Every (Away) Day Is Like Sunday

Arsenal’s away form has been a going concern for the entire season- the Gunners waited until October 22nd for their first win on the road. A quirk of the fixture list meant that Arsene Wenger’s side went 6 weeks without an away fixture recently and a little momentum was built with consecutive home wins against Watford, Stoke City and Southampton.

By now, we are familiar with the damning statistic that the Gunners are the only side in the top 5 divisions not to have taken a single point away from home in 2018. (They were also knocked out of the FA Cup at the first attempt at Nottingham Forest’s City Ground). Last week I wrote about Arsenal’s excellent scoring record at home, so why the discrepancy away from Emirates Stadium?

There’s a lot to unpack here and James and Andrew circulated a revealing stat on this week’s Arsecast Extra around Alexis Sanchez’s direct involvement in the Gunners’ last 9 away victories. That run stretches back to 2nd October 2016, when Laurent Koscielny Welbecked a 95th minute winner into the Burnley net at Turf Moor.

This is also a significant date because it was the last time that Santi Cazorla played an away match for the club. When Cazorla hobbled out of the Ludogorets home game a fortnight later, much of Arsenal’s midfield structure went down the tunnel with him. Like Santi, it has, regrettably, not yet returned.

Santi was Arsenal’s foundation and Alexis plays with the sort of intensity often required away from home in the Premier League. The Chilean was frustrating at times and often wasteful, but he also had the ability to raise the intensity of Arsenal’s attacking game. This is what I think a lot of the team’s troubles away from home boil down to- an inability to cope when the opposition up the ante.

This is why, to my mind, Wenger’s side have tossed away one goal leads on so many occasions on the road. Newcastle, Swansea, Bournemouth and Watford have all been able to overcome concession of the opening goal to defeat Arsenal this season. West Brom were also able to equalise immediately after Sanchez’s late free kick at the Hawthorns but, in truth, that was courtesy of a very harsh penalty call.

This problem goes back to December 2016. Arsenal went into the break one goal to the good at the Etihad, but were swept away by a blue tidal wave in the second half. Guardiola’s side raised their tempo and the visitors were comfortably dealt with. The team repeated the trick three days later at Goodison Park, relinquishing a 1-0 half time advantage as the Toffeemen threw off the shackles and advanced for the jugular in the second half.

Those matches against Everton and City have set an undesirable precedent. When teams raise the tempo, Arsenal are ripe for exploitation. A few weeks later in January 2017, Bournemouth roared into a three goal lead at the Vitality Stadium, a game in which the Cherries broke a Premier League record for ground covered. Arsenal could not live with the pace set by the home side until their legs gave way and a triumvirate of late goals rescued a point.

It was a pattern that continued with meek away defeats at Crystal Palace, West Brom and Tottenham and the lethargy has bled into this campaign. Some of Arsenal’s rare away victories during the season have been revealing too. The 5-2 win at Everton stands out as an exception to the rule. At Selhurst Park in December, Palace were twice let back into the game.

Each time Arsenal had them at arm’s length, Palace dispensed with caution and forced a goal to keep the game alive. At Burnley in November, Sanchez’s penalty came so late that the Clarets simply did not have time to reset their momentum. Had Alexis’ penalty been converted in the 71st minute, as opposed to the 91st, this unhappy pattern could well have held.

Even with Cazorla in the side, Arsenal struggled with top class pressing teams. They were comfortably dismantled at Dortmund back in September 2014, floundered against Liverpool’s high press three months later at Anfield and have regularly laboured against Pochettino’s Tottenham. But with the loss of a few pivotal players, even an average pressing team can sweep the Gunners aside with a fairly brief change of pace.

Klopp’s Liverpol thrashed them out of sight back in August. Arsenal held firm in the first half against Spurs at Wembley, but after the break, Tottenham went into boa constrictor mode and despite late chances for Lacazette, 1-0 was a flattering score line in the end. Arsene just doesn’t seem to have an answer when teams go into attack dog mode with a boisterous home crowd behind them.

A lot of this is because the squad has a poor physical profile. There is a real emphasis on athleticism in the Premier League at the moment and Arsenal lack that combination of power and pace. It’s not just off the ball that this athletic inadequacy manifests itself. The team did not only dance to Sanchez’s tune because he is a good player, or even a selfish one.

It was largely because he was the only player Arsenal had left who was capable of raising the attacking intensity. I repeat this observation often, but the squad has shed all of its ball carriers. The likes of Tomas Rosicky, Santi Cazorla and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain had the ability to carry the ball over long distances when the short combination passes the team usually favours either were not working or were not appropriate for the situation.

Currently, there is a lack of ‘kitchen sink’ footballers in the squad, so when Arsenal do find themselves behind late in a game, their only recourse is to pass the ball from side to side. Arsene threw four centre forwards into the fray at St. James’ Park on Sunday, but they did not produce a shot between them because nobody could fetch them the ball.

Giroud’s effectiveness was neutered prior to his sale to Chelsea for similar reasons. When Walcott and Chamberlain were sold, Olivier’s balls were cut off both figuratively and literally. By the end, he was circling the penalty area totally starved of service- a feeling his successors Lacazette and Aubameyang are already well familiar with.

There are other factors at play when it comes to Arsenal’s impoverished away form. The fitful availability of Ramsey and Özil has not helped, there are ‘soft’ factors like confidence. And sometimes, hell, you just lose football matches. There is a lot more chaos in the game than many of us like to admit (especially by those of us that write about it…….)

It’s easy to be wise after the fact and to thread narratives together when a stark pattern emerges, like Arsenal’s appalling away record. But I do think a lot of it is attributable to a failure to cope with a spike in the opposition’s purpose. This is a squad that lacks intensity- with and without the ball. Which is not as big an issue against unambitious sides at the Emirates, away from home, it’s proved to be a different, but familiar story.

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Renowned Arsenal historians Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews and I have written a book about the tumultuous early years of Arsenal Football Club covering the period 1886 – 1893. ‘Royal Arsenal- Champions of the South’ is available for pre-order here.