The good, the bad, the good
We suffered another troubling injury when Johan Djourou left the match with a knee problem.
It appears there’s another injury plagued team in Europe. Villareal lost Marcos Senna to a leg injury in their 2-0 loss to Malaga. Senna will miss the trip to the Emirates on Wednesday.
Today’s match will be discussed by many observers as a tale of two halves. I prefer to see the game as a tale of two formations. Today’s game may have put a final nail in the coffin for the suddenly popular 4-2-3-1 formation. For the first half of today’s game, Theo and Arshavin looked a bit lost and uninvolved. For whatever the reason, this formation appears to stifle the wide players. Arshavin in particular has had his poorest Arsenal moments playing in the 4-2-3-1. At half-time, Wenger moved Walcott into the second striker role and pushed Denilson out wide to the right to create a traditional 4-4-2. As the game progressed we became even more attack minded with the arrival of Adebayor and Van Persie. No matter how weak our back four gets, I still think we’re a better team when we field an attack-minded side. This is particularly true in the Premier League. Once we brought on the additional attacking players today, Wigan really couldn’t keep up.
The match started slowly but I don’t think we were as poor as some will suggest. Bendtner had a chance to put away a header and we created some openings in the first 15 minutes that could have been exploited with some better deliveries into the box. Wigan did have the better of the game in the first 45 but a lot of our problems were self-made. There was some uncertain defending by Gibbs as he struggled with his confidence and Wigan’s goal was down to shambolic defending on a set-piece. Worryingly, Fabianski didn’t look comfortable on more than one occasion.
The formation just didn’t seem natural for Arshavin or Walcott and Bendtner looked hopelessly alone in attack. As uncomfortable as we looked at the back, I thought the real concern was our lack of cutting edge going forward. There’s just no good reason to have both Denilson and Song on the pitch at the same time. We have too many talented players for them both to be starting. And while it’s a nice idea to have Cesc play farther up the field, I’m not sure it suits his game. Some of his best passing is done deeper in midfield.
Alan Wiley’s decision to give Gibbs only a yellow card at the end of the first half was probably a little bit kind, but we have certainly been on the wrong side of some bad decisions this season so there’s little else to say about that. Gibbs stayed on, and the second half was a vast improvement.
After half-time the to change to a 4-4-2 started paying dividends almost immediately. Arshavin was popping up all over the field and Theo was more dangerous. Our first goal was emblematic of the improvement with Bendtner heading-on to Arshavin who used quick feet and quicker thinking to push the ball through to Walcott. Theo’s finish was clinical. All the players involved in the goal had been mostly missing in action throughout the first half. Arshavin really did look like a totally different player once the formation changed. In the second half he setup the first goal, helped Cesc setup the second goal, hit the post and scored the third goal.
Then we got even more offensive (in a good way.) Adebayor replaced Theo and Van Persie replaced Denilson. We finished the game with three strikers and two attack minded midfielders and it was certainly the best we’d looked all day. Adebayor is full of confidence and his class is undeniable. It’s not just his goal scoring ability, but his close-control and quality passing that makes him stand out. True, he failed to deliver the right ball in the build-up to Arshavin’s goal, but with all respect to Bendtner, Adebayor is simply a cut above.
The final goal was somewhat unexpected to say the least. Alex Song danced his way through a tired and beaten Wigan defense and finished confidently into the lower right corner of Kris Kirkland’s goal. It was a nice moment for Song, and since he’s probably going to be an important part of the team during the run-in, let’s hope it’s boosted his already growing confidence.
The only concern I have with our attacking players is Van Persie’s form. He really didn’t contribute in his cameo today and his recent play has been indifferent. I’m sure that he’ll turn it up for the big matches, but we are a much better side when he is on his game and right now it’s not happening for him.
Unfortunately, we lost Johan Djourou to a knee injury today. Silvestre came in and played defense the way you’d expect him to play; worryingly. However, it was Silvestre’s goal that gave Arsenal the lead today and that contribution will overshadow his shaky performance at the back. After all, it was his first match action for quite some time. It really is amazing the way we’ve lost players to injury. Incredibly, we are probably worse off now than at any other time of the season and that’s saying something.
