Where to begin? Perhaps in the same way that Arsenal continued where they left against Norwich, this could be a continuation of that blog. Talk after that game, and before this, was of reaction, improvement and bouncing back, but it was more of the same.
Arsenal looked tired, listless, devoid of any spark of imagination, and defensively a mess, again. The manager decided to play Gervinho as centre-forward again, something which has had a measure of success this season. The Ivorian is our top scorer in all competitions but last night had one of those games where he looked like he was playing in wellies and had been granted a start for Arsenal thanks to the Make A Wish Foundation.
Aaron Ramsey played on the right with Francis Coquelin in midfield but once more we failed to click. One more we had barely a shot on goal and that our first effort on target came in the 93rd minute from 17 year old Serge Gnabry tells you everything you need to know about Arsenal’s attacking performance. It’s a real worry because while defensive issues are not new to us, being so utterly toothless up the other end is.
Personally, I would have liked to see Olivier Giroud start. I know he didn’t have a good game against Norwich but he’s at least a natural centre-forward and I wonder if this chopping and changing, being in and out, and out at the expense of a guy like Gervinho, is doing him any good at all. He would, at least, provide the attack with some kind of focal point and having paid £12m for him, I think the manager should show some faith in him and give him a run of games.
With the transfer window a good two months away I’m loath to go down that road but it’s becoming increasingly clear that the lack of options which, without meaning to harp on about Gervinho are highlighted every time the manager selects him as centre-forward, are causing us problems. If the manager won’t select a £12m striker to play as a striker in home games then it suggests he’s not convinced by him. We need more than one recognised striker, it’s as simple as that. If Giroud plays and doesn’t perform, we ought to have at least one other reliable option. We don’t.
At the back, we weren’t much to look at either. Without sugarcoating it in any way, Andre Santos had a nightmare at left back, but what frustrated me most was the fact that his troubles were obvious from the start and nobody, not coaching staff, or teammates, did anything to help him. I’m not defending him, but any player left alone to deal with two and sometimes three men is going to struggle. There was no cover from Podolski, no cover from midfield, and no help whatsoever from his captain who played alongside him at centre-half.
Even after the game Steve Bould admitted it was tough for the Brazilian, saying Schalke had their ‘two best players down that side’. So why was nothing changed to help him? Where was leadership on the field? At the most basic level of football if you see a teammate having problems with his game, or being outnumbered time and time again, you fix it. If your coach won’t do it, surely it’s incumbent on the captain or other senior players to have a word and tell those around him to give him a dig out. That we simply failed to react to this problem is a real worry for me.
Santos will get pelters for both goals and there’s no doubt he’s culpable to a certain extent. For the first he was slow coming out, playing Huntelaar offside, but Vermaelen had no idea where the Dutchman was. His lack of defensive awareness concerns me now, his laissez-faire attitude to defending is no longer offset by the chest-thumpery of the goals he scores. All he had to do was look behind, and look across his line to know there was a problem. He didn’t, we were punished.
For their second I thought he could have done more after the ball had been given away in midfield by Gnabry. Once again Santos was left two on one, the simple ball outside the Brazilian allowed Farfan to cross to the far post where Affelay had a tap in to seal the game for the visitors. I know we were pushing for an equaliser (as unlikely as it would have been) but as bad a game as he had, and he did, it’s wrong to blame Santos for that one.
Some of the post-game comments from Steve Bould were a bit of a worry too. With Arsene Wenger serving the final match of his European ban, it seems everything was pre-planned, including the substitutions. Bould said:
They were certainly pre-planned. At 0-0 we weren’t playing great, I was reluctant to change it too early. Then when we changed it we lost a goal, so it didn’t work. Of course we miss [Arsène Wenger on the bench], he’s the manager of this club. It’s his job, that’s what he does.
Which is all well and good but Arsene wasn’t in charge of the team last night. I can understand the manager wanting some control, but to have been so autocratic was costly. It was obvious that things weren’t working up top, yet no change was made until the usual 70 minute mark or thereabouts, and I’ve touched on the defensive problems. It’s too easy to say we should have brought on Koscielny and pushed Vermaelen to left back, the Belgian would have been faced with the same overlaps as Santos, but that there was no attempt from a defensively minded coach to alter the shape of the team, or address that particular issue for the whole 90 minutes makes me wonder.
It’s obvious that the wounds of last season, and the problems this team has faced for a longer period than that, had barely scabbed over. The positive start to the season has now been well and truly undermined by two abject performances and it’s difficult not to worry. We seem to be constantly trying to make our way up a down escalator. We get up a couple of steps, stumble, fall down a couple of steps, pick ourselves up, climb, stumble again, and all the while there’s a staircase with a handrail beside us.
We make life difficult for ourselves on the pitch and the club make life difficult through their choices too. You can get away with selling your best players if you replace them, invest in the squad and use what you have to make your team as effective as your possibly can. You can get away with selling your best players and coming out even in the transfer market if your team performs consistently, but you simply cannot get away with selling your best players and then playing like we did in our last two games.
Every single thing at a football club is dependent on what happens on the pitch. Today’s AGM will be tetchy and fiesty and all those things, and I can understand why. Although I feel there’s too much focus these days on who and what and how the club is run (everyone’s a businessman, you know), this is one of the only fora open to supporters to make their feelings known to those who run the club. Or, at least, make their feelings known in their presence. Ideally, we wouldn’t really care that much about what happens at the AGM, when we were winning things nobody really did, but these are different times and we no longer win (or even really compete).
Ultimately it comes down to the squad, to the team, and to the fact were are, for a club of our financial resources, underachieving. It’s all well and good talking about 2014 but new commercial deals rely on us having a full stadium and a team that can compete for the biggest trophies in football – last night we had neither of those things. The empty seats around the stadium were obvious from kick off, embarrassingly so at the end, and that’s not a true reflection of the support, it’s a reflection of the manager and the team.
I do believe there’s a danger in overreacting, but I also believe there’s a danger in the ‘Keep calm and carry on’ message too. There is unhappiness and discontent, not at who owns us really, but at how we’re run at a footballing level. The grumbles and gripes are borne almost entirely out of what happens on the pitch and last night will do nothing to allay fears that, without some character, on and off the pitch, this is a season which once again will deliver little.