Mostly dreadful performance earns delightful result
Let me start by apologizing for the blog’s recent hiatus. I have been travelling for work internationally and it was impossible to take the necessary time to produce even a cursory post. On to the business at hand.
Arsenal opened their Champions League group stage campaign with three points thanks to a win at the home of Belgian Champions, Standard Liege. Sounds right. Sounds straightforward. Sounds like what you would expect. How we arrived at that result, however, is another story entirely.
For the past few days we have been bemoaning our bad luck. Most Arsenal fans have been stalwart in their defense of the team’s performances at Old Trafford and, to some extent, at the City of Manchester stadium. We put in good efforts that saw us fall short and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that we could have taken all the points from those fixtures with just a little luck. But if we’re going to acknowledge good efforts in defeats, then we must equally criticize a poor performance in victory. For the first time this season, we saw a genuinely poor performance from Arsenal at Liege, and more worryingly, we saw some of the same complacency and arrogance that cost us dearly last season.
I’ll quickly review the events of the match, although I think the analysis is most important. If you decided to take your time fixing snacks or pouring a beverage, then Arsenal were most likely trailing by two goals when you first turned on the television. You could argue that opening was somewhat unlucky. Alex Song gifted Liege a totally unnecessary corner, but it appeared that we were clear of any danger when the ball fell to Eduardo. But the crozillian was far too casual with the ball, opting for a blind pass that was intercepted on the edge of the area and fired between a helpless Mannone and the near post for the opening goal.
After the first goal was scored, our heads and concentration dropped momentarily but it was enough for Liege to mount a quick attack. It didn’t look as though the danger severe but Gallas got himself turned around and clumsily clipped the Liege player with his leg, sending him to the ground in the box. It was slight contact, but not a dive. The referee awarded a penalty that some would have declined, but it could not be considered a wrong decision. Mannone was sent the wrong way on the penalty, and Liege had a two goal lead inside 5 minutes. Perhaps the best thing about the start of the match was that there were still 85 minutes for a fight back.
But the fight back never seemed to come. Arsenal looked lethargic and disinterested for long stretches of the first half. The pace of our buildup play was so shockingly slow that there were moments where I thought I had accidentally paused the game. Cesc never made himself a factor and Diaby was dreadful. Abou’s passing is mostly mediocre, but his first touch is even worse. It’s amazing that a player who looks so comfortable on the ball can be so inept receiving it. But I’m not going to pick on Diaby because the team was poor in general. The brightest aspect of the season so far had been the attitude. The team looked hungry for victories and played with purpose. That hunger and purpose was missing. In it’s place was the complacency and arrogance that brought us so much misery last season. The team clearly believed that they could simply arrive at the stadium and be awarded all three points.
Eventually, we did get an opening goal. Abou Diaby, who played a poor game, managed to carve out a moment of quality as he moved through the midfield, eluded Liege players, pushed towards the box and delivered a good through ball to Bendtner on the right side of the box. And for once, the Dane showed that he can be clinical from a key position. He fired low across the keeper and put the ball in the back of the net. That goal was crucial because it pulled us within a goal before half-time but also because it must have rattled Liege and dealt a blow to their confidence. We had most of the possession in the first half but didn’t look threatening. By scoring a goal, we signalled our intent.
So with the lead cut in half, a good team-talk at half-time, and 45 minutes to go out an take the game by the scruff of the neck, you would’ve expected a barnstorming start to the second half. Instead, Liege came out and almost made it 3-1 inside 2 minutes. The defense was all at sea and only a display of blazing pace from Gael Clichy saw him recover in time to block a shot that could have ended our night in misery. Clichy was absolutely dreadful in this match, but his block at the start of the second half is the only reason we had a chance to take all three points.
The second half did see us carve out more chances for goals. We still weren’t swashbuckling, or even particularly efficient, but the chances started to come. Early in the half Rosicky, who didn’t contribute much, delivered an absolutely remarkable 50-yard pass over the top to Bendtner who was alone in the box but a saving tackle from behind at the crucial moment prevented him from equalizing. It was a lucky moment for Liege. Had the tackle been mistimed it might well have resulted in a penalty and a red card.
There were other chances in the match and Eduardo was unfortunate to see his blistering shot from 8 yards stopped by the Liege keeper. Bendtner missed a few opportunities from good positions and Vermaelen saw his clever back heel cleared off the line after a well taken corner.
