Despite restoring some pride in their season with a 1-0 win over Manchester United, Arsenal’s season effectively ended with a 2-1 loss away to Bolton and Arsenal fans and pundits have already begun assessing the kind of activity Arsenal may provide in the Summer Transfer Window.
As ever, most of the names chucked into the Arsenal Rumour Mill are highly unrealistic suggestions and aren’t guaranteed to ensure success. One of the most interesting ideas, however, was that Arsenal needed to buy a traditional “goalscorer” or “poacher”, but would a poacher solve Arsenal’s problems up front? Joss Bennett and Hayden Shaw have different opinions.
Since the days of the ultimate poacher, Filipo Inzaghi (or Francis Jeffers – either way), the role of the poacher has modernised to become an increasingly important part of some of the best sides in the world. A poacher’s main role is to stay on the shoulder of the last defender – looking to use his pace and movement to latch onto through balls from the midfield or a strike partner while rarely being too involved in the build-up. His job is to score goals – whether that be a screamer from 20 yards or tapping in from 6 yards out when someone else has done all the work.
The Argument For by Hayden Shaw
Let me begin by saying that Robin van Persie is a brilliant player. I put him up there with some of the very best in the league. But he gets injured. A lot. To rely on Van Persie as your main goal-scoring outlet could result in egg on face. Of course if the squad players come in and do enough of a job then it’s no problem – at the start of the season Marouane Chamakh did that, even Nicklas Bendtner has played his part.
So this isn’t to say that Arsenal are short of good strikers, that they lack goals or penetration. However, I think any good squad needs to have a poacher to call upon when needed. Should that player be first choice for every game? Of course not; team selection is based around a myriad of factors ranging from tactical decisions, form, performances in training, fitness and even star sign if you believe some of the stories about a certain former France manager.
How Could Arsenal Set Up?
What the “poacher” offers are goals. They all have pace. They are all great finishers. They all make a defender that bit more alert and they all know how to create space for themselves and also for others.
It often goes un-noticed but sometimes a striker’s best run is away from goal – dragging a defender with them. In a lot of ways I think having this kind of striker would make Arsenal’s midfield even more potent.
If given a full complement of playing staff I would have Song sitting and holding, Cesc Fabregas and Jack Wilshere running midfield with Van Persie wide right and Nasri on the left, with Poachy McPoach, the new Scottish striking sensation, up front.
Arsenal are probably the finest passers in the Premier League so it goes without saying that any striker would love to make runs with the prospect of those 4 creative players making the pass.
Defending Against A Poacher
The more that I have thought about it the more I think it would benefit Arsenal. Having a striker who can run the lines scares the hell out of defenders. They can deal with it in one of two ways.
On the one hand, they can play a risky game and try to catch every run offside. It’s tough because they have to get it right every time, the striker only has to get it right once (assuming that the pass is good enough and their finishing is good enough). The other way is to sit deeper. Both would suit Arsenal just fine.
Option one: If the defence drops deeper it means that either the midfield has to drop as well or there becomes a large gap between the defence and the midfield, the kind of gap that players like Samir Nasri, Jack Wilshere and Cesc Fabregas all love to move into and then thread a killer pass or play a one two.
It also gives Arsenal’s full backs opportunity to move higher up the pitch offering yet more threat to the attack without feeling like they are being too cavalier. After all the opposition have pretty much penned themselves in.
You would have to assume with the resulting siege mentality that Arsenal would have the quality to penetrate it – especially with the movement of the poacher, dragging centre backs into the channels in order to create space for others or to receive the ball quickly from a team mate and fire a shot at goal after a quick touch.
Option two: If the defence tries to play the forward offside then you get the other benefits. A higher defensive line against a team like Arsenal can be suicidal if the Gunners get their passing and off the ball movement right on the day.
Arsenal don’t just have the one player who will run beyond the defence, they have several. With the offside rule in its current guise – unfair as it may be – you could even use the poacher as a dummy runner, just as a wide receiver may be used to drag players away in American football.
The other perk of having this kind of player is the reverse ball available if you chose to play Andrei Arshavin on the left and Van Persie on the right. With both Clichy and Sagna happy to bomb forward and a poacher in the team the chance is there to get the ball wide to Van Persie or Arshavin, who can then cut inside whilst the poacher makes a run between centre-back and full-back.
Considering Arsene Wenger is unlikely to splash out on some of the more expensive options such as Darren Bent, Giuseppe Rossi or Fernando Torres, here are a few more realistic transfer targets that could do the job:
The expensive option: Ezequiel Lavezzi is turning into one of the most talked about forwards in the world, which makes you wonder if Arsenal would be willing to enter a bidding war, but a cheeky bid with other teams targeting other players could see them bag an incredibly skillfull, lightning quick forward who loves to run beyond the last man, exactly the kind of player you can imagine scoring the goals that win Arsenal a trophy.
