07 August 2014

Thursday Throwdown: Sano-Goals Galore

There are no free-to-use pictures of Yaya or Joel,
so have some Gunnersaurus to lighten up your Thursday
(Credit: Wonker)
Sam: Arsenal fans got their first glimpse of several senior players at the Emirates Cup, against relatively high-strength and high-reputation European clubs. While the first game was a fun 5-1 win against Europa League finalists Benfica, featuring 4 goals from the somewhat-maligned Yaya Sanogo and Joel Campbell finally making his first appearance in an Arsenal shirt, Sunday's game was a disappointing defeat to a Monaco side, who, it should be noted, start their season next weekend so are a few weeks ahead of the Gunners in terms of preparation and fitness. So, Andy, let's start with our goal scorers. How impressed were you with our young strikers in the match they played?

Andy: I've always felt a little bit bad for Yaya and it's never had anything to do with his ability. Once he worked his way into the first team last year, he was a useful player that could control the ball up top and work off of Olivier Giroud when put in that situation. He looked like what he was: a young, raw player that needed matches and additional training in order to progress to the point where we could truly judge his talent. The pity comes from how harshly he has been judged by a segment of the Arsenal fans simply because he had the bad luck of being Arsène's only forward signing during a transfer window when pretty much everyone agreed that the Gunners needed another striker. He became the butt of jokes aimed at Wenger's youth policy and got a lot more stick than he deserved.

Here's hoping the match against Benfica goes a long way towards erasing that ill will, at least to the point where it buys him some time to grow and mature like he needs. Sanogo was excellent on Saturday because he showcased his strengths (ball retention, lay-off passes) while adding in a few goals (maybe you heard?) to finally break through onto the scoresheet, even if it was just an exhibition match. He isn't the savior of the team going forward but hopefully this speaks to an ability that can be unlocked in various competitions this year so that Arsenal have multiple options up front.

Campbell hasn't gone through the same trial by fan-created-fire that Sanogo has. The breakout Costa Rican star of the World Cup has been on loan three different times from Arsenal so he hasn't been under the same kind of scrutiny as others who have come up wearing red and white full time. However, this is probably the year a decision will be made on the young striker due to his solid performances for Olympiakos and his international emergence, so we can look at the Benfica match as a good start. He's still raw in certain areas; he decides early when he's going to be selfish, he needs to put more of his shots on frame, his one-two passing is a bit rough, etc. But he is electric with or around the ball and he is direct, something that Arsenal needs more of, even if it's just as a bench option.

Both forwards acquitted themselves well so it'll be interesting to see what lies in store for them. Do you agree with this rosy assessment? And what did you think of the defensive side of the ball where we saw new additions and old players occupying new roles?

Sam: Very good points, all of which I agree with, but I also wanted to highlight the awareness Campbell showed when squaring the ball back for Yaya to tap in when he was released over the top. It seems obvious, but he could have been greedy and gone for goal himself, which I've seen strikers do in the past, so it was nice to see a young striker thinking of helping the team first, rather than trying to cover himself in glory in his much-delayed first appearance. As for Yaya, it was great to see him finally score; I don't think he deserved a lot of the stick he received from fans and media members last season. Even though it was 'only a friendly', the team he scored against won the Portuguese league last season, so it's not to be sniffed at. Hopefully it gives him a confidence boost, and the fans will surely now all be in support, rather than him having sections of the Emirates on his back. It would be great to see him come along as a viable option for spelling Giroud, giving us more evidence that Arsène does, in fact, know what he's doing.

Bellerin impressed many
in the Benfica match
(Credit: Kieran Clarke)
Moving to the back-line, it was interesting to see Arsène Wenger select 4 full-backs to start in defense against Benfica. It obviously did it's job as it was only after substitutions that Arsenal conceded. Two players, for me, really stood out: Calum Chambers and Hector Bellerin. Bellerin looked very good going forward, displaying, on several occasions, some close control and pace to beat his man, as well as looking steady at the back. There's been a lot of talk regarding whether Bellerin will actually be ahead of Carl Jenkinson in the pecking order in a few years, and if he can build on that display, I wouldn't be surprised.

Chambers had a great game and a half; he looked strong in the challenge, showed good pace, made some nice passes. I actually feel like he had one of those 'invisible' performances, in that he did everything that was asked of him very well, but without drawing attention to himself or making any mistakes. Basically what you want from a defender. However well he played, though, I don't think that he should start the season as our third choice center-half (as it looks increasingly likely that Thomas Vermaelen will leave), so hopefully Arsène will go out and buy another defender, allowing Chambers to play primarily at right back with the option to cover in the middle. How do you feel about the back line, Andy? Was there anyone else you wanted to draw attention to?

