Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Arsenal 3-3 Fulham: Drawful entertainment

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This Arsenal team would make your head hurt. And not just the following morning because you sat up late drinking more bourbon than you probably should have.

For the second time in a week a two goal lead was let slip, this time we went one better than Schalke and allowed Fulham to get ahead before reacting, equalising, and, when it comes right down to it, it’s a game we should have won – while also being one we could have lost. When you get an injury time penalty the expectation is you’ll score it, we didn’t, and the game ended in a draw which was, probably, a fair result.

Not that I really give a fish’s tit about fairness or who deserved what. We’ve been sucker punched plenty of times in the past so that wouldn’t have been an issue for me, although I do realise it would have been the main narrative today. As it is, Arteta’s miss is something of a side issue, the main point is that Arsenal dropped two points at home, let in three goals and went from having a comfortable enough two goal to being a goal behind.

Our first two goals were both excellent. Olivier Giroud’s header from Walcott’s corner was terrific, the timing and power made it impossible for Schwarzer to keep out even if he did get a hand on it. Then, after Mikel Arteta did very well to set up Lukas Podolski it meant nerves should have been calmed and we really ought to have controlled the game from that point. 2-0 up at home, all we had to do was the basics right and take it from there. Basics, our most evil foe.

If you look at the build up to their first, Francis Coquelin makes a great tackle in midfield to win the ball back, but Laurent Koscielny loses it immediately which leads to their corner. Basics. Keep the ball, they don’t score. As for the corner itself, well the fact that the ball was allowed to drop inside our six yard area without an Arsenal player challenging for it was bad, but you have to look at the keeper too. If we accept Mannone is never going to be the kind of keeper who dominates his whole area, anything falling in there is surely his territory? But like so many more before him he was stuck, superglued to his line and caught out – and again I wonder if this comes down to the way our keepers are being coached.

He wasn’t much better for the second goal either. We were cut open down the left (again), and if Giroud’s first header was powerful and from relatively close range, Kacaniklic’s was from the penalty spot, soft enough, and bouncing like a cup champions ball you bought in your local newsagent. I think Mannone should have saved it, and although I think Wojciech Szczesny is far from the finished article he’s got to come straight back into the side for next weekend’s game.

We can have no complaints about the award of the Fulham penalty, again it’s down to basics though. Arteta was found wanting but it wasn’t exactly the best pass to give him. Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with just lumping the ball out of defence. And here’s where Arsenal make my head hurt. From 2-0 up to 3-2 down is enough to break the spirit, but we reacted almost instantly, Giroud’s shot hit the post, rebounded to Walcott who will chalk up another assist but the Frenchman’s header was absolutely brilliant. There wasn’t much pace on the cross so it was down to Giroud to make up the difference and he did that in a big way.

He might have scored again after a good run and shot and as injury time drew to a close Phil Dowd awarded us a penalty which was ridiculously harsh on the Fulham player, but hey-ho, such is life. There has been criticism of Giroud for not stepping up and taking it for his hat-trick, but I’ve got no problem with what went down, even if how it played out wasn’t ideal. Arteta is vice-captain, the designated penalty taker, and at a time when we’re looking for senior players to take responsibility, he did just that.

Of course missing the spot kick meant another fairly bonkers Arsenal game didn’t finish on the high we’d have liked and in the immediate aftermath it’s easy to focus on that. If only he’d scored etc etc, but it clouds the real issue and that’s the fact that we’ve let in three goals at home and dropped points against a side we could, and should, have beaten having gotten ourselves into a winning position.

The harsh reality of where we are now is summed up by this particular stat from @orbinho“This is Arsenal’s worst start to a season in 30 years since 1982-83 when they had just 14 points after 11 games.”

As I said yesterday, and in previous blogs, I look at this team on paper and there are things I like. I like there’s more balance, I like that we’re not reliant on one man to score all our goals, I like that Olivier Giroud is starting to come good and score goals (6 in his last 8 games), I like that Jack Wilshere is back, I like that we don’t give up and can come from behind, I even like the fact that if Arteta didn’t have his best game for us yesterday it’s a rarity.

I think the quality of the players means results should be better and then you have to start asking why they’re not. The defensive improvement we all hoped for with Steve Bould added to the team hasn’t happened. It simply hasn’t. Three clean sheets in the first three games have been followed by just one since (v QPR). And if there’s much to admire about a team that keeps going and won’t give up (yesterday, Reading etc), the bigger question is why are we in those positions in the first place. We can talk about character and spirit all we want but we don’t have be so goddam dramatic about it.

There’s spirit in not conceding four goals away from home, there’s character in holding on to a two goal lead against Schalke or Fulham. Here we are again, back to basics, and doing those right week in, week out, is a show of your mettle. We’re like an aging actor, determined to show he’s still got it, camping it up to make sure everybody sees.

Alas poor Arsenal … I knew him, Horatio, a team of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.

We’re a team that can be 4-0 down and not lose, and a team that can be 4-0 up and not win. There is no consistency of performance or results. From 11 league games we’ve won just 4. As Goonerholic notes, “Over a quarter of the way into the season we are a mid-table team playing mid-table football.” It might sound harsh but it’s fairly inarguable.

The nature of football and fandom means it can get reactionary. If you listened to those who shouted loudest the solution is sack the manager and get a new one. I wish it were that simple. Genuinely. As much as I admire and respect Arsene Wenger, I’m not opposed to change. It’s not an unreasonable question to ask if he’s the right man for the job anymore, but how that question is asked is what makes the debate so difficult to have.

Then you have to consider that any new manager is going to have to operate in the same environment, with the same structure at board level, with the same shortcomings there, and so on. There’s £70m in the bank, apparently, will a new man be allowed to dip in and spend it all? Will he really? Will FFP save the day when Chelsea have shown how easy it is to be compliant despite enormous sugardaddyism? And is there the required footballing knowledge at the club to make what would be an absolutely crucial appointment? There’s a reason Arsene Wenger is in full control of all football matters, it’s because a team of highly skilled and qualified administrators don’t know as much about the game as he does.

None of which is to suggest that questions can’t be asked of the manager, nor that the idea of a new one is unthinkable, but the idea that one man out, one man in will solve all our problems is surely wide of the mark. It’s a shame the conversation can’t be had without so much anger though, from both sides of the fence. But then football is emotional, always has been.

There’ll be ups and downs and at the moment we’re not experiencing too many of the former. Maybe we’ll pull it together for that final Broadway run, or fade into obscurity doing character bits for Hallmark channel movies, this is our stage, this is how we perform. Put me down for the matinee.

Till tomorrow.

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