The cheap option: Yousef El Arabi is another of the skillfull, quick and (for his size) quite powerful strikers that have made their way from Africa to Ligue 1. Currently playing for Caen (3rd bottom at the moment) he is the second highest scorer in the League with 10 goals from 16 games. Pretty impressive for a player who is still pretty young (24 years old would put him in the right age bracket for Arsene Wenger) and considering his current club’s position you can’t imagine that he would break the bank.
My choice: Kévin Gameiro is making a lot of friends at Lorient, scoring 17 of the 38 goals that have fired them to 7th in the table. Small and stocky he reminds me a little of Aguero in terms of build and is clearly quite happy to shoulder a team’s goal scoring responsibility. Again the perks of this signing would surely be the comparative price of a goal scorer who at the age of 23 surely has all of his best years ahead of him.
The best thing about the poacher would come when Arsenal fans are watching all the passing and screaming “SHOOT!”. That’s what this type of striker does, they test the keeper, and if he spills the ball there’s a rebound chance for some of the fastest players in the Premiership to get to before the defenders. If the goalkeeper tips it wide it’s a corner and even if he manages to hold onto it the crowd appreciate the effort – they feel that bit closer to a goal and it gives them and the players a lift. Chances create confidence.
Not only that, having a striker with raw pace, the desire to make the runs and the killer instinct keeps teams on edge. It might not sort all of Arsenal’s lead retention problems, but it would certainly give the opposition something to think about and pose a serious counter attacking threat if Arsenal did find themselves under the cosh late on.
The Argument Against by Joss Bennett
Despite all of Arsenal’s other apparent problems this year; a lack of leadership, a leaky defence and unreliable goalkeepers, there’s one thing that leaves little to debate. In recent weeks, The Gunners have had trouble finding the back of the net, with Aaron Ramsey’s finish against Manchester United ending a run of 349 minutes at the Emirates Stadium without a Premier League goal in open play.
Is this a problem with Arsenal’s strike-force and does it mean they need to recruit a new striker? I say no, and here’s why.
By definition, poachers aren’t particularly good team players – the main strength that the majority of these players have in common is pace and superb finishing ability but in Theo Walcott, Arsenal have that in abundance.
Despite taking a lot of criticism for not having a “footballing brain”, and for at times suspect crossing, there is little debate that what the England forward does have is raw pace and an excellent finish on him. This season, Walcott has made significant strides forward and has become an integral part of Arsenal’s game-plan and in particular as part of the axis in the forward line.
While Fabregas brings creativity, Robin van Persie provides a synergy of both this and quality finishing, Walcott adds the final piece to the puzzle with his pace and it works brilliantly – Arsenal have lost just one game (against Bolton) when Walcott, Fabregas, van Persie and Samir Nasri have started.
Furthermore, we can say that Theo Walcott’s role as a ‘right forward’ (as opposed to an out and out winger) is effectively the role that a poacher would have anyway, but on the wing. In playing him there, Arsene Wenger is able to make full use of the partnership that Fabregas and van Persie form – playing as a “False 10″ and a “False 9″ respectively while Walcott looks to occupy the space behind them; often latching onto through balls from the captain and chief playmaker, Fabregas, just as he did for his opening goals against Newcastle (in the 4-4 draw) and Tottenham (In the 3-3 draw).
One of the main reasons this forward axis is able to work is because of the role of Van Persie, who drops deep as a
‘false 9′ and draws defenders out of position. A poacher in the style of Kevin Gameiro would almost certainly not be able to do this, preferring to stay on the shoulder of the last defender and not having much involvement in Arsenal’s patient build-up play – forcing the opposition defence deeper into their own half, but more on that later.
What To Do With Van Persie
At the beginning of the 2009/2010 season and the departure of Emmanuel Adebayor, Arsene Wenger moved away from the 4-4-2 he’d been using and tweaking since the late 90′s. Since then, Wenger has been tweaking a 4-3-3 formation with the purpose of getting the best out of Fabregas and van Persie, who now acts as a lone centre-forward. Since then, the Dutchman has scored 29 goals in just 50 Premier-League appearances – a fantastic record for any striker.
That leaves the Arsenal coaching staff with two questions: What to do with van Persie should a poacher be brought in, and why wouldn’t inevitable tweaks to the formation work?
The first, and perhaps simplest option would be to keep the current 4-2-3-1 formation, but to move van Persie out to the right hand side from where, theoretically, he could cut onto his stronger left foot and allow his right-back to bomb forward on the overlap.
