Robin van Persie played in the first 11 league games of the season. During that period we scored 36 goals, averaging a cool 3.3 goals per game. Since his injury we have managed another 27 in 16 games. Of course, I wouldn’t say this is down to his absence alone. Bendtner too was out for most of this period and Eduardo missed large phases as well. In effect, we have been without three first choice strikers.
It’s not difficult to see why some people wanted a striker signing. I think Wenger wanted to sign one as well but he didn’t find a top quality player who could hit the ground running. Some people read famous names that are bandied about in the media and feel that player can just come in and solve everything. The more balanced observers know that it can always go either way.
Now that the transfer window has come and gone and Bendtner has returned to fitness, it does not make sense to dwell on the what ifs. The most important question at the moment is whether Bendtner can do the job Wenger and fans expect from him and one he has always been confident of performing.
If we can reproduce our early season scoring form, and we should because we have only one game remaining against the five tightest defenses in the league, we can come close to the 100 goal mark and have a great shot at the title. By the way, I was really surprised when I realized the tiny Totts were amongst the five best defenses in the league based only on goals conceded.
In some ways, the Danish player of the year fits the bill as a big, tall central striker that a lot of fans have been demanding. I’ve often said that height is not our main concern and we need other qualities in the striker. In that sense Van Persie was developing into the perfect player for us until his unfortunate injury. Can Bendtner take over?
I am not sure he can. This is not an attempt to criticize an up and coming player. I really like him and I think he has enough ability to be a big player for us in the future. And I also consider him better than the likes of Carlton Cole, Huntelaar, and such others with whom we had been linked. But there is a clear difference in class between these players and the likes of RvP, Rooney, and Drogba.
Some might consider it unfair to compare a youngster with established strikers. I don’t think it’s unfair, it’s just a matter of fact comparison.
In order for a striker to be successful in our new system, he needs to have phenomenal ability with his back to goal. That is an extremely rare quality and one that does not develop without experience. A great first touch and the vision to bring others into play supplement the ability to hold the ball up with ones back towards the goal. Height and strength are useful attributes but not prerequisites for success.
Even an experienced campaigner like Van Persie took some time to adapt to the new formation and his new role. But once he got the hang of it, the whole team reaped the rewards. Something similar happened to Eduardo as well. In his first few games in a central role, he wasn’t too comfortable. But once he got used to the role, he was able to play some nice one-twos around the box and bring others like Cesc and Arshavin into play.
Our Russian magician also struggled in this role mainly because he prefers running towards the goal instead of facing away from the goal.
Height is important but it can be overcome with technique and experience. And some people confuse the idea of holding the ball and consider height to be an important part of it. Being tall can only help in receiving some long balls, no one keeps heading the ball to hold it up. Top strikers use their feet and upper body strength to hold the ball. Someone like Hleb was a master at this even with his slight frame. Even if you look at the counter attacks that United had against us, Rooney received the ball with his feet and held it up by using his upper body.
Anyway, I don’t want to get into the technical details and the issue of height. The point is, Bendtner will take time to adapt into this role in spite of his height and physical presence. I cannot see him having an impeccable first touch right now. Similarly, I am not sure he will have the vision necessary to bring others into play.
An important question for Arsene is, should we expect Bendtner to adapt or should we adapt our game to suit his skills? The obvious answer would be that one player should adapt and it does not make sense for everyone else to change to suit the striker.
We might get a better idea if we think of the young Dane’s strengths. He was brilliant for Denmark in the qualifiers as he excels in the role of a classical center forward. That means he is at his best when playing inside the box, receiving crosses and through balls from all sides.
When Bendtner drops deep or comes farther away from the box, he struggles to keep the ball and move it quickly. This pushes the whole team deeper. We struggle with our defense when we are pushed deeper and slowly the whole thing leads to chaos. Against smaller teams we win the ball back quickly enough and the damage is limited but it might not be the same in some tricky away games that we have.
In such a situation we might be better off in moving to a little more conventional system with a 4-4-2 or a 4-4-1-1 with Arshavin sitting in behind. This allows us to keep Bendtner higher up the pitch and use his height and presence. In other words, we play to his strength.
The obvious risk is that it takes some time for everyone to adapt to any new system no matter how good they are. Some might also say we are really poor with crosses and there is no guarantee that it will work.
Another argument for sticking with the present system is that Bendtner will not learn unless he plays in that role. And we need him to develop these skills. The counter argument could be that we need to develop multiple systems and not be predictable!
Wenger has to balance the risk of Bendtner struggling in a Van Persie role or some of the other players struggling in a change of system. I’m really hoping we find the right solution because the Cup is withing striking distance.