In the dying minutes of the match against Hull City Saturday, the usual events occur: paying for your tab, saying bye to our fellow Gooner friends all smiling because we are about to win in a comfortable manner, etc., then without warning Xhaka cracks off a 30+ yard shot that sails into the top corner of the net. The explosion of cheers was deafening. What was even more humorous was the multitudes of those who looked down for a minute and missed it because it happened so quickly. It was one of those late goals that are essentially meaningless on the day but yet mean so much in context of the faith of the fans and the state of the club.
Arsenal are a big club that can attract big talent no matter what our harshest critics say. We have players like Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, Koscielny, Xhaka and Mustafi and talented players still developing like Bellerin. I said it during the Facebook live show a few weeks ago that our squad looks almost complete for the first time in years. We have experienced veteran leadership and young players that are working hard to prove themselves. This provides competition for all positions on the pitch. For too long we have had the staple starting XI players that never changed no matter what. A lot of the time it was down to not having any players to switch too. It became frustrating to watch players fail to perform and get picked week in and week out. I often single out Aaron Ramsey as an example of the “safe from being benched” clause.
Ramsey is an enigma of a player. One who showed signs of brilliance early but has never paid off. This is partially due to his horrific leg break he suffered at the feet of the brute Ryan Shawcross. Ramsey’s critical development was stifled due to that injury and with the exception of two seasons, has never scored more than 6 goals. His peaking season was in 13-14 with 16 goals where it seemed like the Ramsey that Wenger had always promised was finally here at last. Not so. The following season he scored 10 goals, then 6 and now he is back injured again. He isn’t a bad player, he just hasn’t worked out like we would like him too and frankly we often shoehorn him into the squad regardless of his current form. Wenger picks players in slumps and hopes they will play their way out of it. Rarely does this work. Sometimes a bit of ruthlessness goes a long way. That being said our squad has been light on options and the alternatives haven’t always been promising either.
The lack of options truly has been our downfall over the last several years. During the exodus of our top players, we struggled to replace them with equal talent. The scramble to replace RVP, Fabregas, Nasri, etc., created a real vacuum in the squad. We signed Giroud, Podolski, Park Chu Young, Santos, Arteta and Mertesacker. Of those only Giroud and Mertesacker are left and Mertesacker is injured. Arteta was a leader but his aged performances showed that while his brilliance was still there, his best years were behind him. Giroud has been a solid acquisition as he plays the style that Wenger wants out of his strikers. He holds up the ball well and is an aerial threat (something that is horribly lacking without him). His goal threat is ever present as he does have a knack for scoring the acute angle difficult shot but standing over a simple shot on goal, you always wonder if he will miss. Despite his flaws in speed, Giroud is a good player and one that we need in this team. For too long however the goal burden rested on his shoulders and he was never going to be a 20 goal per season striker. We needed a backup to give him a break. Danny Welbeck was looking to be that player but once again injuries have hampered his career as well.
Every other player on our squad capable of scoring goals isn’t a striker. Sanchez, Walcott and Ox are all wide players. Wenger has tried to play Walcott up top, but his poor first touch and tunnel vision often means he loses the ball when he should be holding onto it since that is the style we like to play. Sanchez can hold the ball well but his stronger qualities are when he is facing the goal and attacking, using his dribbling, passing and shot skill to his advantage. Like Walcott, with his back to the ball he doesn’t perform up to the level required. Both of these players are better out wide where their speed can be a danger since we often don’t utilize speed in the center of the pitch. With the signing of Lucas Perez, perhaps the squad can be set up to give Giroud the ability to be an option and not always the rule. We saw Perez perform very well against Nottingham Forest in midweek and while not Premier League level, it may have been just the kind of match he needed to get going. As the season wears on and the injury threat ever looms, we need players who can take pick up the torch and see out the race.
I keep using the word options because that’s what we want to see at Arsenal: options. No longer do we have a thin injury prone squad that will need luck to see out a title campaign. Depth is finally a reality after we have been begging for it for so long. The time for excuses is over. Performances are all that matter now. We have a Premier League title and a Champions League crown to win. These need to be priorities and without depth they were mirages that faded away as we got closer. I try to avoid getting too excited but it’s hard not to be. We beat Hull 4-1 and Nottingham Forest 4-0. I know they aren’t the best teams but they are the kind of teams we used to draw 1-1 with or lost 2-1 due to late blunder goal. To really state our case as a title contender we need to put Chelsea to the sword this weekend.
One of the monkeys on our back is the now Mourinho-less Chelsea squad who at times look strong and at others weak so the jury is still out with them. Now is the time to pounce and use the momentum generated by two back to back emphatic wins to really crush that mug Diego Costa and his band of Cobra Kai thugs. They had a toothless squad last year and we couldn’t beat them. That is unacceptable. We need to put the past behind us and really have a go of it Saturday. A big win at the Emirates could really help the mentality of the team and give the fans a lot of confidence moving forward.
Another cracking Xhaka long shot wouldn’t hurt either…
Let’s all hope that we continue our run of good form this weekend. Also don’t forget about Goonerfest coming up on October 1st and 2nd and please hit “going” on the Facebook event pages if you plan to attend the festivities.
Until next week, come on you Gunners!