Time to see what we’re made of

While not what you’d call sensational or outstanding, the start to our season has been encouraging. Defeat to Chelsea, however, has picked away at fairly fresh scabs, exposing the oozing frustration that lies not too far beneath the surface.

We’ve had the full gamut. Questions are asked, tirades have been tiraded, and toys have been thrown from prams, which just serves to remind you that for every defeat there’s a huge range of opinion. And, after a summer in which some felt we didn’t do quite enough, it’s understandable that losing to a side as horrendous and hateful as Chelsea will bring about strong opinions.

If there’s less discussion about good results it’s because, perhaps, more people need to be convinced about the potential of this team, whereas a bad one will simply reinforce beliefs long held. Diaby off injured, Arsenal concede two silly goals from set-pieces while the replacement for Robin van Persie missed a golden chance to square the game for us. And I get that, but I don’t think it’s quite as black and white as it appears.

We’ve seen that there is some character to this Arsenal side already this season. Giving away a penalty in Montpellier and coming back to win and giving the champions a chasing at their own place and coming from behind to take a point suggests that there’s good spirit within the squad. You can see by the way they celebrated the goal at City that there appears to be a real togetherness in the team, but it’s only after defeat that it’s really tested.

Obviously you’d rather do without losing but it is part and parcel of football and it happens to every side. It’s how you react to those defeats that gives you a real measure of your team. Too often in recent seasons losing a game has been like a punch in the stomach. We take time to recover and to catch our breath so it will be interesting to see how we get on this week. Knowing there’s an Interlull coming after Saturday’s game against West Ham should focus us sharply on what we need to do. A home win in the Champions League is the expectation, while taking three points at Upton Park is almost a necessity now.

Despite some good results and performances we have 9 points from 6 games and lie 2 behind ‘crisis’ hit Sp*rs. At this point last season, when everything was amiss, we had 7, so we’re only 2 better off. And with a 7 point gap between us and the leaders we have to make sure we don’t allow that to grow too much. I realise it’s early in the season but if we want to challenge for the title then we can’t let teams get too far ahead of us. The manager says:

The players are very frustrated. They have a great attitude, they are very disappointed. I can understand that. But I think we will recover from it. It can happen in the season, but they are disappointed because they lost a game they should not have lost.

There’s little more frustrating than that, in fairness, but what should also concern the manager are the individual errors which are costing us goals. Vermaelen gave away a penalty in Europe and two free kicks on Saturday which, if he were taller and balder and more Swiss, for example, would have people baying for blood at this stage. I think he needs to realise that being quick and aggressive are fine traits for a centre-half, but without a modicum of common sense applied they’re self-destructive too. The second free kick on Saturday was poor play from somebody who is experienced enough to know better than that.

The marking for City’s goal and Chelsea’s first goal was awful, both times Koscielny was involved to one extent or another, and we’ve got an issue in the goalkeeping position, no doubt about it. Arsene Wenger has admitted quite freely he’d have let Mannone go this summer, but circumstance has given the Italian a chance. That the manager talks about him as a potential Arsenal number 1 shouldn’t really fool anyone. They’re words of encouragement for the keeper, to boost his confidence and to focus his game, but he was culpable for Lescott’s goal when coming and failing to make the catch, and for Chelsea’s second when a better player would, and should, have kept that out. He isn’t, in my opinion, talented enough be first choice at a club like Arsenal.

All of which sounds very gloomy but it’s not meant to. There have, of course, been real positives, many more of them than the problems. The improving Carl Jenkinson, the calm assurance of Mertesacker, Arteta and Cazorla in midfield, Podolski’s early form, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s growing influence (and it’s interesting to read two accounts of Walcott’s chumminess with Chelsea players ahead of his tepid substitute performance – see Goodplaya and Gunnerblog – and the manager’s pecking order), the aforementioned character in coming from behind, and even the fact that Gervinho, whose game is still frustrating, has added some end product to his game and is, at this moment in time, our top scorer.

Yet Arsene Wenger was, from the very beginning, quick to try and play down talk of huge improvement because of the appointment of Steve Bould. And perhaps we’ve all been a little guilty of feeding that fire. The reality is that he’s only been in the job a couple of months and although player after player has lauded his influence it will take more time to get things right on the training ground and on the pitch. We can see the signs of it, no doubt about it, but we’re still capable of stumbling and landing arse first on that self-destruct button too easily.

So the loss against Chelsea might be a reminder that for all the work we’ve done thus far, there’s still plenty more to do. Not just defensively but at the other end of the pitch too. You can cancel out goals conceded by taking your chances and we’ve been a touch wasteful at times. There is, in the short-term anyway, the need to make up for the lack of goals with more assurance at the back. Giroud’s misses are a worry but it’s still very early in his Arsenal career and I think he’s suffering from a lack of confidence and feeling the weight of the pressure on him to replace the Dutch Skunk.

Spurning good opportunities won’t help him, obviously, but individual errors and schoolboy stuff at the back only adds to that pressure. It’s time to cut out the silly stuff and ensure that the rest of our season is built on the more solid platform we saw in the opening games of the season. That will ease the burden from him, and others, and it’ll mean that the goals we do score are more valuable for it.

Mikel Arteta says that the defence was not to blame for Saturday’s loss. I know where he’s coming from and he’s right to stress the collective responsibility, but this time the defence were at fault and they need to work hard to put that right in the games to come. For all the frustration of Saturday, a couple of good wins going into the Interlull would do wonders for the mood and show that this team can take it on the chin and get going in the right direction again.

Till tomorrow.


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