The results from the past month put paid to Arsenal’s chances of winning any silverware in the cup competitions. The Gunners were knocked out of both the Champions League and the F.A Cup in consecutive games. The Premier League title seems like a distant faint beacon towards which the Arsenal ship is wobbling.
Despite all the results that didn’t go as planned, I wish to focus my energy into penning my thoughts on the evolution of a new line up over this past month, and in particular, the emergence of two players who seem to have helped us click into gear. The remaining fixtures in this season are each a cup final in their own right. Arsenal cannot afford to lose more points in any of these games. This new rejuvenised lineup has given me hope that maybe, just maybe, we can go on a run that might stun a few.
We’ve often moaned about Arsenal having one trick ponies on the right wing. This season, we’ve had either Theo Walcott, whose greatest strength is running in behind the defense, or Joel Campbell – who has an uncanny ability to thread through eye of the needle passes to teammates. Prior to these two, we had Aaron Ramsey, who while played out of position, did an admirable job on the right. Further, we’ve been reluctant to push Alexis to the right as that would mean one of Theo or Joel would have to play on the left, which would impact the stability of the lineup much more adversely. You may have noticed that I have omitted the Ox from this discussion. While he possesses Theo’s pace and to some measure, Joel’s passing ability and work rate, he has failed to capitalize on the situation and really force the manager’s hand.
Arsene Wenger believes that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. Both Francis Coquelin and Hector Bellerin have benefited from this, and the latest youngster who seems to have proven he’s old enough is Alex Iwobi. The 19 year old Nigerian starlet showed glimpses of what he could do as early as the pre-season friendlies. However, it has taken injuries, and some shambolic showing from Arsenal’s preferred starters that forced Arsene’s hand. The youngster first started in the F.A Cup, graduating to a Champions League game against the mighty Barca, and then cemented his place in the premier league line up as well. It’s been bit of an accelerated progression for the youngster, but one that cannot be questioned based on what we’ve seen.
Credit must also be given to another new member of the squad, Mohammed Elneny. The former Basel midfielder has fit like a glove in the Arsenal engine room, and his partnership with Coquelin has provided a defensive stability that we’ve sorely missed after Santi Cazorla’s injury. With the confidence that Coqneny provide, our front four have been able to thrive and play with uninhibited freedom.
At this point you might be wondering why I’ve dubbed this section “I.O.W.A”. Our new front four of Iwobi, Ozil, Welbeck and Alexis have made life living hell for opposition teams. Since his return from injury, Danny Welbeck has impressed in his ability to lead the line. When Giroud or Theo were playing upfront, the opposition knew what to expect. There would either be a target man who held up the ball nicely and played it to his teammates, or there would be a pacey forward who would run in behind the defensive line.
With Welbeck, that assurance of a fixed strategy went out the window. Marrying Theo’s pace, with Giroud’s strength, Welbeck has made defenders second guess themselves. He has intelligently made runs through the channels and sometimes, just held the ball up with his back to goal. His inclusion up top has allowed the likes of Ozil, Alexis and Iwobi to interchange positions freely and move the ball at break neck speed. With Iwobi playing (starting) on the left, Alexis has moved to the right and this has rejuvenated his game. He no longer cuts infield trying to shoot, and looks so much more like the Alexis of old. Defenders don’t have a moments rest, often committing to a player only to realize that they’ve opened up space for another deadly Arsenal attacker. An example of this is our first goal against Everton.
The quality of an offensive player is measured by often he is on the ball and influences play. The quality of a defensive player is measured by how invisible he is in shielding his goal and allowing the offensive players to shine. In that sense, Alex Iwobi has been ever present, and Mohammed Elneny has been anonymous.
Elneny has been everything that we’ve wished Flamini would be for us. He has unbounded energy and in recent outings has covered more ground than anyone else on the pitch. Elneny covers for our fullbacks and often drops back to receive the ball from the back four. He isn’t shy to go forward either and is tidy in circulating the ball around. He’s also got something of a menacing long shot. Further, he’s a bit more defensively minded than Aaron Ramsey, hence maintains more positional discipline which has really helped our front four play with more freedom. Comparing Elneny to Santi and Rambo, we see some interesting patterns. For every 90 minutes played in the Premier League, Elneny leads in pass completion, and is pretty close to Santi in terms of total passes attempted. Further he has a similar interception rate as Ramsey. In a sense, he’s got something of everything.
If you’re not convinced, do you remember this?
On the attacking side of things, Jay-Jay Okocha’s nephew has really set the pitch on fire in his short stint with the first team. There’s a certain shade of Rosicky in Iwobi. He’s direct, always ready to take on an opponent, or play a crisp pass to a teammate in space. What’s really impressive about the kid is that he’s completely unfazed by the big stage. He’s calm and brings a positive hardworking attitude on to the pitch. The way he scored his goal against Everton was composure personified. I still have nightmares of some of our players botching up a chance like that.
Another very interesting pattern I’ve seen emerging is Iwobi’s chemistry with Danny Welbeck. They seem to read each others moves a few steps before everyone else. This was specially evident versus Everton where they combined numerous times which led to various goal scoring opportunities.
It’s hard not to take notice of a young kid who’s come in and taken the game by the scruff of the neck. He’s still got a long ways to go though. For example, he’s still needs to work on his decision making. There were a few instances over the past month when there a was an obvious pass to play and he dallied on the ball for too long.
The month gone by has been a disappointment in terms of the majority of results, but there’s a silver lining. We may have unearthed a working system that might just propel us forward in our final thrust towards the end of the season, and perhaps may form the template for next season. Until next month, here’s hoping that our Jedi knights can rake in some much needed points for us.