The past week has been much like a game of two halves for Arsenal after a humiliating home defeat in their Premier League opener on Saturday which was promptly followed by a solid, professional an impressive display in Istanbul on Wednesday.
The Gunners travelled out to Turkey to face Fenerbahce in the first leg of their Champions League qualification play-off. The result on Saturday destabilized what had been a solid pre-season tour as the team and the manager came under intensifying pressure from the fans and scrutiny from the press.
However, an emphatic and comprehensive 3-0 victory in Istanbul will likely go some way to redeem the boss or, at the very least, buy him some time to execute his transfer plans before the close of the window on September 2nd.
The French boss insisted all summer long and in the aftermath of their defeat to Aston Villa that he is most concerned with the players he already has and the quality already there in abundance in his squad.
In midfielder Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey he has undoubtedly two of the finest young footballers in the country – the former is heralded as the jewel in England’s crown on the international stage with huge expectations placed on a player just 21 years of age.
The latter, 22-year-old Welshman Aaron Ramsey has endured a tough start to his career at Arsenal. There was of course the career-jeopardizing injury, a leg break suffered via a Ryan Shawcross tackle back in 2010 which took him over a year to fully recover from physically and arguably another year to recover mentally from the incident.
When he returned to action in 2011/12, Ramsey was inconsistent and under weighty expectations he floundered – his form and fitness were matters of serious questions asked by the fans of the young man who had already taken enough knocks to his confidence.
Meanwhile, Wilshere hasn’t had the best of times of late himself. Following his layoff for 17 months with ankle and knee injuries, he returned last term before suffering another niggle towards the end of the season.
After another operation this summer, Wilshere will be hoping he can keep fit and improve his form this term. The career trajectory of the two young Arsenal midfielders has led them to much the same point as they embark on the 2013/14 season.
On Saturday, the partnership was exposed as nowhere near ready and nowhere near fortified. They gave far too much space and time to their opponents – something Arsene Wenger had noticed in their pre-season run out against Napoli. Gabriel Agbonlahor completely dissected the pair in the middle of the park. The formation under Wenger in recent seasons has resembled a 4-3-3 or a 4-5-1 but in the absence of Mikel Arteta on Saturday, the Gunners actually reverted back to a 4-4-2 shape for most of the game.
Wilshere and Ramsey were tasked with operating deep and sitting back to protect the backline whilst Tomas Rosicky roamed forward with the widemen on the flanks to support Olivier Giroud up front.
The issue was on Saturday that neither Wilshere nor Ramsey knew who was responsible for handling the defensive duties when Arsenal were caught on the break. All three of Villa’s goals (including the penalties awarded) were a result of Arsenal’s loss of possession high up the pitch and Villa’s counter-attack catching their midfield and defence completely off-guard and out of position.
On Wednesday Aaron Ramsey was Arsenal’s best player on the pitch – he was superb in that game – his energy and work rate to break up the play in the middle of the park against Fenerbahce was tireless and Wilshere joined him in that function as they hunted for possession in a pack-like fashion.
That wasn’t the case on Saturday – as Arsenal strived harder and harder for an equalizing goal in the second half, Wilshere and Ramsey in equal measure left their defensive responsibilities to push forward and try to affect the creation of attacks. If Arsenal had have scored as a result of their endeavours, no one would have complained but in reality they left the backline completely exposed.
When either one of them played alongside Arteta last season, they had more space, more time, and more freedom to roam forward and to pick out passes but without the Spaniard on Saturday, Wilshere was marked out of the game and Ramsey for all his work and energy couldn’t dominate the play on his own.
As a partnership on Wednesday, they were very effective and efficient – they both combined well with Rosicky ahead of them but they never lost their heads and found themselves too far forward – even Ramsey’s goal was shot from way outside the penalty area where Wilshere was standing practically next to him.
They stuck together, functioned as a pair – whatever the team mentality (attack or defend) they followed suit together rather than taking on separate and oppositional responsibilities, which, in my estimation, is where the confusion came in on Saturday. When they work together at the same task they are a force to be reckoned with but when they splinter off into separate roles, they seem inconsistent and unsure of who’s picking up whom.
image: © Ronnie Macdonald