Date: 8th January 2010 at 2:18pm
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With 19 League games played, the 3rd Round of the F.A. Cup negotiated, the Carling Cup campaign over for another year and the Champions League Group stages qualified for and subsequently breezed through, we find ourselves at the half way point of the season. Overall, it`s been a very curious season in the Premiership, with the quality of the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United looking diminished, as well as the fact that the likes of Villa and Spurs have improved has made for a tight and interesting league. Many choose to pout moon faced about a reduction in quality, but I think you define a league`s quality by its competitiveness and this has been one of the better league seasons I can remember. (Though I feel that May won`t throw up too many surprises and a kind of status quo will be observed). For Arsenal, we are very much in the thick of the title race- which is much better than many forecast back in July. It`s the type of season whereby an Arsenal victory bodes well for our title challenge, whilst a draw or defeat is said to be damaging to our prospects of remaining in the Top 4. Arsenal have, naturally, had to battle yet another crippling injury list and one has to be pleased with how well our squad players have coped to keep the challenge alive (is there a better third choice left back in the league than Armand Traore?) Many players have been able to play in their favourite positions so far this year; such is the flexibility the 4-3-3 allows us. In past years, Wenger might have been tempted to shift an experienced centre half out to left back with Clichy crocked, but he has instead chosen understudies that, though youthful, are natural left backs. That Traore plays left back ahead of Silvestre tells you a lot about a slight shift in the Boss` attitude there. Anyway, at the half way point (half way? Already? Seems like a couple of weeks ago we were travelling to Goodison), I thought what better time for a half term report on each individual?

1.Manuel ALMUNIA– Endured a very trying start to the season with individual errors costing us goals against Pompey, United and Citeh in the opening weeks of the season. He was then mysteriously sidelined with a six week “chest infection.” We now know that he was actually on compassionate leave (not that Arsenal fans have acknowledged that, it doesn`t sit well with their critical evaluations). Slowly, Manuel has begun to improve, cutting out the individual errors and even beginning to make some notable saves- the brave one on one stop from Agbonlahor and yet another penalty save from Geovanni against Hull. (Again, Almunia has an excellent record of penalty saving that is rarely credited due to the supporters` distaste for him). Still not the best goalkeeper in the world, but very, very far from the worst and probably one of the best of a bad bunch in the top flight. If he continues his steady improvement in the second half of the season he will be fine. Will need to do more to win over the supporters though. I recall an interviewer once asking Marilyn Manson whether he would vote for Al Gore, “Hmmm, he`d have to do something amazing, like smoke crack or fuck a man.” One gets the feeling that Almunia gets equally short shrift from Arsenal fans. To emphasise that point, RedAction, very creepily, organised a “show of support (whatever the hell that is?) for Cesc Fabregas” at a home game this season because his Granddad was ill. Apparently Almunia`s circumstances didn`t warrant a mention from the same group. He might just be this season`s Eboue. 6.5 out of 10

2.Abou DIABY– Another of the many players that have vastly improved this campaign. Long term injuries to Denilson as well as knacks for Fabregas and Song`s jaunt to Africa have given him plenty of chances and plenty more to come. Diaby is well on course to make his most Premiership appearances in a season and he has thrived on that continuity. As well as this, Arsenal`s adoption of three central midfield slots means he has played his favourite position more often than not- no more left wing slots for Diaby. He has proved that, when playing in his preferred role, he can use his physical attributes to great effect- buffeting through the midfield to score six goals already this season. In the last month, Diaby is beginning to show vague signs of a football brain too, knowing when it is appropriate to try and beat three players with his beguiling footwork and when to find a team mate. His tendency to disappear defensively appears to have vanished at the precise moment Wenger threw down his jacket in frustration at him during the North London derby. Again, if he can continues this trajectory of improvement in 2010 and stay fit, he will have enjoyed a fine season indeed. 7.5

3.Bacary SAGNA– Look up consistency in the dictionary and you`ll find a picture of Banger with requisite tarantula dreads. Has been his usual, consistent, solid self in the right back slot. The manager has turned the heat up on him a little too, using Eboue as his Champions League right back, but Sagna has fought him off. He has also dramatically improved his crossing, in October he grabbed three consecutive assists with crosses from the right hand side- it would have been 4 had van Persie converted a simple header at Upton Park. 7.5

4.Francesc FABREGAS– 13 goals, 15 assists, Blackburn and Villa were beaten virtually single handedly by Cesc. The new formation has freed him to break forward and demonstrate his ice cool finishing (Alkmaar home, Wolves away). He has also been as keen an accurate as ever with long range shooting (Villa home, Blackburn home). He can also win games when he is not playing to his utmost, at Craven Cottage in September he was distinctly average and found his rhythm disrupted by a tireless Fulham midfield. They allowed him half a second in the entire match, he used that half a second to play a delicious through ball to Robin van Persie to score the only goal of the game. Has also been seen sauntering past the entire Spurs team to score. Which was nice. Quite simply, the best central midfield player in Europe right now. 9.

