The game was a microcosm of our season
We created plenty of chances. We played some wonderful football with good movement and passing. We lacked the proper end product and our defending was woeful across the board. Sound familiar? I could either be describing today’s heavy home defeat at the Emirates, or the majority of our season. In reality, today’s match highlighted all the reasons why our season ended in disappointment. When you create chances and fail to punish the opposition, usually it comes back to haunt you. That’s even more true when you can’t defend to save your life. 4-1 might have flattered Chelsea, but it’s no less than we deserve in some ways.
I might have spent most of this blog complaining about the lineup and formation. But considering the quality of our attacking play today, it would be unfair to be strictly negative of the set-up. We had Chelsea on the back foot for long stretches of the match and created many opportunities that we failed to convert. Theo Walcott in particular had a great game and a shocking game when you consider the good work he did to create chances and the many times he spurned those opportunities.
What I simply can’t understand it how myopic Arsene Wenger has become. This was another look at the same 4-2-3-1 formation that had been such a huge failure over the past few weeks. The same formation that has drained Cesc of his creativity, reduced Nasri to a holding player and resulted in our lone striker looking lonely and nonthreatening. It was made worse today by Arshavin’s absence leaving Diaby to play out of position on the left. Let’s face it, a player like Diaby might not be good enough to start in his natural position, let alone out of position. So when I saw the lineup, I feared for us.
But to my amazement, we looked fantastic in attack. This was Arsenal playing like Barcelona. the movement was lively and we defended from high up the pitch. Chelsea had difficulty getting the ball out of their half at times because of the pressure in midfield. Nasri was interchanging with Cesc and Theo drove Chelsea crazy. But the danger of playing like Barcelona, is that you are going to get caught out at times. When that happens, you must have quality defenders who can handle the counter attack and hardworking midfielders who can get back to help in a flash. We really don’t have either quality at the moment. And so we were punished when Chelsea were able to advance the ball. While we could have scored four or five goals today, we also could have conceded six or seven. Unless and until we get our defensive problems sorted, we simply cannot compete at the highest level.
But there are other problems at Arsenal that were on display today. We lack confidence in the final third. Who is our clinical striker? Who can be counted upon to finish these flowing moves? I think Arshavin might be one answer, and Eduardo is as clinical as they come when he’s fit, but beyond the Russian and Crozillian, we don’t seem to have that player. RVP is a popular figure amonst the supporters, but he spurns his fair share of chances, and it’s not even clear where on the pitch he is best deployed. Ade and Bendtner are both guilty of missing gilt edged chances. And it’s worse in midfield.
The Invincibles got bags of goals from the midfield and it helped take the pressure off the strikers to do it all. Right now, there aren’t enough goals coming from midfield. Cesc isn’t really a goal scorer, Nasri has the potential but not when he plays in a holding position, Theo clearly has some work to do with his finishing and you’re never going to get much from Diaby, Song or Denilson. So where are the goals going to come from? I literally cannot remember the last goal Arsenal scored from outside the penalty box. Can you? You can play the most beautiful football in the universe but someone has to put the ball in the net for that to matter. Perhaps this is a matter of poise more than ability. If that is the case, then maybe the players will simply mature into goal scorers. I hope that happens. But for the time being, we must consider the possiblity that for all the talent on this Arsenal team, there’s really a pausity of big time goal scorers.
There’s also the troubling question of Arsene Wenger’s tactical decision-making. If you listen to the Arsecast every week, brought to you by Arseblogger, then you heard a fascinating interview this week with a Frenchman who is close with Arsene Wenger. He questioned whether there is a person at the club who can challenge the Boss and make him reconsider his decisions. The lack of another strong personality on the coaching staff who quesions the manager leaves Arsene alone in his ideological bubble. Right now, it’s not working. While he will forget more about football tonight than any of us will ever know, that doesn’t mean he can’t make mistakes that are obvious to the lay person.
The 4-2-3-1 doesn’t work with our current personnel and it forces us to leave some of our most talented players on the bench. Worse, it requires multiple players to play out of position. On Chelsea’s second goal today, Anelka was able to get away from Nasri all too easily. That’s probably because Samir Nasri is an attack minded winger, rather than a central holding midfielder. Sure, Nasri looked good in that role against Portsmouth, but I might have looked good in that role against Portsmouth. Arsene Wenger is making too many big decisions about tactics based on what happens in meaningless games like Middlesbrough and Portsmouth. I don’t see why it comes as a surprise when the ideas that worked against the league’s also-rans don’t succeed against the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea and United.
And what was the thought process behind taking out Walcott today? There’s really no tomorrow, so there’s no reason to rest him. As far as I could tell, he might have lost a little confidence on the day, but he was still looking like our biggest threat. What is the point of bringing on Denilson when we’re trailing by three goals? We needed to score and the most obvious move was to remove Diaby for Bendtner or Adebayor straight up. That would’ve put us in a 4-4-2 with Nasri, Song, Cesc and Theo in midfield, and RVP partnered with an additional striker. It seems obvious to me, but then again, it seemed obvious that it should have been our starting lineup for the last three weeks. I’ll acknowledge that we looked dangerous today, but we didn’t convert that threat into goals.
