Two points dropped, now everyone PANIC!
It was a disappointing game. It was a miserable result. It was two points dropped when they should have been safely tucked away without the slightest worry or concern. West Ham clawed back from a two goal deficit, in a match we were winning at a cantor, and managed to earn a draw. But judging by the reaction of many Arsenal supporters, apparently we just lost the title.
I’m an emotional fan and I get overly frustrated when the team fails to perform according to expectations. When they stupidly allow a lead to slip from their grasp in a game that should have been easily killed off, it’s infuriating. But at some point, you have to let reason re-enter the equation when examining the ramifications of this lone result. So let’s rationally consider what happened at Upton Park, and why it may not actually be the end of the world for Arsenal.
To begin with, the starting eleven left something to be desired. Due to injuries (per usual), Eboue and Diaby were both in the lineup. Abou Diaby is not my cup of tea and I will be the first to say that I think we are vastly weaker when he’s in the lineup. There’s always some supporter that wants to take up the cause but consider this; he doesn’t add any real defensive solidity to the midfield, and he doesn’t make that killer pass that you can get from Rosicky, or Nasri, or even Denilson from time to time. Diaby might have bags of talent, and seems a composed finisher in the final third, but his distribution is poor, he gives the ball away too often, and doesn’t do enough defensively. Disagree if you must, but that’s my opinion at the moment.
Eboue is a different kettle of fish all together. He has the creativity and pace to worry any defense on any day. Even more encouragingly, he seems to have improved his work rate and gets himself into good positions regularly. But his final ball is inevitably shocking and his penchant for taking a dive is nauseating. What good is a player who gets into dangerous positions if you know that he will inevitably squander any opportunity he creates? That’s the problem when Eboue is in the lineup; no matter how dangerous he might appear, ultimately he fails to make enough scoring opportunties.
So when the match began on Sunday, we were without the services of Theo, Rosicky, Eduardo, Nasri and Bendtner. The latter three were only fit enough for the bench, while the former two are out at least a little while longer. Carlos Vela, a player who seems to have so much promise when he does get on the pitch, wasn’t even named to the bench. So Eboue and Diaby were in the starting eleven. While they might be decent players, they’re not exactly first choice selections.
Despite our absentees, we started brightly and bossed the game. Our passing was sharp, our defending looked relatively composed, and we were the only team creating chances. From some great buildup play, (admittedly involving Diaby) a good Sagna cross, and some poor keeping by Green, Van Persie scored our first goal. From a well taken corner, Gallas got us our second goal. From there we started pulling out the party tricks and playing with rather less intensity than is required for a Premier League match. But West Ham weren’t exactly striking fear into our hearts and we made it to half-time with the job seemingly done already.
The second half was far from a spectacle, but West Ham still failed to put us under any real pressure. We looked comfortable, and maybe missed a few opportunities to get that all-important third goal. Zola made some substitutions and that changed the game to some degree. In particular, Diamante looked immediately dangerous. But that wasn’t the turning point. The turning point came when the Hammers were awarded a very dubious free kick on the edge of the area. At the time of the award, I “tweeted” that it was a big moment in the game. It just felt like one of those situations where West Ham could drag themselves back into the match. Sure enough, they got the goal they needed. It was a well struck free kick, and it was poorly parried by Mannone back into the path of Carlton Cole who pulled the Hammers within one goal.
That goal changed everything. We had been cruising so comfortably through the match, that we suddenly seemed rocked. West Ham had the crowed invigorated, renewed energy and we didn’t have an immediate response. But despite the change in momentum, we still had a lead and our goal wasn’t exactly coming under siege. There was still no reason for panic. But the reason for panic arrived soon enough. And it arrived in the form of a very contentious penalty. Minutes earlier, Scott Parker tried to win a penalty with a blatent dive. Although the penalty wasn’t awarded at that moment, it might have played a part in the decision to award a penalty for Carlton Cole’s weak tumble in the box. Here’s a player who was holding off two defenders all match, suddendly incapable of staying on his feet as Alex Song brushed against him from behind. I didn’t think it was a penalty, and I think it was particularly harsh considering that Cole had his back to the goal, and Song’s minimal contact was nothing more than routine jostling. But the penalty was awarded, and despite Mannone guessing the right way, Diamante equalised from the spot.
At his point, it was a distinct possibility that we would lose all three points. But I think Arsene Wenger has realized that draws and losses are essentially the same when it comes to challenging for the title. Rather than protecting the single point, he brought on Eduardo for Diaby and Bendtner for Eboue. It might have been too little, too late, but we finished the match with four strikers in an effort to secure all three points. And were it not for an outrageous save by Robert Green from a Van Persie header, we would have salvaged a win. But it wasn’t meant to be.