5.Thomas VERMAELEN– Our only major summer signing but what a signing it has been. Has brought a semblance of calm to our defence and has managed to bring out the best in Willy Gallas too. Has added some of the oft opined for steel in the backbone of our side. A no nonsense defender who simply loves to throw his body on the line for the cause. His days as captain of Ajax have also brought a little more leadership into our ranks and he passes Wenger`s conditions as a ball playing defender with his sweet left foot. The sign of a good player is not only one that performs his own duties with distinction, but brings out the best in his colleagues, which Vermaelen has undoubtedly done. His goal scoring exploits early season won the Verminator swift acclaim from the terraces, those exploits have been reigned in as Wenger appears to have addressed an early season flaw in that we don`t really need both centre halves operating as auxiliary forwards at the same time. His continued fitness is pivotal for our title hopes and the partnership he has formed with Gallas is as formidable as exists in the top flight. 8

7.Tomas ROSICKY- Finally made a long awaited return from injury and appeared to settle back into the groove very quickly, oiling the wheels of our attack with his swift, incisive play. Niggling injuries have interrupted his rhythm somewhat, which is to be expected given the amount of time he has spent sidelined. His performances though prior to his latest injury were distinctly average but by signing a new contract, the manager has affirmed faith that his best form is not far away. 6.5

8.Samir NASRI– Fought back from a pre season leg break admirably to seamlessly take part in the 4-3-3 formation- being able as he is to either by the most attacking of the midfield triumvirate or as a wide striker. Typically silky in possession, Nasri, like Rosicky, is a probing kind of player that persistently asks questions of defences, always looking to be positive with the ball. Also has shown a darker side to his game first apparent in his tangle with Joey Baryon last season. Despite being a silky, agile ballerina of a footballer, he won`t be bullied, which is a pleasing facet. It`s about time Arsenal started standing up for themselves. You don`t win prizes without the odd snarl and glare here and there. 7.5

9.EDUARDO da Silva– A difficult season to judge for Eddie, much of the outrageously hyperbolised attention at the beginning of the season surrounded his dive against Celtic. Not the most wholesome of chapters, but hardly the capital, unique crime it was made out to be. The only institution in the world that can match the media for despicability would have to be football`s governing bodies and, in true Punch and Judy fashion, they awarded and subsequently had to revoke a two match ban. Since then, Eduardo has scored goals, though he seemed to suffer a dip in confidence when the spotlight hit him in the wake of van Persie`s injury. Now that clamour has died down, Eduardo appears to have regained his confidence and has hit the net with alacrity over the festive period- allowing Arshavin to remove some of the attention from him. 6 goals has been a respectable return from 20 appearances- many from the bench. 7

10.William GALLAS– I reckon I`ve written more about William Gallas than any other Arsenal player in my three and a half years on Vital, so I`ll spare you another dissertation. Needless to say, he has been brilliant, looking happy and settled on the right side of the Vermaelen axis, he has been a calming, rigorous influence at the back, his unrivalled positional sense dovetailing beautifully with Vermaelen`s robust approach. There`s a famous saying that often the best way to save face is to keep the lower half of it shut, Gallas has let his defending do the talking and his defending is resonating like a snare drum at the Grove. 8

11.Robin van PERSIE– It`s difficult not to write with a tinge of melancholy. Until a pointless international robbed us of his services until Easter, van Persie looked to be duking it out with Drogba for the title of the world`s premier striker. Always a player of class and capable of the miraculous, van Persie has added several strings to his bow. Using his under rated upper body strength to hold the ball up for team mates at the focal point of the three strikers, his ability in tight spaces has eked him out scrappy, but pleasing goals- such as the efforts against Fulham, the tap ins against Spurs and the turn and strike at Eastlands. Robin has become the consummate team player, equally as likely to provide an assist as a goal. He has allied maturity and intelligence with a talent that was obvious from an early age. What a tragedy, not just for Arsenal but for him personally, that he was cut down at the top of his game. 8.5

