Monday, March 8, 2010

Don't Underestimate Porto...

...or, more accurately, don't overestimate a Fabregas-less Arsenal.

It looks like Nasri will have another chance to show why he he would be infinitely more effective in a central role than he is marooned out wide. It is a pity for him that we have not seen more of this. I mentioned earlier in the season that there was a possibility in this formation of Fabregas working in tandem with either Nasri or Rosicky (or, more fancifully, Arshavin) as dual central playmakers, with Song doing the "donkey work" behind them and in front of the defence. Unfortunately but understandably, the manager has generally sought greater balance by playing Diaby, Denilson or Ramsey as the third midfielder, thus allowing Fabregas play with the freedom that makes him most dangerous.

One of the idiosyncracies of this squad is its enviable collection of creative players. Nasri, Rosicky and Arshavin are all players who would prefer to play behind the front man/ men, but are most often asked to do a shift out wide. It's not unheard of for a player to be able to pull the strings from a wide position; just ask anyone who witnessed Bobby Pires' awe-inspiring 01/02 season. But these players all look a little ill at ease on the wing. Again, with the balance of the formation seemingly a little off, it is amazing that we're so close to the top of the Premiership. We have a plethora of square pegs in round holes, not getting the job they want because Fabregas is just so good at it.

I still wonder about this 4-3-3, about whether it diminishes Fabregas, in a funny sort of way, to push him up the pitch. He is, after all, really a throwback, a midfield general who can control games from the middle of the park. But this is the age of specialised midfield play. Players like Lampard and Gerrard are said to run games, which is actually laughable, as good as they are. The truth is not many midfielders today are as influential as Keane, Vieira, or Scholes in their pomp, or generations of greats that came before. Usually, nowadays, one is "attacking" or "defensive", "creative" or "destructive", and those who shuttle from box to box have great athleticism but average technique. What I used to especially love about Fabregas was his difference from the average 21st century midfielder, but now he too is doing a specialised job. Of course, it wouldn't be a viable option if it was not effective, and fourteen league goals this season is ample justification for Wenger's tactical ploy. I just can't help thinking back to 07/08, when he and Flamini forged a brilliant partnership in a 4-4-2 that allowed him to dictate and to roam in equal measure. Sometimes you look at Denilson and think that he's not good enough to find an incisive pass from deep that will release Fabregas or another player further forward. It's hard not to feel short-changed by the penny-pinching that denied us the chance to see Alonso in this Arsenal team, but that ship has long sailed.

Perhaps the most obvious reason to play Fabregas a little further forward is that he has developed in to the best finisher in the team in Van Persie's absence, and this is what worries me ahead of tomorrow night.

I think we will need three goals to get the job done in ninety minutes. If we can't keep a clean sheet against Burnley without Gallas, we'll be lucky to do it against Porto. And the truth is we have become reliant on Fabregas for goals. We have a lot of good attacking players, and a likely front five of Diaby, Nasri, Arshavin, Walcott and, er, Bendtner suggests that even without Fabregas we shouldn't struggle to create chances. But who do you trust to TAKE them, on what is a very high-pressure occasion? Eduardo and Vela have not exactly been banging them in either. The profligacy of Saturday afternoon does not bode well, as Porto will surely not prove as easily opened up as Burnley did.

My feeling is that, if we are to progress, it might be time for Arshavin's long-overdue big night. Successful Arsenal sides since the early nineties have often relied on big contributions from left-wingers: think Limpar, Overmars, Pires. If this Arsenal team is to hit those heights, we need Arshavin to begin making a greater impression, even if he would probably tell you in that brutally honest way of his that Anders Limpar, Marc Overmars and Robert Pires were not asked to be square pegs in round holes.

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