Adebayor’s moment of brilliance overshadows mixed performance
There’s so much to reflect on from tonight’s game, perhaps we’ll try something different. Rather than simply reminding you what happened in Spain, let’s review the match based on what we learned tonight.
Football is a result driven business:
Not everything I have to say about tonight’s game is positive. But forget that for a moment. We got a result tonight that favors us. That’s most important. Regardless of everything else to dissect and discuss, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the team came back from a deficit and got a very positive result.
Goals change games:
Adebayor scored the goal of the season as far as I’m concerned. Predictably, it was Fabregas that got him the ball ahead of the defense. Ade was amazingly played on-side. (Yes, I said “on-side.”) He controlled the ball well with his back to goal, and produced a moment of sheer acrobatic brilliance to bicycle the ball into the net. That he even thought to try the maneuver deserves credit. The fact that he pulled it off is a reminder why he’s worth keeping around. Until that moment, Arsenal had been tame in attack and created very little. Villareal were remarkably effective in possession and I can’t remember seeing Arsenal struggle that much to keep the ball in any match this season.
After the goal, it was a different game and one that we surely could have won. We were more aggressive, got forward with pace and put Villareal under real pressure. Had the service been better in a few key moments, there was another goal to be had. Walcott was guilty of missing Adebayor for a drag back, as was Gael Clichy. Nasri produced a poor pass to Walcott driving into the box unmarked. Had there been just one better pass, it might have been 2-1. But the goal changed the game and the tie. A 1-1 draw after the away leg is a big advantage, and there can be no doubt that we are now favored to advance to the semi-final where Porto may actually be waiting for us.
This formation is not our best:
I understand that Wenger’s options were limited by available players. I realize that there are some very intelligent proponents of the 4-2-3-1 (or 4-5-1 if you prefer). My opinion is simply that it’s not our best. Villareal are a better side than Manchester City and our lack of attacking options really showed tonight. Adebayor looked stranded for long stretches of the match. Frankly, he did almost nothing at all for an hour. As on Saturday, Fabregas never looked like joining the attack. He wasn’t able to get himself into real scoring positions. It’s just not the strength of his game as far as I’m concerned. But if the central attacking midfielder doesn’t join the attack in this formation, then you start running out of options very quickly. On more than one occasion, Walcott found himself in good positions on the wing without anyone to cross to in the box.
Late in the game it seemed like Nasri started to play a more central role. It looked more like a 4-4-1-1. That seemed to suit our attacking players better. But I have to reiterate that my problem with this formation is that you have two players in Song and Denilson that really contribute very little to the attack. Walcott has yet to prove that he can be a regular goal scorer and Cesc is more of a provider than a finisher. Ultimately, it really leaves you wondering where the goals will come from. When we play the return leg, Wenger will be tempted to start the same XI (minus the injured gunners of course). I hope he chooses otherwise. I would love to see a traditional 4-4-2 with RVP joining Adebayor in attack. Let Nasri and Walcott bomb down the wings, and give Cesc more options to pick out from midfield. I believe that we can hold Villareal off the scoresheet with Song as our lone holding midfielder and it will help tremendously if we have more possession.
Some of our players aren’t good enough (or focused enough) for top competition:
I hate to be negative when the team pulled out a hard fought and very helpful draw, but there are a few players that deserve the critique. I’m not a fan of Denilson. It’s obvious to anyone that reads this blog. But I just don’t understand what others see in his play. He was poor today. He’s been poor all season. And it’s not just his attacking play that’s below par. Denilson isn’t good enough to start for Arsenal at the moment.
If we have aspirations of winning domestic and European trophies, then Denilson isn’t the caliber player we need in the spine of our team. His passing is dreadfully inaccurate unless it’s moving laterally. His tackling is almost always reckless and the fouls he commits usually put the team under intense pressure. Marcos Senna’s goal was well struck, but Denilson failed to track back and close him down. Why play two midfielders right in front of the back-four if they’re not going to close down a 25 yard shot? Denilson could have filled that space but he didn’t. If you watch that game again and focus on Denilson, you’ll see what I saw. And don’t tell me that it’s the role he’s being asked to play, because Song’s role is similar and he executes it with far better quality. I’m not saying Denilson will never be a top player, but he’s not good enough to be a regular starter for a team with Arsenal’s ambition.
Everyone loves Gael Clichy but he is a sloppy player. He has all the pace and talent in the world, but he simply doesn’t apply himself properly. As well-liked as he is among Arsenal supporters, you would think that he never makes a mistake. But in many ways, Clichy is the anti-Sagna. Bacary is solid. He’s consistent. He makes few mistake defensively and gets involved in the attack. Clichy on the other hand, makes so many unnecessary, unforced errors in defense. Last season he single-handedly pulled us out of the title chase. (That may be harsh but let’s run with it.) This season, he was culpable for our most disappointing result; the 4-4 draw with Sp*rs. Tonight, he certainly could have gotten closer to Senna, and on several occasions he was back to his new habit of giving attacking players acres of space to operate.
