Nineteen games into the league season, nineteen to go, and unlike last year, we’re well and truly in the title hunt. With the year turning, I thought it a good time to see just how how squad is performing so far. I won’t be marking the individual players, but the positions, in order to see our relative strengths and weaknesses.
It would be fair to say that Almunia hasn’t had a season to remember so far. Seemingly dropped after early wobbles, he has been hit and miss since his return, the highlight being a penalty save against Hull, but with too many unnecessary punches and flaps at crosses and generally haphazard displays, the defence seems to have lost an element of faith in him.
Elsewhere, the depth is great – Fabianski will probably have further chances to impress in the cup, Mannone was stunning against Fulham, and Szczesny is impressing on loan. Almunia has plenty of backup, but is not currently performing as we know he can.
Mark: C- (Almunia to continue, but must improve)
What a signing Vermaelen has been. His attitude to defending is spot on – even at 4-0 he hates to let a clean sheet slip away. Tough in the tackle and aggressive in the air, he is also something of a revelation going forward, possessing a thunderous left foot shot. He has formed a superb partnership with Gallas, and both are ever present in the Premiership. There have been hiccups along the way, but the pairing is as good as anyone has.
Those two would probably earn the position an A, but the problem is the backup. One injury brings in the untrusted Senderos or the perhaps even less trusted Silvestre, and Djourou’s career is also stalling through injuries of his own. If the first choice pair miss out for a while, we suddenly look incredibly weak at the back.
Mark: B+ (Sign a backup, let Senderos go)
At left back, we are both blessed and cursed. Every player we have there gets injured, but on the flip side we seem to have a never ending queue of talented youngsters ready to step up. Clichy has been out for ages, Gibbs impressed and then picked up his own injury, now Traore has stepped up admirably.
On the right, Sagna and Eboue are a good pair. The former is a better defender, the latter adds more going forward against teams looking to park the bus. If our full backs could cross, we’d be great.
Mark: A- (Only danger is a Sagna injury while Eboue is in Angola)
Some would hand our player of the season award to Cesc for his work so far, but while the captain has been terrific, for me he is pipped to the post by Alex Song, without doubt the most improved player of 2009. He has been nothing short of awesome, but like some other positions the worry is a lack of backup. Denilson, Diaby, Ramsey and even Nasri have been tried, but none fit the bill as well as the Cameroonian.
Denilson is probably the most likely replacement, but his injury may mean Ramsey gets a lot more game time while Song is away.
Mark: B+ (Song is an A/A+, but we knew we needed backup for January and we haven’t got it)
Until the last few games, Diaby has been a disappointment, but he seems to be putting his troubles behind him, and a haul of five goals suggests he has added a goal threat to his game. Denilson has scored a couple of pearlers, Nasri has bite and skill, Rosicky still has the eye for a pass and finish, but the undoubted star is our captain, Cesc Fabregas. Into double figures on the goalscoring charts, plenty of assists, and a true match winner, it is remarkable to think he is only 22. What a player he is.
We have suffered injury after injury to our attacking midfielders, yet we have no trouble filling those roles. Our depth here is superb.
Mark: A (Plenty of quality, plenty of depth, and plenty of youngsters knocking on the door)
It looked like being the year of Robin Van Persie. Scoring for fun, feeling unstoppable, his goals were looking like being the spearhead of a title challenge. That we are still in the race despite his season being (probably) ended so prematurely is some achievement, but we have no-one capable of the goalscoring regularity of the Dutchman.
Arshavin is a match winner, but is struggling in the centre forward role, and should return to full effectiveness when he drops back behind a front man again, while Eduardo is woefully short of confidence. Vela looks timid, and while he is still a massive prospect, he hasn’t had a great few months, while Walcott and Bendtner are both fighting persistent injury problems.
With everyone fit, our forward line is absolutely terrifying. But right now the only fit strikers we have are horribly short of form and fitness.
Mark: B (Van Persie was heading us towards A+, but injury and loss of form elsewhere means we need to buy)
So there we have it. The first team is as good as anyone’s, and our squad is deceptively deep. The issue remains that we are top heavy in certain positions – plenty of attacking midfielders but a paucity of central defenders, for example.
I think anything up to three signings would benefit this team, all up the spine. One of those is a defensive midfielder, but I don’t see that happening – Wenger wants to adapt a couple of his more attack-minded players to be able to play that role. So that leaves two positions – central defence and striker.
The former can be a one in, one out situation. I still rate Senderos, but Wenger clearly doesn’t, or already knows the Swiss is on his way, but he must be replaced. With Djourou still out for a while, having Silvestre as the only backup is potentially season-ruining. For me, the need for a defender is even more pressing than a front man.
That said, a striker would not go amiss. It would allow Arshavin to drop back, it will give us a new dimension, and with Bendtner still out for a few weeks, we lack height, power and variety up front.
The transfer window is now officially open, but that doesn’t mean we’ll be buying. If the right players aren’t available, we will remain as we are. But if they are, and Wenger can snaffle up a defender and a forward, we might have everything we need.