That Arsenal drew last night’s game against Swansea should come as no surprise based on what’s happened previously this season.
After the 6-3 at Man City we ploughed out a fairly turgid 0-0 with Chelsea; following that Anfield pounding we drew 0-0 against a United team so bad they should change their name to Phil Collins FC; and even though we were on the brink of victory last night, the fact we contrived to gift them an equaliser, unfortunate as it was, really shouldn’t come as any shock.
For all the promise of reaction to Stamford Bridge, this kind of result/performance is the norm in these circumstances. I think it’s blindingly obvious that this is a squad currently stretched to its absolute limit, and after three horrendous defeats in three months, they’re utterly sapped of the confidence and belief that allows you to play decent, or even vaguely effective, football.
Against a Swansea team that hadn’t kept a clean sheet in 19 away games, we hardly threatened at all until the paradox that is Lukas Podolski made his mark after coming on as a sub. Kieran Gibbs did brilliantly to beat the opposite full back and pulled back a great ball from which the German prodded home an equaliser.
Less than 60 seconds later, Podolski rolled in a superb ball from the left hand side, Giroud’s run was perfectly timed and he finished from close range to put us ahead. It was the kind of contribution which makes people ask why he doesn’t play more, but the answer to that, I think, is what he did when we didn’t have the ball.
He was a bit of a mess, frankly. He could have given away a penalty, gave away free kicks, and his ball retention (bar one occasion when he did really well) was poor. It’s that ying and yang of performance which I think makes Arsene Wenger unsure about him. For all of his good work in the attacking third, he’s just not a naturally switched on player defensively.
That said, I was surprised that in the 88th minute the manager chose to replace Giroud with Yaya Sanogo. Perhaps he was mindful of replacing like for like when it comes to defending corners or set-pieces, or the need to give us an outlet, but given our propensity – and generally successful ability – to grind out wins from this position, I thought a defensive change might have been a better idea. Jenkinson for Cazorla, for example, would have made more sense to me.
We just look like a team that is suffering, mentally and physically. We’re shorn of genuine options and quality without Ramsey, Wilshere, Ozil and Walcott. Sanogo? Gnabry? They may well turn out to be fine players for this club, but if that’s all we’ve got right now can anyone be surprised we’re struggling?
I don’t doubt the players are trying to do their best, but in terms of form and performance it’s like we’re in a dream when someone’s chasing us and the ground turns to quicksand. The flicks that use to come off now don’t; the anticipation and movement that’s vital to opening up opponents isn’t there any more; the defensive solidity that has served us well has gone for a smoke break, met a nice girl and decided to start a new life elsewhere; we’re losing form while those around us our finding it; and the league season looks like it’s heading for very familiar, hugely repetitive territory.
A title fight has turned into the age old battle for the top four. Everton are just 6 points behind us with a game in hand. We play Man City next, then we have to go to Goodison Park. I can’t say I’m confident in either case. I mean, I wouldn’t put it past us to get something from both games, but I also fear how easily we might not and the ramifications of that.
A few weeks ago we were looking at the run-in as something of a positive in terms of a title challenge. If we could hang on in there our final games of the season were the kind you would expect us to win. Now, those fixtures might be the ones to save our bacon in terms of a top four finish.
I think for all that the manager has done well this season – and getting this group of players top of the table and staying there so long really is an achievement – he’s been undone by what he failed to do last summer, and that’s add to the squad properly. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Mesut Ozil, but let’s not pretend that was all part of some grand plan.
A transfer that happens on deadline day, 90 minutes before the window closes, and which hinges on the sale of a player from one of your rivals to the club you’re buying from, is a game of high stakes poker and for once the manager found himself holding a full house. We wanted a striker, we got a brilliant attacking midfielder. But the reason we wanted a striker has become obvious throughout this campaign.
I understand people’s frustration with Giroud to a certain extent – despite his 19 goals he’s a limited player with a team that doesn’t always play to his strengths. But what frustrates me is that Giroud is all we have. We ended up reliant on a player that the manager has been trying to get rid of for three years and who, to his small credit, did contribute before the manager decided a kid who has never scored a goal was the better option.
Surely the more worrying thing is how the defensive solidity, long the platform on which the best part of this season has been built, now appears to be cracking?
And if Arsenal now look leggy and lethargic, it’s no surprise either. They seem, to me at least, to be physically and mentally exhausted. The small squad, hit by injuries, has been run ragged because of the inability to properly rotate. The news that nobody is likely to be back from injury for at least two weeks (Ramsey, Ozil, Wilshere etc), means that this current lot are going to have to dig deeper than ever before to get things back on track.
They often say that when you’re winning you don’t feel tired, no matter how many games you play, but once you start to lose those legs become leaden. I just don’t think we can look at those three heavy defeats in isolation – they have a debilitating effect on body and mind, and I think we can see that with how things are going on the pitch right now. We’re running on empty, practically, and with nobody new to inject some energy into the team it’s a real worry.
The season’s not over, not by a long way. There’s points to play for, pride be restored in the league, and the FA Cup on the horizon which is, for now at least, a true silver lining to the clouds that surround us. But unless we can find some form, and overcome the tiredness in our heads and legs, it could get worse before it gets better.