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20 September 2015

Which Arsenal Players Have the Most to Prove this Season?

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I can’t remember going into a season in recent years – for at least the last decade – with this amount of expectation. Like many Arsenal fans, I’m generally optimistic about the team, but that comes with a very large dollop of cynicism and jadedness, given the tendency in recent years to balls things up at the least opportune moments. This year I’m finding it particularly hard to prepare for the worst and hope for the best, which is what I usually try to make myself do.

A lot of people I’ve spoken to feel the same way as well, after consecutive seasons winning silverware and with a squad that is becoming more and more full of players that fit even the most pedantic armchair fan’s definition of “World Class”.

And what this all means is that there is a lot to prove for this Arsenal team. There are a few members however who really stand out for me this year (feel free to disagree or leave comments below). I’m not (very) easily offended.

Jack Wilshere

Jack, for me, has to be top of the list. He’s arguably our best homegrown talent since Tony Adams (Cesc doesn’t count). I’m sure nearly all of us have seen grainy YouTube videos of him bossing it at youth team level. He’s been living with the hype since before he became our youngest ever debutant in 2008. After a loan spell at Bolton, the 2010-2011 season really highlighted his vast potential when he was tasked with anchoring the midfield during the Christmas crunch period leading up to the match on 16th February, when he was man of the match against Barcelona. He dominated that virtually unplayable midfield of Xavi, Iniesta, and Sergio Biscuits.

On his day, Jack is one of the most supremely talented midfielders we’ve ever seen at Arsenal (and we’re pretty bloody spoilt). His passing ability and vision, dribbling agility and burst of pace, his tenacity and ability to muscle off opposing players are just a few of his qualities. The Norwich goal of 13/14 has to be one of the best goals of all time anywhere, and how it wasn’t even in the running for the Puskas award astounds me.

With all that said, he can be at times one of our most exasperating players to watch. A fair bit has been said about the way he holds on to the ball until the very last possible moment. When this works, it warps defenses out of shape and creates space for through runners. When it doesn’t, he’s dispossessed too easily and too often. At worst, it means he gets crunched by defending players, who know that this is a surefire way to stop him.

Wilshere is 23 right now. He’s one of the best characters in the current squad. However, so much of his career thus far has been hampered by injury that I think he gets unfairly castigated for the odd off game (or cigarette) that he does have. A run without injury, where he’s able to employ that burst of pace and fantastic transition game, will see him challenge one of Santi or the Coq for the starting CM spots they look to have pretty firmly cemented. If Jack can start to consistently play to his potential, we have a genuine world class player on the books. Whether that will happen remains to be seen. He has a lot of questions to answer.

Since I originally wrote this, Jack’s been diagnosed with a potential hairline fracture. Typical! Get well soon Mr. Wilshere.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain

There are times when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s pace, strength, and technique look out of this world. He started off last season as one of the few bright lights, demonstrating determination and tactical insight to complement his unquestionable skill. It’s easy to see why Wenger has earmarked him for a central midfield spot: he has intelligence, vision, and work ethic to go along with that excellent raw technical ability.

Another much vaunted break-out youngster, he’s one more of our players who truly has the potential to be a world-beater. He’s popular in the squad and looks to be mature beyond his years with what has always come across as a positive and fun-loving attitude.

In order for him to really take his game to the next level, Oxlade needs to add some end product to his game. Statistics proliferate modern day football (breeding exponentially and symbiotically with armchair pundits), and while sometimes they can misleading, the bottom line is that he’s scored 12 goals in 116 appearances for Arsenal – only half of those coming in the league. Funnily enough, he scored 10 in 43 for Saints during his teenage years, albeit that was before they made their way back up to the premier league.

Oxlade brings a directness to our attacking game which we often lack, and his willingness to take on opposition players either with skill or through pure pace and power is hard for defenders to contend with. When he does score, he scores great goals – think of his peach against Monaco last season, or as his recent goal in the Charity Shield). He has all the raw ingredients to break out this season and stake a strong claim to a first team spot. It looks to me to be somewhat of a footrace between him and Theo for the right wing spot for a lot of games. Alex is still 21 – 22 in mid-August. He’s still pretty young, but he’s been playing at a high level for a number of years now and it’s time for him to bring it up another notch. Looking at his first couple of outings this year, he seems to be thinking the same thing.

Theo Walcott

Theo had his best season for us during 2012-2013, when he scored more than 20 goals in all competitions. I had a couple of cheeky bets with friends he would end up with more than 25 the next season. Of all the players in our current squad he’s the most frustrating in my eyes, and not just because he cost me a few quid. At his best, he’s unstoppable. His early days with Arsenal had many of us heralding a natural successor to Henry, and his ability to burst past defenders at incredible speed before sweeping the ball into the side-netting made it easy to see why. He even inherited the mythical 14 shirt at the beginning of the 2008-2009 campaign.

