Arsenal had to dig fairly deep to beat struggling Crystal Palace this weekend. Under pressure for much of the second half, especially after Mikel Arteta’s dismissal, the Gunners ground out a 2-0 win to remain top of the league. One of the hallmarks of a top side, as Sky Sports pundit Graeme Souness pointed out yesterday, is winning matches when you’re not at your best, and the Palace players clearly raised their game in the wake of Ian Holloway’s departure earlier in the week. A win is a win, Arsenal’s great run of form continued, and it seems a bit churlish to be so picky, but as Souness also added, Palace are arguably the weakest team in the top flight. Arsenal’s laboured performance, following their defeat to Borussia Dortmund last week in the Champions League, sounded a few alarm bells, and calls into question the depth of quality in the squad.
The midfield has looked looser and less disciplined throughout the previous two games, and this is in no small part due to Mathieu Flamini’s absence following the concussion he suffered last weekend against Norwich at the Emirates. It’s slightly alarming. The former AC Milam midfielder been a hugely effective signing, but to expect him to play in every game is unrealistic, given his injury record down the years, his age, and the pace of the Premier League. The uncomfortable truth is that he possesses qualities which Arsenal’s other midfielders do not, particularly the ability to cajole and organise his team mates. Verbally, Arsenal were noticeably quieter against both Palace and Dortmund without him in the team. That’s clearly an issue with the rest of the squad, and has been for years. When the going has started to get tough, the Arsenal players seem to conduct themselves in near silence, and appear almost to visibly shrink into themselves.
It’s something that needs to be addressed. Title winning teams don’t simply rely on one leader. They need half a dozen or so lieutenants to rally the troops. Being brutally honest, neither the club skipper Thomas Vermaelen (who hasn’t yet played in the Premier League this season), nor vice captain Mikel Arteta, possess those qualities. Judging from the transfer rumours still circling, the Arsenal management is acutely aware that the team lacks striking options. Another vocal midfield utility midfielder wouldn’t go amiss at the Emirates.
Up front, the same names still continue to be linked with a January move to the Emirates…Christian Benteke, Karim Benzema, and Juventus striker Fernando Llorente have all been linked with a move to North London over the last few days. The best bet seems to be a loan move for Llorente, but past experience suggests that teams are highly unlikely to do business in January, so it’s more likely that Arsenal will be forced to make do with Giroud and Bendtner as the only orthodox strikers until next close season. There is the possibility that Podolski and Walcott, both a fortnight or so from full fitness, could play up front to increase the options for Wenger, and take the pressure of Giroud. Walcott has often expressed a desire to play as an orthodox striker, and Podolski claims to be “willing to play anywhere as long as I’m in the first team.” That’s a very admirable statement by the German international, and his finishing is of a high standard, but Podolski has frustrated both Wenger and Arsenal fans with his tendency to drift out of matches for lengthy periods. Nonetheless, his excellent double strike away at Fulham in August gave a clear indication of what he is capable of when he plays in a more advanced position.
First and foremost, the football season is all about a team’s squad, rather than just its first team. With games against Chelsea, Liverpool, Dortmund and Manchester United in the next twelve days, we’ll finally see just how robust Arsenal’s first team squad is. In the League Cup clash with Chelsea tomorrow night, Wenger will rotate the troops. Gunners fans are likely to see Vermaelen, Monreal, Jenkinson, Gnabry, Eisfeld and Bendtner come to the fore, but the manager is in a tricky position. Several first teamers could do with a break until the Liverpool game next weekend, but if he plays a smattering of youth team players to make up the numbers, Arsenal are in danger of being given a bit of a chasing by Chelsea, whose squad seems far stronger in depth. If Wenger fields several established first teamers, sod’s law means that a key player or 2 might get injured. A glance at Chelsea’s and Manchester City’s substitute bench yesterday shows they have far more in reserve than Arsenal.
My opinion is that Wenger wouldn’t be overcome with grief if Arsenal lost tomorrow night. With the current crop of injuries, and the dearth of striking options, the Gunners can’t realistically fight on more than 2 fronts. The logistics just don’t add up. Far better a rested, fit first team for the visit of Liverpool on Saturday in the league, and the crunch visit to Germany to face Dortmund next week, otherwise Arsenal run the risk of falling between several stools and their bright start to the season could peter out. In his heart, Wenger must know this is true. When his sides won the title in 2002 and 2004, Wenger could rotate Henry, Bergkamp, Kanu and Wiltord up front. In 2004, Edu and Ray Parlour were considered his “2nd string” midfielders. In 2008, even with Adebayor, Eduardo, and Robin Van Persie vying for places up front (and admittedly the latter 2 missed large chunks of the season due to injury) Arsenal missed out. There isn’t that kind of depth in the current squad. Not yet. This season, Arsenal are blessed with a good selection of wingers, playmakers and a certain breed of midfielder.
Will this be enough to finally land silverware? The next 13 days will probably tell us.