Elegantly wasteful

Elegantly wasteful

If ever a week neatly summarised Arsenal’s season so far it has been this one. Listless, insipid and gripped with fear in the first half against Chelsea. In the second half, the midfield four spread out a little and we saw some improvement. But the first fifteen minutes of the second half against West Ham ranked amongst the best football played by Arsenal this season. It gave us a tantalising glimpse of what this team is capable of.

The issue this season has been consistency. There have been several games in which the front four of Walcott, Podolski, Giroud and Cazorla have combined and interchanged to devastating effect. The respective goal and assist tallies of the aforementioned are testament to this, but the problem is that the figures are distributed over too thin a spread of games.

At the risk of leaving you reaching for your golf visas and adding machines, at least three of that quartet have scored in the same game on five separate occasions. (West Ham home and away, Reading in the league, Spurs and Newcastle at home). There are all sorts of graphs and pie charts that supplant those numbers, especially around Theo, Santi, Lukas and Olivier assisting one another for the goals in those games.

When the chemistry bubbles at the right temperature within the front four, the results lead to an explosive cocktail. If you’ll forgive the slightly grotesque imagery, they are capable of a footballing version of mutual masturbation. But when they don’t click, then that tends to be that. They aggressively tug at the duvet, announce they have a headache and turn the light out.

Nobody embodies this bafflingly erratic attitude to attacking nookie than Olivier Giroud. Prior to the demolition of West Ham, he had taken 20 shots on goal without scoring. Yet against the Irons he was able caress the ball into the net with two of his three attempts. From frigid fumbler to lithe lothario in one fell swoop. That said, his link up play is always excellent. The touch to loft the ball over the top of the defence is becoming a Giroud patent, and there was that gorgeous touch for Wilshere against Swansea.

So how to explain the wild fluctuations in the graph needle? I think the midfield has a lot to do with it. Teams have often been able to suffocate the supply by strangling our midfield, which has a knock on effect. There’s also the rather glaring fact that we lack options from the bench to come on and affect the pattern of a game. The biggest indictment of the attacking options we possess clung to the bloated frame of Andrey Arshavin at Stamford Bridge. That he was able to get near the pitch with love handles that size makes me want to weep with frustration. He looked like a weeble.

There’s a larger issue of responsibility here. We struggle to conjure anything creatively in tight games, though I think that Wilshere could go some way to fixing this as he takes over the “number 10” mantle from Santi Cazorla. Podolski took most of the plaudits against West Ham, but Wilshere’s penetrative passing was at the heart of many of Podolski’s decisive touches. Liberated from the more rigid confines of the trequartista role, Cazorla has drifted infield to good effect to create goals for Theo at Stamford Bridge and to tee up Giroud’s delicate touch for Wilshere’s volley against Swansea.

A deeper delve into the goalscoring habits of Arsenal’s strikers shows that Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott don’t have a “winning” goal between them this season. Giroud has two equalising goals, Walcott has none of those either. Podolski excels in this regard. He has either scored the winner or put us a goal ahead on six occasions this season. He has equalised twice as well. The German scores at decisive moments.

About a fortnight ago I wrote that Arsenal don’t really tend to win games one or two nil. Giroud and Walcott in particular need to learn how to be more economical strikers. They need to develop a nose for a chance in a tight game and, crucially in Giroud’s case, be clinical when it arrives. This would need to be a consequence of honing their games, but also of reaching between their legs.

The latter point strikes up a tune the whole team should be looking to groove to. The manager has spoken about being more assertive in big games. Much has been made of Arsenal’s habit of waiting until the half time team talk before they start playing. Questions can be asked about preparation, but there’s also an issue of direction and leadership here. This is not the sole responsibility of the captain.

Others need to step up and identify when the team is either being too timid or that something is tactically awry, rather than bashfully waiting for the manager to cut their meat for them in the dressing room. The destination of the captain’s armband doesn’t address this; it needs to be much more collective than that. Tony Adams would have been barking instructions into deep space had he not had the likes of Bould, Dixon, Seaman, Smith, Vieira and Bergkamp helping him to marshal operations.

Whilst on the subject of responsibility, I wanted to construct a defence of Bacary Sagna. Popular consensus says that he has lost form and, in our never ending search for conclusive narratives, this is because he is terminally pissed off and leaving / totally finished at the top level. (Delete as applicable). Whilst it’s true that Sagna hasn’t demonstrated the best form of his Arsenal career of late, I think there is plenty of mitigation.

In an attempt to both address the balance of the team and tempt Theo Walcott’s scribbling hand, we have allowed Walcott to play a kind of winger / striker hybrid role recently. This has put an awful lot of pressure on Sagna to cover the entire right flank on his lonesome. It’s no coincidence that Sagna has performed excellently in games where the flank has been covered more effectively, when the midfield has worked and Wilshere and Cazorla have drifted to the right more often. For instance, in the home matches against Swansea and West Ham.

Carl Jenkinson showed some very promising form early in the campaign, but he would have struggled more than Sagna has against this contextual backdrop. Let’s not forget that Jenkinson’s last action in an Arsenal shirt was to lose the ball on the right flank, leading to Swansea’s second counter attack goal in December’s 2-0 defeat. This precisely because he had no passing option on the right hand side and was forced to steer frantically back towards shore without a comrade in sight.

