Post-mortem the post-mortem

One of the more frustrating ‘cerebral’ aspects of a performance like the one at Anfield is the post mortem. It’s never particularly fun to ruminate over a heavy defeat, but when at least 10 of your 11 players quite visibly under-perform, it creates a free pass for people to dig out their hobby horses. If there’s a player you don’t especially like, it’s difficult to be too critical when your team is top of the league and winning the majority of their games. A performance that was as collectively poor as the one at Anfield is a tempting invitation to finally unload some of that pent up frustration onto your bugbear.

The narrative is pre-arranged and a thoroughly deserved 5-1 defeat gives us all a skeleton upon which to hang our discontent. We all do it so some degree or other. For my part, I probably overcompensate for players that I feel are getting a hard time from the fan base in some kind of innate desire to bring balance to the argument and fight against the tide of a feeding frenzy. As if I could ever really realistically achieve that in a discussion that’s taking place between hundreds of thousands of people.

The press obviously had their narrative pre arranged and spent the fallout of the Anfield aberration hanging it squarely on the shoulders of Mesut Özil. Most of the journalists that sharpened their pens for the German probably don’t honestly believe that he was anymore responsible for the display than anybody else. But the name of their game is to create a storyline and laying the blame at the door of the record signing just makes for more interesting copy than an acute tactical breakdown.

I would argue that Özil at his worst is still one of the best, but I wouldn’t argue that he’s played close to his abilities in an Arsenal shirt yet. I really didn’t expect for him to have peaked in his first season either. It has been touched on by more sensible commentators that he’s suffering with a lack of movement ahead of him. Giroud is more of a wall to bounce passes off of for onrushing midfielders. With Ramsey and Walcott simultaneously injured, we don’t have enough players looking to run in behind defences. Giroud and Özil have suffered as a result.

Everton’s Manchester United’s defensive set up rather emphasised the issue. Without the looming spectre of Walcott galloping in behind, teams are more inclined to crowd the middle of the pitch in front of their 18 yard line and squeeze Arsenal. Until Ramsey is back, Arsenal are simply going to have to find another way to be effective in the final third. As I pointed out last week Cazorla has been able to find some goal scoring form in this context, but much of the Spaniard’s work is in front of the opposition’s defensive line.

In essence, Arsenal have an abundance of cooks but not enough diners. I wonder if the experiment to play Alex Oxlade Chamberlain in the number 8 role might be repeated against this backdrop of forward inertia. This really excellent piece by @roaminglibero provides an insightful and withering assessment of Wilshere’s recent performance in the role. It’s not just Ramsey’s forward thrust that we miss, but his energy and, crucially, the intelligence with which he deploys that energy.

Adrian Clarke made some very similar points in the always excellent ‘Breakdown’ on Arsenal Player. Wilshere has played a little too far away from Arteta to provide an out ball for the Spaniard and not close enough to Özil. In essence, he has been an island in the midfield three rather than a connecting presence, which has left Arteta and Özil looking like driftwood at times. Chamberlain has good energy levels and a desire to chase back, whether he has the tactical intelligence Ramsey has in the role remains to be seen.

The signs were positive against Crystal Palace with Chamberlain adeptly playing a deeper role in the first half, before pushing forward in the second to devastating effect. One has to consider the defensive prowess of the opposition on that occasion, but Chamberlain could at least provide some forward thrust from the position and his run for the second goal against Palace showed the kind of penetrative intuition we so lacked against Manchester United.

With lack of penetration in the final third a genuine issue it’s getting harder to understand just when Arsene Wenger deems Lukas Podolski to be a presentable option. It may be that the manager doesn’t think him to be mobile enough, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Serge Gnabry nearly always selected ahead of him. It could be that he doesn’t believe that Podolski and Cazorla can man the flanks in the same side because both have a tendency to drift in field.

I’ve never felt Podolski to be defensively irresponsible and he’s technically secure enough to fit into Arsenal’s short passing style. He rarely seems to come on when Arsenal need a goal, he rarely seems to be trusted when Arsenal are protecting a lead. It just looks pretty obvious that the manager doesn’t think he fits Arsenal’s system at all. If he’s struggling to get any playing time with Arsenal’s chief attacking threats indisposed, you rather think that the writing is on the wall.

Wenger spoke earlier this week about the prospect of Özil picking up some of the slack in front of goal. There was however a key note of concern in that interview, “The problem is that we are not practising much at the moment because we are playing every three days. We used to be able to prepare with everybody together but the problem today is that you cannot practice any more. During the season, we play every three days. After that they go to the World Cup. When they come back they have just one week before they are playing again. You can never improve on the training pitch.”

That is the challenge for Arsene Wenger. His team has to conjure more attacking variety from the raw materials they have and find a new way to offer a goal scoring threat. It seems like a remarkable thing to say given the extent to which the Gunners have spread goals around this season. Yet there was a sense in the Liverpool and United games that without Ramsey and Walcott, the bigger teams have our number going forward. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA


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