Eleven days ago I randomly launched a series of polls to find out who are your favorite players to have played at the Emirates Stadium, by position.
The ground rules I imagined were quite easy:
- Players must have played at least two full seasons at the Emirates Stadium
- Players are selected on the position they played more often while at the Arsenal, which isn’t necessarily their best position or most suited one
The second rule created some controversy and sprang an interesting debate, leading me to some thoughts I would like to share with you:
- RELIABILITY AT THE BACK
I know it might sound like an oxymoron when associated to Arsenal’s back-line but the results were pretty clear: you craved reliability back there, even at the expense of quality or talent.
Bernd Leno taking the nod over the flamboyant Wojciech Szczęsny, a better overall goalkeeper but definitely a high-risk/high-reward one, is an example of that and so is Nacho Monreal over Gaël Clichy, PFA team of the year left-back in 2007-2008. The same could be said about Thomas Vermaelen, an absolute revelation in his debut season and PFA 2009-10 team of the year centre-back, who lost his poll against long-serving defender Laurent Koscielny – by far the best defender at the Club for the last few years but also the one we remember for some high-profile errors in key moments: the Carling Cup final against Birmingham, the Europa League semi-final against Atlético Madrid at home, the Europa League final against Chelsea to name only a few – but also the savior with some crucial goals at Newcastle and West Brom, to seal Champions League qualification.
We’ve been desperate for a calm, efficient and dependable centre-back for so much time that we seem to cling on anyone who could look like the part, even remotely.
- WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN
Six of the players chosen to form this Emirates Era favorite XI have played in the same team, during the 2010/2011 season: Bacary Sagna, Gaël Clichy, Laurent Koscielny, Cesc Fàbregas, Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie.
That team, who also featured Jack Wilshere, Alex Song, Theo Walcott and Andrey Arshavin among other players, lost the League Cup final against Birmingham and finished fourth in the league and showed some promising signs, so it’s inevitable for me to ask the question: what if?
What if Robin van Persie stayed fit? The Dutchman scored 18 league goals in 19 starts and began to fulfill his obvious talent, making him one of the deadliest strikers in the league. Where would have we ended the campaign with more goals and assists from him?
What if Cesc Fàbregas and Samir Nasri stayed one more season? The Spaniard was the best midfielder in the league by some distance and recently named the former Marseille man and Robin van Persie as his best supporting act within the team, regretting the fact that he could not see the best of the former Feyenoord forward because of injuries. Where would we have ended the 2011/12 season, with Cesc Fàbregas and Samir Nasri adding their numbers to Robin van Persie’s 30 league goals?
What if we didn’t have to rotate goalkeepers so much? During the 2010-11 season, our goalkeepers went through some horrible dips in form and also suffered injuries: Manuel Almunia played eight league games, Wojciech Szczęsny fifteen and Lukasz Fabianski fourteen, with Jens Lehmann coming out of retirement to help out with the injury crisis, playing a final league game with the Arsenal shirt.
All those changes surely didn’t bring any stability to our defensive line and didn’t help building the necessary understanding between the players.
What if we won the League Cup final against Birmingham City? The group of players never tasted success and that seemed to be the best chance we had for quite some time. Would it have made a difference in the way those talented, uprising players perceived the Club’s ambitions? Would have they seen it the starting point of a winning series?
- SQUARE PEGS IN ROUND HOLES
While choosing the back-line was a smooth path, putting together the midfield and attacking line proved trickier: the good news is that we had some amazing, lovely players; the bad news is that our squads were always built trying to squeeze as much quality as possible in the same lineup – creating some unbalanced teams and players played out of position.
When putting the names down, I imagined a fluid 4-3-3 formation with a midfield trio composed of a deep-lying orchestrator, a ball-winning midfielder and an advanced playmaker; I don’t believe in formations nor in specific positions, therefore I tried to put together three roles that could provide balance. It did create some controversy, though, which brings us to the headline of this section: how many square pegs have we forced into round holes?
Andrey Arshavin was a treat when playing in the hole for Russia national team but never had a proper chance to do it at the Arsenal; Lukas Podolski showed the best of him when part of a two-men attacking line but was regularly pushed wide when playing for us; Santi Cazorla, although excellent in midfield, was sensational in his first season, when playing in a more advanced position; Alex Hleb and Samir Nasri were both played out wide – at least nominally – in a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 but could not influence the game as much as their vision, touch and passing would have suggested and surely didn’t help defensively as much as a wide midfielder is meant to do – again, creating holes and unbalancing the team.
That’s a lot of squeezing and I suspect it held the whole team back, at times: is it really wise to rely on Andrey Arshavin or Lukas Podolski to track back, especially when you have a full-back regularly bombing forward?
To what extent is it worth trying to field advanced midfielders, compared to buying a player with the right characteristics or change the formation to suit the players you already have?
Looking back, the first fourteen years at the Emirates Stadium have shown plenty of excitement and anticipation, let us believe we could be the mighty Arsenal again but never fulfilled the potential; we still have three FA Cups, three Charity Shields and a handful of finals to show for it but I can’t help thinking that we could, and should, have done more with some of the amazing players we had.
Up the Arsenal!