Arsène Wenger made just two signings in January: a young prospective defensive midfielder and an experienced Brazilian center back named Gabriel. On the other end of the lading bill, Arsène also sent three forwards out on loan, giving valuable first team experience to Yaya Sanogo and Joel Campbell and finding a restive place at Inter for Lukas Podolski to practice his future in social media marketing.
In the end, Wenger didn’t buy the big, beastly, wins every tackle, tackles 20 times a game, tackles tackles, and tackles tackles of tackles, defensive (preferably a tall African francophone with little or no hair) midfielder that everyone wanted him to buy but he did find a good backup center back and unearthed a home grown defensive midfielder. So, where is Arsenal’s squad still weak? Is it still weak?
In goalkeeper, Arsène Wenger dropped Wojciech Szczesny after the loss to Southampton where Woj was caught smoking a cigarette in the locker room. Since then Wenger has handed the starting gloves to David Ospina. The 6′ Ospina looks a bit undersized for goalkeeper in the Premier League but he is an experienced international player and he seems to be adding to a sense of calm in the back line.
In all competitions for Arsenal, Ospina has played six times, only has one loss (Southampton in the League Cup), has only allowed a total of 3 goals. And since being called upon in January, Ospina has posted four consecutive wins with four clean sheets.
It’s often hard to tell if it’s the keeper or if it’s the team who should get credit for clean sheets. But it is common parlance to award the keeper the clean sheet. Ospina has earned the clean sheets a bit, he’s made 7 saves without letting in a goal in the Premier League and is averaging 2.33 saves per game, that’s more saves than Szczesny was being forced to make at 1.68 per game.
Where Ospina really shines though is in his long ball kicking. His overall pass percentage is poor, 59% compared to Szczesny’s 68% but if you peek behind the numbers you can see why: Szczesny played a lot of short passes this season and was very poor at long balls whereas Ospina plays few short passes and is very good at long balls.
Szczesny averaged 9.3 short passes per game, Ospina averages 1.7 with neither keeper making too many poor passes (Szczesny has one notable exception) which caused his team any trouble. But Ospina manages to complete 13 long passes per game (13/23.7 — 55%) whereas Szczesny only managed 4.9 per game (4.9/13.4 — 37%). Historically, Szczesny has been much better at the long pass than he is showing this year. I can’t tell whether this massive drop from a guy who used to pass 50%+ long passes is because of injury to Giroud or that Arsenal sold Sagna (Szcz was known to favor passing long balls out to Sagna) but the fact remains that he can’t seem to find a man to pass to and Ospina can. That ability to get the ball down field and find an Arsenal player is important to getting Arsenal out of trouble and keeping the ball out of our defensive third.
I know I have written a lot about keeper so far but it is the one position where I think Arsenal might be lacking, a bit. I think the starting spot goes to Ospina for now and this summer we will find out if Szczesny has a long-term future at Arsenal. My gut tells me he doesn’t. I suspect Wenger is fed up with his antics like Podolski, Frimpong, Song, and others who maybe didn’t take the job and the club rules as seriously as they should have.
In front of Ospina, Arsenal are stocked. At right back, Arsenal have Debuchy, Chambers, and Bellerin. Since Bellerin was given a chance he has done exceptionally well and basically wrestled the starting spot away from Calum Chambers. Bellerin is very quick to get back and he’s an excellent tackler — he’s only been beaten 3 times in 19 attempted tackles this year. His speed also allows him to get forward and he even scored his first Arsenal goal in the 5-0 win over Aston Villa. Debuchy is out for the season (basically) after Arnautovich shoved him and dislocated his shoulder but backing Bellerin up is Calum Chambers who is a decent right back in his own right.
At left back, Arsenal have Gibbs and Monreal. Both are very experienced and excellent choices for left back. Full stop.
In the center of the park, Arsenal have Mertesacker and Koscielny with a host of players who can play backup when either of those two need a rest. Chambers can come in for Mertesacker and the new signing, Gabriel can come in for Koscielny.
I’ve had a look at Gabriel’s numbers and they are OK but I will caution against using stats from a player who played in La Liga for a team who played a vastly different brand of football from Arsenal. His headed duels percentage (61%), for example, could be completely lost in translation from Spain to England. We will just have to see. Still, it was the one position Wenger needed to buy cover and he did with pundits comparing him favorably to Koscielny.