What bothers me is that Clichy’s problems are not from a lack of ability, but from a lack of either focus or commitment. I’m further convinced of this because his best performances in a long time came right before the international break when he knew that he was in a close competition with Patrice Evra for the France left-back position. When he’s challenged, he can clearly deliver the performance. Right now, he doesn’t seem like he can be arsed. He depends so much on his pace, but that can only take him so far. And as far as his contributions in attack are concerned, it’s not happening for him at the moment. I really hope he gets this sorted out, because he’s a hugely important player for us and he has the tools to be very special.
There is a big difference between world-class talent and everyone else
We’ve spent most of this season rooting for players like Song, Denilson, Bendtner, Eboue, etc. But teams that win big trophies have world class talent. There’s no substitute for a player that can produce a moment of sheer genius that changes a match. United have Rooney and Ronaldo. Chelsea have Essien and Drogba. Liverpool have Gerrard and Torres. And for most of this season we have been missing Cesc and Adebayor. They are all world-class players and their influence can’t be replaced when it’s missing. Full credit to the players whom have tried to make up the numbers this season, but it’s stars like Cesc and Ade and Theo and Van Persie that can win you the major competitions.
We put together a very decent run domestically without our stars. But we also gave away points that we should have taken. We really haven’t faced stiff competition domestically for a long long time. When that competition arrives on your doorstep, you need your best talent. Tonight we saw just how important it can be. We were dominated for half of the match and rarely threatened the Villareal goal. But one nice pass from Cesc and incredible finishing by Ade erased all the good work that the yellow submarine had produced. If we want to progress to the semis and beyond, we’ll need all our stars available. Can you imagine facing Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Toure, Henry and Eto’o with the likes of Bendtner, Denilson, Song, and Eboue? It just isn’t enough firepower. But Ade, RVP, Nasri, Theo, Cesc and Diaby (and Rosicky…) could give them a run for their money. We can make arguments for our marginal players all we want, but it’s the top-quality Gunners that need to step-up from now until the end of our season.
There is no such thing as “full fitness” for this Arsenal team:
Wouldn’t it be fun to see Arsene Wenger give a press conference where he didn’t have to update key injuries? Don’t expect it to happen any time soon. Tonight’s game was heavily influenced by the loss of Almunia and Gallas to injuries. The former re-injured his ankle and looks ready to miss a few weeks. The latter may have done his medial knee ligament and could be gone for the season. It’s more bad new for an Arsenal team that have been beset by injuries all season long. Almunia’s injury may have played a part in the ‘keeper failing to get close to Marcos Senna’s long rage blast. There’s not question that the injuries strongly impacted Wenger’s options. By the second half we had used two substitutions. Bendtner was almost surely in line for at least 20 minutes of action, but he couldn’t be used. Whatever tactical changes Arsene had in mind, he couldn’t make them by changing personnel.
There’s no question that Almunia’s injury is a concern but he’ll be back and Fabianski is a useful back-up ‘keeper. Gallas’ injury is more worrying. If he’s out the rest of the season then the central defensive duties rest with Toure and Djourou. Johan had looked good a few months ago, but stumbled recently. Hopefully he can be solid the rest of the way, but he’ll be facing some of the finest attacking talent in the world over the next two months. More importantly, we now CANNOT suffer another central defensive injury. That would mean significant playing time for Mikael Silvestre which is unthinkable. I probably jinxed Gallas in a previous blog when I expressed my concern that Wenger would soon be tempted to start Silvestre. I didn’t mean that it would be due to injury.
So once again it’s two steps forward and two steps back in the injury department. Eduardo, Van Persie and Diaby should all be back soon, but it’s now the defense’s turn to be short-staffed. Finger’s crossed that Gallas’ scan somehow comes back better than Wenger fears.
There is a little feeling of destiny to this seaon’s Champions League run
In the last round we faced Roma. Not a terrible draw. Then they lost Di Rossi for the second leg. Then we won the tie on an improbably penalty shootout comeback. We dodged another bullet drawing Villareal. They lost Cazorla the game before the first leg. We played poorly for much of the match but scored a crucial away goal on an absolutely stunning stike from our recently restored front-man. And now the biggest twist of all; Manchester United conceeded two away goals to Porto. Although they can still easily travel to Potugal and get a win, anything short of victory will likely see the Portuguese champions progress. While they wouldn’t be an easy team to beat, I think we’d all like our chances better against Porto than United. So our path to the final could be much more straight forward than anyone would have imagined. (Seriously, Roma, Villareal, Porto is not exactly the gauntlet by Champions League standards.) But that is surely getting way too far ahead of ourselves. Right now our tie with Villareal is still finely balanced and we must stay focused (and healthy).
Arshavin’s inability to play in Europe has hurt us
Arshavin’s quality has been a big part of our domestic revival. He is extremely clever and creates so many chances for himself and others. Were he available for us in Europe, I think it would have made us a much more dangerous side. Watching the match tonight, his absence was one of the obvious differences. Even though he had one of his less impressive games against Citeh, he still created a handful of beautiful openings. (I particularly liked his one-two with Song.) It will be fun watching him play for us in the Champions League next season. (Notice the assumption I made there? Let’s just leave it alone.)
Tomorrow I’ll cover the rest of the European matches and add some quotes from the players and the manager in response to tonight’s game. No matter what your opinion of our performance tonight, you should be sleeping soundly with the knowledge that we’re now favorites to progress to the semi-finals.
To the supporters that made the trip to Spain, great work. The rest of us are jealous and proud.