Time for our Q&A with Ted Harwood of The Short Fuse, SB Nation's Arsenal home. As you're probably aware, Manchester United face the Gunners on Saturday in a Premier League clash. Be sure to check out TSF if you desire Arsenal news and analysis ahead of this match or after it.
TBB: As you might expect, some Jack Wilshere questions. We all know his talent and potential, how did he look last week in his return? Do you expect him to feature this weekend or is he not ready for a big game? What are your general expectations for him this season?
TSF: Actually, last week, despite the rust, he looked pretty darn good. He was lively and passed well, and QPR seemed to see him as a threat, since they fouled him repeatedly. All of us here at TSF expect him to feature this weekend and probably start, as he was rested during the week at Reading. He is ready for a big game. With all that said, we have to remember that he's still coming back from missing 16 months of action, and as you'll remember with Owen Hargreaves, it will take time for a player to look like he did prior to the injury, indeed, if he ever does. If Wilshere plays like he did against QPR, though, it can only help Arsenal. If he keeps it up, one would expect him to be in the midfield along with Cazorla and Arteta.
TBB: These questions are very general but can you discuss Arsenal's goalkeeping situation? It seems like a revolving door. It wasn't too long ago they had Lukasz Fabianski and Manuel Almunia fighting for the job, then Fabianksi and Wojciech Sczczesny. Then it looked like Sczcznesy was the primary keeper for most of last year. Is he injured? Where did Vito Mannone come from? And in the COC game this week, they started some fellow named Damian Martinez?
TSF: Yeah, it's a bit wild, huh? Manuel Almunia is long gone, and probably would have been permanently last year, too. He's in Watford now. Lukasz Fabianski has been injured since the summer, and is out for a few more months. Wojeciech Szczesny is the nominal (and actual, now) number one, but he's been fighting an injury this season, which brought Arsenal to using now-third-choice keeper Vito Mannone over the past few games. Mannone was also reportedly on the selling block after a loan spell at Hull City last year, but nobody bit, so here he is. Damian Martinez is the fourth-choice keeper, but with injuries to the top two, and Arsenal's propensity to use fringe and youth players in the COC, he got the nod.
Theoretically Szczesny is the future of Aresnal goalkeeping, and he has had flashes of wonderful talent. However, he is still very young (22) and he has to work out some consistency. If anyone watched the Euros this year, they will have seen an example of one of his weaknesses, and his decision-making and command are still raw. He is a great shot-stopper, but it remains to be seen if he can rise to the ranks of the truly outstanding keepers over the next few years. It would be nice to have a backup of some veteran solidity, but as Mick Jagger said...
TBB: A few seasons ago, Arsenal seemed to be a fluid and dynamic side and last year they appeared to be a bit more direct with pacy wingers. How have things evolved this season with Robin van Persie gone? Mikel Arteta is obviously a wonderful dictator of games and Santi Cazorla is a delight as a creator. What is Arsenal's personality in attack now or is it still a work in progress?
TSF: Still a work in progress, but I only say that because it doesn't seem that they've settled on one pattern. With Olivier Giroud available, using him as a more traditional number nine seems like it should be possible, but Gervinho has also featured there and Arsenal have looked to play quickly up the wings through Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott alongside him. When it worked, it worked, asi n the 6-1 against Southampton, but when it doesn't work, when Arsenal go back to their passing-on-the-edge-of-the-box style of a few years ago (as they did against Norwich and Schalke), everything looks all too static. They simply, Cazorla aside, don't have super creative attacking players right now. If they play at too slow of a tempo without dynamic movement, they suffer, and they also suffer from a lack of width, especially with Andre Santos at left back, who, unlike Kieran Gibbs, prefers to come inside more. You may notice this on Saturday when he's not trying to keep Antonio Valencia from taking over the world.