It looks a little like Chambers is covering two positions but he isn’t. I see Debuchy and Bellerin as the right backs and Chambers more of a central defender who can play right back.
In midfield, Arsenal have a weird situation. The clamor for the last three years was for Arsene to buy a dominating defensive midfielder to play along with Ramsey and Wilshere. Wenger even shopped around but for various reasons couldn’t land the player he was looking for. And then, one day, out of necessity, Wenger went back to the well and recalled Coquelin.
Coquelin has been at Arsenal since 2008 and has had several infamous starts at the club in the holding role and at right back before being loaned out to various clubs. On loan he failed to find a way into a permanent first team role and each time he returned to Arsenal, he would play once or twice and then go right back out on loan.
So, it’s all been a bit sudden that Coquelin is seen as Arsenal’s first choice holding midfielder. Recalled in December from Charlton, Coquelin has played just 463 minutes in the Premier League this season. Despite some solid defensive performances are we really ready to say that Arteta is the backup to Coquelin? Arteta is insanely accurate with a whole range of passes but Coquelin is significantly better defensively — in terms of tackles, aerial duels won, interceptions, and foot speed to cover the fullback positions. Which do you pick?
The good news is that Arsenal have a ton of midfielders who can all cover for each other: Coquelin-Arteta-Flamini, Ramsey-Rosicky-Ox, and Cazorla-Özil-Wilshere. Don’t get your pants in a bunch about me grouping these players like this, they play a variety of positions in the Arsenal midfield and the Arsenal midfield isn’t known for keeping a strict shape. I’m just suggesting that these players have similar attributes, more defensive, more link-up, and more attacking. For those of you without a colic I’m sorry I had to waste words saying that.
No matter how you reorder the midfield that is a pretty stacked list. Note that I have Ox and Wilshere pretty far down on the list, that’s some serious depth when you’re looking at Jack Wilshere as potentially third choice in the attacking midfield role. And notice that I didn’t even have to mention Diaby, Zelalem, or the new guy Bielik. Arsenal’s midfield is packed for choice and full of competition for places. This is the healthiest midfield in the League.
And up front, Wenger also has competition and depth. With Giroud returning from his injury layoff he has now relegated the hard-working and talented Danny Welbeck to a support role. And the same can be said for Alexis and his backup Theo Walcott. I know some of you will again get the hump because I’ve put a bunch of the British players down the pecking order but if you watch the work rate and sheer goal-scoring genius that a guy like Sanchez brings compared to what Walcott gave in his start against Aston Villa, you can see that Wenger is going to pick Sanchez over Theo all day, every day.
Now, I know that this looks like a 4-3-2 that I just created but that’s because Arsenal’s system is a bit odd. But to create a 4-3-3 you simply take either Özil, Ox, or Cazorla from the midfield and play them in the wide forward role.
As Naveen pointed out in his column prior to the Villa match, Özil likes to take up non-traditional positions wide instead of in the middle so it seems natural to me that Özil will start wide left and Cazorla in the middle — though where these two start and were they do their damage on the pitch are usually two different things. If you need another left sided player, Arsène can slide Alexis over there and start either Walcott or Ox on the right. This is the other area at Arsenal where Wenger might look to strengthen in the summer: he has a lot of right-footed players playing on the left. If he can get in a truly left-footed forward who works as hard as Alexis then I think the attack will be significantly strengthened.
Debuchy(i) Mertesacker Koscielny Gibbs
Bellerin Chambers Gabriel Monreal
Ramsey Arteta(i) Cazorla
Rosicky Coquelin Wilshere(i)
Alexis Giroud Özil
(Walcott, Ox) Welbeck(i) (Alexis)
There you have it. Is the Arsenal squad complete? It’s about as complete as you could expect to get in the January transfer window. As Henry said on Sky, “in January you go for the player that is available… in the summer you go for the player you really want.” And for me it looks like Arsenal have two solid players in every position on the pitch.
That has to be a January transfer market well done by the boss and now Arsenal have time to work on a few things on the training ground ahead of the North London derby this weekend. With the Gunners just 6 points off 2nd place and -1 GD off 4th place, they look well positioned to make an end of season run to get back into the Champions League places, and possibly even higher.