A lot to be proud of from an Arsenal viewpoint but also so much to worry about after last night’s dizzying first leg with Barcelona at the Emirates.
Where do you start? The finality of Clichy’s indecision. The completely out-of-tune Song. The misaligned flat-to-crooked back four. The strange vacuum that materialises from time to time between Diaby’s ears. Bendtner’s second touch a tackle. Arshavin’s seeming disinterest and hasty retreat.
All major worries indeed. But for me the most curious aspect of last night’s tie was the continued placement of Cesc Fabregas in what could only be described as a centre forward position.
Well, maybe not quite centre forward but certainly at least as far forward as Bergkamp ever lined out for Arsenal.
To all intents and purposes this was 4-4-2, with Cesc in the hole.
And it’s nothing new. He has drifted further and further forward as the season has gone on. Of course the move has paid off in terms of goals and assists but in their toughest tests – and they won’t get tougher than last night – surely Arsenal need Fabregas closer to the heart of the action, getting on the ball and making them play.
But for the entire game – and for 60 minutes against Birmingham – Cesc more or less played off Bendtner, hoping for knock-downs and remaining distinctly on the periphery of the game.
Arsene Wenger first began playing Fabregas in that role about two-thirds the way through last season, with van Persie marked absent again through injury. During the European semi-finals with Manchester United last year, he hung around Adebayor’s coattails looking for scraps. None came his way. Meanwhile, the game was being won 20 yards further back the field.
He has played deeper for much of this term. When he came off the bench to beat Aston Villa on his own – driving forward from deeper – it seemed like he was turned into the perfect blend of Bryan Robson and Michel Platini.
Now he’s gone back up front again. It can’t, surely, be because he’s injured. Sure, less miles go on the clock in that role, but you also need to be at your strongest and sharpest to make an impact the further up the pitch you go.
There is a sense lately that Arsene Wenger is trying to revert to the type of midfield axis that once served him so well. For Gilberto and Vieira, read Song and Diaby, with Cesc now positioned in the Bergkamp role. That might have more merit with van Persie in the side – though he is no speed merchant in the Henry or Anelka mould – but Bendtner doesn’t have the pace to go behind and drag defences with him, creating space for Cesc to fill.
At least in the really big games.
Unfortunately, you also have to question whether Song and Diaby can ever truly emulate Gilberto and Vieira, or indeed Petit and Vieira.
Both had dismissed a lot of doubts with some sparkling displays this season, but after last night question marks about their mental readiness for the biggest games must remain.
Credit must go, however, to Denilson, for making his presence felt in the game as Song’s midfield replacement when he dropped in to replace Gallas.
I’d be tempted to play a real five-man midfield next Tuesday night, chancing Campbell and go with a central trio of Denilson, Song and Diaby. Then perm two from Nasri, Arshavin and Rosicky in the wide areas.
For the lone striker role, I’d be very tempted to give Theo a chance to test Barca with his pace but an ability to hold the ball will be crucial so Nicklas Bendtner should probably stay in the side, with strict instructions to stop trapping it further than Rory Delap can throw it.
A word for Barcelona. For 65 minutes, the football they played was as close to perfection as you can imagine. The pace and industry of their pressing game was a harsh up-close lesson for a guy like Arshavin who probably fancies he should be in their side.
And when they got on ball, the space and angles they create are, at times, breathtaking.
But Arsenal stuck at it and got some rewards. Perhaps, strangely, they might actually do better without their makeshift duck-out-of-water centre forward.