Disappointing loss leaves Arsenal with one trophy to chase
Arsene Wenger knows best. Just keep repeating that phrase. Arsene Wenger knows best. He knows more about football, more about his players and more about the best tactics for a particular match than we do. I’m asking you to remember that, because today’s loss to Chelsea might lead you to question the bosses wisdom. I am as big an Arsene Wenger supporter as there is, but today I was gutted by the result and by the manager’s decision making.
It could have been a real spectacle today. It was a chance to play with joy and let our wealth of attacking talent show what they have to offer. We would have forgiven the team for giving away goals considering our injury crisis at the back. All any Arsenal fan wanted today was to watch our classy attackers have a go at Chelsea’s suddenly vulnerable rear guard. We wanted a similarly aggressive 4-4-2 like we saw in midweek. We wanted to see our best players on the pitch for the big game. It’s so frustrating that Wenger chose a different approach.
Read this passage that I wrote yesterday in my FA Cup preview blog entry:
“I expect Arsene Wenger to let it ride on this match. I think he realizes that there are some very tense matches ahead of his young team and this is a chance to play with unbridled vigor rather than trying to muster a cagey, tactical display. The fact is that he doesn’t have a reliable defense available. There’s no guarantee that we can stop Chelsea from scoring even with a conservative approach. So why not just play an attack minded lineup, let them push forward and see what happens? It makes sense. We have a plethora of attacking options and we are in great goal-scoring form. If we can score three or four goals then we can win the game without a sterling defensive display. It’s a big thing to ask, but it may be the most reasonable approach.”
I genuinely believed that Wenger would have watched our performance against Villareal and decided that a good offense was our best defense. He just didn’t see it that way. In his post match comments he discussed how physical Chelsea are in midfield and that obviously weighed on his mind. He talked about squad rotation with respect to Alex Song and Samir Nasri. I don’t think any Arsenal fan would blame him for resting Song or Nasri given how important they are and how few options we have to replace them. But squad rotation doesn’t explain Arshavin’s place on the sub’s bench. He also made the claim that he started three strikers and he didn’t feel he could start four. That’s simply disingenuous.
Today’s formation was the recently discovered 4-2-3-1. Van Persie and Walcott played on the wings. Adebayor was the lone striker and he looked isolated and uninvolved for long stretches of the match. Van Persie is not as comfortable on the wing and never really made his presence felt. Cesc has openly stated that he’s more comfortable when he stays a little deepers and can control the play through midfield. We’ve looked very average in this formation in the last few weeks but Wenger wanted the comfort of two holding midfielders protecting his fragile defense. What I find so absurd about this decision, is that our defense hasn’t looked particularly solid during the last few experiements with this formation. We used it against Villareal for the first half in Spain and were lucky not to be trailing by more than a single goal.
I have a few problems with Arshavin starting on the bench. Tactically, I think Arshavin’s style is suited to playing Chelsea. But more importantly, wasn’t today’s game precisely the reason we spent a record transfer fee acquiring him? Wasn’t he supposed to be the missing piece that can give us the cutting edge required to win trophies? He can’t play in Europe and he’s been arguably our best player for the better part of two months. If you’re not going to play him in a cup semi-final against a London rival, why go get him at all? It just doesn’t make sense to save him because there’s nothing to save him for. This might have been our best shot at silverware this season and it’s certainly the only shot he had. Arsene Wenger may know more about football and his team than I do, but it’s hard to defend the decision not to start Arshavin.
In defense of Arsene Wenger and his tactics, Arsenal were leading in this game. We grabbed the first goal during a good spell of possession and through some nice team play. Gibbs, who had one of the few excellent games out of our back four, played a ball through the box that found Walcott for a confident finish across goal. The best part of the goal, and of the game as it turns out, was that the ball was helped into the net by Cashley Cole’s hand. Unfortunately it didn’t take Cole’s hand off his wrist, but good enough. We did create a few other half-chances, but really that was the high point for Arsenal at Wembley.
Wenger pointed out quite rightly that both Chelsea goals were soft. He’s right. On another day, with another keeper, we very easily could have won the game 1-0. We did score first, we did keep them somewhat at bay, and we didn’t conceed many clear cut chances. In fact, I don’t recall Fabianski having to make a single important save during the entire 90 minutes. But anyone that thought we were going to win this game with a single goal was being overly optomistic. The signs were there right from the start that we might conceed some suspect goals. Were it not for Kieran Gibbs we would have been trailing 1-0 very early in the game after Fabianski decided to go strolling out of the box to meet Drogba. The big Ivorian had the simple task of heading the ball towards our net with Fabianski powerless to stop him. Fortunately Gibbs was able to chase back and clear off the line. Sadly, it was foreshadowing of things to come.
As the game ticked towards 90 minutes with the score tied 1-1, something I wrote yesterday came flooding back to mind.
“With all the weakness on defense, if this game is close late, there’s likely to be a mistake at the back that gifts one side the winning goal.”
No sooner had I thought about it, then it was happening before my eyes. As poor as the first Chelsea goal was, the second was heart-breaking. It was no surprise that a simple long ball to Drogba proved our undoing. Lampard played the ball forward, Silvestre couldn’t handle Drogba, Fabianksi got himself caught out in no-man’s land, and Drogba simply had to touch the ball around our ‘keeper to slot the ball into an empty net. It was not a goal fit for winning a cup semi-final, but it certainly fit the game. Didier Drogba has single handedly heaped more misery on Arsenal than any striker in recent memory. His goal scoring talley against us is remarkable and unfortunately it serves to perpetuate the belief that we can be pushed around. In fairness, there’s probably a lot of strikers out there that would love a shot at our current back four.
