Inside the Opposition: Arsenal – Interview with Michael Keshani

As weeks in football go, this one is about as tough as it comes. Arsenal in the early kick-off on Saturday, a midweek trip to Bayern Munich and then a home game against Chelsea, who look frighteningly strong, next weekend.

It’s a week which shows how much the Champions League seeding system, which is desperate need of reform, has impacted on City. Not only is our Champions League group draw tough, ultimately it impacts on our league campaign, too. The room for rotation over the next week is minimal given the quality of opposition City have to play.

Ahead Saturday’s game with Arsenal, I spoke to Michael Keshani, a weirdly intelligent and wonderfully handsome Gooner whose tender age belies his football knowledge. Michael now writes for Arseblog and can be found on Twitter.

Balotelli and Welbeck both went for the same price in this window. Have Arsenal got the better deal?

We’ve certainly got the safer deal, and I would argue the one better suited for our needs. I’m on record as being a massive fan of both players, but even from the summer’s start I was in favour of signing Welbeck and anti-Mario. In our best setup with the full side, the centre forward is the third, maybe even fourth main avenue for goals. Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey were the primary options last year, and if Alexis Sánchez is on the wing, he’ll be more relied upon for goals too. So the goals always had to be second to the work for the team in any potential new striker and, to be somewhat reductive, ability to do the ‘donkey work’. Olivier Giroud specialised as being a carthorse and ideal foil for Ramsey and Walcott to do more goalscoring, and he would chip in as and when.

Welbeck’s buildup play and all-round game are (at the moment, at least) on a higher level than Balotelli’s, and he’s a lot more patient and mature in play. In a more supply-based role, I could see Balotelli getting frustrated. It happened a lot for Milan last season; he would pick up the ball in a decent area and rather than hold onto it and do something productive, he would just shoot. It was exhausting, and even more irritating given how much he’s capable of doing. Of course, he can and hopefully will develop into a really supreme footballer, but he still needs a lot of development and in our situation, placed alongside to his, he was just the wrong man at the wrong time. Welbeck’s issue is his goals, and given that’s not a massively significant demand early on for him, we can let that side of his game come with less hassle. And it seems to be improving already.

I’m not sure how a partnership of Balotelli and Sturridge will work given both tend to prefer the role further up in a striking pair, but on account of having Sturridge – a centre forward a vast section of their fans don’t deeply dislike, unlike us – Balotelli won’t have as much pressure as he would here. That said, I really think the best thing for him was to develop away from the spotlight at Milan for at least another year, allowing him to hone his game with a minimum of focus. But Liverpool can offer something far closer to that than we can. Whether it will work, who knows. But Arsenal got the best deal for Arsenal. And given Sturridge and Welbeck have more of the raw complementary ingredients for one another, we might even have got the best deal for Liverpool. But Balotelli is capable of everything, and the circumstances and setup at Liverpool could really work in his favour. But it’s very difficult to call.

Do you think the FA Cup win last season has removed a psychological barrier to success within your squad?

I would like to think so, but the only real test of that so far has been the Community Shield which, as we all know, had a high number of asterisks attached. I imagine it will show itself more in cup competitions and later in the league season than it will earlier. But beyond the ‘winning mentality’ it should help instil in them, the whole ‘9 years’ tag being lost is the most important thing. A loss or a failure in a cup doesn’t have the same world-shattering effect as it did before, and we can play with more freedom and less fear of failure. More simply put – if we played Hull in the Cup final again, with the post-win state of mind shift, I imagine that we’d have it packed up fairly comfortably within the 90 minutes this time. And if we make it into the run in, they should be more assured about things.

Having been initially overwhelmed by Jack Wilshere’s talent, he does nothing but underwhelm me these days. How’s his form, in your eyes?

I have been very critical of Wilshere on a number of occasions since he came back from the first big injury, but this has been the most encouraging period of games from him in a while. He’s still extraordinarily talented but even that level of talent can’t excuse the stupidity in his game. He’s too individualistic, his positioning leaves a lot to be desired and he consistently holds onto the ball for too long and just plays with no mental aptitude too much of the time. But there is still exceptional ability there and he is young, and far from beyond fixing. Indeed, he has been better on most of those counts so far this season.

The main thing with Wilshere is to try and make this as much as a ‘Year Zero’ as possible. Personally I want him treated like a 19 year old, as he was in his breakthrough 10/11 season. Give him as many games as we can without going out of our way to do so, unless he warrants them with strong performances and he makes himself undroppable. So far, he has been better, without being great. There needs to be patience with him, but again, he’s both young and skilled enough to earn that. The expectation with 19 year olds is that they will become more responsible in their game as they play and learn more. Wilshere now has to start acting like an adult in order to stop getting treated like a child.

Ramsey has, in my opinion, emerged as one the stars of this league. Is that an over the top assessment or an accurate one?

Ramsey is really astonishing. He has everything you could ever want in a footballer. He can score and create goals, he works incredibly hard, has a phenomenal engine, is outstandingly intelligent on the pitch, he is a great tackler and reader of the game, his positioning is almost always ideal, he does well in big games, he can take a hand in leading the team, he’s able leap tall buildings in a single bound and he recently saved me from drowning in a canal…

He’s just amazing. I wrote about him around a year ago, and he’s made me feel as if I was underselling him. For a long stretch of last season – possibly even still at the end – he had both the highest number of tackles per game and non-penalty goals for any central midfielder in the major leagues. There’s nothing he can’t and doesn’t do. A lot of all-rounder players struggle to find the balance between the defensive and attacking sides of their games, but Ramsey in the past year or so has created his own. Last season he was often the reason we scored goals, and a huge part of why we rarely conceded them with him in the team. This season hasn’t started especially well for him, despite the two goals in four games, and this 4-3-3 we’re insisting on playing isn’t helping him much, but I don’t really know enough words to really hammer home how good he is.

He is undoubtedly one of the stars of the league, and getting close to world levels, if he’s not there already. There’s definitely no box-to-box midfielder in the world I would take over him.

Has Ozil hit his best form for Arsenal yet?

No, not yet, though the criticism has been way over the top. He was getting there after he first arrived, but the injuries to Walcott and Ramsey really hurt his game. He’s the supplier, but had no one to supply to. He thrives with pace and behind-the-line runners ahead of him. With Ramsey there, Walcott hopefully back soon and Welbeck, Alexis and potentially Joel Campbell now there as those runners, we’re really in a position to build around him and make the most of him. It would help if we actually moved him into his best position though.

Which City player can do the most damage on Saturday?

The stock answer is Agüero for obvious reasons, but Silva was excellent in this fixture last season, and the holes our current system is leaving in our side seem like something Silva would be able to exploit better than anyone else. I’m not sure which of the two scares me more, though.

Combined Arsenal-City XI?

Szczęsny

Zabaleta-Mertesacker-Koscielny-Sagna*

Fernandinho-Ramsey

Silva-Özil-Alexis

Agüero.

*They are the best two full backs available and both capable on either side. It would be a shame to leave either out, and none of the left backs really stand so tall as to make themselves a major miss.

Score prediction?

This team is due a decent result this season, and home in a big game with a Manchester United academy graduate likely starting as centre forward would seem like the perfect setting… but I’ll say 1-1.

Follow Michael on Twitter

Interview by Rob Pollard

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