Thursday, April 25, 2024

Sunderland 0-0 Arsenal: Make it stop

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Arsene Wenger speaking before the Sunderland game and the fact we had just played on Thursday: “It’s no problem. In fact, there’s a very interesting study that has come out from Uefa that shows that the points taken by the teams three days later are not less than after four or five days. It’s the opposite and that is quite interesting.”

Arsene Wenger speaking after the Sunderland game: “The fact that we played Sunday, Thursday and then today, we suffered a little bit physically in the second half and then the game was much more difficult for us.”

Now, I’d be more of the opinion that of course playing games in quick succession does have an effect. I wouldn’t classify it as ‘no problem’, but it’s an issue that all teams in that kind of schedule have to deal with. It’s how you manage your side that’s the key, I guess, and Wenger’s decision to play the same starting XI as he did against West Brom shows he obviously believes that UEFA/No problem stuff, but you can’t then use the fixtures as an excuse for poor performance.

The first half was, in fairness, better than our second. Iwobi shot just wide early on; Vito Mannone made an excellent save from an Alexis free kick, and another from a header; but we can’t also ignore the fact they had decent efforts too, not least a free kick which rebounded away from the corner of the bar and post.

There were penalty shouts at both ends, against Mertesacker and Yedlin. I think the referee probably got them right, but you’ve definitely seen them given. Having not penalised our handball though, which came after a terrible Hector Bellerin header, he couldn’t really give us one for theirs.

In the second period we had Petr Cech to thank for keeping us in it, making a couple of excellent saves, as Sunderland looked the most likely to score. Our attacking threat was summed up by the sight of a hopelessly out of form Olivier Giroud struggling to make any impact on the game. Watching him out on the left wing – trying a back heel that didn’t come off because he realised he was the person things were supposed to be crossed to – wasn’t just reflective of him but this team as a whole.

Wenger threw on Walcott and Welbeck for Iwobi and Giroud. The latter understandable, the former not so much. When, against West Brom, Walcott and Joel Campbell were introduced with just a few minutes to go the Costa Rican almost scored, and had some genuine impact. It probably tells you everything you need to know about where he stands in the manager’s pecking order that he was left sidelined for Walcott yesterday.

He did, to be fair to him, put in a couple of half-decent crosses, but the moment when he jumped out of the way of a challenge that could have created something dangerous was just abysmal on any level.

Leaving aside what looked to me an obvious free kick and a potential red card for the foul on Welbeck, Walcott’s first thought was self-preservation. It’s beyond words how bad it is. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of criticism for him on a personal level, and I’m not here to defend him in any way, but he is a footballer shaped in the image of this team – nice, content to coast along, afraid to take any risks, and ultimately under-productive. That reflects as much on the man picking the team as it does the player himself.

Last week Arsene Wenger said Theo Walcott had to make up his mind what he wanted to be. Wrong. It’s the manager’s job to know what he can and can’t be. It’s his job not indulge his TJ and Roy of the Rovers Centre-Forward fantasies and either shape him into a player that works in this team or not. And ten years on it’s not.

As for Giroud, the manager said afterwards:

At the moment Olivier Giroud cannot score.

So why pick him? The only reason I can think of is Welbeck is feeling his knee after playing regularly since coming back from injury. He went on to say of the Frenchman:

I think he will come back. He has gone through spells like this before.

No, no he hasn’t. He’s scored in just one of his last 20 games for the club. He’s always had little dry spells, but nothing like this. At no point in his Arsenal career has he endured such a barren period in front of goal (see his goals in 2012/13, 2013/14, and 2014/15). He doesn’t help himself much either, he did a great impression of a man determined not to make an impact yesterday, but I’d say his confidence is at rock-bottom.

The most damning thing about this spell that he’s going through is that he is still, by some distance, our leading scorer this season. It definitely tells you something about him, but also the state of this squad and why we’re so toothless so often.

Afterwards, the manager pointed to the fact Sunderland were fighting for their lives, saying:

There are teams that are taking it a little bit easier that you see some games and you think you would like to play them now – the teams that are safe and do not go for Europe. Then you have the teams that go for something at the front and the teams that fight not go down and they are different games.

He’s putting his own team into the bracket of those that ‘go for something at the front’, but in reality they look a lot more like one of those that are ‘taking it a little bit easier’. It’s not as if there isn’t something to play for, the top four is in genuine jeopardy right now, but you can’t tell me that was an Arsenal team that played with full intensity yesterday.

There was a moment when Ramsey had the ball in midfield, he looked around, held it, then rolled a trickling pass to Ozil who, belatedly, had moved into some space. I wonder if their apparent apathy is partly based in confusion, because one more we saw an Arsenal team that no coherent game plan or style to their football. At a live Arsecast last season, Philippe Auclair described Wenger as a ‘jazzer’, but this team looks less Miles John Coltrane and more Robbie Coltrane.

You can only improvise properly if you know how to play your instruments, and we look like men that have never played together before. And then you throw on Theo Walcott to blunder around with his rusty trumpet. It’s sad, it’s as boring as it’s ever been under Arsene Wenger, and it’s impossible not to be worried that he still can’t produce any kind of cohesive football.

They look like they’ve switched off. I don’t doubt they want to win, and Ozil’s frustration was clear at one point, but psychologically they’re on holidays already. Bizarre moments like Laurent Koscielny ducking out of the way of a corner when he had no idea who was behind him are indicative of a group of players who just want this season over and done with.

And in some ways that’s something to connect with because that’s pretty much how I feel. If I could take fourth now and just switch off that would be enough. As it is, with the way we’re playing, I worry that there’s a sting in the tail of this campaign.

If there was a positive it’s that Jack Wilshere made his comeback, but imagine a beaker full of straws sitting just out of reach and me desperately clutching at them. That’s where we are.

All in all another dismal day in what has been a dismal season.

James and I will be chewing over the bones of this one, and other stuff, in the Arsecast Extra. If you have questions or topics for discussion, please send to @gunnerblog and @arseblog on Twitter with the hashtag #arsecastextra.

The podcast will be up for you around mid-morning. Until then.

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