Early Doors

Arsenal still suffering identity issues

Early Doors

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As befitting a side apparently struggling with their sense of identity, Arsenal's performance was a touch schizophrenic when defeating Olympiacos 2-1 on Wednesday night. As hope sprouted forth in the performance of 18-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, simple defensive errors once again underlined that this incarnation of Arsene Wenger's Arsenal are very much a work in progress.

The French boss celebrates his 15th anniversary in charge of the club on Friday - Early Doors imagines by cracking out a bottle of coke, opening some plain Pringles and sticking on Uruguayan second division highlights for the night - and rarely across that huge span of time can it be said that his sides lacked a clear identity: from the dashing counter-attackers of the 1998 Double winners, to the sublime technicians of the Invincibles of 2003-04.

Even his sides of recent seasons had a distinct persona by which they were known, though the tag of over-indulgent tippy-tappy lightweights was hardly a welcome one in Islington. By contrast, after a summer in which the creative heart was ripped from the club in the shape of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, this current Arsenal team is still seeking focus and direction in terms of their approach to the game, and understandably so.

ED thought the struggle to produce a coherent approach continued in the Champions League, even if the Olympiacos result ensured a third win in the space of nine days to go some way to addressing their terrible start to the season.

Though Mikel Arteta has immediately injected an element of poise in midfield and Robin van Persie's continual excellence has masked some shortcomings, there is still a very real sense that this Arsenal side are still trying to work out exactly who they are, and how they will play; which avenues they will exploit and at what tempo they will do so.

A switch to a 4-3-3 formation from 4-2-3-1, with the Fabregas position being withdrawn, has necessitated a recalibration of Arsenal's attacking strategy and with Andrei Arshavin continuing to frustrate, and Aaron Ramsey and Gervinho only impressing in patches, the growing pains have been somewhat acute.

Not as acute as they have been at the back though, of course. Wednesday's match witnessed yet more evidence that rudimentary defending is beyond Arsenal at present. Though they showed resilience in the second half, and were reduced to a very unfamiliar back four due to injuries, the abiding image was woefully slack marking from a corner that allowed Olympiacos to pull a goal back. ED wondered for a second if some of Wenger's players had adopted the Carlos Tevez approach and withdrawn their labour temporarily.

Strangely enough, if Arsenal could be said to have a coherent identity at present then it comes in the form of their masochistically disastrous defence. That is not the kind of reputation that Wenger and the club are seeking and it has hardly endeared this new-look side to supporters.

But on a day when the September sun did not as much kiss as dry hump the pavement in an unexpected heatwave in London, there was perhaps a slight thawing in relations between supporters and players, though tension and frustration remain prevalent in the stands at Emirates Stadium, and derisory howls are still heard when a pass is misplaced or a chance to shoot spurned.

One reason for renewed optimism amongst the supporter base is undoubtedly Oxlade-Chamberlain, who at 18 years and 44 days became the youngest English goalscorer in the history of Champions League.

When arriving at the club this summer - as a multi-million pound teenager from Southampton - it appeared Oxlade-Chamberlain would initially be denied an identity of his own, such was the frequency with which he was compared with Theo Walcott, who had made the same trip in January 2006. But the 18-year-old has taken little time to make a name for himself. He is no Walcott; indeed he promises to be much more.

Oxlade-Chamberlain now has two goals in two-and-a-bit matches for Arsenal. It took Walcott 40 games to reach the same tally, and the differences do not end there. The young man is blessed with technical ability that dwarfs his counterpart's. More ominously for Walcott, perhaps, Oxlade-Chamberlain is also blessed with pace and his dribbling and crossing are already superior to the full England international, who continues to struggle with his evolution as a player.

Stationed on the right of a three-man attack, Oxlade-Chamberlain was deeply impressive, both in his use of the ball and his match intelligence. Though still raw in some respects, this was a performance full of intent and ambition, and highly impressive for a teenager making his Champions League debut. ED was particularly impressed by his goal, as he sprayed the ball out to Alex Song, received it back, took a few touches and buried his shot into the bottom corner.

As ED noted at the time, some Arsenal fans were bizarrely disappointed to hear of his arrival in a £12 million deal on August 8. ED suspects they are slightly more enthused now after he built on his fine display against Shrewsbury in the Carling Cup with another star turn. Certainly Pat Rice, conducting the post-match press conference in place of the suspended Wenger, was quick to talk up Oxlade-Chamberlain's potential.

"He can go inside, he can go outside, he's got that injection of pace and I think what he needs now is to be consistent in his play," Rice said. "I am sure that is something he will be working on because he's certainly not a stupid boy. He has good people around him and they are telling him all the right things.

"From Arsenal supporters' point of view, they are going to be seeing a lot of this boy. Whenever he breaks in permanently he has a big, big challenge to now get in front of Theo. I know that Theo is a very strong-willed guy as well and he won't give in easy. It all bodes well for England anyway."

Clearly a conclusion, rightly or wrongly, is beginning to be formed about Oxlade Chamberlain: he is England's next big thing. But for so many of the other Arsenal players the jury remains out.

Is Emmanuel Frimpong the DEEENCH cult hero, or a boy who should be left on the bench? Is Andre Santos a goalscoring full-back or a potential liability? Is Ramsey the player who took Bolton apart in the second half last week, or the player who struggled in the first? Is Arshavin a mercurial talent, prone to flashes of genius, or just plain lazy?

These questions, and many others, must be resolved before this new Arsenal side assumes a coherent form in their own minds, and those of the public. Crisis is a term all too loosely applied in the modern game, but it might be fair to say that the Gunners are dealing with something of a mini identity crisis at present.

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COMING UP: Comprehensive Champions League reaction with our Team of the Week and the Hot or Not barometer.

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This evening there is live coverage of all the Europa League action, including full commentary of Celtic v Udinese, Odense v Fulham and Maribor v Birmingham at 18:00 and Stoke City v Besiktas and Tottenham Hotspur v shamrock Rovers at 20:05.

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