How far have Arsenal’s standards actually fallen?

2/15/2012

A friend of mine, who is a Barcelona fan (there are worse things he could be, I guess), recently brought to my attention this article Ben Blackmore wrote for ESPN.com about the declining standards at Arsenal. What I wrote in the email response to my friend ended up almost reading like a blog post, so I’ve made it into one.

For reference, here’s a link to the Blackmore article, titled “Arsenal standards reach dangerous low”: http://soccernet.espn.go.com/feature/_/id/1022668/blackmore:-arsenal-dropping-standards-to-dangerously-low-levels-?cc=5901

Also, for reference, his general point is that the quality of players Arsenal have now has dropped drastically from the last time they won trophies, and that the only players currently on the squad that have the quality to wear the shirt are van Persie, Wilshere, and Vermaelen. That’s the extreme CliffsNotes version at least, read the whole article for more; it’s a little off, but the thrust of it is on target.

Like a lot of people who probably have only watched a handful of Arsenal matches this year, Blackmore has some misconceptions based on things he’s heard but not observed himself (Full disclosure: that’s an assumption I’ve made. I have no idea how many Arsenal matches Blackmore has actually watched this season). I think the overall point is well taken, that the level of quality on this year’s squad is significantly lower than it was last year, and depressingly lower than it was back in the early-to-mid 2000s. That being said, he’s got some things wrong.

Blackmore points out Djourou and Jenkinson as not being good enough to be on the pitch. While I agree with this, they are easy targets. Djourou is his better point, because Jenkinson wouldn’t have sniffed the pitch other than in Carling Cup matches, were it not for injury. So yes, they shouldn’t be out there playing first team football for Arsenal, but if you think about the defense last year as compared to now, it’s not so dire. I wrote a blog about this previously, but just as a short recap: Djourou was actually considered one of our better defenders until he got hurt in that game at Old Trafford last season.

I totally disagree with Blackmore on Mertesacker and Koscielny, and actually (a bit) on Vermaelen too. I think all three of them are leaps-and-bounds ahead of our central defenders last year (which included a very lost-looking Koscielny in his first year in the Prem, and featured the likes of Squillaci and almost no time from Vermaelen). As they are playing now, however, I’ll take all three of them (TV5, Kos, & Per) over, let’s say, Gary Cahill and a whole host of others out there playing central defense in the Prem. Actually, I think Vermaelen (though I love him) has been the worst of the three as of late, and Koscielny has been the best. Sure they get beat sometimes, but what defender never gets beat? In sum, I don’t think central defense is the problem with this Arsenal team.

The other real problem is depth, as we’ve seen. A couple of guys go down, and we’re screwed. You only need to look at the full back situation to understand how that works. See earlier point re: how Jenkinson has been pressed into action too soon. In the article, Blackmore mentions Clichy in the same breath as Cesc & Nasri in speaking of the quality that left in the summer… So yeah, he’s totally overrated Clichy as a player, but whatever. Gibbs and Santos aren’t great (Gibbs looked especially lost against Milan), but they’re not that much of a step down from Clichy, if any as compared to his declining form last season. Blackmore also rips Sagna, who I will defend. Bac is great, but he’s just got back from injury, so playing on that abomination of a pitch at San Siro didn’t suit him. That he didn’t look great yesterday was no shock, but that performance shouldn’t be taken to be representative of his quality.

As for the rest of the squad, I’ll defend Alex Song by saying this: I bet you can’t name five clubs in the whole of Europe that wouldn’t take him, and start him, as a holding midfielder. Challenge issued, take it if you wish. That is all.

As for the rest, Arteta and Ramsey are no Cesc & Nasri. They can’t even lick their boots, and on a team like Arsenal they should probably be complimentary players. Arteta especially has done well to stabilize the club since coming on, but he and Ramsey should be fill-ins and substitutes for an Arsenal squad. So yes, Blackmore has that part right.

He makes a weird move in talking about the wing play, and focuses on Walcott & Arshavin. The little Russian hardly plays for Arsenal right now, so I’m not sure why he’s even mentioned in the article. Blackmore should be talking about Walcott, Gervinho, and Oxlade-Chamberlain if he really wants to get it right. That being said, let’s talk about them: The Ox is young, and I think every other team in the Prem wishes they had him, so there’s that. As for the other two, they’re too inconsistent, and frustratingly so. Gervinho, despite not being able to finish since he got here, is probably better overall, but they could certainly both be upgraded. They’re not awful though, in my view the problem is greater in the midfield.

In sum, Wenger has to buy distributing midfielders with creativity, wingers who don’t disappear, and a decent backup for van Persie (everyone agrees that Chamakh has lost whatever magic he had when he first arrived, and I assume there’s a reason Wenger won’t play Park, but no one can tell what since he never even sniffs the pitch). None of that is at all groundbreaking, but at least it provided a vehicle to assess the team heading into the final stretch of the season. It will be imperative for Arsene to hold on to what he’s got (and add more quality to it in the off season. Arsenal cannot afford to lose more talent, as it’s already behind on replacing what they lost last summer, but we all knew that already. Doesn’t make it any less important though.

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