arsene Wenger does not deem recruiting a new striker a priority. However, as far as our manager is concerned, he has already bought a £35m striker this window: Alexis.

For more than a year, Wenger has been chasing a mobile forward with a good pressing game. Wenger didn’t buy a striker last summer because he couldn’t get his number one target, Suarez. He didn’t buy a striker in January because a player of the requisite calibre and attributes was not available. This summer, Alexis came on the market, and Wenger moved quickly and efficiently to get his man.

I’m sure that in an ideal world Wenger would like to bed Sanchez in as his centre-forward over a period of several months. Giroud’s injury robs him of that luxury. Alexis’ evolution must be sped up, and the team’s with it. However, Wenger presumably reasons that there’s no point threatening that process by buying the ‘wrong’ type of centre-forward. If he has already decided that Sanchez, rather than Giroud, will be his team’s long-term focal point, why derail things by bringing in another square beg for his newly-carved round hole?

Of course, Alexis can’t play every game. But if our team is being rebuilt to accommodate a slighter, speedier forward, then Arsenal already have an ideal back-up in their ranks. Within a matter of weeks, Theo Walcott will be available for selection. When Alexis needs a rest, he seems the obvious player to step in to the void.

In the meantime, Walcott will flourish on the right flank. Alexis is more of a ‘false nine’ than a true target man. Against Besiktas, it was intriguing how frequently he dropped deep to collect the ball and join up with the midfield. On more than one occasion, I spotted Alexis furiously gesturing at Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to dart in behind him. He will find Theo Walcott a far more willing runner. In combination, the pair could be devastating.

The possibility of fielding Walcott as a centre-forward ensures Yaya Sanogo will remain third-choice in the pecking order. What’s more, Wenger has Joel Campbell to consider. Many Arsenal fans spent the summer crying out for Campbell to be given an opportunity at Arsenal. Some of those same fans are now furiously demanding a new striker. You can’t have it both ways.

If it were up to me, I’d bring in an experienced frontman who guarantees 10 goals. Loic Remy, for example, is a proven Premier League finisher with an excellent record. I’d recruit someone of that ilk to add depth and experience to our options. If that meant sending one of Sanogo or Campbell out on loan, so be it.

Arsene doesn’t see it that way. Rightly or wrongly, he believes giving playing time to Campbell and Sanogo is a better investment of resource. What’s more, I suspect he envisages a restyled attack modelled around Sanchez and Walcott. Giroud’s injury robs him of a Plan B, but Plan A is still good to go.

I hope Arsenal will be active between now and the end of the transfer window. They still need another centre-back, and a holding midfielder would be handy too. With Giroud out, the first XI could do with an injection of height and power – if only to help them cope at set-pieces.

However, at this stage I’d be surprised to see another attacker arrive. Giroud’s injury doesn’t derail Arsene’s plans, it merely accelerates them.

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.