In the 87th minute, with Arsenal looking for a goal that would take three points at Villa Park, Arsene Wenger made a substitution. A manager who has, in the past, ended up playing 4-1-5 in search a winner, took off Olivier Giroud and replaced him with defensive midfielder Francis Coquelin.
Having already taken off 7 goal Lukas Podolski – whose inability to play 90 minutes in the Premier League is either a worry or some kind of elaborate joke – Arsenal were left with only Gervinho up front, a player whose best quality is that he’s really quite fast on FIFA 13. The change was met with dismay by some of the Arsenal fans at the game and those watching from afar.
Now, I understand fully why Giroud might have needed to come off. He put in a real shift on Wednesday against Montpellier, and despite the dullness of the draw yesterday I don’t think we were found lacking in application. The Frenchman worked hard again, most of our best moments had some involvement from him, and maybe he was cramping up or simply ‘fatigued’ like the manager said.
In fact, immediate threat of injury is the only reason I can think of because as tired as he was another 4 or minutes of injury time with an actual striker on the pitch would have increased our chances of winning the game. On the face of it though, it appeared that Arsene was more concerned about not losing it. Perhaps he felt that was the best course of action on a day on which we only got one shot from twelve on target. And in the cold light of day I kind of understand that.
The issue, however, is that Arsenal Football Club went into a difficult away game with just one striker in the 18 man squad. There were forwards, yes and I suppose Podolski could play there if he was allowed play more than 70 minutes in the league, but Arshavin, Gervinho, Oxlade-Chamberlain – they’re not strikers. The Ivorian had a decent spell as a ‘false nine’ at the start of the campaign but when his first two touches gave Villa a goal kick and throw in, it’s hard not to think that was more by accident than design.
One striker. One. I know the game has changed and we no longer play two traditional strikers, an Henry and a Bergkamp who could be replaced by a Kanu or a Wiltord, an Adebayor or a Bendtner, but to have nobody on the bench? Well, that’s not really good enough. It’s why talk of a Thierry Henry return on loan is annoying because it’s a sticking plaster solution to a serious problem.
It’s clearly all over for Marouane Chamakh at the club, if he can’t even make the bench for a game like this then that says it all. And once you go beyond Giroud Arsenal do not have a single other striker in their squad. There was nobody to bring on yesterday who offered something a bit different; nobody who could take on a tiring Villa as Arsenal began to mount some pressure in the final 15 minutes or so; nobody with fresh legs who could give the centre-halves a bit of a runaround.
And for all the complaints about the result, this is what I find most frustrating. We might have scored through Laurent Koscielny just before half-time but having started the move he was unable to finish it, scooping over the bar with his left foot. You’d expect better but in his mitigation the ball was slightly behind him and on his weaker foot. We also might have gone behind late in the 2nd half but Wojciech Szczesny made an outstanding fingertip save to push Holman’s shot against the bar.
Defensively we were all right, for the most part. Benteke looked a handful for Villa but I thought Mertesacker and Koscielny both did well, and another clean sheet isn’t anything to complain about. Yet, we come back to the lack of options on the bench and the fact that we do not have the depth of squad to turn the screw on a struggling team when we need to do it.
I get that players are tired but if you play the same players week in, week out, without any real rest, it’s no wonder that they’ll become a bit jaded. As sparkly as Cazorla and Arteta were in the last two games, they failed to find that verve yesterday. Three games in a week, nobody to share the burden. Jack Wilshere was rested, which is sensible in my opinion. His comeback has to be managed properly and for all the brickbats thrown his way I thought Aaron Ramsey was our most productive player, particularly in the second half. He was trying to make things happen amidst the lethargy around him.
But when you’re at 0-0 and you take off a striker to put on a defensive midfielder – because that’s basically the only change you can make, then you know there’s an issue with the make-up of your squad. Afterwards, a tetchy Arsene Wenger spoke about chants which suggested he didn’t know what he was doing and the game in general:
I don’t comment [on the chants]… I do my job and do my best for the team. Is it hurtful? Look, I have managed for 30 years at the top level and I have to convince you I can manage the team?
They fought very hard and had some chances as well…we lacked a little bit accuracy in our final balls. We lacked a little bit of sharpness in the final third … physically we were a little bit jaded.
I don’t hold any truck with that particular chant, or questions about it from hacks who should know better. At the end of the day the manager knows his players better than us, what knocks they’re carrying, if they’re in that fabled red zone, and I have no doubt he had half an eye on Wednesday’s trip to Merseyside. But then we come back to the main point which is that this Arsenal squad is not strong enough and the consequence of that is the odd substitution we saw yesterday.
“You do know what you’re doing but you’re not doing it as well as you should be”, perhaps?
Another striker is a must when the window opens in January, and reliance on Diaby and Rosicky (as much as like the latter) is a risky strategy, so another midfielder would be a help too. The idea that we can play Cazorla and Arteta in every single game this season isn’t so much glass half full as glass spilling over the brim with a magical potion from the fountain of youth. And we’ve still got a lot of football to play before we can do anything about this.
We have 10 games between now and the end of December and the worry is that if we’re tired and jaded now, how are we going to cope with this kind of schedule? The good players are being played over and over again because the manager has little or no faith in the alternatives, and that’s something that needs to be addressed.
Still, there’s a chance to make this week’s points haul respectable with a win on Wednesday at Goodison. I’d have taken 4 from 6 from these two games, but in typical Arsenal fashion we’ve made it as difficult as possible for ourselves.