However, this raises two issues: firstly, despite possessing a decent long shot, it’s doubtful that van Persie would have the complete set of attributes needed to take advantage of this role. In particular, his build doesn’t give him much pace; something which would also hinder his ability to track back and fulfil his defensive duties. A role on the right would also make him rather more one-dimensional since he doesn’t tend to use his right foot – meaning good defenders could easily double up and show him down the line and reduce his impact.
Secondly, it prompts the dilemma of what to do with Theo Walcott. As previously suggested, Walcott has the potential to go and become a quality player for club and country and among his 12 overall, he has scored several important goals this season – the second against Partizan, his brace against Chelsea, his opener against Tottenham to name a few. Unless Walcott was to be moved into a central role similar to Thierry Henry when he arrived at the club in 1999, it seems unlikely that Wenger would be able to fit him into the first team system.
The second, and perhaps more likely, option would be a move to a similar 4-4-2 formation used during the ‘Bergkamp era’ – a change that would arguably kill two birds with one stone in aiming to get the best out of van Persie, but also deploying Alexandre Song in a more disciplined, anchor role like Gilberto Silva.
Again, however, this creates other problems: Would Song have the temperament to fulfil a purely holding role? And would Van Persie be at his best alongside another striker? The answer to both of these questions, in my opinion, is no. Ignoring Song for a moment, Van Persie has thrived in the lone role – scoring just one less goal (so far) this season in 30 appearances than he did playing alongside Adebayor in the 2008/09 season [Premier League only] and despite obvious similarities, van Persie is a different player to his Dutch predecessor, Dennis Berkgamp.
Robin van Persie: Player Comparisons
Although appearing as a ‘false 9′ and dropping deep, as well as having similar technical strengths as Bergkamp, van Persie is a more direct player and is arguably more of a ‘striker’ than Bergkamp ever was. This assertion is backed up by the fact that Bergkamp scored only 24 more goals (87) in the whole of his Arsenal career than van Persie has so far in his (63), having played almost 200 more games than the current number 10.
This is not to say one or the other is a better player, of course; just that they are more different than some people may believe. The only possible way to make the 4-4-2 work would be to have Van Persie dropping very deep – like Wayne Rooney in the latter stages of this season – and having another striker run beyond him. While Rooney has fulfilled this role very well, we again have to say that Van Persie is a different player; tall and technical rather than quick, athletic and full of energy and is unlikely to be able to replicate his scoring form in a different role.
The Problem With Too Much Pace
While Arsenal clearly have some of the best passers in the league – players who can pick out well-timed runs with amazingly consistent accuracy – there is a problem with having too many quick players making runs off the shoulder of their markers.
A team with pace is always going to be a dangerous team – Barcelona have Lionel Messi, David Villa and Pedro; Manchester United have Luís Nani, Antonio Valencia, Rooney and Hernandez: A host of players who have had very fruitful careers but their pace and quality inevitably means that teams will drop deeper into their own half.
Again – this can be seen as a positive in that it can give a creative midfield time and space on the ball to provide the killer pass leading to a chance but it could well be a negative in our case. Arsenal’s footballing philosophy and the way they play on the pitch – short passes and intricate link play on the edge of the box – can make them a very easy team to defend against when they’re not at their best.
If Arsenal had more players in the box willing and capable of getting something on the end of crosses (according to statistics website, Whoscored, crosses have had only 4% effect for Arsenal this season) then they could cause all sorts of problems, but as it is, The Gunners often struggle against a deep defence that put 10 men behind the ball.
Although a poacher may show a more selfish attitude and be more inclined to shoot rather than pass, he would likely only force the opposition defence back onto their own area and compound Arsenal’s problems.
Conclusion: So What DO We Need?
If a poacher wouldn’t be any good – what are the areas Arsenal do need to strengthen? A centre-back seems unlikely, a goalkeeper even more so and as explained, another striker (at least in the “poacher” mould) would quite possibly cause more problems than it would solve.
For me, the most important part of Arsenal’s squad that needs strengthening (or the weakest area in the squad) is right-back. While Bacary Sagna is arguably one of the best right-backs in the league at the moment, his stand-in, Emmanuel Eboue, is simply not good enough. The Ivorian has cost Arsenal too many points this season and there is too big a gap between the two of them for Sagna to feel threatened by the competition.
As mentioned earlier, Arsenal have struggled to score goals at important times this season, and while a poacher may be the answer, one of the main reasons for this drought of sorts has arguably been the inconsistency at the left-forward position.
When Arshavin was dropped in favour of a Nasri and Walcott combination on the wings, Arsenal fans had high hopes. Since then, Nasri injured himself against Huddersfield and has struggled for form and fitness on the left-hand side of a three man attack. Arshavin has since been predominantly used as a “super-sub” when The Gunners are struggling, and despite improved work-rate and performances from the Russian, left-forward remains an area Arsenal need to look at.