Good morning, the first game of Arsenal’s 2012-2013 Premier League season is just a work week away and speculation continues apace as to who will start Saturday’s home opener against Sunderland. What should be a relatively simple decision for the manager is made complicated by a crowded international schedule of Euros, followed by the Olympics, and a midweek friendly combined with an open transfer window and at least two wantaway players.
The Euros alone would have delayed many players returning to pre-season camp but with Aaron Ramsey’s selection to Team GB for the Olympics, Arsenal find themselves shorn of a player who made 34 League appearances for the club last season. Aaron has a bit of a strained relationship with many Arsenal supporters and his absence easily dismissed by them but he was an integral part of the team last season and is a player who certainly could slot in Arsenal’s central midfield seamlessly.
The midweek friendly means that players like Theo Walcott and Robin van Persie will almost certainly be called up to have their respective legs kicked by players like Georgio Chiellini and, erm… Thomas Vermaelen. Meanwhile, several other Arsenal players have pulled out of the midweek “classic” owning to injuries and the German manager has given Podolski and Mertesacker the day off. Koscielny and Chamberlain have both called in sick and fingers crossed that they are only out pulling a Chelsea.*
The one player who might suffer most from this most pointless of international friendlies is Arsenal’s new boy Santi Cazorla. Spain are playing a friendly in Puerto Rico on Wednesday and Cazorla is almost certain to travel. Just to give you some context, the distance between London and Puerto Rico is 4200 miles or a 9 hour flight. That’s further than London to Seattle and even though the time zone is only +5, a trip like that with such a short turnaround wreaks havoc on your body.
Complicating squad selection further is the fact that Robin van Persie’s situation remains largely unsettled and casts a shadow over team selection. As long as he is in the liminal zone between Arsenal player and captain, and Manchester United player and cocksandwich his appointment to the squad on Saturday is uncertain. Arsene keeps talking like he expects Robin to be a professional and put in a shift if called upon but he would do well to remember the disastrous appearance Samir Nasri made in his final farewell to the club. Normally very tidy with the ball, Nasri was dispossessed nine times in that game and directly responsible for not marking Miereles as he bombed forward to get Liverpool’s opener.
It is possible that Arsene used that Liverpool game as a test of character with Nasri and after seeing what kind of person he really is, decided that keeping him would be pointless as he would “play” when asked but there would always be ironic quotes around his play. Could the boss do the same with Robin? Why not? He has backup strikers in Giroud and Podolski who could actually play play if Robin shows us what he really thinks of us. If he’s still with the club, don’t be surprised to see Robin lineup, with the captain’s armband, on Saturday. After all, if Arsene really wants to keep him then he has nothing to lose by playing him. As Orbinho pointed out this morning, Robin has five goals in four home appearances against Sunderland.
The other player who is unsettled at the moment is Alex Song and it’s to be expected when Barcelona bat their eyes at a player. I should qualify “unsettled”: Barcelona have started an all out player tapping up assault on Song in order to get him as cheaply as possible because they are both morally and monetarily bankrupt and Song, to his credit, has basically said “Barcelona are a great team and I’m honored but I also still love Arsenal.”
The thing about Song is that like so many players from Arsene’s “project youth” he divides opinion sharply. It seems that Gooners either feel like he’s worth a packet of shrimp crisps or £60m but the truth lies somewhere between. Song is an enigma. There is no doubt that Song plays as the most defensive midfielder on a team not really bothered with defense at times. Does that make him a traditional defensive midfielder in the mould of a Parker or Mascherano? No. His 11 assists, good enough for fourth best in the League and his League leading 0.7 through balls per game both belie his ability going forward. But he also plays deeper than a traditional box-to-box midfielder, often bringing the ball out of the backfield and leading Arsenal in tackles per game both in the League and leading all players in the Champions League in tackles per game last season.
What confuses me about Barcelona’s interest in Song is that he is far too careless with the ball for what I see as a prototypical Barcelona player. In League play, Song coughed the ball up 88 times for Arsenal’s opponents last season; Javier Mascherano only did the same 20 times. Mascherano also had a lot more interceptions, better passing rate, more accurate long passing, similar tackling numbers, and far fewer fouls.
Perhaps in the more regimented Barcelona system Song’s numbers would look more like Mascherano’s but only if he gave up on bombing forward the way he is able now under the Wenger system. It’s tough to tell because the systems may look similar to the naked eye but they are as different as classical and jazz.
Either way, I would be surprised if Arsene is ready to sell Song. There’s much still to be improved with this young man, not the least of which is his tendency to be caught in possession.
That’s it for today, there will be a By the Numbers season preview tomorrow and that means no post here. See you on Thursday.
*Terry, Lampard, and Essien are notorious for picking up injuries before international friendlies only to make a miraculous recovery three days later.