Pitchside Europe

Arsenal sweat the small stuff, but gaps remain

Pitchside Europe

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Arsenal’s impressive 2-1 win in Marseille was a triumph of resolve over flair.

Mesut Ozil had a quiet game, only really showing a couple of fine touches in a second half that was notable for the performances of Kieran Gibbs and Aaron Ramsey. Understandable given he has been sick and carrying a knock since joining the club. He showed his class in Sunderland and will surely replicate that level of play later in the season.

The previously in-form Olivier Giroud, meanwhile, huffed and puffed through the match as his impressive run came to a half with an indifferent display in his homeland.

So to win, away, in a hostile environment, with two key players relatively subdued is no mean feat. Chapeau, as fans of both clubs could say – bars and front rooms all over France saw divided loyalties, as Arsenal remain one of the best-supported clubs in a nation which has provided many of its staff.

It would be foolish to take this – and other decent performances – as definitive evidence that the Gunners have fully turned a corner though. Ozil’s capture signified a sea-change in the club’s ambition and willing to cough up for the world’s most gifted players, but the gaps in the squad that actually needed filling are still, well, gaping.

Wojciech Szczesny is yet to convince. While his shot stopping and general alertness are at the upper end of the scale, he remains weak at the communication required to be a genuinely top-class keeper. And he has a tendency to wander that has not been stemmed. Gerry Peyton has remained Arsenal’s goalkeeping coach for the best part of a decade. Perhaps that department needs a fresh outlook.

Per Mertesacker, meanwhile, still has the air of a lumbering stop-gap. Decent, yes, but the man to lead Arsenal’s defence to resistant glory? His wild swing at Dimitry Payet’s cross should have yielded a comedy own-goal, and with the turning circle of a small Balkan nation, his status as a ‘big f***ing German’ (his fans’ words, not ours).

Mathieu Flamini is efficient enough but his signing was clear ‘filler’, plaster across the gaping crack that is Arsenal’s defensive midfield.

And Giroud, for all his enthusiasm and physical attributes, is limited and a shade clumsy; at 26, his mental acuity can and will develop, but technically he cannot improve, and that is where Arsenal lack in their goalscorers, particularly with Theo Walcott unlikely to progress beyond ‘raw and mercurial’. This is not to say he should be cast aside – but he requires a partner who brings goals and technique to compliment his brawn and energy. Ozil, who operates deeper and with a brief to provide, is a wonderful player but is not that man.

So there is much work to do, on and off the pitch. The emergence of Aaron Ramsey as the player we all hoped he’d become before Ryan Shawcross snapped his leg is a boost, but Arsenal were never short of personnel in the creative playmaker department – Mikel Arteta and Tomas Rosicky were not even involved.

This all sounds rather negative – it is not meant to be such. It is acknowledgment that Arsenal are still very much a work in progress when, given the resources available this summer, they should have been looking for a swift completion.

It is likely that Arsene Wenger will buy more players in the January window than he did in the summer, which is unusual in that ordinarily value is best found in the warmer months. However, the inflated market this time round means that he may find relative bargains on the benches of sides who did buy in multiples.

Even with Ozil, Arsenal are three or four players short of a masterpiece. If, as expected, Wenger commits the rest of his career to North London, his new-found willing to pay player premiums means you should not count against it.

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