But – well, in fact, a number of “buts”. First, Theo is no Thierry. He’s got the pace, but hasn’t developed the transcendental technical ability, which made Thierry one of the best strikers the world has ever seen. And what’s frustrating about Theo is that he’s shown glimpses of that kind of ability throughout his career with Arsenal, maybe not quite at the level of an Henry, but not too far off – that assist for Adebayor, the goal against Chelsea, the hat-trick (and two assists) against Newcastle. Don’t forget that volley against Marseille.  But those sublime moments he sometimes produces are too often punctuated by imprecise passing and aimless running, unnecessary concession of the ball and a lack of defensive contribution.

Next “but”: his injury record is becoming Diaby-esque. Every time he starts to get into a run of form, one of those greyhound legs gets tweaked or twisted or somehow mangled. It’s been debilitating for his career, and I think has played a significant role in him never quite being able to move into the striker position, never quite developing into the player many of us thought he could be.

Final “but”: his inflated sense of self-worth. I can’t remember a contract renewal as drawn-out and stressful as his was at the end of 2012. At that point we’d lost our star players season after season, and he was probably just about the most valuable asset we had left. It would have been a real demonstration of solidarity for him to have gone ahead and signed. It’s fair enough in many ways that he didn’t – he knew we needed him more than he needed us, and that the reality was that he’d be snapped up by any number of teams. And in all honesty, I don’t really expect any players in our hyper-capitalist, modern-day society to be obliged to a club more than to their own bank balances. When it comes to providing for my loved ones, I simply want to do the best I can for them. Having said all that, there is still a kernel of idealism left somewhere inside of me, and I think drawing negotiations out as long as he did made him seem rather more disingenuous than he, and the club’s press officers, would like to make out. This time round, he’s signed up a lot quicker. I think that indicates a couple of things – firstly, he’s smart enough to realize that he has a lot less leverage than three years ago. Secondly, and more importantly, he’s willing to commit long-term to the club that has shown him so much faith and temperance.

I’ve said a lot of negative things about Theo, and I haven’t even mentioned set pieces. He’s one of my favourite players at the club and I genuinely believe he’s got what it takes to be an absolutely lethal Premier League forward, whether it’s up top or on the right. He imparts an element of fear that not many of our other players can upon opposition teams, and is one of the only players in our current squad who I’ve seen give the Chelsea defence a mauling. I’m really, really hoping that if I made those bets again right now, I’d be laughing all the way to the bank come the end of this season. If not, I’d imagine it’d be Mr. Gazidis doing so instead.

Olivier Giroud

Much has been said about the effect that social media has had on football fandom. Twitter and Facebook make opinions two a penny. In some ways, this is fantastic, enabling us to interact with gooners from all over the world. On the other hand it means that negative band-wagoning about players can pick up pace exponentially. That, in combination with the ever-increasing quality of football being played across the world, and thus the higher expectations that are held of players, often leads to the modern-day football fan often being hyper-critical of their club and its players (and I don’t just mean Arsenal). Don’t get me wrong: some of the time this criticism is absolutely warranted. Quite a lot of the time however, it’s not.

I think it’s fair to say that many Arsenal fans right now were spoilt absolutely rotten by the way we played in the early days of the Wenger era. We all know the players, we all know the goals and the matches and the achievements. I think that’s a major contributing factor to why I find Arsenal fans in particular to be so critical of the team – we are not what we once were. Many a modern day goon has simply never watched the team come tenth or twelfth. First world football problems. You could argue that some Arsenal fans can be amongst the most vindictive and unforgiving in their criticism when players don’t perform. At times it looks to genuinely have a negative effect on team and player performance (look at Gervinho: superb for Cote D’Ivoire and Roma where he’s adulated by fans, worse for Arsenal where he was lambasted).

The reasoning I outline above is why I think Olivier Giroud has been given a fair amount of unnecessary stick by Arsenal fans, including, recently and notably, Thierry Henry himself. Obviously, Olivier Giroud is never going to be Thierry Henry. However for all his flaws, I see him as a seriously underrated player, who has the ability to establish himself as a top-tier striker over the next couple of seasons. Yes, he has games where he couldn’t finish a two word sentence. Yes, he’s definitely our slowest attacking player. On the other hand, he brings another dimension to our attacking play that many other kinds of forwards are unable to do. His link up play and ability to lay the ball off with a disguised first touch can be magical – I’ll refer to you to Jack’s goal against Norwich for the second time in this piece, which I think is 100% warranted. His first touch and finishing from within the box, especially at the near post, are really very good. And although I sometimes feel he goes down a little too easily, having an attacker who’s 6’4” is a welcome addition to a team populated by the likes of Wilshere, Walcott, and Santi.

All in all, Giroud is a player who scores at a ratio of just under a goal every two games, while linking up our attacking play extremely effectively and allowing the pacier guys like Walcott and Sanchez to get behind the defence. He’s an extremely intelligent player, which is not only evident in the way he plays the game in terms of positioning and vision, but also in many of the interviews he’s had with the press. Now he needs to prove Arsenal’s best ever striker wrong, and show that we can win the most important games and trophies with him leading our line.

These are the first four players that sprang to my mind. I guess you could just as easily say that there are multiple other questions and players. Can Mesut Ozil and Francis Coquelin replicate their form from the second half of last season? Can Mertescielny develop consistency across a full season? Will Aaron Ramsey have another season where everything he touches turns to gold (or at least goals and some silverware)?

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