12.Carlos VELA– Negotiating the “difficult second album” phase. Pointless international excursions in the summer have not helped him progress and despite a very cheeky goal against West Brom in the Carling Cup, has looked shorn of confidence since. Badly needs a goal to get some of his sangfroid back but I wouldn`t write him off doing just that in the second half of the season. Young players will always go through dips in form (this time last year, Ramsey went through an awkward spell this time last year after an underwhelming homecoming at Ninian Park). This is just the way with younger players and we as supporters have to be accepting of that. 6

14.Theo WALCOTT– Another that has suffered at the hands of a pointless international tournament in the summer, one can see why Wenger was so enraged for England calling him up. Ironically, England will themselves suffer from that decision as Walcott has endured an injury ravaged year as a result of this pointless excursion when his young limbs needed rest. It looks increasingly likely they will have to rely on a good, but not great Aaron Lennon on the right hand side (Lennon rarely performs against the sort of genuinely class opponents that he would have to face in the knockout rounds). Walcott in the meantime, has yet to be able to string three games together and has therefore been unable to establish any kind of rhythm, resulting in some off colour performances. If he can get some fitness back, don`t bet against him getting his groove back come Spring. Just in time for England to knacker him and send him back to us in July. 6

15.DENILSON– Yet another whose season has been interrupted by injury, however, has been typically tidy in the centre of midfield, forming a symbiotic axis with Alex Song. Their styles compliment one another well, Denilson a keen interceptor and reader of the game, always on hand for the ball when a team mate is in trouble and economical in possession, whilst Song is noticed more for his energetic, harrying style. Denilson and Song have been able to hunt in packs for the ball and both have the skill to retain it too. The Brazilian has also worked on his long range shooting, providing three goals from outside the box already this year, Denilson is a hard player to appreciate, but our midfield never looks quite as cogent when he`s not in it. 7.5

16.Aaron RAMSEY– Another tick in the “vastly improved” box. Ramsey showed glimpses of his talent last season, though a lot of his skill set was lost in over elaboration. This year, he has shown a maturity on the ball and with his forward runs that belies his years. His goal against Pompey last week shows you everything that has improved in his game, knowing when to make the considered tackle, taking the ball calmly, creating space for himself and then knowing when appropriate to shoot. It looks as though we might be witnessing another great career in blossom under the tutelage of Arsene Wenger. Given Manchester United`s problems in replacing the ageing Paul Scholes adequately, Ferguson might just look upon Ramsey as the one that got away. 8

17.Alexandre SONG– Probably the most notably improved of a flowering bunch. Anyone who watched Song in his early Arsenal career (and I mean “watched” not “read Arseblogger taking the piss out of him having never seen him play”) will have been aware that he has always been an excellent ball winner. However, this year, with a run of games behind him, he has shown the confidence to show fleet of foot in protecting the ball and giving it to his team mates. His passing is unrecognisable from the sloppy, cumbersome character of 18 months ago. Deserves the utmost credit for restoring his reputation in the eyes of the Arsenal fans that savaged him on the slightest morsels of evidence and is living proof to trust the manager`s judgement with young players, rather than mauling them like spoilt children early in their development. If the Player of the Season votes were cast now (I think the PFA Player of the Year votes are usually cast in September aren`t they?) Song would be pushing first place. Arsene can point to Song as the manifestation of his policy and say, “Trust me.” 8.5

18.Mikael SILVESTRE– Overly maligned perhaps, but Silvestre simply doesn`t strike me as a player with the level of experience he has. Capable of solid performances, but equally capable of looking like a callow youth filling his trousers at the sight of a football. His nadir would have been the Carling Cup match at City in which he was given a shoeing by the painfully average Shaun Wright Phillips and appeared to hoof the ball aimlessly every time he got it, treating it as some kind of time bomb. Though he is only a utility player and probably a good influence in the dressing room, one would hope his role will not need to be extended beyond that in the spring. 6

19.Jack WILSHERE– Has barely played enough to bear analysis, but another understandably undergoing “second season syndrome.” Jack is at a tricky stage of his development whereby he is far too good for the Youth and Reserve sides, but not yet good enough for the first team. Players as young as Jack will always go through this teething process, but one can understand why Wenger exercises caution with Wilshere. Just last week, Oliver Holt of the gutter tabloid The Mirror penned a piece calling him the next David Bentley, in which he claimed that his talent had been destroyed by his ego. No, me neither. Holt actually got paid for doing that. (Mind you, in my days as a temporary employee, paid by the hour, I used to calculate how much of my day I spent in the khazi and then muse on how much I was paid on any particular day to have a shit. So I guess I can relate to Holt here). We need to be patient. 6

