To put it bluntly, in my opinion, the answer is ‘no’. If I were less pessimistic, the answer would be ‘not right now’. Honestly speaking, I didn’t manage to catch the pre-season matches in Asia because they weren’t on TV here in India and the internet speeds here aren’t particularly spectacular. Considering that the matches were treated as nothing more than a marketing stunt and a fitness exercise, against poor opposition, no less, I doubt that one could gain much from analyzing them anyway. The game against Napoli afforded us an opportunity to watch two of Arsenal’s ‘British Core’, Wilshere and Ramsey, up against a quality midfield of Marek Hamsik, former Arsenal target Gokhan Inler and former Irons midfielder Valon Behrami.
While the Napoli trio can’t be considered as an elite midfield, they are certainly considered as one to be respected, if not feared. With the Italians starting their season a week later than English teams, one would expect the opposition to be a little off touch and behind in terms of sharpness. However, what no one would have expected is that two of our brightest young stars, continually hailed as phenomenal box to box midfielders, being continually and hopelessly overrun on the counter. On the attacking front, we seemed fine, as Rambo, Wilsh and Rosicky managed to time and again play in Podolski or the excellent Gibbs down the left flank, from where they fired in a couple excellent crosses. When Napoli started from the back, with Pepe Reina, we seemed competent enough to either force them to keep playing it across their back four or play a long ball. The real trouble came when we lost the ball after a sustained spell of possession.
Arsenal Football Club have been inherently susceptible to counters over the best part of a decade. However, this game was different. Whenever, a cross was cleared or possession was ceded carelessly, Napoli could break at us with just one pass. The trio of Hamsik, Insigne and Callejon interchanged regularly with Pandev also sometimes dropping deep to receive the ball thus offering a constant outlet to the likes of Inler and Behrami. This is where we missed Mikel Arteta, who for all his limitations of pace, height and athleticism, continually makes up with a heightened sense of positional awareness and some tenacious tackling. The way the Napoli wingers time and again cut inside and tormented our center backs without any hint of cover was embarrassing to say the least. The second goal was perhaps the best example of the lack of cohesiveness in the Arsenal midfield. With two passes, they broke into the Grand Canyon sized chasm in the center of Arsenal’s midfield, leaving Hamsik with an absolute eon to pick the perfect pass for Goran Pandev to round Fabianski and slot home.
On paper, the logic of having too ‘pure’ central midfielders in Ramsey and Wilshere to man the midfield behind Rosicky seemed extremely sound. However, something that was unaccounted for, was the similarity in the thought process of both these players. They went forward together and sat back together. Too often they seemed to occupy areas that were either too close to each other or too far apart, misreading the game. Ramsey and Wilshere are both exceptional football players but the chemistry was’t quite there yet. When the football world abandoned 4-4-2 collectively, the important skill of a ‘true’ central midfielder has potentially been lost. The Vieiras, Gilbertos, Edus of yesteryear played in two man midfields and were exceptional in their understanding of the game, knowing that sitting back when their partner roamed forward was far more important. Perhaps three man midfields are best suited to have one DM, one ‘box to box’ player and one ‘trequartista’ to pull the strings. Its evident that Rambo and Wilshere both fall in the second of the above categories. They are both very young and even Cesc Fabregas earmarked them as the future of the Arsenal midfield. For them to consistently play together, would require an improvement in positional awareness or any one of them developing their game to play a more defensive role. If anyone can coach them to this, it’s Arsene.