Around me at Stamford Bridge, many were turning on Sagna, which I found rather sad given the quality of his service to the club. Those visceral howls of frustration levelled at him failed to note the conditions he has been operating in in my opinion. I do wonder if there’s an element of us comforting ourselves as a fanbase ahead of his likely departure. It suits us to believe that Sagna is ready to be put to stud and that Jenkinson can immediately assume his mantle much in the same way that it suited us to believe that Gael Clichy was better than Ashley Cole.

Jenkinson’s time will come, but we are still a team carrying some inexperienced, if talented, young players. Wilshere, Gibbs and Chamberlain each have fewer than 100 senior appearances. It stands to reason that one of our most experienced and accomplished performers is retained to redress the balance of cognizance. With the appropriate amount of support on the right wing, Bacary Sagna is still an incredible full back. In a team that lacks overall leadership, he is still very much a must. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

Arsenal 5-1 West Ham: Podolski stars as Hammers hammered

Arsenal 5-1 West Ham: Podolski stars as Hammers hammered

Match reportBy the numbersPlayer ratingsVideo

At last, something to smile about. West Ham were blown away by a wonderful flurry of early second half goals, and it showed what this side is capable of when they click.

The first half was a fairly even affair, both sides could have led at the break, 1-1 seemed fair. They took the lead after Jack Collison’s shot from the edge of the box flew past Szczesny, but if we were supposed to go into our shells and let heads go down there was no sign of that. Jack Wilshere’s cute pass sat up perfectly for Lukas Podolski, and anything Collison could do he could do better, lashing a shot from close to 30 yards which just screamed past Jussi Jaaskelainen to level the scores.

Aaron Ramsey saved our bacon, clearing a Carlton Cole effort before it could go in, while the incredible Santi Cazorla took a free kick with his supposedly weaker left foot which forced a good save from the keeper. But second halves have been our thing in recent times, we came out fired up against both Chelsea and Man City and it was the same against last night.

Theo Walcott almost forced a Tomkins own goal after a run down the right, and after sustained pressure we took the lead from a corner. At first I thought it was another poorly hit set-piece from Walcott but if you watch it again you see Mertesacker start at the near post, he runs back into the area, taking his marker with him, allowing Olivier Giroud to make a run to the near post. And when the ball arrived there he stabbed it home to put us ahead. That was clearly a training ground move, and it came off too.

A couple of minutes later it was 3-1, Santi Cazorla’s sublime back-flick rounding off a brilliant Arsenal move, and shortly after that Theo Walcott tucked away Lukas Podolski’s cross at the back post after a great pass from Jack Wilshere had put the German free down the left. And before anyone could catch their breath, it was 5-1, Podolski again the provider, Giroud’s run and close range finish were both absolutely perfect.

At that point the game was well and truly over, Arsenal knew it, West Ham knew it, and although there was a lengthy stoppage for what looked a worrying injury to Daniel Potts, the 12 minutes of added time at the end of the game were fairly pointless. They were down to 10 men, Arsenal’s players decided it was time for a bit of shooting practice, none of it troubled Jaaskelainen unduly and in the end the scoreline remained the same until the final whistle. Any kind of comeback was too difficult a tusk for Walrus’s men.

Afterwards, Arsene said:

We got a good response. In the second half from the start on we created chance after chance and played at a very high pace. From there on it was great movement, great quality in our final balls and in our combination play.

And on star man Lukas Podolski:

He had an outstanding game tonight. He scored a very important goal. He has an unbelievable shot because the keeper had no chance. After he gave of course two great balls as well.

Two great balls indeed, but three assists and a goal is a very healthy return from the German, who certainly had his best game in an Arsenal shirt last night. The goal was brilliant, it’s been a while since we’ve had anyone who can leather a ball the way he does, but the passes for the Walcott and Giroud goals in particular were excellent too. And while I’m still very much of the opinion that we could use more firepower, 11 goals and 10 assists for him, alongside 12 goals and 9 assists for Giroud are not bad numbers for players in their first season in English football.

With Walcott netting his 15th and Cazorla his 8th of the season, there are goals in that group. Not as many as we would like, or have needed in recent times, but it was good to see them click last night. It was also the first time in quite a while that I’ve seen Arsenal move the ball that quickly. There were moves that went from our back four to the front in no time, and the precision of some of the first-time passing created the space which we exploited to make the goals. It’s long been a trademark of Wenger’s sides but sadly absent too often during this campaign. It’s a bit early to say it’s a corner turned but I’m happy to be encouraged by it.

A word too for Aaron Ramsey, a player whose mere presence on the team-sheet can send thousands into fits of wailing, self-harming apoplexy. Played as a deep lying midfielder, I thought he had an outstanding game. Statistically, he completed 117 of 123 passes (95%) and he kept the midfield ticking just as well as Arteta has this season. He was switched on defensively, as we saw when he raced back to clear Cole’s chip before it went in, and what was most noticeable is that he added some discipline to his game.

The main problem has been his insistence on taking too many touches, slowing things down, and then trying outrageously ambitious Hollywood passes when there’s an easier option on. He simplified his game and it worked – he was much, much better. Hopefully this is something he’ll take stock of going forward, because if he does he might just reach the potential Arsene Wenger sees him a lot sooner.

The only negative was an injury to Thomas Vermaelen (funnily enough in the incident when Ramsey cleared the ball) which will probably rule him out of Saturday’s trip to Brighton, but the manager says it’s nothing too serious. Fingers crossed on that, and while questions obviously still remain, it’s nice to write something about how well we played to earn the three points we so badly needed.

Onwards and upwards. Till tomorrow.