It took Arteta’s banjaxed calf to force a rethink, but last night we arguably saw the most balanced midfield mix of the season so far, creating enough chances to win the game twice over, but ultimately only taking one – a half-volley smashed in by Jack, who was magisterial all night.
I’ve long thought, and written, and said on our podcast, that Wilshere had been ear-marked as the natural incumbent to the post-Cesc midfield creator role, and I think would have played at the tip of the trio last season but for his injury. The idea was always to have him learn the grubbier side of the midfield trade alongside Song, before being moved forward into the conductor’s role. Last night he passed the audition with flying colours.
So what might that mean for Santi? Probably not that much in the short term. Seeing him on the wing was a long overdue experiment, given that he spent most of his time on the flanks at Malaga. While not a resounding success in terms of individual contribution, though he did play the ball into Giroud for the fabled pre-assist – and his current form is a much due to Arsene using him like a joy-ridden car as anything – it does look like an experiment worth repeating.
What I thought was interesting was the natural balance of this line-up. Cast your minds back – briefly, because it hurts – to the Theo Van Nasregas era. The brilliance of that blend was that it provided trickery and passing smarts from the left from Nasri, technique and finishing in the centre from *him*, and the blistering pace of Walcott on the right to stretch defences out. And of course, the Spanish maestro picking the passes from behind.
Last night, the qualities weren’t identical, but there’s a similar mix of skills and specialisms. Jack’s ability to turn and ghost past players enables him to break the game line, taking a defender out play and thereby disrupting the opposition’s banks of four. I mentioned during the game that he just needs to add the final pass and a decent shot, and he really will be complete. Depending on how you want to view it, he either made me look (more) daft, or just showed he’s well on schedule to doing just that, with the late winner.
It’s also worth noting that he did have an eye for goal when he was coming up. Remember this, his second against Rangers in the Emirates Cup ‘09? As with Cesc, I expect goals will be added late to his game, like glacé cherries. Only less fruity than that sounds. What he requires now is a platform to play from, and that was provided by the industry of Coquelin, and an improved all-round display from Diaby.
Which is not to say Arteta won’t walk back into this side, but we’ve seen how a midfield of he, Jack and Santi looks like they’re all too similar. Diaby adds height and the ability to hold (sometimes for *too* long) onto the ball, while Coquelin’s willingness to press and physicality makes us less easy to play through. I’ve been critical of the youngster, not out of any real dislike for him, but largely on the basis that there are many affordable and more experienced players like him around. With Arteta out for another couple of weeks, and no new midfielders on the horizon, this is a critical period of his career if he’s going to prove he can become a real option for the manager.
Defensively, plaudits go to Gibbs, who was tenacious – especially in that phase where he won the ball back twice on Swansea’s touchline – and Vermaelen, who looked back to something like his best. I hope the narrative that he isn’t the player he was doesn’t take root. As with the ‘Song is a liability’ stuff, I think the criticism gets overdone, then becomes an accepted truth simply through repetition.
What really interested me last night is that we haven’t looked this in control since probably the Liverpool game. Generally I’ve felt this side has two settings: 1) reasonably solid but completely uncreative, and 2) unexpected volcano eruption in both goalmouths. In the second half (Arsenal really are a one-half side) we showed we could exert control, all but shutting Swansea out, while still crafting plenty of chances at the other end. Without wanting to state the bleeding obvious, that is precisely what we’ll need to do, especially against the fabled ‘teams we’d expect to beat’, for the rest of the season.
Given that we’re all in good moods, time for a little light transfer jazz? From the sounds of Arsene’s press conference, the Walcott deal is inching agonisingly along, Zaha remains on the radar, and the boss ‘likes’ Cavani. Of course he does. Who bloody wouldn’t? The man is 100% prime Uruguayan goal-scoring beef. And therefore likely well out of our price range. Particularly if you factor in this sort of talk about his future, and the fact Napoli supposedly knocked back a £45m bid for him in the summer.
For the non-mathletes among you, that’s £15m *more* than the rumoured £30m feeler it was suggested, by a usually reliable source, had been put out by the club yesterday for an unnamed player. I’d love to believe. God knows I would. But when your record transfer fee stands around the £14m mark (give or take 500k between Nasri, Arshavin and Wiltord), to suddenly splash more than double seems a little, well, un-Arsenalish doesn’t it? Napoli have financial problems, but the minute the player was known to be available at that price at least three other clubs would come sniffing.
And without wanting to get too tinfoil hat about it, I do wonder whether bidding big on players Arsenal know we’re unlikely to get isn’t as much as PR exercise as anything. Like offering to match Hazard’s fee, fully aware he would already be heading for a bigger salary elsewhere. Or the previous time we ‘inquired’ about David Villa in 2010, as the window was about to close. The intention looks nice, but until one of these transfer ‘spectaculars’ come off, we’re probably better off trying to plug three £10m-sized gaps in the squad rather than dreaming about superstars signing anytime soon.
Still, I’d love to be wrong. And it’s hardly like that would be unusual. What I’m most pleased about, aside from still being in the Cup – obviously, is that we now have more options when it comes to reconfiguring the lineup. There’s some prospect Santi could be given a rest. We could also try Poldi in the middle again. The real question will be how we line-up with Cavani? No, it’s no good. I’m a hopeless junkie.