The Emirates Cup is quickly turning into an indicator that the serious football is about to begin, and having managed to snare a ticket to day one, I’ve had an earlier than usual look at our squad situation, in the flesh. And despite Milan coming back to snatch a 1-1 draw, I’ve come away feeling extremely positive about the season ahead. Here’s why:
1. Chamakh. Wenger’s first signing of the year looks to be a belter. Looked lively throughout, scored a composed goal, and the standing ovation he was afforded when substituted in the second half said it all. But his end product was only half the story – I spent a few minutes just watching his movement, the way he was dragging Milan defenders this way and that, and any opponent of his is going to be in for a tough time this season. We knew he was good in the air, but he is intelligent, calm, and decent on the deck too, capped by one outrageous piece of skill where he controlled a forty yard pass with a Cruyff turn. Not bad for a free transfer.
2. Koscielny. Prior to the game, all I could focus on was how scrawny our new centre half is. And while true, watching him in action makes you realise that although he needs hours in the gym, he could become a terrific defender once his physical stature improves. And to be fair, he was biting into tackles in a way that made him seem more imposing than his slight frame would suggest. Excellent reading of the game, pacey, and on this evidence, first choice. Wenger still has time to demote him with a new signing, but he appears to be ahead of Djourou in the pecking order, and capable of forming a solid partnership with Vermaelen.
3. Cesc is staying. I cannot for one second agree with anyone who thinks we would be better off with a boatload of cash.
4. Much of our forward line is still to return. Milan are known for their defensive tenacity, and while some of that discipline is missing in pre-season, it was still very encouraging to see how often we stretched them without Cesc, Van Persie and Bendtner available. Bear in mind that the trio, along with Arshavin, were expected to create everythinglast season, and you can see the shift. That said, we could do with Van Persie or Bendtner firing early in the season to take some of the pressure away from Chamakh – once he was taken off, we looked lightweight up front.
5. Nasri looks ready to step up. It is easy to forget that the Frenchman had no pre-season last year, missing the early stages of the campaign with a broken leg. But his performances over the last couple of weeks, coupled with some from early in 2010, suggest that this year could be his breakthrough year.
6. Wilshere is not going out on loan. Confirmed by Wenger, the 18 year old will now be given chances in the first team that many believe are overdue. There is no doubting we’ve been careful with young Jack, and rightly so, but having impressed with Bolton last season, he has proven himself ready for Premiership action. Had Joe Cole been signed, another loan may have been on the cards, but at ten years Cole’s junior, Wilshere is the long term option.
7. Competition for places. I should caveat this point by saying injuries may dictate the team, but it is an oft spoken truth that you need two players for every slot in the team. Gibbs and Clichy look set to battle for the left back berth, a fit Djourou will be itching to play, Eboue will challenge Sagna, Frimpong was excellent again and may have moved ahead of Eastmond to be Song’s understudy, and the wealth of attacking midfielders will all be looking to stake their claims. Up front, we have three able to lead the line, and even more to play just behind. Any position without injuries will be hard fought.
Plenty to be positive about there, but there are still some concerns. We are only just heading into August, so any issues have time to be resolved, but a few things still worry me:
1. Defending set pieces. You could see it coming, and Milan aren’t even as proficient from set plays as many we will face this season. But once again a simple ball defeated three defenders, and a free header was planted past Fabianski, who I feel was blameless. It is a weakness that persists, and to resolve it we need to stop allowing strikers to make the runs they want. Pato was free to do as he pleased.
2. The keeper situation. In fairness, Fabianski did nothing wrong, but then he actually had nothing to do – no chance for the goal or when his crossbar was struck, and no other notable saves to make. More and more it seems he may become our first choice, and while I’ve backed him vigorously in the past, that still makes me nervous.
3. Lack of centre halves. To be fair, I’m less concerned about this because Wenger himself acknowledges the need to strengthen, but we need to get any new player in quickly because otherwise we are left with Vermaelen, aninjury prone Djourou and Koscielny, who could still be raw (asking him to make Vermaelen’s instant impact is unfair). For me, we need someone powerful to prevent the likes of Stoke running amok, and quickly.
Overall, I’m feeling hugely positive. Two out of three issues can be solved with the pair of signings we all want – centre back and keeper – and an improvement in both departments may also help eradicate our weakness against set pieces. In addition, the presence of Chamakh means our keepers finally get practice against a striker who is a real threat in the air. They’ll need it.
Next up, Celtic.