There was so much to enjoy about Arsenal’s gritty, backs to the wall victory against Tottenham on Sunday. Olivier Giroud’s clinical finish which demonstrated his improvement from last season…the fact that after a dismal start to the season against Aston Villa 2 weeks ago, the team has clearly rallied with 4 wins on the trot…the tigerish way in which Ramsey, Wilshere, and substitute Flamini harried Tottenham’s increasingly fraught players….the manner in which Santi Cazorla galloped forward on the counter attack….Carl Jenkinson’s pure love for the Arsenal shirt…Wojciech Szczesny’s breezy confidence in goal. Like all the other supporters around me, I shouted myself hoarse in the second half as Arsenal’s defensive line held firm with Tottenham players piling forward. Yet hold out we did for a memorable 1-0 win, and what was especially pleasing was how the entire team locked together to repel our North London neighbours’ new look attack. But make no mistake, the next 24 hours could be the most crucial 24 hours in Arsenal’s modern history. A confidence boosting North London derby victory doesn’t answer all the questions faced by Arsene Wenger’s team, and only considerable sums of money spent in the right areas will address the key issues.
For me, the standout performances this afternoon were from the central defenders, Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny. Both have had their doubters over the last couple of years, and although their performances in the last ten games of last season were consistently impressive, dissenting voices remained, because Mertesacker lacks pace, and Koscielny is prone to rash challenges. These weaknesses were evident in the first game of the season against Aston Villa, but today the pair worked in tandem superbly. Coach Steve Bould, I’m told, is firmly of the opinion that the pair are well capable of “holding the line,” and points out that both he and Tony Adams were hardly the quickest either. But Arsenal’s central defensive position isn’t a satisfactory one. Injured club skipper Thomas Vermaelen is in the distinctly odd position of having slipped down to being the third choice centre back at the club. I’ve always believed that the Belgian is over rated. His performances at the start of his Arsenal career garnered plenty of plaudits, but that was partly because he looked so good marauding forward, and scored several vital goals. It was all smoke and mirrors. The website Zonal Marking was always extremely unforgiving in its damning assessment of Vermaelen’s defensive limitations a few years back, and highlighted several examples where his recklessness cost Arsenal dear in many games.
The problem is that he remains Arsenal’s only other orthodox centre back, despite Bacary Sagna’s willingness and ability to play in that position. It will prove to be Arsenal’s Achilles heel, when Koscielny and / or Mertesacker are injured or suspended. Successful Arsenal teams have always had a decent stockpile of central defenders. In the ’89 and ’91 campaigns, George Graham had a pool of Adams, Bould and O’Leary, with Linighan added for the latter campaign. In Wenger’s glory years, he could summon Adams, Bould or Keown, with the option of deploying Petit or Vieira back there if things became really desperate. Wenger doesn’t have a great eye for a central defender, yet the traditions of Arsenal (and basic team building) demonstrate that in order to be successful you have to be rock solid at the back. It’s why missing out on the likes of the versatile Gary Cahill (Bolton wanted £10 million and Arsenal bid just £4 million 2 years ago) and Christopher Samba, who can play in either central defence or defensive midfield (at one time he was available for just £4 million from Blackburn) over the last few years has been so galling, and careless. Good quality central defenders don’t cost the earth, but you need to pay the going rate for them, and they are as vital to a team, in a different way, as £40 million midfielders or attackers. If Wenger doesn’t know that, then coach Steve Bould certainly should. It’s why I’ve been mystified as to why the rumoured interest in Swansea City’s Ashley Williams came to nothing. The team urgently needs an extra body back there, as long as it isn’t a cheap Sebastien Squillaci style option, who will only destabilise the backline.
Up front, the needs are obvious. Even Olivier Giroud has admitted in the French press that we need more striking options. The prospect of Bendtner returning to the first team squad is hardly an appealing one, but with the deals for Rooney and Suarez now dead in the water, time has virtually run out, unless the rumours I’ve heard rumbling all summer about Demba Ba as a dark horse back up option are to be believed. If Giroud is out for any reason, or has one of the off days which he was prone to do last season, there is precious little in reserve, especially with Podolski out injured for the next three months. Any of you who read my article last week for Arsenal Insider about the need for a dynamic, box to box midfielder will know that I believe the club should have snapped up Marouane Fellaini as soon as the transfer window opened, because the opportunity was clearly there.
Modern football is a squad game, and today the options on the bench were threadbare; two full backs (Monreal and Sagna), a tenacious midfielder (Flamini), an inconsistent reserve goalkeeper (Fabianski) and 3 youngsters without a full first team appearance between them. Nowhere near strong enough. Not even for a top four finish. Today we got away with it, but our luck will inevitably run out when more injuries and suspensions kick in. Within a fortnight, the team will be playing 2 games a week pretty much until mid December, and bodies are urgently needed. There certainly aren’t the resources to launch an assault on the domestic cup front. There just isn’t enough in reserve either up front or at the back.
It seems incredible that with both Arsene Wenger and Ivan Gazidis having claimed there would be no 2011 “supermarket sweep” style shopping frenzy on the final day of the transfer window, the same thing should happen once again, albeit with the targets rather more upmarket than those who arrived 2 years ago. At the time of writing, Real Madrid playmaker Mesut Ozil is said to be in “advanced talks with Arsenal.” But is blowing around £40 million on another (admittedly superb) playmaker really what we need?
To my mind, Arsenal’s requirements haven’t changed since the transfer window swung open; a proven, high quality central defender, a goalkeeper to put Szczesny under pressure, a box to box midfielder, and a lethal finisher to dovetail with Giroud. We must strengthen in those areas on the last day of trading. I know it and you know it. We need more options to cater for different scenarios and terrains. Otherwise the wheels will come off at various points this season; not just at Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge or in Dortmund but perhaps at home to obdurate opponents like Cardiff on a grim January day.
Because sadly, not every football match can pan out like the superb, backs to the wall, good old fashioned “1-0” to the Arsenal victory I saw at the Emirates Stadium this afternoon.