“Defensively, we were not at the level required.” With those little words from Arsene Wenger on Saturday afternoon, the steadily inflating balloon of our early season poise was pin pricked ever so slightly. On the face of it, Chelsea caught us out on two set pieces and Arsenal were left to rue multiple bullet wounds to the foot. Pry a little deeper and I’m not convinced it was that straightforward.
I think we missed a couple of key defensive players. I won’t complain too fiercely about the decision to drop Mertesacker. In hindsight, the manager erred, but personally I appreciated and even approved the logic of having a nippier defender like Koscielny prior to kick-off. However, Arsene’s assertion that he would rotate his centre halves may well have been revised in the wake of the Chelsea match.
David O’Leary earned the nickname “Spider” in his playing days at Highbury. Per’s multi-limbed penchant for interceptions would make that an apt sobriquet for him too. But he also brings an élan to the defence. When Koscielny and Vermaelen play together, they seem to almost egg one another on to self-destruction. They’re a bad influence on one another those boys. In the presence of Mertesacker, they appear to chill the fuck out. The BFG is like a big, King L reefer at the heart of the back four. Only without the paranoia and unusually high heart rate.
Though Mannone is much improved, I think the Chelsea game crystallised that we are beginning to feel the absence of Szczesny. Vito just doesn’t have the same authority, physically or vocally, when the ball sashays its way into his penalty area. There was an incident in the Olympiacos game in which the visitors somehow contrived to miss from four yards with the score at 0-0. The ball whistled right underneath Mannone’s nose in the six yard box, yet he stayed glued to his line like some kind of Shay Given tribute act.
I know Szczesny is not the finished article, nor should we expect him to be at 21 years of age. But I think at least one of those Mata deliveries might have been snuffed out with Szczesny marshaling the back line. If Mertesacker is a sticky bud of THC back there, then Szczesny is the prescription speed ball that keeps minds alive and eyes darting restlessly from side to side.
There was a little talk of Chelsea having kept Cazorla quiet. After laying his talents plain for all to see in his opening games, he will have brought attention to himself. Ramires in particular shadowed him relentlessly in the second half. Yet Cazorla was still able to produce 4 key passes and managed 4 shots on goal. (0 on target, with 1 goal from 27 shots so far this season, I’m sure his accuracy will be a hot topic with the coaching staff at Colney).
Yet I was left with an appreciation with how important Arteta is in an attacking sense. His defensive qualities have been expounded upon at length. He’s the first midfielder we’ve had with a natural defensive ‘nose’ since Gilberto. Chelsea had been criticised a week previously for being too narrow with Oscar, Hazard and Mata floating around behind Torres. I was surprised to see Roberto di Matteo persist with that triumvirate, but it soon became clear why he did.
About the most effective job Chelsea did all day was in hounding Arteta on the ball. With three more central players sitting in Arteta’s zone, they were able to do this more easily, confident in Arsenal’s inefficiency from the flanks. It stopped us building play from the back, but more crucially, it cut off the supply to Cazorla. Increasingly the diminutive Spaniard had to drift wide to find possession.
In the wake of another Diaby injury, the manager rued the loss of his physicality as a key ingredient the team struggles to replace. In Coquelin and Frimpong I think we have physical players to deputise. For all the talk of Arsenal being less of a one man band this year (true to an extent), I still wake up in a cold sweat contemplating what a long term injury to Arteta might do to us.
Further forward, it’s clear that Arsene is still in the studio, twiddling knobs and looking for his perfect wall of sound. With a return of five goals so far, it’d take a brave man to argue against Gervinho’s run at centre forward. It reinforces my impression that playing the Ivorian there was never about punishing Walcott and always about Gervinho’s qualities. That said, I do think Giroud will slowly begin to become more of a fixture at centre forward.
In the wake of Gervinho’s couplet of goals and an assist in the last two games, it’s perhaps an incongruous time to say it, but in the long run, the team will enjoy playing with Giroud through the centre. As I alluded earlier, teams are beginning to focus on the likes of Cazorla and Podolski much more attentively. Giroud is potentially a focal point that gives opponents a different problem, drawing the focus away from others.
Indeed, with five goals, Gervinho himself will be identified and scrutinised by opponents now. With a new found aplomb in front of goal, he might even enjoy playing off of Giroud from a wide position. Certainly two of Podolski’s goals this season have been largely thanks to the hunky Frenchman. At the beginning of the campaign I identified Ramsey as the sort of player to thrive off of the Frenchman. This due to his preference for running beyond the strikers from midfield.
Rambo’s goal against Olympiacos took that theory from printed word and made it dance, dance I tell you, on the lush green turf of the Emirates. I spoke back then of teammates becoming accustomed to Giroud’s qualities and realising that there is profit to be had in making runs off of him. Podolski was quick to realise this in Montpellier. In the Olympiacos match, Ramsey began his buccaneering run from deep with the ball still in the air. He knew there was a good chance that Giroud would win the header and took the appropriate gamble.
In closing, it is always worth congratulating the Arsenal Ladies side,this time for capturing the WSL title – their 9th consecutive league title win. To have maintained the hunger and desire through the various personnel and managerial changes that arise in such a period is a huge testament to the mentality that runs through the Ladies side. Not just on the pitch, but off the pitch via the likes of Vic Akers and Clare Wheatley working behind Laura Harvey.
The Ladies play in the Continental Cup Final this Wednesday. It’s practically in our own back yard at Barnet’s Underhill Stadium. There’s a real chance to turn it into a home game for the girls given the location, so why not go along? No column next week because I’ll be on my holibobs. Speak to you in a fortnight. LD.
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