Saturday, September 23, 2023

Elegantly wasteful

If ever a week neatly summarised Arsenal’s season so far it has been this one. Listless, insipid and gripped with fear in the first half against Chelsea. In the second half, the midfield four spread out a little and we saw some improvement. But the first fifteen minutes of the second half against West Ham ranked amongst the best football played by Arsenal this season. It gave us a tantalising glimpse of what this team is capable of.

The issue this season has been consistency. There have been several games in which the front four of Walcott, Podolski, Giroud and Cazorla have combined and interchanged to devastating effect. The respective goal and assist tallies of the aforementioned are testament to this, but the problem is that the figures are distributed over too thin a spread of games.

At the risk of leaving you reaching for your golf visas and adding machines, at least three of that quartet have scored in the same game on five separate occasions. (West Ham home and away, Reading in the league, Spurs and Newcastle at home). There are all sorts of graphs and pie charts that supplant those numbers, especially around Theo, Santi, Lukas and Olivier assisting one another for the goals in those games.

When the chemistry bubbles at the right temperature within the front four, the results lead to an explosive cocktail. If you’ll forgive the slightly grotesque imagery, they are capable of a footballing version of mutual masturbation. But when they don’t click, then that tends to be that. They aggressively tug at the duvet, announce they have a headache and turn the light out.

Nobody embodies this bafflingly erratic attitude to attacking nookie than Olivier Giroud. Prior to the demolition of West Ham, he had taken 20 shots on goal without scoring. Yet against the Irons he was able caress the ball into the net with two of his three attempts. From frigid fumbler to lithe lothario in one fell swoop. That said, his link up play is always excellent. The touch to loft the ball over the top of the defence is becoming a Giroud patent, and there was that gorgeous touch for Wilshere against Swansea.

So how to explain the wild fluctuations in the graph needle? I think the midfield has a lot to do with it. Teams have often been able to suffocate the supply by strangling our midfield, which has a knock on effect. There’s also the rather glaring fact that we lack options from the bench to come on and affect the pattern of a game. The biggest indictment of the attacking options we possess clung to the bloated frame of Andrey Arshavin at Stamford Bridge. That he was able to get near the pitch with love handles that size makes me want to weep with frustration. He looked like a weeble.

There’s a larger issue of responsibility here. We struggle to conjure anything creatively in tight games, though I think that Wilshere could go some way to fixing this as he takes over the “number 10” mantle from Santi Cazorla. Podolski took most of the plaudits against West Ham, but Wilshere’s penetrative passing was at the heart of many of Podolski’s decisive touches. Liberated from the more rigid confines of the trequartista role, Cazorla has drifted infield to good effect to create goals for Theo at Stamford Bridge and to tee up Giroud’s delicate touch for Wilshere’s volley against Swansea.

A deeper delve into the goalscoring habits of Arsenal’s strikers shows that Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott don’t have a “winning” goal between them this season. Giroud has two equalising goals, Walcott has none of those either. Podolski excels in this regard. He has either scored the winner or put us a goal ahead on six occasions this season. He has equalised twice as well. The German scores at decisive moments.

About a fortnight ago I wrote that Arsenal don’t really tend to win games one or two nil. Giroud and Walcott in particular need to learn how to be more economical strikers. They need to develop a nose for a chance in a tight game and, crucially in Giroud’s case, be clinical when it arrives. This would need to be a consequence of honing their games, but also of reaching between their legs.

The latter point strikes up a tune the whole team should be looking to groove to. The manager has spoken about being more assertive in big games. Much has been made of Arsenal’s habit of waiting until the half time team talk before they start playing. Questions can be asked about preparation, but there’s also an issue of direction and leadership here. This is not the sole responsibility of the captain.

Others need to step up and identify when the team is either being too timid or that something is tactically awry, rather than bashfully waiting for the manager to cut their meat for them in the dressing room. The destination of the captain’s armband doesn’t address this; it needs to be much more collective than that. Tony Adams would have been barking instructions into deep space had he not had the likes of Bould, Dixon, Seaman, Smith, Vieira and Bergkamp helping him to marshal operations.

Whilst on the subject of responsibility, I wanted to construct a defence of Bacary Sagna. Popular consensus says that he has lost form and, in our never ending search for conclusive narratives, this is because he is terminally pissed off and leaving / totally finished at the top level. (Delete as applicable). Whilst it’s true that Sagna hasn’t demonstrated the best form of his Arsenal career of late, I think there is plenty of mitigation.

In an attempt to both address the balance of the team and tempt Theo Walcott’s scribbling hand, we have allowed Walcott to play a kind of winger / striker hybrid role recently. This has put an awful lot of pressure on Sagna to cover the entire right flank on his lonesome. It’s no coincidence that Sagna has performed excellently in games where the flank has been covered more effectively, when the midfield has worked and Wilshere and Cazorla have drifted to the right more often. For instance, in the home matches against Swansea and West Ham.

Carl Jenkinson showed some very promising form early in the campaign, but he would have struggled more than Sagna has against this contextual backdrop. Let’s not forget that Jenkinson’s last action in an Arsenal shirt was to lose the ball on the right flank, leading to Swansea’s second counter attack goal in December’s 2-0 defeat. This precisely because he had no passing option on the right hand side and was forced to steer frantically back towards shore without a comrade in sight.

Around me at Stamford Bridge, many were turning on Sagna, which I found rather sad given the quality of his service to the club. Those visceral howls of frustration levelled at him failed to note the conditions he has been operating in in my opinion. I do wonder if there’s an element of us comforting ourselves as a fanbase ahead of his likely departure. It suits us to believe that Sagna is ready to be put to stud and that Jenkinson can immediately assume his mantle much in the same way that it suited us to believe that Gael Clichy was better than Ashley Cole.

Jenkinson’s time will come, but we are still a team carrying some inexperienced, if talented, young players. Wilshere, Gibbs and Chamberlain each have fewer than 100 senior appearances. It stands to reason that one of our most experienced and accomplished performers is retained to redress the balance of cognizance. With the appropriate amount of support on the right wing, Bacary Sagna is still an incredible full back. In a team that lacks overall leadership, he is still very much a must. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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