Arsenal’s gradual decline is no mystery. From possessing an excellent squad with some world class players, we morphed into a very good squad with some world class players, to a good squad with some world class players and now we’re a good squad with a couple of very good players. There are a variety of rhymes and reasons for this, but that’s about as simply as it can be distilled in one paragraph. We’re a squad that lacks a genuine ‘game changer’ for the first time in Arsene Wenger’s reign.
There’s no Robin van Persie or Cesc Fabregas to dig us out of tight spots. We don’t have a Gareth Bale a Juan Mata or even a Luis Suarez to hoist us onto their shoulders. The idea to share goals amongst a myriad of forward players in the wake of van Persie’s departure was a sound one on paper. Giroud, Cazorla, Podolski and Walcott have all chipped in. The problem, however, with having three 8 out of 10 players in place of a 10 out of 10 player is that sometimes you lack the sort of player that can take responsibility and be decisive in a big game.
Much like a pair of teenage boys plucking up the courage to chat up some girls at the bus stop, Giroud and Walcott seem to need one another’s encouragement to score. (I’m talking about them as an out and out strike partnership as that’s effectively what they are). In January, both players were on the scoresheet in consecutive games against West Ham, Brighton and Liverpool and neither has scored since. Cazorla and Podolski have shown a more decisive streak that has so far eluded our front two.
I left this tweet on the stroke of midnight when the summer transfer window closed and it’s been my overriding impression all season. I simply never understood how Arsene Wenger planned to chisel this group of players into a balanced unit. Time and again, our dysfunction is our undoing. The tactical plan laid out against Spurs, from what I could glean, was a sound one. The adoption of the high defensive line was criticised. But just days earlier, West Ham had elected to stand off of Gareth Bale and he spanked two shots into their net from outside the area.
Pushing high and pressing Spurs in possession was a sound strategy. Yet on a regular basis, plans are being unstitched by individual error. I have forgiven our defenders their trespasses for some time because I’ve felt the midfield has trespassed against them by exposing them so readily. Though I think the midfield was again guilty of not taking the dark arts seriously at White Hart Lane, it’s hard to defend Thomas Vermaelen’s “dog chasing his own tail” impression as Aaron Lennon made the least deceptive forward run in history.
I personally give short shrift to the stories of a turf war between Arsene Wenger and Steve Bould on the training ground. As a side point, I am equally suspicious of the reports that have emerged of a Middle East consortium applying us with a chequebook band aid. But these stories tend to appear in the press for a reason. It doesn’t take Scooby Doo and the gang to work out that they’re being planted. By whom and for what purpose are riddles that make meat for inquisitive minds. My money is on David Dein in an abandoned amusement park. He would have gotten away with it too were it not for those meddling kids.
I think it’s far more likely that Arsene brought the curtain down on the Steve Bould show early in the season because our defensive solidity came at the expense of a threatening attack. Understandably, the goals conceded column has become a fetish object for Arsenal fans in recent years. For me, goal difference is a much better indicator of a team’s health. It’s the true barometer for how well a team is balanced between defence and attack. (United have conceded 7 more goals than City this season, but lead the league by 12 points because they’ve scored 17 more). Arsene learned this the hard way early in his Arsenal reign.
The Gunners shipped a very meagre 17 goals in the 1998-99 season. Manchester United pipped us to the league by a point having conceded 20 more. The key to the anomaly here is that United scored 21 goals more than we did. In the crudest possible terms, they had a better goal difference by 1 and a better points tally by one. (Despite the fact that we beat them 3-0 at home and drew 1-1 at Old Trafford in that campaign). However, one could hardly attest that Wenger’s decision to focus on the attack this season has paid dividends for our balance.
Arsenal are in a position where they have to win the vast majority of their last ten games to stand a chance of finishing in the top four. We haven’t managed more than 5 games unbeaten in the league all season and failed to beat 5 of our final 10 opponents in the reverse fixtures. I think Arsenal’s best chance is to revert to the more conservative philosophy that prevailed earlier in the season and build a solid foundation. That’s where the confidence to go on an unbeaten run comes from. Winning games 1-0, being tough to beat.
Dishing out a 5-1 shoeing to West Ham didn’t launch an unbeaten run. We didn’t win for 3 games following the 7-3 disembowelling of Newcastle. We didn’t win any of the 3 games after beating Spurs 5-2. We didn’t win any of the 3 games after we put 7 past Reading in the Milk Cup. I think the shape of the team can stay roughly the same, but the attitude has to be different. There exists a misconception amongst fans that I think is persisting with the Arsenal squad. Defending isn’t just something your centre halves and occasionally your defensive midfielder do. It’s the whole team.
Too many times, in big games especially, Arsenal’s best laid plans lie in tatters as they concede idiotic goals that leave them to chase games. Quite often concession of a goal causes us to disintegrate and we’re breached again soon after as we were in the space of 3 minutes at White Hart Lane. I fancy that we need to revert to Bould’s game plan from early in the season, that the whole team backs off and keeps its shape when we don’t have the ball. At least for the first 60-70 minutes of matches.
Arsene has form for doing this, despite people’s misgivings. In 2008-09 when Aston Villa looked set to beat us into 4th spot, Arsene reverted to a more solid shape in midfield with Cesc Fabregas injured. He played Denilson and Alex Song in front of the back four. Arsenal conceded 9 goals in the 19 games for which Cesc Fabregas was injured (which included four consecutive 0-0 draws in January) and didn’t lose again until he was fit. That run of form was enough to displace Villa in the top 4 and see us into the semi finals of the F.A. Cup and the Champions League.
In the 2006 Champions League run, with a deputy midfielder at left back and rookies at right back and centre half, Arsenal composed a midfield five that concentrated more readily on protecting the defence. We all recall how that turned out. After a sobering 4-2 home defeat to United in February 2005, Wenger, aided by the return to fitness of Gilberto, tightened the team again. They conceded just 7 goals in the last 19 games proceeding that United defeat in the league and cup. It was too late to nab the league title from Mourinho’s Chelsea, but it helped us overhaul United into 2nd place and win the F.A. Cup.
Arsenal have ten games to save their season and I can’t see them doing it any other way. The whole team needs to be serious about defending. When a back four feels protected, it makes less of the sort of error befitting to a shit ITV4 clip show. The attackers aren’t the newbies that they were back in August, so I think we can be a tad more threatening than we were early in the season, even if we do lack real game changers. They have a better chance of producing a match winner at 0-0 on 70 minutes than they do if we’re 2-0 down. Arsene is able to do defence. He’s shown it before. He just has to be willing. LD.
On March 23rd, I’ll be taking part in the ‘Be A Gunner, Be A Runner’ event, running ten times around the Emirates Stadium (6.4km) in aid of the Arsenal Foundation. Should you wish to sponsor me, you can do so at this link. Cheers.