We now head towards the final stretch of a season in which Arsenal have been anything but consistent. This is often the case with Arsenal’s performances, but one thing that often remains consistent through the course of a league campaign is Arsene Wenger’s team selections- with him rarely deviating much from his chosen 11. But despite me often criticising the simplistic nature of Wenger’s approach to squad rotation, compared with Ferguson’s ingenuity, je seems to have made a couple of changes to the team in recent weeks that my just help Arsenal to a strong finish to the season.
When Gooners heads were turned to Munich and Arsenal’s second leg in the Champions League, most were either confused or frustrated by the selection of Lukasz Flappyanski in the Arsenal goal. Many (including myself at the time) saw it as a sign that Wenger was giving up on the tie and focusing on gaining the much-coveted champions League spot, as it would be fair to say that Flappy has hardly set the world alight when he’s pulled on his gloves for Arsenal- something indicated by his nickname.
However, three very solid and respectable performances later the move seems to have been inspired, as Flappy has yet to put a foot, or should I say hand, wrong. He was especially impressive against Munich, where he vocally led a strong defensive display, which saw a team who have been scoring freely all season be shut out in their own backyard- all by a team, with a recent reputation for rather questionable defending.
Fabiankski’s call-up perhaps did make more sense that I first thought, as it’s been clear all season that despite his clearly boundless ability and potential, Wojciech Szczesny has largely underperformed between the sticks this season. He has had the odd majestic performance- his heroics at Sunderland being the best example- but he has been largely disappointed. One cannot help but think that the lack of any credible competition he has faced for the jersey is a factor in his decline in form, as despite him underperforming he could rest happy knowing that the keepers behind him- Flappy, Vito and Damian Martinez have all by-and-large failed when given their chances in the first team. But in a show of confidence, Wenger has thrown the debate wide open by bringing in Fabianski- rather than the new candidate from outside the club that many have been calling for. Szczesny for being short of confidence, not a bad thing, but perhaps complacency had crept in. Given the way Fabianski has performed, he should be anything but complacent now, and hopefully his future performances will begin to show greater concentration and consistency.
I assume that Chez will have many future performances for Arsenal, as I think this change will only be temporary. Although Fabianski has seemed to add stability to our backline, he does not have the natural ability or potential that Szczesny has, and I believe that in the long term, his time in goal for Arsenal will only serve as a kick up the backside for Arsenal’s true number one Pole. Perhaps Wenger has taken a leaf out of the book of Alex Ferguson, the master of squad rotation here, as Ferguson deployed the same tactic effectively in David De Gea’s early days at Manchester United- where following some sub-par performances from the young Spaniard Ferguson made him grow up quickly, by giving first team playing time to the competent and solid Anders Lindegaard. Since then, De Gea has proved himself to be possibly the best shot-stopper in the league, completing his duties with minimal fuss.
The other change that seems to have a sparked a change in our fortunes has been the replacement of our captain, Thomas Vermaelen, who as endured a very poor season. Despite becoming a fans’ favourite for his rather dynamic work at the heart of Arsenal’s defence, (and often way in front of it) Vermaelen has been the clear weak link Arsenal’s regular defensive starters this year. Since taking up the captaincy he has struggled terribly, despite the season being remarkably injury-free for such a fragile player. Perhaps his ultimate low-point came away to the vermin in the North London Derby, where his indecisive and almost comical attempts at commanding an offside trap made for painful viewing.
By this point Wenger had clearly seen enough, and replaced Vermaelen with the inconsistent, yet very talented Frenchman Laurent Koscielny. One of Arsenal’s best players in the second half of last season, Koscielny seems to blow hot and cold more than most, even amongst Arsenal players. A defender with excellent recovery speed and mobility, he compliments the dependable but cumbersome BFG excellently- a theory that should really apply to Vermaelen as well. A change was clearly needed in regards to Vermaelen, and Wenger seems to have picked the right time to make the change, as Koscielny has stepped into the side and performed magnificently, displaying perhaps that he is certainly blowing hot rather than cold at the present time.
I have long attested that Laurent is our most talented centre-half, and I really hope that finally we can see long runs of consistent performance from him, rather than the odd flurry of outstanding displays, followed by unexplainable lapses. As for Vermaelen, it is clear that we cannot have any player in our side regardless of whether they are captain or not, but clearly, the issue of his captaincy, and very being at the club, must be addressed if he continues to fail in justifying his place in the first eleven. This does highlight a greater issue regarding the failed leaders Arsenal have had in recent years, but that is a debate for another time, and not a particularly pleasant one either.
So perhaps the dog has learned some new tricks, as the usually stubborn team selector has placed comprehensive votes of no-confidence in two of the key cogs in his young side, resulting in clear short-term benefits. It will be interesting to see going forward this does prove to be the beginning of a more ruthless management style from Wenger, or whether it leads to permanent changes to the personnel of Arsenal’s defensive core. But one thing is for certain, these changes have coincided with an upturn in our fortunes, so come on you Gunners, time to leapfrog those Spuds!
Note: I wrote this piece before the game at West brom where our defence was certainly not stable and solid.