Wednesday 30 November 2011

Some Q&As on the season so far

It’s been a busy few weeks meaning I’ve not had chance to commit my thoughts on the Arse to the blog recently so I’m taking stock and summarising how I see things four months in to the season.

Where would we be if we’d managed the summer transfers better?
The recent run of positive performances following the Spurs defeat showed that the last minute transfers of Mertesacker and Arteta, and to a lesser extent Santos, have improved the team. The maturity and ‘been there, survived that’ experience they bring to the side has definitely contributed to our wins.

It just reinforces how badly we handled the summer transfer window. As I said at the time, it made no sense to bring in players of their stature – good professionals who see joining Arsenal as a move up the ladder regardless of whether we’re in the Champions League or not – so late in the day. They would have come as the final whistle blew at the end of last season if we’d gone for them with as much conviction as we did Gervinho. And there is no sense that waiting so late saved us a couple of million.

Now we are counting the cost – I would have expected us to put up a far stronger showing in the Old Trafford massacre and the home defeat to Liverpool with those three available. And although they played against Blackburn, the stupid loss there may have been avoided if they’d had time to adapt. Those nine points could be very costly come May.

What happens when Van Persie gets injured?
In short, we slip down the table given the goal-scoring form of Gervinho and Chamakh. At the start of the season I said we were Robin reliant and he needed a ‘player of the season’ year if we were to achieve anything. So far he has delivered exactly that. He is being managed with kid gloves to keep him fit and we can only hope that remains the case. How that can continue up to and during the business end of the season is a mystery to me.

How much do we miss Wilshere?
Even more than I was expecting. Wenger could never have planned to lose Jack for so long – what looked like a pretty innocuous pre-season injury has turned into a five-month absence. With him we would have accrued more points, as simple as that. His reputation has grown as we have struggled without him and you sense he will thrive on that on his return.

What has happened to Arshavin?
Who knows but it’s sad to see him playing so poorly. Last season he began to be sloppy regularly – five yard passes going awry, poor decision-making – but now he just looks completely devoid of confidence and form. It must be pretty embarrassing for him to be continually coming on as a sub with 15 minutes to go and you get the feeling he will be looking to escape in January.

Can Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain play together?
Both have looked good on the wing and AOC looks like a natural playmaking midfielder, while Theo is more of an impact weapon. Theo has improved this year, providing a number of assists but ultimately you sense AOC will be the better player in that position. It’s a good problem but one that has a messy ending if it is a straight choice between the two as a starter. Remember Theo’s contract is up for negotiation in the summer as well.

Why was Yossi Benayoun captain last night?
A minor point, but picking a guy who has played nine games for the club (including six substitute appearances) and is currently on loan from one of our biggest rivals is ridiculous. Wenger has always treated the role of captaincy too lightly – or, to put it differently, he has always underestimated how beneficial picking the right captain could be – and Benayoun taking the armband against Man City reflects that.

Are we going to finish in the top four?
Despite the pretty gloomy tone to this assessment, we are only three points off fourth place and are level with Liverpool. The Scousers and Spurs both appear more dynamic in attack than us and Liverpool have Gerrard to come back while Spurs have weapons from all directions – Bale, Defoe, Adebayor, Lennon. But you wouldn’t bet against them both hitting sticky patches – the question will be whether we will be close enough to take advantage.

What about Europe?
The major plus point to the season so far is going one better than last year and securing top spot in the Champions League group. By avoiding Barcelona and Real Madrid (and Man U, of course) we’ve got a great chance of making the last 16. It will depend on who we draw but the increased assuredness we are playing with thanks to the older heads in the team suggests we might be well placed for making our best fist of Europe for four or five years.

Will Wenger be our manager come the summer?
If the question was ‘should Wenger be our manager’ I would answer with much more conviction: no. I think the time has come for a change regardless of whether we finish fourth or not. Our attacking football is not as free-flowing and exciting as it once was, our defence is still leaky and as many players are getting worse (or at least not getting markedly better) under his watch (Arshavin, Chamakh, Rosicky, Diaby, Squillaci etc) as are improving.

Whether he will be in post depends almost entirely on the fourth spot – make that and he’ll almost certainly still be there. If not, and especially if the challenge in the cups peters out again, I think he will feel his time is up and the board will agree with him. The decision will always be his and the directors will listen to him, as always.

Carlo Ancelotti is going out of his way to remind people of his passion for English football and his devotion to improving his language skills. He is waiting for a chance at, one imagines most realistically, Spurs, Liverpool or Arsenal. I can’t see any reason why having him at the helm would put us in a worse position.