afcstuff.com is pleased to bring an exclusive interview with former Arsenal player, Adrian Clarke discussing the biggest topics of debate surrounding the club following the opening month of the season. Clarke played as a professional at every division including 6 years at Arsenal, where he came through the youth ranks. He is now involved with the club as a presenter and co-commentator on the official online video channel, Arsenal Player.
Q: With Xhaka, Mustafi and Perez being signed this summer, have Arsenal addressed every gap in the squad that they faced at the end of last season?
AC: Yes, I think the most obvious weak spots have been addressed during the summer window, which is really pleasing. If you look at the squad now, there are at least two quality players battling it out for each position and that’s really important. Those three roles needed beefing up, most people agreed that, so it’s great that the management team recognised it, and acted accordingly.
I know that these three signings weren’t as eye catching as Manchester United’s for example, but all of them are first team ready and capable of slotting straight into the starting XI. That’s perfect, because Arsenal didn’t need back ups. It’s all about adding genuine competition for places, which is crucial.
These aren’t kids or players past their best either; they are guys who should be approaching their peak years – and this is the biggest move of their respective careers too. We should see plenty of confidence and hunger to impress. I’m excited about all three.
The only ‘gap’ might be a winger that goes past players on the outside, especially down the left – although Welbeck can do that of course.
Q: How do you see the centre forward situation shaping up with Alexis being used there recently along with the acquisition of Lucas Perez?
AC: I see Giroud and Perez battling it out for the right to lead the line. Initially I’m sure Oli will get the nod, and it’s then down to him to ensure the manager can’t afford to leave him out. He’ll know that if the goals dry up, Perez will be given his chance. Having another goalscorer on the bench, might just extract 10% more out of both men too. They will be well aware that they need to hit the ground running every time they perform.
Their differing styles will also help the manager. In certain matches he may see Perez’s movement and pace as the better option, or if a game isn’t going according to plan he can now chuck on a replacement that’s of the same level, who will give the opposition a completely different headache. He can rest and rotate in midweek contests too.
As for Alexis, his display at Watford proves he can play as a central striker. When he moves that intelligently, with that much hunger, he’s going to tie any rearguard in knots.
Do I see him playing ahead of Giroud and Perez as a centre forward? Not really. Most of his appearances will be from the left or right wing.
Q: With Elneny and Xhaka arriving this year to add to existing options, how will Arsene Wenger accommodate the midfielders at his disposal this season?
AC: He’s going to have some seriously frustrated midfielders on his hands. Should everyone stay fit, the manager will have selection dilemmas aplenty! Mind you, we have said this before and it’s never turned out that way with the treatment room quickly filling up, so let’s not count our chickens!
I think Xhaka is in pole position. He defends and creates with equal aplomb, and I like his disciplined positional play too. For me, Coquelin is his natural back up, with Elneny and Ramsey (the two athletic runners) vying for a place next to him if Santi Cazorla has a dip. Sometimes the boss may choose a classy double pivot (Cazorla and Xhaka) that control games with their passing, but on other occasions he may require more legs in the engine room. That’s where Elneny and Ramsey come in.
That said, I do envisage Rambo being used out wide a fair but. Arsene Wenger wants him in the side, and handing him a roving role from the right may be his best chance to start.
We may even see a 3-man midfield, with Alexis and Ozil roaming around in front?
Q: With the loan of Calum Chambers to Middlesbrough and Jack Wilshere going to Bournemouth, are you concerned about the future of Arsenal’s “English Core” players?
AC: I’m not concerned, but they do need to have big seasons. It’s clear the manager wants homegrown players in his team/squad, but the English lads have to prove they are the best options at his disposal. Over the last couple of years they have collectively slipped behind some of their teammates and that’s solely down to form. I don’t think they have been poor, it’s simply that others have kicked on.
To stay as an Arsenal player for the long term (and I know the painful truth of this) you have to be a truly exceptional footballer. There is no crime in being good, but not quite great enough. It’s a fine line that every player treads.
I honestly don’t think there’s a lot to choose between most of the squad, so it’s all to play for. If the English core are going to fulfil their potential at Emirates Stadium they have to step up and make sure they are too good to be left out.
They need to play regular football too, though. With that in mind I’m pleased to see Chambers and Wilshere getting game time. Now it’s down to them to show why they are signed up to one of Europe’s biggest clubs.
Q: Are there any players in the current Arsenal squad that you feel are underrated for their role in the team and may have a bigger part to play this term?
AC: Danny Welbeck is the most underrated player at the club. Injuries have hampered his progress, but he’s a player that can lift the team just when they need it. I know we’d like more goals from Danny, but his pace and directness are a massive plus. He puts opponents on the back foot.
Whether he’s deployed down the middle or out wide, when he’s fit and firing again, Welbeck will have a major part to play in the business end.
He’s a top man that’s good for dressing room morale, and his skill set is also under appreciated.
Q: The importance of the club captain has been a topic of debate with Per Mertesacker the latest player to take the armband. Which players stood out as leaders in your time at Arsenal and what qualities did they provide?
AC: During my time as a player we had a dressing room full of leaders. It was a squad full of men, that didn’t tolerate anything less than 100% effort. In different ways, Ian Wright, Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, Dave Seaman, David Platt and Martin Keown were all natural figureheads that had something to say, but this was the Tony Adams era so there was never any debate about the armband!
Tony didn’t suffer fools gladly, he was fiercely determined, extremely vocal, encouraging, inspirational and the type of defender that led by example with his football. He was the perfect skipper. It’s a real shame that the modern game doesn’t have as many strong characters like him. The Gunners were fortunate to have him.
Q: Do you believe that Arsenal have the strength in depth this season to match that of the most likely title rivals in Man Utd, Man City and Chelsea?
AC: I think you could argue that Arsenal have a more balanced squad than all those teams. In most positions I’d say that the ‘back ups’ were of a better standard. So depth wise I don’t think there’s a problem.
The crux of the matter is mental toughness. Can the Gunners churn out wins when they’re not playing well? Can they deliver 7 or 8 out of 10 performances most weeks?
United, City and Chelsea have more players that have won titles, so in that respect they are on safer ground I guess.
This is hopefully the season when Ozil and Alexis both hit it off at the same time more often. It needs to be the year when Koscielny stakes his claim to be the best defender in the division. It must be the campaign when Giroud, Walcott, and Ramsey prove the critics wrong with 30-plus performances of note. If those things happen, we’ll be hard to stop.
I don’t think Arsenal have anything to fear from their rivals. We did finish above all of them last season, after all!
The key now is to have fewer slip ups. That will come down to mental resolve, more than squad depth.
Q: What lessons can Arsenal collectively learn from falling short last season in their pursuit of silverware this season?
AC: They have to meaner at both ends of the pitch.
Last season Arsenal squandered too many opportunities in front of goal, and made too many individual errors without the ball, to finish top of the tree. The very best sides are always ruthless and that’s an ingredient the side lacked to some degree.
The talent is there. The quality of football, we know, is excellent. It’s being united as a unit, and staying ice cold in the big moments that will make the difference.
Will we raise our game against the Big Five and defend with great heart and intelligence?
Can we take the chances that will inevitably come our way against Chelsea, Spurs, City, United, Liverpool, Leicester and co?
Those are the questions – and I hope the answers are yes.
As long as the collective spirit is there, and those opportunities are grasped, Arsenal will be in the mix.
You can follow Adrian Clarke on Twitter (@adrianjclarke) and see him every week presenting ‘The Breakdown’ and ‘The Match Day Show’ on Arsenal Player.