There were 36 minutes gone. Arsenal, in my opinion, were playing quite well. After a lively start we were pressing and probing and looked the most likely to score.
A couple of minutes later we’re 2-0 down and, ultimately, the game is lost. Twice our defending made Sp*rs look good, twice they punished us, and at this level of football you simply cannot do what we did and expect to get away with it.
Until the first goal I had been impressed with how hard we were working, particularly when it came to closing them down when in possession. But Gylfi Suggurdson was allowed to wander through the midfield without anyone making a challenge, Arsenal held a high line, Thomas Vermaelen came charging out of defence and the ball to Bale was as simple as it comes. Considering his form there was no chance he was going to miss.
And just a few moments later, Scott T Parker was made to look like a real footballer when again we failed to close him down and his pass found Aaron Lennon. Initially his run was being tracked by Nacho Monreal who bizarrely took his cue from Vermaelen and stopped to try and play offside. The captain literally had no idea what was going around him – some of that is down to communication, but just as much the fact he seemed to be operating in a world of his own – and it was easy for Lennon to round Szczesny and make it 2-0.
Even by our own standards that was abysmal defending. Making more or less the same mistake twice, and so close together, leaves me struggling to understand these players and how they’re coached. At the start of the season there was genuine hope that we’d turned some sort of a corner, time showed us that was simply an anomaly. I don’t buy the stories about Wenger not allowing Bould to work with them. If the three clean sheets were down to his work, why would any manager deliberately nobble his own team?
Again, I’ll suggest it’s not entirely the fault of the defence; the two passes that cut us open were hardly difficult and with more pressure from the midfield we’d have cut them out at source, but that doesn’t explain or excuse the failings of the defenders themselves.
I think it’s time the manager had a very serious think about Thomas Vermaelen. The issue of the captaincy clouds the one of his form. He’s been poor all season, making errors, his decision making and positioning is all over the place, and the longer it goes on the more it looks as if his reputation was built on that remarkable run of goalscoring at the start of his Arsenal career, rather than consistent defensive displays.
I believe the armband, regardless of how much stock you put in it, makes it more difficult for Arsene Wenger to drop him. I know he’s had his moments this season too but I think it’s time to give the Belgian a rest and bring Laurent Koscielny back into the team alongside Mertesacker. And that’s not suggest all our problems are down to Vermaelen, but simply that he’s not playing very well and when somebody is struggling over a prolonged period the best thing for the team is play somebody else. If he can refocus and find some form again later, great, but for now it’s got to be something to consider.
The other issue, of course, is that up the other end of the pitch we’re a bit toothless at the moment. Both Walcott and Giroud have gone 6 games without a goal, at entirely the wrong time of the season. Is it coincidence that Theo’s form has taken a dip since signing his new contract?
And what of Lukas Podolski? What’s going on there. With Arsenal badly in need of a goal he wasn’t introduced until the 77th minute. One give and go with Giroud showed what he brings to the team, but his touch was that of a guy who had just come on and the chance went begging. Most of his goals this season have come as a starter and while I understand the decision to leave him on the bench, I can’t quite get my head around giving him just 13 minutes of normal time when we’re chasing a game.
The lack of real options is the killer though. Olivier Giroud is an ok player, capable of some fine goals, but in his first Premier League season he’s finding it tough at times and games like yesterday expose his lack of true quality. The problem, as we’ve said many times, isn’t so much him as what lies beyond him. And the reality is that there’s nobody. You can ask Walcott to go central but it’s stop-gap, sticking plaster stuff. Podolski has played there once or twice in his early Arsenal career, so you can’t convince me he’s a genuine option. Especially when during our biggest game of the season the manager chucks him on as something approaching an afterthought.
If you have a leaky, self-destructive defence, you can offset that by having the quality up front to make up for it. We saw how that worked last season. This time around we’re being found out. The lack of quality up top is matched by the lack of it at the back and it makes winning games more difficult. The table doesn’t lie. This is an average team with some very average players achieving average results and that’s where we are. I don’t think Sp*rs are even all that, we made them look good.
While it’s always painful to lose to that lot, the most disheartening thing for me was how it played out once we’d scored. We needed an early goal in the second half, we got exactly that, but seemed unable to kick on. We should have fed off their nerves and really gone for it. Instead they squandered the best chances of the half and we resorted to lumping long balls at Mertesacker. That’s what teams with Chris Samba do. Depressing. I know desperate times call for desperate measures, but it highlights the lack of options and ideas, and that’s hard to take.
So, they go 7 points clear of us and the papers this morning are full of stories about how it’s all over for us, how the balance of power has shifted, how we’re in decline and they’re on the up. It’s almost as if there aren’t another 30 points to play for and nobody has seen Sp*rs over the last few seasons. As horrible as it feels this morning there’s still a lot of football to play this season and while finishing in the top 4 is going to be difficult, it’s far from impossible. Mathematically, at least.
However, the issue is that this Arsenal team has not gone on an unbeaten run longer than 5 games in the Premier League this season. Realistically, we need to win the majority of those 10 games, and that means finding form which has been beyond us thus far. The door is not closed by any means, and all we can do is keep going and hope we can go on a decent run, but the odds are long this time, and unless key players start performing again, and quickly, it’s not going to end well.
We now have a 10 day break from football, we don’t play again until the trip to Bayern Munich next Wednesday. There’s time to recharge batteries, take stock and, dare I say it, do some serious work on the defensive side of our game. There’s very little we can do about the lack of striking options, but if we can tighten up at the back that will improve our chances of winning games. What else can we do at this stage?
I don’t even know what kind of realistic conclusion to draw from this. It was a game from which it’s impossible to take any positives. We’ve been here before but I always felt confident we were playing below ourselves and we had the players who could make a difference. Now, I’m just not sure. Anything can happen in football, but based on what we’ve seen so far this season we’ll win a few, drop points in ludicrous ways and limp to an unsatisfactory finish.
It’s all to look forward to, eh?