21.Lukasz FABIANSKI– In line with many of the predecessors of this report, he has been both injured and has shown big improvement. In his few appearances this season he hasn`t put a foot wrong. A big, imposing positive goalkeeper whose decision making appears to have improved immeasurably. He seems to have used the trauma of errors in last year`s F.A. Cup semi final as a learning curve rather than a psychological trauma. I for one, have very high hopes for him. 8

22.Gael CLICHY– I`m beginning to think that at the beginning of this article, I should have hit the ‘copy` button when I typed the sentence “season interrupted by injury” and hit ‘paste` when appropriate. Clichy has been his reliable, solid self this campaign, bursting forward with typical gusto and careering back when needed. Required a little time to adjust to the lack of cover afforded him in the 4-3-3 formation and will not be pleased with his performance at Eastlands in September. Clichy has become an integral part of our side and there is simply no evidence for that to change. His current back injury is a long standing one which has impeded some of his recovery work, it`ll be interesting to see if it has long term affects on his chief attribute- his pace. He may have to become a smarter player if the disruption is terminal, but at his age and with his ability, he could if needed. 7

23.Andrey ARSHAVIN– Possibly the most curious Arsenal player I have ever seen. With the exception of the Stoke match in December, I can`t think of a single game where I felt Arshavin dominated the whole 90 minutes. Yet his season has been littered with crucial and breath taking goals. Having scored at Old Trafford and five times at Anfield in 2009, Arshavin has shown that he is a big game player with the appetite and mentality for the big occasion. Has adapted commendably to playing an unfamiliar role in recent weeks. Very much Arsenal`s pocket dynamo and if Arsenal are to win anything, Arshavin will be a crucial cog. If the Gunners get to a Cup Final, don`t be surprised if he scores the winning goal- naturally he`ll do sod all else for the other 89 minutes. 8

24.Vito MANNONE– Given a run in the side by default in the early autumn after Almunia`s compassionate leave and Fabianski`s injury. Showed signs of promise, but ultimately, the harum scarum nature of Premiership football is too early for him just yet. A string of fine saves in the Fulham game masked some positional inadequacies and the defence never looked entirely comfortable with him there. Probably cost us two points at West Ham, but to be expected given his level of experience. 6

27.Emmanuel EBOUE– Not interrupted by injury, so by process of elimination, he must be “vastly improved” then. Eboue is an unrecognisable player from the one of 12 months ago, he always had a flair and talent on the ball (dig out your 2007-08 review DVDs and check out a goal he almost scored against Slavia Prague from the touchline in the Champions League), but he appears to have screwed his head on straight after a needless red card at Matchbox Lane last February. Has now come to epitomise the cult figure amongst Arsenal fans. Provides satisfactory back up to Sagna at right back and can also give us defensive balance as the right striker on the 4-3-3 to compensate for the more forward thinking of chums to his left. 7

28.Kieran GIBBS*copy* “season interrupted by injury” *paste* Whilst one of the tragedies of our season would be van Persie`s injury, Kieran Gibbs too must be cursing lady luck having broken a metatarsal soon after Clichy`s long term absence was confirmed. Particularly as a run of games would have given him a good shot at the England World Cup squad- given the fact that Wayne Bridge is the current back up option I reckon I`d have a chance at making it given a game or two at left back. The slip in the Champions League Semi Final last season might have destroyed him, but he hasn`t let it unduly scar him- the biggest test for a young player is always how they respond to inevitable mistakes. Gibbs has passed that test and never looks out of place in the Arsenal starting XI regardless of the opposition. 7.5

30.Armand TRAORE– Not on the level as those above him in the pecking order- Clichy and Gibbs. But could another Premiership team put a third choice left back of this quality in their starting line up? Prone to the odd lapse in concentration on the back post, but is doing well enough for fans not to be crying out for Clichy and Gibbs to any notable volume. 7

52.Nicklas BENDTNER– Space for one more on the treatment table, guv? Bendtner is another that has improved immeasurably in the last twelve months. He has always had bags of self confidence, which any young striker worth his salt needs. But his decision making has progressed astronomically, no longer such a hit and miss style player, he has evolved into a player happy to play simple pass if it keeps the ball moving. Probably has the best chest trap of any member of the Arsenal squad. Playing in the wide positions has aided his technical game and with van Persie out injured, he may get the chances to prove himself in his favoured central berth. 7.5