TBB: Arsenal's annual General Meeting seemed more contentious than usual -- at least according to media reports. Do you feel that's an accurate gauge of the supporter's feelings at this moment in time for the football club or did much of the tension have to do with recent results? Or was it, perhaps, a mix of the two? Do you have concerns over Arsenal's current ambitions?
TSF: It was a mix of the two, but it has now been three years running, arguably, that Arsenal have let key players go to rivals as the trophy drought grows longer. I'm not obsessed with silver as many are, but one cannot deny that it is an anxiety in the fanbase. The club's chief, Ivan Gazidis, despite his expected cheerleading, has admitted himself that the period of transition to the Emirates is nearing an end, and things must improve soon, so it remains to be seen what moves Arsenal will make as new commercial deals start to fall into place as the old ones--undertaken at bargain prices to help get the stadium built--begin to expire. Clearly Arsenal have never been a "replace players leaving with expensive big names" kind of club, but as scouting has improved up and down the league, competition for good players has stiffened, and obviously there is an incredible amount of talent in the top four or five clubs in England right now. Whether Arsenal step up their purchasing or not as new deals come into play remains to be seen, but there is not a rock-solid consensus that this is necessary.
TBB: Much had been made early in the season about Steve Bould's impact and especially his influence on Arsenal's defending. Can you discuss what those changes were and how effective it has been? And what's going on with Laurent Koscielny? He was terrific last season and now he's seemingly turned into a liability.
TSF: Those reports about Bould's influence were exaggerated and based on a small sample; that being said, he probably has had some words. However, the defenders themselves have not changed--they're still the same guys, and Arsenal's midfield and wings still are trying to figure out how to defend as a team, especially without Alex Song. Early on, they did an exceptional job of forming two solid banks of four quickly when out of possession (widely attributed to Bould), but that has disappeared as of late, with predictable shakiness the result. That's the main thing; Arsenal also are not pressing out of possession as effectively as they have in the past. That being said, they still only have conceded six goals in the league so far this year, which is the best in the league.
As for Koscielny--it's hard to say. He has certainly looked completely lost this year, especially against Chelsea at against Reading this week. He's always been vulnerable to moments that make you just shake your head, but lately that seems to be all he's doing without any of the amazing tackles, quick recovery, and general good play he used to have in between those moments. The cause of this is hard to pin down; he didn't just become bad overnight, but confidence could be a part of it, or maybe he's injured. It's really baffling. One thing is for sure--he must improve and get it together quickly, because Arsenal may need him, and right now, he's not playing nearly well enough.
TBB: Reading 5-7 Arsenal. Discuss.
TSF: I'll just sum up my emotional states:
a) come on you reds!
b) fluke goal, let's go!
c) oh are we THIS bad now?
d) i'm going to light my desk on fire!
e) just don't embarrass me; I need to go to a meeting. Later, world!
f) 4-3? what?
g) 4-4? what?
h) 5-5? oh god we are going to lose again, aren't we; sob
i) hahahahahahahahahahahhahahahahahah okay then, let's just pretend that didn't happen, at least nobody got hurt
TBB: What are your thoughts on the Theo Walcott situation and his contract talks -- or perhaps lack thereof?
TSF: For a while there, I wouldn't have missed him; I felt he wasn't very effective in roughly half of the tactical situations Arsenal encounter. However, lately, his finishing has been so good, and his movement has looked so good in comparison with our other wing options, that I'd be sad to see him leave. I'm still not sure he doesn't value himself a little too highly, but I'm not privy to the negotiations, so I can't say that for sure. I'd like him to stay, though, even if I don't think he can play center forward regularly.
TBB: And finally, care to offer a prediction on Saturday's result and on Arsenal's starting XI?
TSF: I think it's going to be 2-1 to Manchester United. Neither defense looks really great right now, but Arsenal's attack hasn't looked nearly as solid as they need to be, and nothing makes me think the result will be different this year than it was last year. Starting XI will be Mannone; Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Santos; Arteta, Wilshere; Walcott, Cazorla, Podolski; Giroud.