From feast to famine as the old adage has it. After a delightfully excessive and fattening 7-3 win over Newcastle, Arsenal promptly swore off the sins of the festive season with an impoverished performance at St. Mary’s. The Southampton display was rather like watching Tomas Brolin trying to squeeze into a pair of skinny jeans after a dedicated half an hour’s fasting.
Creatively famished performances such as the one on the south coast are becoming the norm for this season- especially away from home. It was in the tradition of Aston Villa, Everton, Manchester United, Norwich City, Bradford City, Stoke City and Wigan Athletic before it. Matches in which our attacking threat was easily neutered by the opposition.
As Arse2Mouse pointed out, it’s the second time we have registered less than two shots on target in a game this season. Yet at the thicker end of the wedge, already this year we have seen a pair of 5-2’s, a 7-5, a pair of 6-1’s and just a matter of days ago we demolished Newcastle 7-3. So why the anomalies? Is it simply a case that sometimes it clicks and at others it just doesn’t? I suppose you’re going to charge me with trying to explain it aren’t you?
Well, for a start, you’ll notice that in our most emphatic victories this season, there are no clean sheets. Arsenal have won by two goals to nil only three times this season so far and have yet to win a match 3-0. The simple fact is that Arsenal thrive in end to end, helter skelter style contests. This might not necessarily be new or privileged information, but it does show that Arsenal struggle to really dictate the tempo of a game.
Like Heath Ledger’s Joker, we’re agents of chaos. Of course, we lost possibly the best “match winner” in the league last summer, which partially explains why we’re not winning tight games. Theo Walcott might have 14 goals this season, but not too many of them have been decisive; there are few match winners or equalisers. In fact, Podolski is our most “decisive” goalscorer in that respect. (He’s put us a goal ahead in six games this season, for instance).
Arsene is keen to remind the press that he’s had to build a new team this season (again) and unfamiliarity is also at the heart of our inconsistency. I don’t think our midfield three has found the correct blend yet. On paper, Arteta, Wilshere and Cazorla ought to be possession vampires, sucking the life out of opponents with hypnotic ball retention. It’s rarely happened in fact (Wigan and Newcastle bested us for possession over the festive period).
Neither of the three has really developed the knack of upping the rhythm of our passing. Busquets-Xavi and Iniesta are of course the poster boys for possession football. But their success is not merely founded on an ability to hoard the ball amongst themselves. Crucially, they can up the pace of their passing in the blink of an eye once an opening is apparent. Much like the foxtrot the ideal vision is for the passing to go slow-slow-quick-quick-slow.
This is why I am still very much of the opinion that Rosicky has to come into this team somewhere, to inject a little more “quick” into the formula. I worry that Cazorla, Wilshere and Arteta are a touch too similar. We’ve struggled to kill teams off when in the ascendancy too. Reading, Spurs and Newcastle were all allowed back into games which we should rightly have finished off. Cast your minds back to the closing minutes of the 2003 F.A. Cup Final against Southampton, with a slender 1 goal lead, Arsenal maintained an uninterrupted period of possession for six and a half minutes. Even defensively speaking, our midfield isn’t sucking the life out of opponents with the ball either.
It’s a struggle with balance that Arsenal have toiled with all season and probably shows a dichotomy between the ideas of Steve Bould and Arsene Wenger. Arsenal have abandoned the pressing game this season in favour of getting numbers behind the ball and maintaining a solid defensive shape when the opposition has possession. Defensively it’s produced results but I wonder if it’s taken away some of our attacking impetus.
Our best attacking performances have come in these “helter skelter” type encounters because, as Anam pointed out, Arsenal make good use of transitions in play. There are less of these when you prioritise shape over hounding opponents. Essentially it makes us flat footed. “Backwards in coming forwards” if you will. More chaotic games in which we have been forced to “hound” opponents have led to a greater attacking threat, but more porous defending. We don’t dictate matches it seems, matches dictate us.
There are also still issues of familiarity upfront. Our attack looks much better when the front four interchange positions effectively. The reason they haven’t done so consistently is partly governed by the rhythm of games, as discussed above. But it’s also down to a lack of telepathy, which takes time and games to build. It’s the reason that we, as fans, should not obsess too much over who starts as a central striker.
Against Newcastle, Walcott scored two goals from the centre, scored one drifting in from the left and made two with good pieces of wing play from the right. Podolski made a goal with classic wing play from the left but that didn’t stop him scoring a poacher’s goal inside the six yard box later in the game. The goals in the 5-2 win over Spurs showed similar variety. Walcott and, perhaps more quietly, Podolski’s desire to start through the centre is simply a fit of ego.
It doesn’t really matter who starts through the middle. If all the players do their jobs and interchange well, they will all get chances to score and create from all positions. Much in the way that United effectively managed to blend Tevez, Ronaldo and Rooney without fixed positions and Chelsea are doing something similar with Mata, Hazard and Oscar. Robert Pires never demanded to be played at centre forward simply because he scored a lot of tap ins.
Theo Walcott in particular needs to be careful not to fall into the trap of ‘amour-propre.’ It sounds incredibly churlish to complain in the wake of a hat trick. But there were a multitude of occasions against Newcastle where Walcott prioritised his desire to prove himself as a centre forward over and above the team. He rather pinched his second goal off the feet of the better positioned Bacary Sagna and has left Lukas Podolski fuming on a few occasions by taking on a shot with the German waving frantically in space.
Of course, having taken the ball off of Sagna and scored you can say his decision was vindicated. But such behaviour repeated and spread over a longer period won’t always yield positive results. Likewise, Arsenal were awarded a 91st minute free kick at St. Mary’s which was tailor made for Wilshere’s left footed delivery, to be inswung towards a goalkeeper whose handling was clearly questionable. Walcott ushered Wilshere away and tried a right footed outswinger which failed to beat the first man.
It was a decision piqued by ego ahead of the greater interest of the team. This may sound incredibly pernickety and I accept that it may well prove to be. A more purposeful, confident Theo Walcott is a good thing. I accept that he’s also trying to prove himself as a striker and, in time, he may relax if he can establish himself there. But he needn’t think that holding the cards in a contract negotiation makes him Charlie Big Potatoes on the pitch.
It sounds as though Arsene isn’t keen on having to rebuild the attack again next season and that the club are willing to be more receptive to his demands. But a balance needs to be struck to ensure Theo doesn’t turn into Daniel Sturridge. ‘Eht’s a tightroap Spud, eht’s a fookin tightroap.’ Till next week. LD.
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