Sometimes, after a defeat, you have to hold your hands up, admit you were outplayed then get on with things. Yesterday’s loss to Chelsea was not one of those. It was a defeat of our own making, familiar individual errors costing us goals and spurned chances at the other end making it a day to forget.
Much of the discussion will focus on the centre-halves and Arsene Wenger’s decision to ‘rest’ Per Mertesacker, especially when both Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny were found wanting for both goals. For the first, Vermaelen’s rash challenge gave Chelsea a free kick in a dangerous area, and when the ball came in a disorganised Arsenal defence struggled to cope. Koscielny played push and shove with Fernando Torres, concentrating more on the opponent than the ball, and while the finish was a bit off the cuff as he hooked it to the near post, he should never have been allowed make it.
The second goal came just when it looked as if we were beginning to find a real foothold in the game, not long into the second half. Again Vermaelen gave away an unnecessary free kick from more or less the same position, again the ball came in, Vito Mannone was caught flat-footed with his defence on top of him, and Koscielny could only help it into the far corner. Two absolute gifts and although Chelsea had more of the ball than we would have liked throughout the game, they really weren’t that threatening.
The manager was asked about his decision to play Vermaelen and Koscielny and said:
That is a decision which was based on the opposition we played. You can say it was a wrong one maybe, but I believe is a lowering the quality of the players who played, they are internationals.
If you do not play Koscielny or Vermaelen and cannot win the game, you will ask me the same question.
Which is fair enough, but it’s also a reasonable question to ask when you rest a player and all of a sudden the defensive solidity, which has been the hallmark of the season, disappears. Personally, I’m not convinced by Koscielny and Vermaelen as a partnership. I’ve long said that I think one of them plus the German is the best combination we’ve got and I didn’t see anything yesterday to suggest otherwise. The lack of organisation and communication for the first goal is something Mertesacker would have taken care of, similarly with the second when his experience would have ensured the defence kept a higher line from the free kick. While the quality of both crosses was very good, that we failed to win the header is simply poor defending.
The other thing to bear in mind is that if Arsene Wenger had a striker who was in great form and scoring goals, would he ‘rest’ him? For me this is the key point. Obviously he thought Vermaelen and Koscielny were best suited to cope with Chelsea’s array of quick, tricky forwards, but essentially he dropped one of his most in-form players and the man he brought in to replace him was directly at fault for one of the goals and found wanting on the other. It was the opposite of the cliched ‘inspired substitution’, when a player just introduced to a game scores a goal or makes an assist, but I do suspect that this is a decision Arsene will, at least privately, think he got wrong.
That said, not only was this a defeat that was eminently avoidable from a defensive point of view, we wasted the chances to secure points at the other end of the pitch. Credit to Gervinho for his goal, his movement is very good most of the time but he’s generally let down by his touch and his finishing. That wasn’t the case yesterday, he took both Luiz and the not racist at all oh no Terry out of it, stopped Oxlade-Chamberlain’s low cross and then smashed it past Cech for the equaliser just before half-time.
Sadly though, nobody else had their shooting boots on. Santi Cazorla failed to hit the target with three very presentable chances, Podolski forced Cech into a very good save when his header looped towards the far corner and the hat-wearing keeper made an even better stop when Giroud’s deflected effort was going in. Late on the Frenchman had a great chance to equalise but shot into the side-netting when trying to go around Cech. His goal against Coventry was excellent but questions will again be raised about his finishing. It’s too simplistic to say we’d have four more points this season if he’d taken the good chances against Sunderland the one yesterday but that is the difference a really clinical striker could make. That’s not to write him off either, just to clarify, but we need him to start putting these opportunities away.
Afterwards, Arsene said:
We gave the game away. They had three shots on target and scored two goals, from soft set-pieces. Defensively we were just not at the level you have to be in a game like that, which is where we were punished today. For the rest, we have shown quality and spirit but we have to show more personality and authority on the goals we conceded.
I won’t argue with any of that but if we’re shifting the blame solely onto the defence I think that’s rather unfair. Those up the other end failed to contribute too. Chelsea’s system made life very difficult for Cazorla and Arteta meaning we failed to get a grip of the game in midfield, Podolski had a quiet enough game, and although our goal came from that side we got little joy down the right hand side, so much so that Oxlade-Chamberlain drifted further and further infield as the game went on.
It’s also not hard to miss the fact that Chelsea’s goalkeeper kept his side in the game while ours failed to do likewise, especially for the second goal. I know he doesn’t convince everyone yet but I think the sooner we have Szczesny back, with the expectation that he knuckles down and concentrates on his goalkeeping above all else, the better. At the moment it’s a weak-link in our team and the Pole has the potential to strengthen it, I’m not sure any of the other keepers at the club do.
Overall, not a good day but some perspective is needed. It was our first defeat of the season and one which you can see quite clearly that we could have avoided. Missing the chances was poor but at least we created them and, without the slapstick stuff at the back this is a game we should have at least taken one point from. As it is there’s plenty for both the manager, and Steve Bould, to work on this week.
The defensive improvement has been noticeable so it’s a worry when we revert to type. Some more training ground drills might be in order and for the manager some thinking to do about how he rotates his team in future and what the best composition of the centre of our defence is. It’s made more complicated by the fact that Vermaelen is captain and as such there’s an expectancy he’ll start, but it’s something he needs to address.
So, we’ll wait and see how we react. A midweek Champions League game provides a chance to bounce back and restore some confidence ahead of a pre-Interlull trip to West Ham next weekend. And we know how up for it Walrus managed teams are against us.
In the meantime, have a good Sunday, back tomorrow.