Thursday, March 23, 2023

Wigan 2-2 Arsenal : Defending, not team selection, at fault

So the ups and not so ups of this season continued last night as we drew 2-2 away to Wigan.

Hugely disappointing, especially under the circumstances. They had just been reduced to 10 men after N’Zogbia, clearly their most dangerous player, decided to use Jack Wilshere’s face as the ball and give it a little glancing header.

Wigan equaliser exposes Arsenal's defensive frailty

From a corner not long afterwards Sebastian Squillaci headed into his own net and Arsenal’s set-piece weakness came back to haunt us. The stat which tells you that 50% of the goals we’ve conceded this season have come from set-pieces is shocking on paper but not if you’ve been watching this team throughout the campaign. It is, without question, our Achilles heel and one that will continue to cost us.

Afterwards Arsene said of our set-piece woes:

Nobody looks from the outside to take charge on the organisation side. There is no voice when the focus drops a little bit. You don’t feel that anybody takes charge on alertness and we need to communicate much better than that.

For me, beyond the result, that is the most frustrating part of the night. Why does nobody take charge? Just a few weeks ago he was telling us how vocal Squillaci was on the pitch, how he was a talker. Why does nobody have the gumption to just tell people to do their job. Perhaps they do, perhaps people don’t listen. Without being out there you can’t really know but the way we defended that corner was poor and it cost us.

Now, I know many people have an issue with the team and the amount of changes made. There are accusations that the manager showed Wigan disrespect and that it showed he didn’t care about the game. I really can’t agree. If we’d brought in a load of inexperienced kids then I’d happily join that chorus but we didn’t. We brought in experienced players, international players, and players who were more than capable of winning that game.

People were quick to point out the strength and depth of our bench against Chelsea yet when these players play we’re somehow disrespecting our opponents? All of them, bar Denilson, are experienced, seasoned internationals. If we accept that we need a big squad to compete we also have to accept that the squad players have to play at some stage. You can’t just have a strong bench and play the same 11 week in, week out. And you cannot expect your strong bench to give you anything at all when you need them if they haven’t played games.

Coming just 48 hours after the Chelsea game I understood the changes. And the bottom line for me is that the team got itself into a winning position. We had started poorly though. Wigan worked very hard and didn’t allow us time to build up any kind of rhythm. We also weren’t helped when Lee Probert gave Wigan a penalty which never was. We should have defended better against N’Zogbia but when he cut inside Koscielny hung out a leg, there was the smallest amount of contact, and some time afterwards N’Zogbia dived … outside the box.

Never a penalty but there you go. These things happen. Ben Watson tucked it away to make it 1-0 to the hosts and it was down to us to respond. Diaby went off injured and was replaced by Wilshere. Immediately the midfield looked a bit more dynamic even if we did fail to threaten them. Too often what we did broke down in the final third.

On the live blog I bemoaned the form of Arshavin, who was having another of those nights, and then he scored. Bendtner’s effort from the right hand side was well saved but the Russian twisted and hooked in the rebound. A fantastic finish and one totally at odds with the rest of his performance. A few moments later, as I bemoaned the Bendtner display, he scored. Arshavin played a ball through to him on the edge of the area, he got a bit of luck as he bundled his way through two defenders and then finished coolly to make it 2-1.

And so it was at half-time. I thought we’d come out in the second half and really put Wigan to the sword but it didn’t happen. We seemed too content to sit back and soak up pressure, not something we’re really that good at. Fabianksi made one excellent save as N’Zogbia broke through and I was very worried until they had the man sent off. At that point I thought we’d win. Oh well.

My gripe with the manager isn’t the team selection but the lack of change in the second half. I wanted to see Walcott and Nasri much sooner than we did. We were struggling to keep the ball, Wigan were getting forward more and pushing us back, and I felt that those two would have given them something to think about. They both scored but in the second half Arshavin and Bendtner were ineffectual. Arshavin missed a great chance to make it 3-1 after some brilliant build-up play but we should have given them more to think about – hence the desire for the changes.

The other issue I have is that we have no direct replacement for Alex Song. As I said, with the games coming up I can understand fully the need to give players a rest – especially ones as injury prone as ours and we don’t know what kind of minor knocks might have been picked up in the Chelsea game – but there’s a lack of physical presence amongst the players we can bring in. When you look at the plethora of similar attacking midfielders we have it’s curious that we really do only have one Song.

Late on we should have had a penalty ourselves. Nasri’s free kick was clearly handled in the box, it was almost exactly the same as Cesc’s against Sp*rs, leading the captain to question the consistency of refs on Twitter. Legitimate question it might be but this morning the question of consistency can only be asked of Arsenal.

Our last clean sheet in the league was against Wolves on November 10th. We’ve conceded in 15 of the 19 games we’ve played and that’s the issue we have to address. Scoring two goals away from home should be enough to win you a game, especially against a team in the lower half of the table, but we’ve seen Arsenal score 4 and still not take three points. There’s a fundamental weakness in the way we defend – especially set-pieces – and something’s got to be done about it.

That’s the issue. Not the team selection. The players, despite not playing particularly well, got themselves into a winning position but poor defending was what cost us the points. People might wonder why Djourou wasn’t selected. It’s a reasonable question but he spent more than a year out injured and the likelihood of picking up muscular injuries is increased when you play two games so close together. People complain about our injury record all the time yet when we exercise caution it’s too easy to ignore that.

Might we improve things by having better defenders? Well that’s certainly a solution. Djourou adds height and aerial power to the centre of a central defence that is relatively small but he’s not the only defender in the world above 6′. There’s no one way to solve this problem, this brittleness from corners and free kicks. Better coaching? More practice? More training ground drills? A signing? A combination of all of them, maybe? What’s clear though is that a solution has to be found because this weakness threatens our season and it’s not as if this is some kind of new development.

As well as that I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Arsenal centre-half pairing as easy to cut open as Squiscielny. Wigan got behind us too often without even having to rely on neat skill or tricks. Basic one-twos and a bit of off the ball movement had us floundering.

I fully understand the disappointment of last night’s result, especially after the great performance and three points against Chelsea. However, I don’t buy the argument that we’ve undone all the good work. A point on the road, on paper, is generally an acceptable result. United drew away at Birmingham on Tuesday night. I’m sure the late equaliser had their fans asking many of the same questions we’re asking now, but it shows we’re not unique. Other teams drop points from winning positions too.

What’s important is that we react. We’ve got the very same Birmingham away on New Year’s Day, followed by Man City on Wednesday. Two wins and we come out of the Christmas period with 10 points from 12, which I think many would have taken beforehand. I think many people would have taken 4 from 6 from the Chelsea and Wigan fixtures too.

So, disappointing but there’s still a long way to go and we have time to put things right. I hope that some work is done on the training ground re: set-pieces. Set the big men like Bendtner and Chamakh against our central defenders and have them practice again and again. It’s amazing how practicing makes you better at things. Strange, I know.

Anyway, more tomorrow as we begin to look forward to the weekend’s game. Until then.

Finally, thanks to everyone for the feedback re: the live blog. There were a ton of mails so can’t respond to them all but your suggestions/comments etc have been noted.

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