I have an analogy for what Arsene Wenger is doing right now. It’s a golf analogy so bear with me. I am TERRIBLE at golf, but I continue to play. Every time I play a round, I’m constantly experimenting with a new swing. That’s what the driving range is for. You’re not supposed to work on your swing during a round of golf. At that point, you need to just go with the best swing you’ve got and work on improving it later. Right now, it feels like Arsene is working on his swing during the round. He’s experimenting with tactics, formations and new positions for players during games. He’s using actual matches to test his footballing theories. Today, it looked like it might work. But the problem with trying a new swing every golf hole, is that even when it works, it usually isn’t perfected. It might go away on the very next hole. That’s what we saw today. Arsene finally got the quality build-up play from this formation that he’s been looking for, but the experiment was far from complete and we paid the price with a heavy defeat.
If Wenger believes that we need to play the 4-2-3-1 to be successful then I’m willing to trust him. But if that’s how he wants to play, then he should build the team that way in the summer and start the season with his new concept. It simply doesn’t make sense to implement these changes during the business end of the season. Whether this approach can work isn’t the issue. It HASN’T worked. And that’s how you’re judged in football; not by the concept, but by the results. Arsene Wenger is lauded around the world for his approach to beautiful football, but if it hadn’t brought him League titles and FA cup titles and a place in the CL final, then no one would care about Wenger and his picturesque football. They would simply dismiss him as a unique idealogue.
It’s not summer yet, but it’s nearly here. Next weekend we could be badly humbled at Old Trafford. I hate to admit it, but I fear for our players in that match. United can win the title against us that day, and we have little to play for and little confidence left to protect us. As bad as things seem, it’s unfortunately true that they can always get worse.
But I’ll leave you with this thought: is Arsenal a big enough club to expect trophies? It’s a fair question. We don’t have the money that Chelsea and United have to spend on players. The fact that we’ve kept reasonably close to them and been essentially more competitive than Liverpool recently is a testament to Arsene Wenger and his eye for young talent. But how can we really expect to keep up with the big money teams? When Madrid can offer €100million for a player, or United can buy Ribery at any price, or Chelsea can essentially have a fantasy team, how can we compete? We consider a €15 million signing big money. That’s not even Robbie Keane revolving door money. Or Dimitar Berbatov bust money. And in reality, Arshavin has proven that he was probably worth far more than the asking price. It’s rare today that you find a top player in his prime who comes at a bargain. Wenger says that he wants to add one or two experienced players this summer. We’ve heard that before but let’s assume he’s serious. How is he going to get those players? Can we really afford them? With so much money changing hands for the best players, is it fair to expect us to compete? And if it isn’t, then what’s keeping our best players from leaving for greener pastures. We do pay good wages, but we can’t bring in the big name players and that will become a stigma over time.
You have to wonder, without a wealthy benefactor, can Arsenal expect to compete for the big trophies if we can’t compete for the services of the biggest players? I believe that we can, but the landscape will change further this summer when Manchester City splash their cash for the first time in the transfer market in earnest. As bad as things seem right now, without the talented Mr. Wenger and his ingenuity, we might find ourselves in far worse shape.
So today was a debacle. It was beautiful to watch at times, but ultimately gut wrenching. What I took away from today’s game more than anything else, was that it perfectly encapsulated our season. We played beautiful football, failed to convert our opportunities, and defended poorly. Aesthetically it might be pleasing, but it’s a results driven game and the result was dreadful.
You could argue that our team of young, up-and-coming players were every bit a good as Chelsea’s mercenary squad today, but we still lost by three goals. That’s the difference. It’s naive to suggest that today’s match was anything other than a disaster. Our players need to see today’s match as a disaster. We lack a Machiavellian instinct in the team. We all want to see beautiful football, but that’s second to winning. And Arsene Wenger has to stop saying things like:
“You can be very positive or very negative. We lost the game 4-1 which is a major disappointment but I feel going forward we had a very interesting game and created plenty of chances.”
I’m sorry Arsene, but you CANNOT be very positive. You just suffered your biggest defeat at the Emirates to your hated London rivals. That attitude doesn’t do these young players any good. He’s coddled them long enough and now it’s time for tough love. They must hear that they were a disgrace today. They must hear that losing to United and Chelsea in big games is not acceptable. They must leave with bitter tastes in their mouth that they are desperate to wash away with the taste of victory. They must become hardened men and not tender boys. It’s up to the manager to make that happen. I hope he starts to lose a little patience with these players because it’s about time they saw that he’s not their father figure, he’s their professional football manager.
Perhaps then they will see that his love for them, like our love for them, is NOT unconditional. They must play like the highly paid professionals that they are and stop acting like boys playing among men. Maybe the best way for them to see that, is for a few of them to leave in the summer.
It’s not going to be an easy few months between now and next season. It will be even harder watching Chelsea play in a final that we could have reached and United play in a final that we might have reached. But we have no right to argue that we deserve to be in those finals. We don’t. If we want to be there next season, then some things will have to change. Hopefully Arsene Wenger can get enough perspective on this season to see what must be done.
Untill tomorrow… (when I promise to be more uplifting.)