The equalizer did come eventually, and when it did, it was both controversial and comical. We had a variety of dead ball opportunities in the match and we managed to squander them pitifully. But on this occasion Fabregas sent in a decent free kick. Alex Song, not content to be merely offside, blatently controlled the ball with his arm in front of the goal. The ball made it’s way to Vermaelen who had the simplest task to slot home from point-blank range. It was a goal that never should have been allowed, but then again, Rooney should not have been given a penalty, Adebayor should have been red-carded, etc. etc. etc. Sometimes you get the breaks, sometimes you don’t. Tonight we got a break, and it paved the way to victory.
Liege had been defending too deep for most of the second half and by the time we scored the second, they looked mostly exhausted. We still didn’t do much to impress, but it was clear that we would have opportunities. Eduardo equalized with a nifty knee from a corner kick and that was all we needed. It was 3-2 and three points for Arsenal. We had chances to make it 4 or 5 or 6. In particular, Ramsey was wasteful with a ball to Bendtner on the counter attack and Bedtner didn’t exactly do the best job of controlling it either. But 3 goals was exactly what we needed and when the final whistle blew I imagine it was more a feeling of relief than elation for Arsene Wenger and his team.
We won the game at Liege on a night when many of our best players weren’t available and when we didn’t see the best performance from the players on the pitch. But we got the result. There is something very important about getting a result on a night when you don’t play well. Teams that want to win trophies first have to win the ugly games. And there’s no doubt that tonight was an ugly win for Arsenal. And with Olympiacos beating AZ in Greece, we’re already in good position to advance. Both AZ and Liege have zero points. If we can win our three home fixtures that will give us 12 points and certain qualification for the knockout stages. It’s a long way off, but it shows that tonight’s win was helpful. It will also make our next match, at home against the Greeks, a less nervy affair.
I don’t want to read too much into this game. We have now played seven matches this season and this was the first one where you can really say we were poor. We’ve won away in Europe twice already so it’s hard to be too critical of the team. But they deserve a stern word from the manager.
Despite our absentees, we still had a lot of talent on the pitch. And no one really covered themselves in glory. The passing was poor, the effort was poor, and the deliveries from set pieces was shocking. At one point in the match Liege were looking exhausted and defending in their own six-yard box, and yet we were sitting outside the penalty area taking tame shots from distance. At times this season our passing and movement have been vintage arsenal. Tonight the passing was dreadful and there was literally no movement.
But one player stands out for his poor play. He may have made a crucial saving tackle, but Gael Clichy was terrible…again. On Twitter he was taking quite the abuse and his time as a starter may be limited. Two seasons ago he cost us dearly at St. Andrews. Last season he cost us dearly on many occasions, most notably at home against Sp*rs. This season he’s been consistently poor and cost us goals against Citeh. Clichy has outstanding pace, but for whatever reason, his confidence is shot. His marking in shockingly bad and he’s constantly caught out of position. He seems to make mental and physical mistakes in the worst possible moments and it’s amazing how many times a game you see Song or Vermaelen on the left, covering for Gael, after he’s given the ball away up the field. Even when Clichy is in position, he seems hesitant to get close to attackers.
Clichy has been a popular figure at Arsenal, but his recent play doesn’t warrant a place in the starting lineup. He needs to earn that right and if Wenger doesn’t show him that he’s replaceable then the manager is sending the message that this level of play is acceptable. I think he’ll be out of the lineup against Wigan at the weekend. If that’s the case, hopefully he will react well to adversity and rise to the challenge of regaining his starting place. When Clichy is in good form, he’s a top left-back and one we’re lucky to have at Arsenal.
So now our attention turns back to injury news. It seems we’re always waiting for someone to return to the lineup just as we watch more players succumb to injury. Hopefully we’ve escaped from Belgium unscathed and, if we’re lucky, maybe we’ll welcome back some players for the Wigan match. I think Theo’s return is vital. It gives us the pace we’ve been lacking and a genuine winger rather than the Bendtner, Diaby, Eduardo variety. With Arshavin on the left and Theo on the right, the 4-3-3 suddenly makes a lot more sense, and has a lot more bite.
It seems that we rise and fall with every result these days, but it’s important to keep perspective. Night’s like tonight remind you that it’s not always about the performance, just as days like the one at Old Trafford a few weeks ago remind you that it’s not always about the result. Ideally you’d like to have the right performance and the right result, but given the choice of one or the other, I think we’d all take the result.
Now we start a stretch of very managable League fixtures. It’s not unreasonable to think that we can win every match between now and November. But if we’re going to do that, we need the right attitude and some healthy players. And if we DO string together some results, we should find ourselves right there at the top of the table in a few weeks time.
Until next time…