It’s hard to know what to do with yourself after a result like yesterday’s. You want to lash out like a scorpion attached to a windmill on final spin – but nothing about that idea makes sense, so instead you’re more likely to take to social media and stamp your feet like some sort of super baby sent from Krypton to complain. In the end I opted for the third way: sulking furiously until it actually upset my other half. Shameful stuff, and with the benefit of a night’s sleep I want to try to avoid having too shrieky an overreaction.
However, I also think that with half the season under our belts and the window open, it’s a reasonable time to assess how far we’ve come from the dark days at the start of the season. But first let’s look at what actually went wrong in the second half against Fulham. The blamey finger was being pointed in a number of directions last night, and in my view incorrectly so…
Excuse #1: The players were tired
Well, sure. Football is tiring and they’ve played a lot of it over the Christmas period. But here’s the crucial thing: so have Fulham. In fact, thanks to their involvement in the torpors of the Europa League’s qualifying stages, Fulham have been playing since June 30th. We all know the real reason our players are gassed – and a few of them do look out on their feet – and that’s because for all Arsene’s talk of carrying a big squad, there’s almost no-one beyond the 1st XI he trusts to start league fixtures. And when you examine that squad closely, you find a number of players who for varying reasons are making no contribution whatsoever – Almunia is washed up, Chamberlain isn’t trusted yet, Squillaci is Squillaci, Park may be a figment of our collective imaginations, and Gibbs and Diaby are so knack prone that they’re close to being scrapped for spare parts. That’s six players just off the top of my head who’ve offered nothing in the league this season. Squilliaci you might argue has offered less than zero.
You may think I’m being harsh on young Gibbs, but the fact remains that he’s currently our incumbent left back and only the most reckless gambler would rely on him. I believe the stat doing the rounds is that he’s never started five consecutive games. You need to factor that into the maths when you’re saying, ‘well, we wouldn’t want to end up carrying five fit fullbacks’. At best, you should only be counting Gibbs as 0.5 of a fullback. The player I do have sympathy for is Chamberlain. You only have to see the impact of 18 year-old Kerim Frei from Fulham’s bench to wonder why our lad isn’t getting more chances.
Excuse #2: It’s an injury crisis
Yeah, but when isn’t it? Let’s also be more specific: It’s a defensive injury crisis. And our biggest problem wasn’t the defence yesterday, it was our two wingers’ trademark profligacy in front of goal. The fact is that in midfield and attack we only have one significant absentee: Wilshere. And while he’s obviously a big miss, being without one of your main players during a season is hardly unusual. Chelsea have been without Essien for the season so far, Liverpool have lost Lucas for the remainder of it. It’s up to the manager to create a squad which can absorb injuries, a point I tried to make a bit more coherently here. My biggest worry at the moment isn’t our banjaxed defence, it’s that the goals are drying up again, as confirmed by this stat lifted from Gingers 4 Limpar: Since Wigan away, Arsenal have averaged just one goal per game. We’re not killing teams off when we have the chance.
And boy did we have chances yesterday. Scuffed, shanked and screwed wide. The old cliché is that Arsenal want to walk the ball in, and the unwelcome tendency to overplay has been a feature of the last few games. Ball retention is all well and good, but constantly looking for someone better positioned than you to take the shot, to make it a sure thing, often leads to the opposition having time to reorganise and ultimately clear their lines. Here’s how annoying it got: at one point yesterday I actually found myself calling for the Russian to come on in place of the woeful Walcott, beacause at least he isn’t afraid to put his laces through the ball.
Excuse #3: We lacked desire and/or passion in the 2nd half
I’m not having that. All this endless talk of passion is just so much TalkSport bunk.From everything I’ve read about Arsene he believes in sending his team out as calm as possible, because the evidence is that relaxed players perform better. So why the drop off in the second half? Well here’s where I think we did get it wrong. I think the manager sent the team out to contain Fulham and hit on the break. Fine in theory, and we’ve certainly seen out some one-goal wins recently – think Norwich, Villa and Everton – but in none of those matches has the team had to defend for an entire half. After the break we stood off Fulham and let them play. A critical mistake, because since their draw with Chelsea Jol has been packing the team with quality ball-players. Which is also largely why when we played a high tempo in the first half the pressure on them led to plenty of space for our forwards.
Trying to play with the proverbial handbrake on yesterday was, for me, a glaring tactical error – we’re simply not good enough to be able to stop a team like Fulham from playing just by popping the ball about. It was much the same against Wolves when we dropped a gear after scoring, and it’s a shame to see this habit, which I associate more with the ‘old’ team, creeping back in. You can argue about whether it’s the players or the manager instigating the change in style once we’ve scored, but ultimately it’s up to Arsene to recognise it’s having a damaging effect. As I’m entirely sure he does. I can’t imagine anyone’s more frustrated by our finishing than he is right now.
Excuse #4: The ref had a shocker
Again yes, but what’s new? I don’t have much complaint to make about the Djourou sending off, as it was in the post from the moment he got booked, and if anything he could have been binned before. Zamora certainly went down easily considering he’s the size of a Sherman tank, but the minute the sleepy-eyed Swiss put his arm across it was inevitable what was going to happen. The Gervinho penalty is trickier. With the benefit of replays it looked clear cut, but at full speed my initial reaction was not. Partly due to his flailing arms and feeble appeal.
I don’t want to get into conspiracy theories because given the choice I always assume incompetence is to blame rather than any sort of evil masterplan. But there is something odd about the number of penalties Arsenal are awarded. By my reckoning it’s just two in the league all season – at Old Trafford and against Villa. That seems awfully low for a team of our attacking intent. Is it a hangover from the Eduardo embargo? Or perhaps a more nebulous perception that our players are lightweight and go down easily built up over years of ‘same old Arsenal, always cheating’ bullshit? I don’t know. What I do know is it’ll be incredibly hard to fix. At least twice our players were bodychecked in the box and the referee couldn’t have looked less interested. Presumably we can also thank Warnock’s bleating for the fact RVP was manhandled all match without getting any change from the officials.
So what can we do? I don’t want anyone to think it’s all doom. Arsenal isn’t broken. The fact this squad has clambered out of the pit it found itself in at the end of August is a huge credit to the players and, especially, the manager. The question now though, with the club teetering on the brink of fourth, is how much further can we go? How much more can we expect out of the likes of Song, Arteta and Van Persie if they have to play almost every match in every competition? Of course throwing money at the problem isn’t always the answer, but let’s also be honest and admit that making key signings like Arteta and Santos has been a big reason why we were able to get out of Dodge.
Looking at the squad now, the balance still isn’t right. You might well hate the transfer window and all the nonsense that goes with it, but the fact remains it offers the manager one of very few opportunities to tweak and recalibrate the team. This January may also be the last opportunity we have to reassure RVP of our ambition before crunch talks in the summer. At this point, if the only business we do is Henry in on loan I’ll be very disappointed indeed.