17th May 2014. The time is 17:08. Arsenal, looking for their first trophy win in nine years are 2-0 at Hull after eight minutes. Thoughts turned to the Carling Cup Final three years earlier, when Birmingham broke Arsenal hearts. However, back in 2014, 90 minutes and extra time later at Wembley, Arsenal had won the FA Cup. Twelve months later, Arsenal repeated the trick in far more comfortable circumstances. Yet this time the overriding feeling coming from the players and the manager was not euphoria, but rather a determination to push on for bigger things in coming seasons. Theo Walcott proclaimed that the “Premier League was the next big target.” How Arsenal go about that, though, is a different matter.
Arsenal’s main problem in recent seasons has been some rather deplorable performances against the ‘Top 4’ – Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, and Chelsea. From August 2012 to May 2014, Arsenal played 16 games against these teams in the league, winning just 12 points. This run of games included a 6-3 defeat at Man City, a 5-1 defeat at Anfield and a 6-0 drubbing at Stamford Bridge. With the same criterion, Chelsea amassed 32 points. The message was clear: Arsenal surely had to invest in at least a world class defender, or they would be restricted to 4th place and away day thrashings aplenty.
Wenger’s response in the summer before the 14/15 season? The signings of Calum Chambers, David Ospina, and Mathieu Debuchy to boost the defence seemed to suggest that perhaps Arsenal would now resort to spending the big sums. Against the Top 4 teams, Arsenal managed to grind out 10 points and avoid any heavy defeats. Progress had been made. However, this success was not simply from these few new signings.
When Arsenal travelled up to Manchester to face Manuel Pellegrini’s side in January this year, it was only Ospina of the new defensive signings who started and the Colombian had an extremely quiet afternoon. Arsenal’s shock 2-0 win at the Etihad was due more to a change in mentality than any financial factors. The Gunners abandoned their attacking, carefree approach and instead adopted a more resolute, defensive shape. They had less possession (35%) than in any Premier League game since 2003, the days of the Invincibles. It was a break from ‘Wengerball’ – a phrase coined by Arsenal fans to describe the free flowing passing game usually overseen by the Frenchmen.
Was it pretty? Perhaps not. Was it effective? Absolutely.
And so to this summer, the close season before the 15/16 campaign. There have been calls for Wenger to break the bank and sign a new striker, perhaps a Benzema or a Lacazette. In and around (apologies, I’ve listened to Andy Townsend far too many times) the box, Giroud fills the void perfectly with his intricate flicks and incisive finishing. But he doesn’t stretch the defence and is not a clinical finisher. Walcott for sure stretches a defence though should he move to a more central role will perhaps need four or five chances a game to score. Arsenal’s midfield is as good as any in the league, and with a top class striker in front of them goals will not be a problem. Liverpool showed in 2014 what a team can do with a lethal front line, regardless of the strength of the defence.
Defensive midfield, however, could well be a problem. Sure, Coquelin has been a revelation since December but it’s all too easy to forget this was a player sitting on the Charlton bench very recently. At the very least another defensive midfielder, if not world class, is needed to provide competition and cover for Coquelin. Nobody wants to see Flamini pointing his way around the pitch anytime soon that is for sure. Wilshere in an England shirt has proven himself to be outstanding in a more defensive position and it appears likely that Wenger may stick with what he has in midfield. A new signing in midfield would mean that at least two of Ramsey, Wilshere, and Cazorla could struggle to get into the team: can a team have too much depth in a particular position?
Arsenal have the foundations of a title winning team. The current crop of players have proven what they can do in the big games with a change in mentality. Spending a lot of money on several players is a risky game, as Messrs Rodgers and Villas-Boas know all too well. Hundreds of millions were spent on players who, in truth, turned out to be beyond useless.
The signing of Petr Cech for just £11 million is one that has set Arsenal hearts racing; the goalkeeper position has been a problem for Arsenal for well over a decade and Cech’s presence will insert a calming force over the occasionally frantic Arsenal defence. Yet this cannot be the end of spending if Arsenal are to challenge. A new defensive midfielder to challenge or even replace Coquelin in the starting line up and a pacey striker like Lacazette will surely see the chance red ribbons returning to that Premier League trophy increase tenfold.
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