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.