Inside the Opposition: Arsenal

Saturday’s match with Arsenal is City’s biggest league game of the season so far. Win and we cut their lead to 3 points; lose and we’re in trouble. The superb midweek win in Munich, where our largely second-string side deservedly beat the best club side in world football, won’t do our confidence any harm, that’s for sure.

To get the inside track on The Gunners, I had a chat with Michael Keshani, an excellent writer and bloody lovely Arsenal fan who looks like a cross between Roger Federer and Ezra Koenig. I asked him about their unfairly maligned centre-back pairing and why Arsenal fans don’t seem to appreciate Wenger.

This season has been great so far for Arsenal. I am definitely taking your lot seriously. What’s been the difference between this Arsenal side and the soft-centred, easy-to-beat Arsenal sides of recent seasons?

Good to hear we’re being taken seriously! The biggest difference is that this side’s main strength is its defence, and the way it defends. Between Sol Campbell leaving and Per Mertesacker coming in we had a lot of ‘okay’ to ‘good’, generally pretty mobile defenders who had no one to organise them. So our main defensive mechanism was keeping the ball in midfield with the defence mostly sitting high up the pitch. When it came to sitting deeper and protecting leads they didn’t know what to do. Signing Mertesacker let us move to becoming a defensive unit who, while more than comfortable on the ball and pushing up when needs be, is in its element absorbing pressure. We’ve had less than half of the possession in more games this year than any other I can remember, and it’s not a bad thing. Mikel Arteta in front of the defence has also been huge in aiding that.

For the latter half of the Cesc era, most of the team hid behind him and his ability to take responsibility and save them. This team’s main leaders are Per and Arteta, who obviously don’t really score/make goals for the rest of them, and almost all the players in this squad are far more inclined to take responsibility for themselves and for each other. It’s a real team, and its core has had almost two full years together now and it shows in their comfort together.

Jack Wilshere is, in my opinion, a very special talent. He looks to have more ability than almost any other Englishman I’ve seen, yet he hasn’t kicked on quite as I thought he might. How good can he be?

Jack’s a lovely player. He’s obviously a wonderful dribbler and passer, and technically fantastic, but his end product is inconsistent to say the least. His final ball leaves a lot to be desired and although he’s improved a lot in front of goal there this year, he’s far from a real goalscorer. His movement isn’t particularly clever and his positioning in deep midfield was huge part of why our defending was so poor up to February last year. He has a bit of the ‘Stevie Me’ Syndrome, but where Gerrard fails with Hollywood passes, Jack tends to dribble into brick walls and be forced wide or backwards. He holds onto the ball far too long, but is improving in all respects as he progresses.

Ramsey owns that central midfield position now, Jack is pretty much his backup for it. But he’s doing well on the wings and he’s getting back to his 2010/11 self, and I think his goal/assist numbers are better than they’ve ever been. He needs to round off his game the same way Ramsey did. My hope is they’ll be a pairing in three years time with a much more defensive and, well, cleverer Jack, relying more on his passing than his dribbling. But that’s not an option in the short-term. He’ll be fine in the end, but this is good for him, and the team having no reliance on him is perfect while he sorts his fitness and consistency issues.

Why do Mertesacker and Koscielny get so much stick? They’ve been excellent this season, from where I’m standing.

They get stick mainly because people are scared of changing their early/pre-formed opinions, and/or people follow the company line that Arsenal can’t defend. A lot of it is preconceptions, with Per’s odd physique and Koscielny having come from a mid-table French side. Then they made mistakes in their first seasons – crucially, made mistakes in games that were on tv. Koscienly’s main one was obviously the Carling Cup Final in 2011 with a few stupid rash tackles dotted around in every season. Per had three games where he really struggled at the start of 11/12: Blackburn (3-4), Chelsea (5-3) and Norwich (2-1), and they were all on Sky – that, combined with his reputation for being slow and lumbering didn’t help his cause. The team was a shambles at the time and he’d been thrown in head first, it was little wonder he struggled a bit.

They settled down well, but we had an incredible situation where all (and I mean literally all) our full backs on both sides got injured between November and late February, so we were still conceding goals. Then Per got an injury and missed the season. Even though Koscienly had been our best defender in 11/12, he was injured for the first two games of 12/13 and Per played really well, Vermaelen was captain and had to play so we were playing Per and Vermaelen and not defending very well because Vermaelen isn’t that good and Koscielny is.

