It’s rare to hear Arsene Wenger criticise his team in public. Normally he chooses to tell the world how, on the back of a bad performance, we lacked ‘a little bit the sharpness’, but after last night’s defeat he accused his team of complacency and lack of focus.
Neither of which I can argue with this morning. We might look at the team that played last night and bemoan the absence of most of our midfield, an unwell Andrei Arshavin, as well one of our first choice centre-halves and perma-crock Robin van Persie, but Arsene Wenger will have expected those on show to be able to get a result. And let’s face it, he’s right. We might not have done enough to win it but certainly that was a game we could have taken a point from.
I thought we started very well, in fairness. We were brighter and sharper than a Shaktar team that looked sluggish and off the pace. When Jack Wilshere chased down a ball from one of their corners and lifted it beautifully into the path of Theo Walcott it took just 9.7 seconds (cheers @gooneradam) for us to go from the edge of our box to score at the other end. Theo’s pace meant he was never going to be caught and his finish was sublime. He took it much earlier than I thought he was going to but it was a one of a player with huge confidence in front of goal right now.
There were only 10 mins on the clock at that stage but we’d given ourselves the perfect platform to go on and get a result. Instead we just seemed to switch off. Shaktar came back into it. Johann Djourou made a great block with his head and when the ball came back in we looked static and they hit the post with a header. Warning signs and ones we didn’t really heed.
Their equaliser was a bit odd in terms of the build up play. Jack Wilshere was taken out of it in the Shaktar half, we kept the ball, the ref waved play on and we then lost the ball with Wilshere still on the ground. They broke forward, Eboue fouled the man and took a yellow card for his trouble, and from the subsequent free kick they scored. The Arsenal players were unhappy that the ref hadn’t stopped play when Wilshere was fouled but this week has shown you can fall foul of the advantage rule if you’re not careful.
The equaliser was an own goal by Craig Eastmond. He was unlucky in that it was a dangerous ball but you really have to ask questions of our organisation at the back. Why was a novice, who is hardly physically imposing in any way, tasked with marking Chrygysnzysygysysyskyy, the big centre-half? The goal rejuvenated Shaktar and they had a 20 minute spell in which they really dominated the game. Fabianski was called into action a couple of times and both Djourou and Squillaci made timely interventions in the area.
Up the other end we didn’t do much but were starting to come back into it approaching half time. Some nice build-up play saw Bendtner fire a pass into the path of Theo Walcott but Srna made a fantastic late tackle to deny him the chance. It looked like 1-1 at half-time would give us a chance to regroup and get ourselves sorted for the second half but we gifted them the winner just before that.
Gael Clichy had another of those moments, where his brain just seems to switch off. Instead of clearing the ball upfield or even out for a throw he dallied, got caught by Srna who drove on and squared for Eduardo to finish deftly across Fabianski. He didn’t celebrate his goal, which was a nice touch, but it’s a chance he should never have had. Whether it’s indicisiveness or overplaying on Clichy’s part these errors are far too often a part of his game and he doesn’t seem to learn from them. More than anyone else in this team he could do with some proper competition for his place but with Gibbs injured more often than not he doesn’t have it.
In the second half we had a great chance to equalise early on, Jack Wilshere found the ball at his feet on the edge of the box and I was sure he’d score but his curling effort went just wide. Theo Walcott had a number of shots , none of which you could call a real chance, while the best opportunity probably fell to Squillaci whose header was a little tame considering he was free in front of goal with just the keeper to beat.
The introductions of Carlos Vela and Marouane Chamakh made little difference while Jay Emmanuel-Thomas was given just 9 minutes to try and make an impact. In truth it was a game we didn’t deserve to win and one in which we lacked the quality to make up for Clichy’s mistake. There were simply too many important players out injured and when you go into a game like this with those kind of absentees you have little or no margin for error.
Without going too much into personal performances I thought both full backs struggled, Clichy’s mistake was shocking but Eboue’s all-round performance was very poor. In midfield Craig Eastmond was swimming against the tide really. It’s way to early to write him off as an Arsenal player but what’s clear is that he’s far from ready at this level and he’s a player who we should look to send out loan to give him the regular football he needs to develop. The manager obviously seems something in him, and I’m not sure he had too many other options last night because of the injuries, but he was out of his depth last night.
The creative duo in midfield, Rosicky and Nasri, failed to create much, and after a couple of goals Nicklas Bendtner looked like a player who still needs time to find his sharpness. Positives for me were Fabianski, who did ok despite conceding twice, Djourou, who is getting better with games, and Wilshere who never hid and tried to make things happen.
The focus of the team was the problem, more than suffering in the midfield. It was a team problem, a kind of complacency problem more than an individual problem. We had a good start but after that we lost urgency and let Shakhtar back into the game.
We had our chances but we have learned that if we are not focused 100%, we don’t win.
Have we learned that though? Weren’t we supposed to have learned that after the West Brom defeat a couple of weeks ago? I know you can say this was a ‘makeshift’ team playing in a country we’d never won in against a team who were right up for it after the spanking they got a couple of weeks ago but it’s still disappointing that we were, essentially, the masters of our own downfall again last night. Away in Europe we lack the ability to close teams out. That our last clean sheet on our travels came in August 2008, in a qualifying game against FC Twente, tells you this is an area in which we could certainly improve.
Also, at the highest level mistakes get punished and Clichy’s was so costly. I refuse to believe that nobody on the coaching staff hasn’t addressed his tendency to freeze when defending in our final third. Surely he’s been told ‘If in doubt just put your foot through it’. It’s the very basics which you’re taught as a defender early on. Frustrating.
Still, it’s not all doom and gloom. We just need a point against Braga to put us through. A win would more or less assure topping the group. I might be wrong with this but I don’t think we’ve ever won a CL game in Portugal. It would be a good time to put that statistic to bed (provided I’m right about it). I don’t have any real doubts about our qualification for the knock-out stages but it would have been nice to get it done and dusted last night.
Then again, when have we ever done things the easy way? And just to make your day complete how about a reminder, in case it had slipped your mind, that its … NOVEMBER! No time for worrying about curses and jinxes and dodgy left-backs though. The focus has to turn to Sunday’s game against Newcastle in which I hope to see a reaction and a much more positive performance and result.
Back tomorrow with an Arsecast. Till then.