Aaron Ramsey’s 16 goals last season might have finally convinced Piers Morgan that he is one of Arsenal’s most important players, and his late winner against Crystal Palace in the opening round of fixtures shows that he may continue to be as vital. Unfortunately for Arsenal, the display against Palace suggests that trademark problems remain, and they may struggle to improve on their traditional fourth place finish.
That is true even after the transfer of Alexis Sanchez – unable to convince Barcelona of his importance despite his obvious pace and big thigh muscles – got Arsenal’s support as giddy as they were over the previous big deal, Mesut Ozil.
Ozil failed to convince for Arsenal last season. He is clearly a talented player, but after an early golden period he failed to perform consistently for the side. It is reasonable to expect a fair degree of improvement this year, but Ramsey can be confident that should it come to it, he would be the first-choice attacking midfielder.
Alexis Sanchez might struggle to adapt in a similar way to Ozil. Sanchez has experienced football in Italy and Spain, so is clearly technically good enough, but might take some time to adjust to the pace and childish roughhousing of the Premier League. With Wenger so far either unable or unwilling to replace the merely adequate Olivier Giroud, and Theo Walcott out with a serious injury, Ramsey’s goals and presence remain vital.
If he is able to stay fit – he featured just 23 times in the league last year – Arsenal can hope to earn more vital points from the Welshman’s interventions. That might be wishful thinking after Wenger confirmed that Gibbs is already out with a ‘hamstring or Achilles injury’. The injury curse continues.
Ramsey’s goals are essential if Arsenal are not able to fix the inherent problems in their DNA, again on display against Palace. To win with a last-minute goal is admirable in the sense it reflects well on their stamina and determination, but it should not come to that against a Palace side that, behind the scenes, are in disarray after losing Tony Pulis. Santi Cazorla has proved little more in his time in England than other clubs were right not to compete with Arsenal for his signature. He is mesmerically Modern Arsenal; clearly talented yet consistently toothless.
In that fashion, the team started with Yaya Sanogo, as Giroud is given a gentle return from the World Cup. Shockingly, the demolition of Benfica in an Emirates Cup friendly has not translated into domestic goals for Sanogo, and he was able to hold up play adequately, but contribute little else. But even Giroud is not a striker on a par with the best Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea or Manchester City can offer, which will continue to hold back the side, demonstrably so against Palace.
It’s not just up front where Arsenal are lacking. While Crystal Palace’s organisation was impressive, especially against their own Keith Millen backdrop, they still offered nothing more than rudimentary opposition, as it showed when Laurent Koscienly’s equaliser came from a set piece rather than any grand invention. Other, better sides will offer greater defensive resilience while at the same time bring a more sophisticated attack. And that should also worry Arsenal.
Just as there are some perplexingly bizarre Manchester United fans arguing that the doom-laden reaction to defeat against Swansea was over the top, there will be some Arsenal fans who claim that these criticisms are knee-jerk reactions. Neither are correct, as they are symptomatic of malaises that set in long ago. United’s leaden, one-paced attack has been a feature of the side for much of the last five years, as have Arsenal’s aimless displays and defensive lapses.
Palace went ahead from a corner, where Brede Hangeland was left unmarked, and where no man was on the post. Defensive slackness is traditional at Arsenal, something which is not apparent from a shallow reading of apparently impressive statistics. Koscielny and Per Mertesacker – absent as he recovers from the World Cup – are similar to Giroud in that they are good enough to qualify for the Champions League, but a long way from the best.
Arsenal apparently have money to spend, if it is limited in defence to replacing Bacary Sagna with Mathieu Debuchy, Wenger will be acquiescing to mediocrity, as he has in attack, and to an extent, the wings. Theo Walcott may change that, but there is no guarantee he can recover quickly or entirely from a serious knee injury. Again, if there is money, there is an area of the squad that needs investment.
Ramsey has yet again rescued Arsenal and made a decisive contribution. It is many years since they have had more than one player of that type on the team, probably not since Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas, though clearly he is not yet as good as either player.
Both Ozil and Sanchez could both be similarly effective players, but despite that the usual worries persist. In defence and up front, Arsenal need to invest – Ramsey could well be the most important player in the side again, but he is not good enough to carry them deep into a Premier League title challenge.
Alex Netherton - On Twitter: @lxndrnthrtn
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