No voodoo dolls, same old Arsenal

Tim Stillman Column

In this, The Arsenal’s 125th year in existence, the club have reinstated the legend ‘Forward’ onto the crest. At times this season, it’s felt like an ironically embroidered jibe stitched permanently onto our chests. The cannon has probably taken on unwitting symbolism too; such is the team’s proclivity towards on pitch suicide, one could actually imagine them taking the cannon and turning it on themselves, shooting their own stomachs Homer Simpson stylee. But contrary to the strains of the popular M*A*S*H theme tune, suicide ain’t painless.

Perhaps I ought to reset on that howl of discord and deal with the pleasantries as a first order of business. Last night we progressed to the 4th Round of the Carling Cup with victory over Shrewsbury Town. The performance and the result was probably not quite as emphatic as we would all have liked. There could have been no complaints had Shrewsbury led at half time. Ordinarily, when grudgingly accepting an opponents’ share of the spoils at the Grove, you do so through gritted teeth on the basis that they put ten men behind the ball. Adjectives such as “resolute” and “stoic” lollop from your mealy mouth.

However, Shrewsbury took us on in the passing game and stood toe to toe with Arsenal – dominating a significant period of the first half. But once those decked in red and white eventually got over their panicky shit fit, they began to exert the dominance one would expect and win the game with something to spare. I’d say there were positives and negatives in equal measure from the game.

Francis Coquelin’s display in central midfield was a real plus point. He’s just as tigerish in the tackle as Frimpong, but also boasts a very cultured distribution in his armoury. I lost count of the amount of times he stretched the game by spraying the ball brilliantly to the flanks. The competition between him and Frimpong for the title of Song’s deputy is an intriguing one.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s second half performance was also a bright spot. His directness looks to be a real threat to opposition defences. His positivity going forward brought him a well earned goal too. He tries to do too much by himself at times, but the raw materials look to be encouraging. However, there were some pant-fillingly dire displays too.

I rather think Johan Djourou was handed the captain’s armband ahead of more experienced campaigners as a ploy by the manager to repair his confidence. If it was, it didn’t work. He looked as distinctly League Two as any player on show and his form just doesn’t seem to have recovered at all since dislocating his collar bone in March. Likewise, Lukasz Fabianski looked a bit like the fat kid in the playground that you stick in goal simply on the basis that he’s the worst outfield player.

I am sure Carl Jenkinson has potential in abundance as a right back, but I think he could probably do with a stint of regular reserve football to feel his way into the club. I rather get the impression that being thrown into the deep end during a traumatic start to the season has done him no favours. Ferguson has put the likes of Cleverley and Welbeck into a winning team playing with a flourish, having ensured they had solid apprenticeships behind them. Jenkinson is a rookie that’s been thrown to the sharks and it’s telling.

All that said, progression is all that matters in a cup competition. History doesn’t record “had a shaky twenty minutes v League Two opposition”, but it replays the fuck out of Wrexham 2 Arsenal 1. Sky Sports News have been desperately trying to conjure a story out of the fact that “only” 46,000 were in attendance – ignoring the fact that that was the biggest attendance of the evening by a distance. I think you can just chalk that up to the sort of shit stirring, jaundiced journalism one expects when you’re in a bit of a rut.

Reading back, I would hesitate to label what you’ve just read as the breezier half of the column, but I would be in dereliction of duty not to chow down on the shit sandwich that was Ewood Park. One gets the impression that Arsenal really ought to be placed on 24 hour suicide surveillance after yet another act of defensive knife juggling. We bought the strapping, 6 foot 6 shit kicking centre back everyone wanted. We procured the international left back we all wanted. Yet still the same basic errors remain.

In fairness, I think this to be a collective problem rather than just a brickbat for the back four. Both Blackburn and Shrewsbury were, time and again, given acres of green space to skip merrily into on the counter attack. The defensive urgency of the whole team is not high enough. It’s not the sole preserve of Alex Song to press the opposition in midfield. They should all be doing it. The scary thing is, from where I was sitting at Ewood, Blackburn didn’t even force this. They looked as pedestrian and uninspired an outfit as I’ve seen us face this season until we blew our own boots off.

As well as procuring experienced internationals in key areas, we cleared out the collection of voodoo dolls who, at one time or another, have borne the brunt of an entire squad’s deficiencies in the eyes of supporters. Almunia, Denilson, Bendtner, Eboue, Squillaci. Not one of them within spitting distance of this season and yet the basic errors remain commonplace. The practise of scapegoating individuals has been exposed as folly.

Ideas are being tossed amongst supporters like confetti. Defensive coaches, new captains, new owners, new assistant managers. We’ve all hit the shuffle on the why-pod searching for answers. But ultimately, the finger increasingly points towards the manager. It strikes me more and more that the team’s fragility hasn’t been a question of personnel but rather a failure of coaching.

Blackburn had 31% of the possession on Saturday and mustered three shots on target, yet left the game with 4 goals and 3 points. That’s roughly a goal for every 8% worth of time they spent on the ball. Arsenal have achieved a kind of dis-economies of scale now. We know our fragility and so too do our opponents. We concede painfully, comically soft goals and this encourages the opposition. They know that if they stick the ball in the general area of the goal, even only two or three times in a game, there’s a good chance Arsenal will do the rest for them.

Even if we’re 3-0 ahead and coasting, teams realise that the next Gunners implosion can be forced under the slightest duress. In turn, we know that too and are ill equipped to handle the pressure we invite onto ourselves. It’s a maddening vicious cycle. The malaise here is deeper and more complex than transfer market reinforcement – though it was vital we did the business we did at the end of the window. The manager needs to get inside his players’ heads and repair the fractured psychology of this team. Their quality is infinitely superior to what they’ve shown this season.

You may recall we began 2008-09 in a rather schizophrenic manner and ended up well off the pace set by Villa for 4th spot. When Fabregas was badly injured that December, our chances of Champions League football looked slim. Arsenal adopted a back to basics approach, stringing together a series of sterile 0-0 draws and 1-0 wins by shoring up the defensive focus of the team. My offering is that we need to reignite that approach. For all out travails, Liverpool and Spurs – our likely rivals for 4th – are by no means over the hills and far away.

I think it’s time to tough it out, grit our teeth and concentrate on clocking up some points by any means necessary. Only when the confidence returns can the champagne football flow once more.  On that alcoholic note, I spy a London Pride winking suggestively at me from the fridge. So I shall take leave for another week to sup its sweet, sweet elixir. Chin chin Gooners, make yourselves heard again on Saturday. LD.

Follow me on twitter @LittleDutchVA


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