Short verdict: That was slightly better. Longer verdict: After the cowardly – and that really is the right word – non-performance at Old Trafford, it was almost inconceivable that there wouldn’t be some sort of improvement against Schalke. Though you might have wondered early on, as Arsenal laboured to keep the ball or create many meaningful chances, while Schalke looked dangerous.
Just before the 20 minute mark we caught a lucky break, as Giroud raced on to a botched headed backpass, fluffed his lines predictably, and Theo bundled home the loose ball. I’m starting to wonder if Grioud’s misses are in fact some sort of avant garde defence-confusing diversion. In any case, it was 1-0 to the Arsenal. In your face, run of play!
Deadlock broken, confidence didn’t exactly flood through the team – it was more of a gentle pissy trickle – but passes did seem to start finding feet with more regularity, and soon the big Frenchman had his redemption – stooping to bury a header from Podolski’s wicked cross. When they combine like that, as they did against West Ham, both look like the players we hoped they would be.
After that, a period of comparative comfort for Arsenal followed, which, with tragicomic inevitability, ended in conceding a goal to the last kick of the half. Cazorla slipped, Sagna and the BFG stepped up, and Huntelaar snuck in, placing his shot cooly past Mannone.
(A word on the Don: he produced very good saves in either half, and while that doesn’t make him a viable long-term option, arguably even as back-up, credit where it’s due – he kept the scoreline respectable against Utd, and probably earned us a point last night.)
Schalke’s goal had the obvious echo of our first against Reading. You only had to hear Der Crowd come to life to know what was coming after the break. And so it did. In the second half we struggled to contain them, shanking clearances and giving away corners, until eventually they got their breakthrough off the shin of the hapless Vermaelen.
Before that: Controversy! Having shrugged off his marker, Podolski was rightly enraged that the referee blew up for a treatment to the downed Schalke player. As it wasn’t a head injury, the striker (and plenty of fans) went radio rental at the denial of a clear chance. I’m not going to get my knickers too bunched, though. I’m willing to be proved wrong, but have a vague recollection that the head injury thing is a domestic league edict rather than a European competition one. In any case, it was still a bum call as the ref didn’t stop play for Coquelin late on, although perhaps because he thought the midfielder had dived.
Nonetheless, a draw feels like a fair result return and decent return against a strong side away, even if Walcott should have won it at the end – either by not making a Horlicks of his shot or by sliding in OG, with whom I’d stupidly remarked that he seemed to be building a good connection.
In his post-match interview, Walcott (who did sound ill, confirming that his virus was not of a similar piece of diagnosis to the Alumnia ‘wrist sprain’) was asked whether his lack of playing time is down to the ongoing contract wrangle. My answer: Duh! His answer: You’ll have to ask the boss. Walcott is a weird one, (not least for suggesting he hoped to win the Premier League at Arsenal this season). It’s almost irrelevant to discuss, because it now seems so certain he’s gone in January, but I’m still slightly torn on him.
On the one hand, he’s got tons of top flight experience, is probably our most convincing finisher, is homegrown and a marketing man’s dream. On that basis paying him 100k is close to being a no-brainer. You could more than cover the bump in wages simply by getting, say, Squillaci off the books. And if nothing else, there’s value in being seen to stop the bleeding in terms of key personnel hot footing it out of the club. As I wrote after Saturday, the cycle has to stop.
The counter point is that his decision making *is* still erratic. He *does* still tend to run straight into defenders. Those things *might* not be fixable at this point. However, I’m persuaded that having scored eight goals in 13 games, only four of which were starts, we simply can’t afford to be losing that kind of contribution just because a guy like Zaha at Palace is promising and cheaper.
Still, with no talks scheduled and Walcott apparently demanding assurances on his playing time (and presumably position), it’s hard to see this ending positively. It won’t be the wrench to see him go that Cesc was, or cut like RVP’s exit did, but it will surely represent another piece of contractual mismanagement.
Some other stuff…
Santi is not playing well
There was a sense that if he kept performing at the insanely high level he showed at the start of the season, most teams would struggle to live with us. Since then, his drop in form has corresponded directly to the team’s struggles. I’m not entirely convinced it’s just that he’s being marked more closely, it feels like the honest answer is he’s just not playing well right now. Perhaps no surprise given how little rest he’s had, and the creative expectations he carries, but the lesson from Cesc’s time in London has to be that one player cannot be entirely responsible for making the magic happen. Perhaps more ominously, I recall one Malaga fan cautioning that Cazorla did have a tendency to go missing when the going got tough. It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that Santi also played every league game there, but didn’t have the Champions League to contend with. A break is needed, but can we afford to give him one?
We are still a very fragile side
Honestly, ignore the stats doing the rounds about our defensive record in the League. Factor in all competitions and it looks a lot less pretty. The reality is, as pointed out in Matt Stanger’s excellent Winners & Losers column for Football 365 this week, is that no team – no team – has conceded more goals from individual errors since the start of last season. That speaks of a defence in which cock-ups are ingrained into the DNA. And you only need to shut your eyes and run your own private showreel of daft fouls, missed clearances, and own goals to know the truth of this. It was always unlikely to think Steve Bould could rebuild Rome in a single pre-season. (And a chaotically organised one at that.) The surprise was not that Schalke scored but that we kept them out for as long as we did. Their second had more than a whiff of the Keystone Cops about it, as the entire back four rushed to close the gaping hole on the left. There is still a lot of work to do.
New shoes are needed
Cazorla’s slip cost us a goal, Mertesacker stumbling almost a second, and Vermaelen seemed to play the entire match as if he was wearing ice sculptures of swans on his feet. Is it my imagination, or do our players seem to fall on their asses more often than anyone else’s do? Perhaps it’s just that the image of Gibbs taking his disastrous tumble in the Champions League semi-final is burned into our collective memory. Aaaaand here come the night terrors again.
It was an exciting match
I thought so, anyway. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m finding it harder to muster much enthusiasm for our involvement in the Champions League, especially in the group stages, given the unlikeliness of us actually challenging. However, last night we saw two talented attacking sides (I’ll leave you to decide which is the more talented squad) going for it. For much of the match the result felt in the balance, and it looked like either side could score at anytime. That’s equals excitement for me. A bit of a facile point to make, perhaps, but a reminder that Champions League football really is the pinnacle and a treat to be part of. One final caveat, though: Aside from Gibbs and Woj, that was our strongest XI out there. The inevitable conclusion is that faced with a true powerhouse – a Madrid or a Munich – things could get messy.