After the game Arsene Wenger once again had to answer questions about an injury. I fear the worst for Djourou because of the way the injury occurred and the manner in which he left the ground, but the boss said only that it “looks as though he’ll be out for Wednesday.” Perhaps there’s a glimmer of hope for a brief absence. Otherwise, Silvestre will be our first choice center-half for the remainder of the season. (Did you just get the chills too?)
Now the manager has some decisions to make. Was Gibbs’ performance enough to secure him a place in the starting lineup for Wednesday? Does Wenger have any other choice? I still think there’s the option of playing Eboue at right-back and switching Sagna to the left. Perhaps that’s the naivete of a non-footballer talking. But Sagna is so solid and Eboue was a decent right back that it seems like it could work. If nothing else, it gets us some much needed experience on the pitch. There might be a temptation to play Song at center-half, but I think he’s looked so good in midfield that Arsene will want to avoid moving him. Ultimately, if Diaby were healthy (which occurs on every third Tuesday of months that start with a vowel) then Song could play center-half but it doesn’t look like that will happen this week. Regardless, until Clichy and Djourou return (optimistic on the latter) our defending will be a bit of an adventure. For that reason, it only makes sense for Arsene to think more aggressively.
What I hope Arsene Wenger realized today is the simple truth that this team is better when the best players are on the field. It sounds stupidly obvious, but when Song and Denilson play at the same time, that means there’s a star midfielder on the subs bench. No, you can’t play Adebayor and Van Persie and Nasri and Arshavin and Theo and Cesc all at the same time. (Well, I would, but that’s beside the point.) But Wenger should see that we play better when we play to attack. He probably picked the 4-2-3-1 today to protect an uncertain back four and rest some players for midweek. But all it really did was diffuse our offense. It didn’t keep Wigan from exploiting our weakness at the back and it didn’t give us a chance to put them to the sword. When Wenger changed the tactics, our superiority became evident. He knows the talent on this team better than anyone and he should choose a lineup that suits the talent we have. We’re a sexy sports car, not a lumbering armoured vehicle.
Tomorrow, Aston Villa take on Everton. It’s natural to think you should be rooting for Everton to win the match. I submit that we do NOT want Everton to win the match. In fact, we’re probably best suited by a draw. If Everton emerge victorious, then they leap frog Villa into fifth and close the gap with Arsenal to seven points. Everton have winnable games remaining and no other competition to consider. If Villa win, they’re just six points behind us. They too have winnable games remaining despite their recent nose-dive. So a draw is best. It keeps Villa eight points back and Everton nine points adrift.
Meanwhile, we have three days to rest before Villareal come to visit. I’ll be hoping for an attack-minded starting XI that night, in case you couldn’t guess. I think we can take the game to Villareal and keep the burden off our depleted back four. Hopefully we’ll see a 4-4-2 with a midfield of Nasri, Cesc, Song, and Theo. There’s plenty of time to delve into that, but I’m already getting excited. It will be an immense help that Marcos Senna will not feature in that game. Villareal lost 2-0 to Malaga today and lost Senna to a leg injury in the 80th minute. You almost have to wonder what he was still doing in the game at that stage having just returned from injury and with a big match in midweek. But we’ll take the good fortune and won’t ask too many questions.
I’ll finish with a link to a very interesting interview with Arsene Wenger. In it, he discusses some mistakes he made going into this season and just how challenging this campaign has been. He’s uncharacteristically candid but I have to disagree with one of his conclusions. In defending his decision to stick with Denilson, Song and Diaby rather than bringing in Gareth Barry or Xavi Alonso, he says that it would have “killed” the young gunners’ development. I’m not sure that’s entirely his concern. His first responsibility is to the club and its success on the field. If Barry or Alonso would have been the better choice for the position (and I’m not drawing that conclusion), then he probably should have acquired one of them. More importantly, I’m not sure why it would have “killed” those players. They are all young and probably being thrown into the deep end before they’re ready. Denilson in particular seems to have struggled with the responsibility. Perhaps he would have been even better in a year with another season as an understudy. As it stands, we’ll never know.
Enjoy the interview. It’s worth discussing at greater length tomorrow.