Last Wednesday night’s Champions League victory over Olympiacos was the perfect response by Arsenal after the disappointing defeat to Chelsea at the weekend. It was important to pick up a positive result to maintain the early momentum in the Group Stages and they now sit top of the group, with a maximum six points from the first two games.
In truth, the final score slightly flattered the home side as the performance was not one of their flowing best. Aaron Ramsey’s late goal calmed a few nerves and sealed the victory after a very tight encounter with the Greek champions. During the first half the Gunners were particularly poor, unable to take control of the game and very sloppy in possession, and although they improved considerably after the interval they were still not at their imperious best. However, Lukas Podolski restored the lead after 56 minutes before Ramsey finished the game off in injury time.
As well as the result, there were some promising individual performances. Santi Cazorla was extremely quiet on Saturday, marshalled by the impressive Ramires, but showed glimpses of the magic he is capable of. He was on the periphery of the game for much of the first 45 minutes, yet it was his clever skill out wide that created the chance for Gervinho’s opening goal and in the second half he had far more influence in the improved attacking play. His close control is incredible and so typically Spanish, even with two or three men around him he is almost impossible to wrestle the ball from.
Elsewhere, Arsenal’s full-backs were yet again very excellent and probably their best performers on the night. Kieran Gibbs is revelling in the advanced position that the left-sided attacking tilt is allowing him to take up, whilst he is also experiencing the benefits of a sustained run of games having avoided injury. Always looking to surge into the space created by Podolski’s willingness to drift inside, he is providing a useful and dangerous outlet.
But the best display came from Carl Jenkinson, who took another step along his remarkable transformation over the past 12 months. He produced another faultless defensive display – the conceded goal was a result of Gervinho lazily watching his man instead of closing him down – and was always available in attacking situations. Indeed, at one point during the first half it seemed as though all of the play flowed through him.
It’s been a very steep learning curve for the boyhood Arsenal fan but he has progressed along it quicker than anybody anticipated. It was just a little over a year ago that Jenkinson featured in that now infamous 8-2 defeat against Manchester United at Old Trafford. Along with several of his teammates that day he was well out of his depth, before eventually being sent off for two bookable offences. The fact that Theo Walcott, a man with little tactical intelligence, berated him for positional errors during that game tells you all you need to know about that day. He was not the only one by any means but at that point it looked as though Wenger’s gamble on this young full-back from Charlton was going to be a mistake.
In a game in which United were rampant, Jenkinson failed to complete a single successful tackle and only made one interception, whilst he was part of the general disorganisation that engulfed the away side’s makeshift defence. Ashley Young enjoyed the freedom of that side of the pitch and was United’s most influential player in terms of touches of the ball, terrorising Jenkinson all afternoon.
However, that player who struggled so badly is hardly recognisable from the one we have seen this season. For a variety of reasons, he has developed at a rapid rate into a man deserving of his place in the first team.
The first aspect is the change in Arsenal’s shape this season, which has contributed to their overall defensive solidity as a team. As I’ve emphasised in previous columns, there is much clearer focus on team shape this year with an acknowledgement of the importance of defending as a unit. Last year the attacking and defensive elements of the team seemed incredibly disjointed at times, leaving them open to the counter attacks from which they so often conceded.
Looking at the player influence chart above for the 72 minutes in which Jenkinson was on the pitch, he was almost entirely isolated. Theo Walcott was playing almost centrally and as advanced as Robin Van Persie, and it was only when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was introduced that there was even another Arsenal player operating on the right side of the pitch. Even then, he was incredibly high up the pitch thus leaving Jenkinson horribly exposed. As it turned out, this proved to be disastrous.
Now compare that shape to that which we saw at Anfield recently, as highlighted by the chart below, which is typical of their setup this season. The left side is more adventurous with the right sided player operating in a deeper position, hence why a ‘midfield-type’ is used such as Oxlade-Chamberlain or Ramsey. Oxlade-Chamberlain was generally positioned much closer to Jenkinson and exhibited the enhanced work rate that we have grown accustomed to seeing from the wide players this season. The extra support has made the team more stable and aided Jenkinson by providing him with the required support that had been lacking last year.
Meanwhile the changes in the coaching staff, notably with the introduction of Steve Bould have obviously helped to harness the youngster’s potential and convert it into better performances. The effect of Bould is becoming a little exaggerated but it would be foolish not to recognise his influence has resulted in a marked improvement. Some of the players have very publicly stated their pleasure at the more intense defensive training, stating that they are working on both an individual and team basis significantly more than they had done previously. And let’s not forget that Bould developed his game under one of the best defensive coaches of his generation in George Graham, forming that famous back four. Learning from a man as experienced and knowledgeable as the new Assistant Manager every day can only be beneficial.
However, none of that is as important as the individual desire that Jenkinson has shown in wanting to develop into a better footballer, because without that the rest would be meaningless. Gary Neville recently described him as the type of guy who would “run through a brick wall for you” and it’s easy to see what he means. He seems so willing to learn and so determined to succeed that you suspect he is a treat for the coaching staff. I would hazard a guess that he only needs to be told something once and he will make sure he gets it right in future.
He also has plenty of that famed mental strength that Arsène Wenger so desires. It would have been very easy to be traumatised by the events at Old Trafford and there are some young players who would have struggled to recover to the blow in confidence. But Jenkinson is made of sterner stuff and, despite missing much of last season through injury, has displayed deep reserves of mental fortitude to not let that affect him. The best players learn from their mistakes and he shown the character to do that.
This toughness has been the fundamental reason for the transformation from the shaky, defensive full-back we saw last year to the confident, attacking one we see today. Although Arsenal were thrashed that day they still managed a good share of possession. Even then, Jenkinson completed just 22 passes, which almost exclusively were backwards or simple sideways attempts. Compare this to the recent match away to similar opposition in the form of Manchester City at the Etihad and Jenkinson’s contribution with the ball was vastly different. He attempted 70 passes and noticeably many of these were forward and from more advanced areas of the pitch. The way in which he chased down Joleon Lescott in the corner and charged him off the ball was symbolic of the vigour that he now plays with.
Bacary Sagna is one of the best right-backs in Europe and will most probably retain his place upon his return from injury. However, Arsenal now have a superb alternative to the Frenchman and, with his rapid development likely to continue, have a ready-made replacement should Sagna decide to leave. He loves the club, wearing the shirt with pride, and I would expect him to do so for many years to come.