So when the final whistle blew, it felt like two points dropped and certainly a lost opportunity to pull within three points of the league leaders with a game in hand. It was a lost opportunity to gain some separation from the pack of teams chasing fourth position. And finally, it was a lost opportunity to keep our momentum going and dispel any concerns from our late collapse in midweek. So it’s completely understandable that any Arsenal supporter would be rather forlorn. And although there’s every reason to be concerned, I’d like to make the case, that there are reasons not to prematurely condemn the Gunners to another trophy-less season.
Let’s start by looking at the other teams supposedly competing for the title, or at least a top four position. Aston Villa, who looked a threat to crack the top four last season, have already lost to Wigan and Blackburn. Sp*rs, who have made a strong start to the season, lost at home to Stoke City. Chelsea, who apparently are being annointed champions already, lost to Aston Villa, and to a Wigan Athletic side that we pummeled with ease. United lost to Burnley and were held to a draw at home by Sunderland. Liverpool have looked a complete mess until they managed to defeat United yesterday. And our upstart friends at Manchester Citeh have been held to three consecutive draws by Villa, Wigan and Fulham. When you consider those results, a 2-2 draw away to West Ham, largely thanks to a dubious penalty, isn’t the end of our title challenge. If Chelsea can lose to Wigan, and United can lose to Burnley and still be considered top contenders, why can’t Arsenal draw at Upton Park without being written off?
Here’s another reason why we shouldn’t panic; the schedule is still in our favor. Chelsea play United on November 8, before coming to the Emirates three weeks later. The very next weekend they travel to Manchester Citeh. So between now and the end of November, at least one of the two teams ahead of us is guaranteed to drop points, and we’ll have a chance to take down the leaders at home. Not a bad situation. And although it might seem a minor point, we play our next two European fixtures at home, while Chelsea have to travel to Madrid and Porto for potentially tough away matches.
And there’s still more reason for optimism. If Chelsea are considered our primary competition this season (which remains to be seen), then they’ll have to overcome a difficult January without some of their biggest stars. More than any other team in the league, Chelsea will be significantly weaker when their African players leave for the ACN. While we’ll miss Alex Song, Chelsea will be without the likes of Drogba, Kalou, Essien and Obi Mikel. By the time we face them at the start of February, those players will just be returning from a grueling tournament in Africa. Not a bad scenario for our trip to Stanford Bridge.
And then there’s simply this to consider, we’re playing good football. Last season we had mental lapses and dropped points where we shouldn’t have, but it was because we weren’t playing well. We got the results that our play deserved last season. We looked weak defensively and out of sorts in attack. As a result, we conceeded bad goals and failed to score against even the weakest competition. This season isn’t remotely similar. While we dropped points today, we were unfortunate. We scored two goals, bossed the game, and maybe became complacent. We were victimised by a couple of bad referee’s decisions and still almost won the game in the dying minutes. We didn’t play poorly, we just lacked a bit of focus. I’m not suggesting that lacking focus is acceptable for a team with title ambitions, but I am suggesting that it’s a different issue from last season. The quality of our play has been exceptional so far, and that is telling.
The only thing left to consider is the health of our key players. And certainly things look brighter than last season. Eduardo is back. Nasri is finally back in the team. Theo and Rosicky are hopefully close behind. And with money in the bank, there might even be a january signing. (I know it’s a remote chance, but we did it last season.) Provided we can get Denilson healthy before Song leaves for the ACN, there’s enough talent on this team to compete on all fronts.
Everyone is still hurting from last season. It wasn’t just our fourth place finish, but the manner in which we arrived there that made it such a tough nine months. But we can’t allow the disappointment from last season to cloud our judgment about this one. We are going to drop some points along the way, and nothing about the West Ham game reminded me of our struggles from last season. We defended well enough. We scored the goals. We bossed the game. Our complacency cost us but so did the referee’s decisions. Again, I’m not suggesting that we should be happy about the outcome, but I think we should look at it for what it was: two points dropped. Nothing more, nothing less.
Our first team regulars have already played a lot of football. Many of them have played even more when you consider their international committments. And our injuries have meant that players like Cesc and Van Persie haven’t had much opportunity for rest. With the Carling Cup tie with Liverpool on Wednesday, most of our regular starters will have the night off. That means we should be relatively fit and rested for the North London derby at the weekend.
It was the devastating home draw with Sp*rs last season that really seemed to start our winter swoon. But truthfully, we had seen some of the writing on the wall before that match. This season, it’s a different story. If we can beat Sp*rs on Saturday, and get three points away to Wolves the following weekend, then there’s a real chance that we can go into the next international break within a point or two of the Premier League lead with a game in hand. Not exactly the end of the world after all.
So if you found yourself cursing another lost Arsenal season Sunday evening, take a deep breath and consider this; if we beat Chelsea at the Emirates on November 29th, we could very realistically finish that weekend leading the Premier League.