So, out of two cup competitions in a week. Sadly it’s an all too familiar feeling these days. We looked for a reaction from Arsenal yesterday and the saddest part for me was that while we tried, we just weren’t capable of it.
The team was pretty much as I expected. Oxlade-Chamberlain started ahead of Walcott, Gervinho came back in, van Persie started up top. The only surprise, if you can call it that, was the absence of Kieran Gibbs who, after making his comeback against Milan, missed out for what I can only assume were medical reasons. His replacement, Francis Coquelin, lasted just eight minutes before he twanged his hamstring, which meant Squillaci made his first appearance since Leeds in the last round and Thomas Vermaelen moved to left back.
We had started quite brightly, we looked purposeful and, dare I say ‘up for it’, but when we had our Coq pulled off we seemed to lose the rhythm we’d created. Ramsey turned an ankle and was obviously not right after that and the game fell into much the same pattern as last week. Sunderland worked hard, pressed us quite high up the pitch, got men behind the ball whenever we were in possession and looked to hit us on the counter.
All the same we fashioned a good opening for Gervinho who forced a decent save from Mignolet before a Song pass almost got van Persie in behind. There was the slightest touch of the ball from John O’Shea and I’ve seen less convincing penalties than that given plenty of times before, but when you’re looking for the rub of the green to it rarely comes when the chips are down.
Djourou then picked up a booking for a foul he really shouldn’t have had to make, Sunderland whipped in the free kick, it was headed half clear and Kieran Richardson’s shot deflected into the bottom corner off Sebastian Squillaci. He’s got a touch of the Murphy’s Law about him, whatever can go wrong generally does, and it was an unhappy performance again. It’s not nice seeing a player struggle like that, an experienced pro misjudging headers like that smacks of a player shorn of any belief, and injury might not have been the worst thing that’s ever happened to him, or us, as he came off not long into the second half.
Here though, is where I felt things went really wrong. I don’t think the substitutions were right and I imagine Martin O’Neill was licking his lips when he saw the double change. Ramsey was replaced by Rosicky, more or less understandable even if he is a man who has not scored a goal for over two years, while Walcott came on for Squillaci as Song moved back to centre-half. This was as wrong as it gets, especially when he deployed Walcott as a central striker playing just behind van Persie.
To my recollection Walcott has never played there before for Arsenal, despite his constant bleating about how he’d like to, and against a team like Sunderland who were happy to sit back and deny us space behind their defence – the only area in which Walcott can be effective – it was a shockingly misjudged substitution. Why not put on Arshavin, who created something last weekend and for all his lack of form at least has the ability to spark now and again? Or, considering our tippy-tappy pass pass pass approach wasn’t that effective on a bobbly, nobbly pitch, why not throw on Marouane Chamakh?
I know the Moroccan is hardly the darling of the terraces and his record is poor but he’s an actual striker, and doesn’t he at least provide something different. If not quite a Plan B, a Plan E, which would have allowed us to mix it up a bit, go long, hope for a knock-down and put pressure on the Sunderland defence. Arsene’s aesthetics won out and the fact that the only time I can remember Walcott touching the ball is when he was given offside but his first touch put it out for a goal kick says it all.
Sunderland’s second was unfortunate but hardly a surprise. Oxlade-Chamberlain lost it high up the pitch, Sunderland broke, Larsson’s eventual shot hit the post and cannoned in off the unfortunate youngster who had, at least, chased all the way back to do his defensive duty. Clearly he was gutted but it would be churlish in the extreme to apportion blame, at least he was trying to make something happen when he had the ball.
The remainder of the game played out as you’d expect. Arsenal barely threatened and the lack of intelligence in our approach was summed up when, with just a couple of minutes to go, Alex Song took a short corner and immediately lost possession when we had a chance to get a decent ball into the box. I hate short corners in general but that was almost criminal.
Afterwards, Arsene said:
We put in a committed performance and gave absolutely everything that was left in our legs. It was a very difficult game.
At the moment it is best to let people talk, criticise, analyse and destroy and on our side it is important to show internal strength and resilience and come out with a strong performance in our next game.
Overall, I think the most disheartening part of the defeat – which was tough enough in itself because we all know the consequences of that – was the fact that you looked at the players on the pitch and found it tough to see anyone, bar van Persie, who might make a difference. But even the best strikers in the world need supply, very few (maybe Messi), can make something out of nothing.
As time goes by you can see the enormous creative hole that the departure of Fabregas has left in the side. Tight games like this might have been turned as he picked a pass which created an opening but there’s nobody like that now. When teams play like Sunderland played – and surely that’s now going to be the blueprint for any team when they face us – we end up passing it around with little or no end product.
I don’t think we can fault them for effort, the real issue is quality, or the lack of it. On Friday’s Arsecast Philippe Auclair make a striking point: bad nights like Milan can happen to any team, but when you look at this Arsenal team it’s one beset by mediocrity. It’s not a pleasant conclusion by any means but it’s impossible to escape the truth of it.
Arsene has built great teams during his time at the club. This, sadly, is not one of them. Its limitations exposed in four days by an experienced Milan side and a Sunderland team who will finish mid-table at best. The manager’s decision making was poor yesterday, hampered by injury I know, but when a player like Walcott coasts through a huge Champions League game – a fact the manager recognised by dropping him – what kind of lesson does he learn when he’s straight off the bench in the next game? How can we expect to get anything from Benayoun or Arshavin when the manager essentially tells then they’re worth less to the team than a player he dropped because he played like shit in midweek?
Arsenal looked a broken side yesterday – that was literally true as we picked up three more injuries ruling Coquelin, Ramsey and Squillaci out of next weekend’s game – and Arsene looked like a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. And perhaps, for the first time, a hint from him that all is not right behind the scenes. Asked about the fact this is another season without silverware, he said:
I do not want to speak too much about that, if you want we can speak a long time about it one day but at the moment we have to focus on our next game and try and win it.
It feels like we’re lost at sea a bit, rudderless, directionless, with Arsene trying to paddle furiously as Stan sits back and lets it all happen. If people suggest to the manager that his team lacks leadership, and not without merit, isn’t it also a case that the club, as a whole, lacks it too? I think many this morning will think that something’s got to give, changes have got to be made as you cannot keep failing the same way over and over again, but where is that change going to come from?
From an owner who doesn’t go to games? From a board whose passive acceptance of the club’s problems on the pitch seems borne out of their contentment with good financial results? Will it take a hit to the balance sheets for them to wake up? It’s all well and good talking about 2014 and increased sponsorship deals, but surely those will be affected by a team that lacks success, by empty seats, by Europa League or no European football. Try selling those corporate boxes then.
It’s all well and good shouting for change – something I am not opposed to if it can make things better – but without real leadership and direction from the very top, without drive and ambition, you wonder what effect it would have and whether or not it’s being made for the right reasons.
Arsene’s oft rolled out quote about top four being a trophy has never felt more hollow, but that’s all we have left.