Then after the Spurs game they were re-paired and the brilliance followed. They’re a fantastic partnership and they really bring the best from eachother. They’re almost telepathic now. As said earlier, they’re the foundation of our strength this year. Any who don’t see or refuse to accept that are myopic, stupid or both. I wouldn’t have any pairing in the league over them, and I’m struggling for any individuals, too.

Try and sum up the impact Ozil has had on the club?

Above all else, he addressed our biggest problem on the pitch last year, which was the lack of creativity. Santi Cazorla was our only properly direct creative player and on account of that he was far too easy to crowd out for bigger oppositions. Özil came in and on one level is better suited to dealing with it all himself, but mostly allowed for a far split creative burden and allowing us to become a much, much more layered threat going forward. He’s been made more important by Cazorla’s injury (which would have destroyed us last year) and his inconsistency since coming back.

He’s healed a lot of the divide between a fairly big proportion of the fan base and the club, simply by proving that the club wants to spend money and move forward, and that we can still bring in that level of player. Pretty much everyone was euphoric after he was signed and he’s done nothing to inspire a comedown. Outside the club, he’s made people look at us and think twice again. He’ll be huge when it comes to attracting new players – especially Germans where, assuming we keep going strong, we have a real advantage among English teams – and he has made people take us seriously once more. Or at least, he’s bringing people around to that. And he hasn’t even reached his best level yet!

Your fans are getting a bad name, what with Piers Morgan’s tweets and the ‘Wenger Out’ campaigns (which look more and more silly as the weeks go by). Why can’t your fans seem to see that Wenger is a genius?

Plenty of them deserve a bad name. Especially Morgan. I can understand why many did or do want change and despite this great start, we still haven’t won anything silver since 2005, but some of the vitriol he gets is staggering. He’s flawed but still a genius. For some those flaws outweigh the better facets of the genius but we wouldn’t have been able to sustain our status for so long with almost any other manager. For many it was tied to money and his supposed unwillingness to spend in the last few years. Yet the club signposted summer 2013 as ‘The Big Summer’ for years. He made plenty of mistakes in these lean years but there are few, if any, who would have got as much right. Now he has to show he can push us back up to the top. I have little doubt that he can, but this year may be one too soon. But we’re very much a part of things. And I hope he stays forever.

Would you sign anyone in January?

Ideally we would pick up a good striker who can cover Giroud better than Bendtner, and some cover for Per. The problem with signing a striker who’s less than the best for more than 6 months is that we’re stuck with a lesser player who we then can’t shift who restricts our ability to push for the very best in the summer. The problem with trying to sign an organising right-sided centre back is that there aren’t very many of them, there are even fewer who are good, even fewer within that who are affordable and even fewer within that who are available in January.

If anything happens I think it’ll be a short-term striker of some kind and nothing else – a loan or an old guy. There’s talk of Alvaro Morata on loan from Real Madrid, with which I’d be really pleased; if not that I’d quite like Miroslav Klose on a sixth-month contract; someone like him or, say, Berbatov, if we’re really pushing it. That said I wouldn’t be distraught if we kept with Bendtner for now. I was always a fan of his – he’s not nearly as bad as people make him out to be, but he’s diminished a lot in the last three years. Him for another six months before signing someone really proper? I could dig it. It’d be really gambling on Giroud saying fit.

Which City player would you most like to see in an Arsenal shirt?

No question: Agüero. He’s the best player in the league at the moment and probably the second best striker in the world after Zlatan. He’s a wonderfully complete player, and he’s hitting new levels this season. It’s glorious and terrifying. And he’d be perfect for our style in our weakest area. Him and Giroud would compliment eachother really nicely in a squad or even a pair. I was actually desperate for us to sell Adebayor and sign him in the summer of 2008 – 13-year-old me was an oracle!

Pellegrini or Mancini?

Pellegrini is a much better manager and much less self-absorbed, plus he sort of reminds me of my Irish grandma. But I did always like Mancini’s hustle. I liked his gesticulating on the touchline and his complete inability to control himself when he got angry, or very happy. He’s not a charlatan but he’s a limited manager who relies on his teams more than they rely on him. But it was nice to have him around.

Prediction?

I have a feeling it’ll be like the City-Arsenal last year – both sides playing really well and ending up in a fair 1-1, but with the goals coming from mistakes or set pieces. I’m really hopeful we can get into the space between the midfielders and defence and make chances, but City are near-indestructible at home and expecting a win would be stupidity. Koscielny has always done well against Agüero, but Sagna possibly being injured would be a real blow. And the tiredness from the Napoli game in the week could really shift it in your favour. Maybe 2-1 to City. It should be close, whatever happens. (Cue 14-0 City win.)

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Interview by Rob Pollard

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