It’s easy to continue to pile the criticism on Arsene Wenger after today’s match, but there’s no avoiding the issue of his substitutions. I have long believed that substitution decisions are not Arsene Wenger’s strongest attribute. Today was no exception. Wenger waited until the 76th minute to replace Van Persie with Arshavin. I would rather have seen Andrei come in for Denilson but we now know that Van Persie was suffering with…wait for it…wait for it…a groin injury! (What the heck are these players doing to their groins?) Considering that Arshavin replaced Van Persie due to injury it makes you wonder if he would have played at all had RVP not been injured. You can defend the late subsitution by suggesting that there could have been 30 minutes of extra time, but you must live with the actual consequences of your actions. There was no extra time, and Arhsavin had a mere 14 minutes to make an impact.
Bendtner replaced Adebayor in the 82nd minutes. Another like-for-like substitution that left us playing in that miserable 4-2-3-1 formation. It wasn’t until the 86th minute, AFTER Drogba had scored the winner, that Wenger brought on Nasri for Denilson and switched to the 4-4-2. For a moment at the end of the game, I actually thought we were going to get the necessary second goal. That’s how fragile Chelsea’s defense looked as we pressured them late-on. It’s a shame we didn’t have the chance to play that way throughout.
It’s also amazing that Wenger has stuck by Denilson. Perhaps he will be a great player one day, but that day looks far off. He was particularly atrocious today, and that’s coming from a person who thinks he’s pretty bad most of the time. Chelsea’s two most threatening moves of the day were started after terrible give aways by Denilson on basic passes. I realize that he was a key player for us when we were struggling with midfield injuries, but with our midfield restored, he really doesn’t belong on the pitch. And Diaby continue to confound supporters. He can look so confident and classy in one game, and then look lost another. Unfortunately, today was his day to look lost. He could have redeemed himself by getting on the end of a Walcott cross early in the second half, but it just eluded him.
There were some bright spots for Arsenal today. Theo Walcott’s development has been remarkable. You can only wonder how he would be playing right now had he not missed a few months with a shoulder injury, but there’s no denying that he’s in top form at the moment. He may rely on his pace too much, and he probably doesn’t deliver enough quality balls into the box, but he is a constant threat and defenders look scared to death when he runs at them. Today he was our best attacking option by leaps and bounds. Kieran Gibbs looked good today too. He obviously has the talent going forward, (he was converted into a defender from the midfield) but he showed little frailty at the back today. As bad as Emmanuel Eboue was in the first half, he deserves credit for picking himself up at half-time. He really did put in a good 45 minutes after the break.
So that’s the end of our FA Cup run. I wrote yesterday that this was an expendable competition. I still believe that’s true. Despite everything to hate about our performance today we were leading in the match and we had a chance to get the result until a terrible goal-keeping error at the death. I was gutted by the defeat but mostly because we didn’t get to see our best players come out and bring the game to Chelsea. We played not to lose and that’s not our game. Today’s result is made more disappointing by the fact that Chelsea weren’t great. In fact, they were barely ordinary. With a more attack minded approach, we really could have taken the game to them and probably won the match comfortably. But that’s obviously just conjecture at this point. If any good can come from this match, it will be the death of that dreaded 4-2-3-1 formation. I don’t expect to see two holding midfielders many more times this season. If we do see that again, I wouldn’t be surprised if the outcome is the same as today.
There is some good news today. Aston Villa were pegged back at home by West Ham thanks to an 85th minute Diego Tristan goal. That means that we can breath a little easier when we head to Anfield on Tuesday. Depending on the result we get against Liverpool, we might actually be rooting for Everton to beat Chelsea the very next day. More good news came from the bottom of the table where Hull City now sit just above the relegation zone. They lost today to drop into 16th place and could be just a single point out of relegation depending on Newcastle’s next result. Seeing Phil Brown’s club relegated would be a nice little boost to Arsenal fans everywhere.
It’s Anfield on Tuesday and another big match for Arsenal. I think we’ll learn a lot about our team and Arsene Wenger in that match. Will Wenger have the confidence to line up his team to attack, or will he stubbornly stick with his conservative formation? We won’t have long to wait for the answer. And the answer we get will probably have an impact on our Champions League tie as well. More than anything, we must not hang our heads after today’s setback. There are still many crucial games ahead and the biggest trophy still within our grasp. It’s been a long time since an Arsenal player has tasted defeat (the second leg against Roma notwithstanding) and hopefully the players will have short memories. By tomorrow morning we should still be filled with all the confidence of a team on a very creditable run. For young players confidence is critical and it could take a severe beating over the next few weeks. Let’s hope that they have the fortitude to stay completely focused until mid-may.
Based on what I saw on twitter today, most of us were really gutted by the loss. There was also a lot of frustration and most of it was coming squarely from yours truely. So at the risk of being hypocritical, let’s try to keep positive. The team will really need our support over the next few weeks and we can’t afford to give in to negativity. Let’s just put this loss behind us and move on.