To describe results of the past week ‘topsy turvy’ is akin to calling Robbie Savage, “rather punchable.” Having returned from Milan late Thursday evening (cheers Easyjet) I haven’t really had a chance to collect my thoughts in any cogent manner. Indeed, the fact that the Milan trip, the 90 minutes on the pitch apart, was such an enjoyable one may mean I’m feeling softer and cuddlier about the aberration of a non-performance than I ought to be.
I guess the easiest way of tying the still incoherent strands of thought together is to attack them chronologically. Beginning with the Sunderland game – which seems a long time ago now in view of the Milan massacre – and the fairytale Premier League ending for Thierry Henry. I have to say I was one of the most vocally opposed to the move, but whatever we put in his bank account during his stay was worth it. Two winning goals in tight games and, given we currently lead Chelsea in the table on Goals Scored; his strike against Blackburn could yet prove to garner more than just sentimental value.
I always felt there were a couple of nigglingly unsatisfying things about the end of Henry’s Arsenal career in 2007. The fact that his last season was such an injury hit, mish mash affair. The feeling that he was having a hard time acknowledging the handover as the team’s focal point to Fabregas. Arsenal never really settled on a regular formation in the 2006-07 season and it’s a matter of public record that Henry and Wenger fell out on the training ground quite bitterly in advance of a 3-0 North London derby win. The manager was having difficulty reconciling Henry’s ego with the needs of the team.
His goal scoring away from home dropped off significantly in those last few seasons and even the fact that he didn’t get to break the goalscoring record at his beloved Highbury denied him a poetry that his legend demanded. Minor ink blotches on the tome of Henry’s imperious Arsenal career. But it feels as though he has resketched his own epitaph and removed those small blemishes, in my mind at least, ending his legendary scrawl on our history with the penmanship it deserves. A bit like blowing a few stray crumbs away from the kitchen table after a delicious cake.
In truth, on his brief forays wide he has looked slightly off the pace. But the manager seemed to work out rather quickly that if you put him on the shoulder of the last defender, the movement and finish is still there. In short, I recall Henry having three good chances in his loan spell. I don’t need to tell you how many were scored. Thierry appears to have revelled in his role as elder statesman on his return. His public pronouncements have earned him full diplomacy marks.
But as a set of supporters, we know Thierry well enough to realise that the romance of his return will not have been lost on him. I recall an interview with him on the 2002-03 Season Review DVD in which he said, in his enigmatically, cartoonishly French way, “To feel right at a club, I need to feel lurve.” That “lurve” was shown most aptly as his name was sung for the duration of injury time in the San Siro as another show of thanks. On a personal level, I’m delighted my own scepticism was so disproven. So thanks again, Thierry.
In the meantime, his absence now represents a hole in our squad. Henry became the de facto back up to the criminally overworked van Persie in a matter of days, to the point that neither Chamakh nor Park have even made the bench in our last two fixtures. Both players will simply have to feature in our run in at some point. I’m not sure if there is any GPS technology to measure confidence, but one or both has probably long since dropped into the red zone. (Otherwise known as ‘Almunia territory.’)
Now they must partake in the knowledge that, but for the beginning of the MLS season, the manager would sooner have them cleaning boots. It’s a puzzling situation. The bafflement with which will only be increased by Wednesday night’s humiliation in Milan. Pundits and supporters are often wont to say that any defeat, no matter how narrow, is a question of desire or ‘pashuuuun.’ It rarely actually is for a club that operates at the level we do. (Or at least that we have done!)
In our very elevated position inside the stadium however, it was very apparent that, at least in part, lack of desire was responsible for Wednesday night’s thumping. Critics of Arsenal’s back four are all too keen to place the blame entirely on the defence, but it was apparent from the first minute that Milan had untracked runners enjoying the time of their lives in Arsenal’s third. We seemed to stumble on an unhappy marriage of having nobody attacking and nobody defending.
Milan were able to double and triple team the full backs without fear of reprisal. Having excelled in the centre of midfield over the past few months, Rosicky looked maladjusted on the flank. Walcott just looked contemptibly idle. On the few occasions we did manage to work the ball to our one man strike force, he found little in the way of support. Sometimes you can identify Arsenal as being too cavalier in their approach. Sometimes a team’s game plan falls apart through unnecessary caution. Both are understandable if not acceptable.
But we were neither. We essentially set up with five midfielders of varying degrees of offensive and defensive responsibility, yet not one of them protected their defence, nor supported their attack. That, I think, came down to two things at a guess. The lack of a coherent plan from the manager – or at least one that the players could understand. The selection of Rosicky out wide hinted at an air of caution, but were they specifically instructed to be cautious and how exactly to execute that caution? The players didn’t seem to understand their roles.
But the bottom line is also quite simple. Running. Effort. Not enough of it and that’s very concerning indeed. It wasn’t exactly an occasion for flippancy and underestimation of your opponent. It may seem harsh to pick on individuals, but the replacement of Walcott at half time suggested that the manager, like me, felt Theo was the chief culprit. The embodiment of that malaise. The amount of times he left Sagna to fight off two and three pronged attacks down his side was appalling, frankly.
Walcott’s loss of form could not have come at a worse time for him. He’s currently trying to show a strong hand in a contract negotiation and such listlessness weakens his case significantly. The increased popularity of Oxlade-Chamberlain likewise threatens to leave him in the shade. He’s not the darling of the terraces that he once was. Last week, I picked up on some of his more laissez-faire comments about his performances.
With autobiographies and children’s books (!) increasing his commercial repertoire, there’s an increasing suspicion that his focus isn’t as high as it could be. Gervinho has returned from Africa now and the manager’s team selections in coming weeks will tell us how farTheo’s stock has fallen.
The season is on a knife edge now. A lot of Wenger’s reputation rests on Saturday’s F.A. Cup tie. I have a feeling that the state of the pitch, (which has well and truly banjaxed our BFG) may govern his team selection. But to tumble out of the F.A. Cup would finish our chances of a trophy for another season and the dissenting voices will become a choir. Arsene, it’s over to you. LD.
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