Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are Edu and Parlour - the new Invincibles
It is the time of year where Arsenal supporters begin to speculate about the potential exits and arrivals this summer. This buzz of anticipation around our summer activity will only be heightened if, as expected now, the Gunners finish strongly as runners up and hopefully retain the FA Cup.
Personally I find myself relaxed about the transfer activity and confident that we will begin 2015/16 in a stronger position than we did 14/15. I am in this mood not because I am convinced Wenger will invest heavily to bolster, although he will, but more because of the quality within the existing squad and what the internal competition will mean if we actually get luckier with injuries.
From what I have seen this season we will enter next with 4 high-level central defenders in Koscielny, Mertesacker, Gabriel and Chambers. We have not been in this position for years, perhaps since the early 2000s and that is debatable. We also have 2 left backs and 2 right backs all of whom are able to perform at the level required in the higher echelons of the Premier League. The goalkeeper position is up for grabs and the striking options may be modified but today I want to look at the midfield and most particularly at the often discussed topic of rotation.
I am of an age where I grew up with my team having a match day squad of 12 and everybody knowing within one of 2 players who was the first 11. Of course today we have match day squads of 18 and I am not sure many fans know they teams first 11. Or do they?
I am sure Chelsea fans do and they have won the league at a canter. The reason my mind is focused on this at present is because Wenger seemingly wants to stick with a formula that is working for him and it involved the same players in the midfield and NO rotation.
I have been waiting, in particular, to see what happens when Ox is fit to see if that will force Wenger’s hand and urge a move to a more natural balance. However, I am beginning to doubt that decision as I simply cannot see him de-selecting Coquelin, Cazorla, Ozil or Ramsey between now and the Cup Final. If the return to fitness of Wilshere, a particular favourite of Wenger’s has not altered his strategy it is difficult to imagine the Ox will either.
As you can tell I have been dwelling on this and have written previously here about my concerns at our lack of width and I probably would like to see Ox restored on the right but please don’t ask me who I would leave out!
The whole debate both between fans and largely in my head has concentrated my mind on next season, rotation and the fact that I am continually told it is a squad game these days. Tell that to those who are on the bench at Wembley and those who aren’t in the squad at all.
So does Wenger rotate? Jose Mourinho has won the Premier League largely without rotating his core but was does the past tells is about Wenger? Does history give comfort to in particular our young English Guns Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain, who I personally do not wish to see leave the club or be unhappy at lack of opportunity.
Surely in the modern era when we are told to challenge for the top honours a team need 2 players in every position, rotation and competing on all fronts will give everyone enough game time?
The last time we did so in all honesty was 2003/4 and how can we all forget the ‘Invincibles’ and what that team/squad achieved. I want to concentrate on the engine room of the central midfield which back then was essentially a 2 man job in a 442, or 4411. I am not necessarily going to draw hard conclusions but I hope the following might get you all thinking!
Firstly can you all name the first 11? Who were the ‘Invincibles?’ You have all seen the graphic designs, the artwork and the memorabilia so you all know that it was – Lehmann, Lauren, Cole, Toure, Campbell, Ljungberg, Silva, Vieira, Pires, Bergkamp and Henry right?
Wrong – That team started only 2 games together in the Premier League, Liverpool in April and the last game v Leicester. That 11 did not stated a single match together in the League Cup, FA Cup of Champions League. So does this startling fact suggest Wenger deployed heavy squad rotation in 03/04 and in particular in the midfield area?
Well here’s is another gem for you – Gilberto Silva and Patrick Vieira on started 17 of the 38 Invincible Premier League matches together. Good news on the rotation front then? No actually in the main it was Edu who stepped in and primarily when one of the other of the first choice pairing was injured. Edu started 13 of the 38 games 6 stepping in for Paddy and 7 for Gilberto. What of Ray Parlour? Well Razor did actually start 16 times in the league but only 3 centrally and on 13 occasions he played right midfield for Freddie.
So with 4 players competing essentially for 2 staring spots, only Edu truly got a true amount of game time in central midfield as he appeared in 30 matches of the 38, as a substitute in 17. Parlour also played 25 times in the undefeated Premier League campaign with 9 appearances being from the bench. Does this give the likes of Jack and Ox comfort for next season? Should it?
Given our injury track record as a club and in particular that of the 2 players concerned I think it might. Just looking at the Invincibles campaign both Edu and Parlour got considerable game time whilst both knowing when all were fit they were always going to be first change players and not necessarily starters. I think also both can take huge comfort in their flexibility.
As we saw in 03/04 The joy of having a player of the quality and adaptability of Edu was that he could seamlessly coming into the side and play either the Gilberto sitting role of the Vieira box to box role. In the current system whether we stay 4141 or 4231 Jack has the ability to play in any of the 3 central roles with equal aplomb. It may be when all are fit Wilshere would not make Wenger’s 11 but like Edu in 03/04 no Arsenal fan was every concerned to see his name on the team sheet filling in for Gilberto or Paddy.
Similarly with Oxlade-Chamberlain as with Jack I think his age and versatility are in his favour. As with Parlour in 03/04 Wenger will know that he can utilise Ox in a starting 11 on either flank and also use him centrally when required.
With Wenger hinting at a potential change of heart on bringing in Schneiderlin or another DM the number of multi-functional midfielders also comes in to focus. Tank that he may be Coquelin will not be able to play every single game and Wilshere may well be called upon to play in the deeper role as he has for England. There is no doubt he can play alongside Coquelin as he did as a youngster and we cannot expect Santi to have such a lucky run without injuries again next season surely. Equally he cannot slot in for the Spaniard if Santi is moved forward to rest or replace Ozil. Lastly we all know even if we do not agree that Wenger feels Jack can play at 10, where he started this campaign.
It is undoubtedly the same for Ox who Wenger has always hinted he sees in the future more centrally but this season began on the right and last season actually on the left. For me Ox is a player, like Rocky, who when he collects the ball I feel a certain anticipation about what might happen. There is a noticeable buzz in the crowd when he gets the ball at his feet and has space to run into or defenders to take on. He is the closest to Sanchez in that respect, with a similar work ethic and like Wilshere and as with Edu and Parlour in 2003/4 very few Gunners are upset to see ‘The Ox’ lining up for the Arsenal.
I am at the point of rambling now and if I have a conclusion I should make it. Ramsey has shown the benefit of his flexibility this season and Santi Cazorla has done the same. I suspect both will line up in the FA Cup Final in positions neither of them expected to be in August or even December. There is a lesson to be learned for Ox and Jack and am certain both are intelligent and committed enough to acknowledge that fact.
Chamberlain and Wilshere will adapt as Edu and Parlour did so admirably in 03/04 and Rambo and Santi have in 14/15. Edu and Parlour are forever enshrined in the rich tapestry of Arsenal football club as ‘Invincibles’ and we now know it was a squad game than, whether by choice or design and it is a squad game now. There is no reason, however hard it may seem, as they battle injury and watch others play in their stead, why Oxlade- Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere cannot write their names in to a new chapter in 2015/16.