Mikel Arteta might be well placed to comment on Arsenal’s unfulfilled potential. He was in the Everton team that was thrashed 7-0 inMay 2005 by an Arsenal side that gave the most compelling argument for football as an art form. More relevantly, though, it was an Arsenal side which featured an amalgamation of the “Invincibles”, and a sprinkling of potentially world-beating youngsters who supposed to carry the club through the move to the Emirates. On that day they were devastating and even though the title was already relinquished to Chelsea, there was a feeling that there was enough talent on show to ensure they deliver more trophies in the future.
Robin van Persie scored the first goal in that game, and he started alongside Philipe Senderos, Ashley Cole and Jose Antonio Reyes while Cesc Fàbregas and Mathieu Flamini both came on as substitute. Now, however, Van Persie is the last that remains of “Project Youth” and this summer, he revealed that he wants to leave the club.
In a sense it’s understandable although some say he owes the club a little bit more loyalty for the time he spent on the treatment table – ironically, the one thing that probably stopped him from leaving earlier. The Arsenal project he was bound to was predicated on success and the premise was simple: “stay here,” it said to players, “and you may not make the best money in the world, but you will win trophies in a thrilling style.” Van Persie only has an FA Cup to show for it.
Losing Van Persie now would be unprecedented – although there are signs that he may yet stay – because Arsène Wenger rarely lets anyone go at their peak. Nevertheless, he’s acted quickly to ensure that there is no repeat of the Cesc Fàbregas/Samir Nasri saga that plagued the club last summer. Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud have joined the club as potential replacements. Yet, while Wenger continues to strengthen, there is a feeling that Arsenal are not completely over the damage that was caused when their two star midfielders left last season. Because, it must be remembered that Arsenal played some of their best football in the final year Fàbregas and Nasri spent at the club – playing a dynamic and integrated brand of football which was supposed to be the benchmark for coming seasons – culminating in the famous 2-1 win over Barcelona. Wenger was adamant that they would stay – nay, he somewhat naively convinced himself that they would stay – so when they did decide to leave, he was suddenly forced to scavenge the market for world class players who could replace them. It was too late in the transfer window to realistically do that thus the rebuilding has effectively started this season. The signing of Santi Cazorla puts Arsenal back on the technical plane that they were when Fàbregas and Nasri were at the club. Now all Wenger needs is Jack Wilshere to return from injury.
In the meantime, that most important of roles is being fulfilled by Mikel Arteta and from there – just in between Alex Song and the playmaker – he gives Arsenal definition. His passing is as unerring as the neatness of his hair and his positional play provides Arsenal the structure when they press while acting as the reference point when they have the ball. And being the best midfielder in the Premier League outside of the established Champions League clubs before he signed, he might have felt he had earned that trust in his technical ability.
Joined by another Spaniard, not insignificantly – Santi Cazorla – Arsenal are just starting to find their balance which is why the other, most important piece of the puzzle – Robin van Persie – must not leave. Finally he gets what he craves – a midfielder with a special eye for a pass because, as he tells Henk Spaan for FT Magazine, a team’s playmaker and the striker must “form a two-in-one unit”. Last season, Van Persie displayed a bit of frustration at Aaron Ramsey’s tendency to procrastinate in possession (although he praised his running) and for a while seemed reinvigorated by Tomáš Rosický.
The injury to the Czech midfielder has seemingly thrown a spanner in Wenger’s pre-season plans; “Rosicky did fantastically well for us at the end of the season, so it is a big blow,” he said of his injury. And listening to how Rosický performed the playmaker role last season, it’s easy to understand why. “When we have the ball I am starting quite close to Robin [van Persie] up front, and after that I can come a bit deeper and stretch the pitch out,” Rosický said. “I can’t say for sure whether this has made the whole difference, but I would certainly agree that what the boss is asking [of me] at the moment suits me nicely.”
This is how Arsène Wenger seeks to find the balance in his midfield. The number 10 starts as a typical playmaker but as the play unfolds, merges in with the other midfielders so that he is hard to pick up. In pre-season, the tactic didn’t go exactly to plan as Wenger found he didn’t have the personnel to execute it smoothly. Against Malaysia XI, Arteta nor Francis Coquelin felt comfortable pushing into the space whenever Abou Diaby dropped back. In the second-half, there was a much better understanding between Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Chuks Aneke in the advanced midfield role. Against Manchester City they were overrun to ever really test the dynamics while they again underperformed versus Kitchee SC. Abou Diaby, the constant in each of the first-halves, though, did display powerful drive and give-and-goes that will benefit Arsenal. And it should dovetail well with Cazorla who is – not unsurprisingly – one of the best one-touch players in the game. In the long run, he might play as the playmaker expected to replicate the decisiveness and penetration Fàbregas showed but in the immediate term, he replaces the massive impact Yossi Benayoun made at the back-end of last season.
Santi Cazorla comes into the side with intense pressure from the outset and even higher expectations. But Arsenal, stronger after last seasons travails, are seemingly back on the path to building the team that Arsène Wenger always wanted.