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Monday, 2 August 2010

Wonderful Wilshere Overshadows Familiar Faults

I watched the Emirates Cup this weekend – pretty much the first football I’ve seen since the World Cup and Javier Hernandez / Spain’s Under-19s on YouTube. Despite finding it slightly odd that in a tournament also containing AC Milan and Lyon, Arsenal v Celtic was the match trumpeted as the ‘showcase’ by Sky on Sunday afternoon, it was enjoyable enough. And after all, it’s not like Sky aren’t used to trumpeting ANY fixture as world-beating on a Sunday afternoon.

It wouldn’t be surprising if this tournament was renamed the ‘Jack Wilshere Cup’ next season, such is the little Englishman’s deserved dominance of the headlines after Arsenal’s two matches. Wilshere has two of the qualities missing so desperately from all things to do with English football this summer – confidence and composure. He doesn’t ‘attempt’ cross-field passes, one-touch layoffs, turns and runs through the middle of midfield like so many English midfielders, he just executes them. His first touch is superb. 

In a weekend where Joe Cole waxed lyrical about people being patient with him because his was a position in which the ball was bound to be lost from time to time, Wilshere just turned up, played a bit of impudent and exceptional football, was compared with Paul Scholes by John Hartson and went home. The only caveats surrounding his talent are his age and stature. Giving away penalties as he did yesterday is unlikely to become part of his game. He is just matter-of-fact good.

Arsenal may need all the midfield artistry they can get if Cesc Fabregas’s increasingly tedious transfer to Barcelona is completed before the end of the month. Wilshere isn't quite ready to assume Fabregas’s mantle at Arsenal, but there are several able deputies with whom to share the load. Wenger’s biggest personnel concerns lie in familiar positions.

While Arsenal were dominant for the first hour against Celtic, cracks began to appear as Neil Lennon changed his team's formation to accommodate the arrival of Georgios Samaras and Marc-Antoine Fortune. While Tomas Vermaelen and Johann Djourou had coped easily enough with Morten Rasmussen playing up front alone, they had their hands full (as did Vermaelen’s replacement, Laurent Koscielny) when Celtic’s substitutes joined the fray. The second-choice defence on this occasion, which also included Emmanuel Eboue and Kieran Gibbs (on for Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy) was breached twice in the final 20 minutes as Arsenal stopped playing. Further evidence - yes, in a pre-season friendly, but hang on, against a Celtic side who have been to the States and Portugal in a fortnight or so - of the soft underbelly of Wenger's side.

‘Stopping playing’ is not endemic of Arsenal performances of course, but defensive indecisiveness has come to be. While Wenger has solved the ‘creaky’ aspect of the defence by dispensing with the services of Gallas, Campbell and Silvestre, he may live to rue the lack of experience now afforded to him by Arsenal’s remaining defenders. Almunia may have made a couple of decent saves to keep the Gunners ahead, but Arsenal’s goalkeepers all have a history of errors and lapses of either judgement or concentration.

This seems a fairly familiar Arsenal tale, though in fact they are entering a season with even less experience at the back than before. Moreover, few top-class central defensive pairings are built on an ever-present (which would be Vermaelen) plus ‘one other’. Wenger, perhaps unsurprisingly, seems to share Alex Ferguson’s disdain of the current transfer fee inflation surrounding English (Phil Jagielka) and established (Mark Schwarzer) Premier League players. But it would be asking a lot for the youthful Koscielny and recently-returned Djourou to adapt as exceptionally as Vermaelen did before them. Will it be the same old Arsenal, always creaking? They can be sumptuous going forward. They can’t continue to be sucker-punched at the back. Rob MacDonald

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