Andy: I feel like I should start off this section on defense by saying that I like Jenkinson very much and think that once he sees consistent first team action, he should continue to improve. I also hope that his hamstring injury is not that serious and he comes back to action sooner rather than later (even if it's for West Ham). With all of that out of the way, goddamn Hector Bellerin! Everything from this weekend's matches should be analyzed while whispering the mantra "it's only an exhibition game it's only an exhibition game it's only an exhibition game" but there is serious depth at right back if Bellerin can perform to this level in the league. He was quick going forward with great ball skills and an eye for a cross, but the biggest thing for me is that he didn't look exposed on the defensive side while doing all of that. It's no guarantee that one performance in a mean-nothing match will carry over to the real thing, but it was nice to see serious promise out of our young fullback.

Everything you said about Chambers is accurate, especially the part about invisibility, and I think that's due to something we Gooners are used to discussing because of Per Mertesacker, and that is positioning. That's not to suggest that the ex-Southampton man is already at the level of a German national team player but it was a strength that I saw over and over again during the weekend. He wasn't always making fantastic, athletic rescues but he often was calmly heading the ball away from danger, intercepting passes, and tracking runners to prevent the ball from coming their way. They're things that you don't notice until you start to look for them and after watching Per play so many matches, it's something that catches my eye. Again, small sample size and all of that, but if promise is what you're looking for in exhibition, Chambers certainly showed it.

But enough about the defense because the player most people want to hear about is new signing Alexis Sanchez. He appeared as a substitute against Benfica and started against Monaco so we were able to get more than a glimpse, even though it's obviously not enough to draw serious conclusions. What were your impressions of our Chilean and where do you think he fits into the squad this season?

Sam: I think it's safe to assume that he wasn't at full fitness, the two appearances being his first real taste of soccer since the World Cup. However, he showed flashes of his pace and skill, and once he was moved to the central striker's role in the second half Arsenal looked more likely to score than during the first-half. I never thought he would come in and start banging goals in immediately, as he's only just started training with the squad, but once he's fully integrated we can be sure that those flashes will become much more than just that. I remain to be convinced that he can play as our center-forward - mainly because I haven't seen him play there enough - but the signs from the Monaco match were promising. Perhaps we could be looking at a Thierry Henry-type scenario, where he starts out wide before being transitioned to a striker by Wenger.

Sanchez played both on the wing and
centrally at the weekend
(Credit: Gobierno de Chile)
The problem I have with that is that I actually really like the way the squad is constituted right now. Sanchez is unlikely to ever be a 'hold the ball up'-style striker, and I think he'll be better suited (at least initially) to playing off Giroud alongside Walcott, Ramsey and Özil. All that said, it's hardly the worst problem to have. What were your thoughts on Sanchez, Andy?

Andy: I think our expectations for strikers often are determined by the style we most recently saw on the field and so while I understand the trepidation about Sanchez up front, I don't agree with it. Before Giroud became a fixture in the lineup, fans criticized him for his lack of pace and how, due to his skill set, he forced Arsenal to play with a target man, something they weren't doing with Robin Van Persie (not to this degree at least), not to mention the legends that came before him. As it turns out, that hold-up play and his excellent passing skills pair perfectly with midfielders like Ramsey, Wilshere, Rosicky, and others who make aggressive runs from the midfield into the box, and so we've come to respect Giroud (well, some of us have) as a forward whose best attribute is bringing Arsenal's most talented players into the offense. 

Now there is talk of Sanchez playing up top and the worry is that his style won't fit the team because his is so different from Giroud and the way the offense hums now. For me though, it's a matter of a different kind of forward who will guide the attack in another way. Rather than acting as the release valve to hold up play while the defense pushes up, Sanchez will drift wide or run the channels during breaks and play off the back shoulder of defenders when Arsenal is holding possession and making a concerted attack. This may not bring the midfield into the game in the way Giroud does, but it will provide a different kind of outlet for the ball and Sanchez can beat defenders with his speed and dribbling skills. His movement behind will be perfectly meshed with the creativity of Özil and Cazorla as well as Ramsey and, to a lesser extend, Wilshere. Embrace the diversity, Sam!

We didn't see enough of Alexis during those two games to tell everyone exactly how he will play with the team, but he showed his creativity, his pace, and his ability to interplay with teammates. With more time playing together, we can only assume the cohesion, and thus the offense, will improve. Perhaps we will know more after the Community Shield this Sunday. Until then.

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