Can we win on Sunday? Maybe. But probably not. That’s the reality. As an Arsenal fan you get slaughtered for daring to put something like that in writing. But there shouldn’t be an embargo on the truth. And the truth is that we haven’t beaten Chelsea in six attempts and we weren’t even close last season. Now we head to Stamford Bridge on the heels of easily our worst domestic performance and a shaky defensive display in Serbia. Not exactly confidence inspiring.
Injuries don’t help our cause. Missing RVP, Theo, Bendtner, Ramsey, Vermalen and possibly Cesc is a lot to overcome. But being without key players for our biggest games is becoming something of a standard operating procedure at Arsenal. We went to the Nou Camp last season with something resembling our Carling Cup side and even had a 1-0 lead at one point before succumbing to their superior talent. It’s a testament to our depth and talent that we can compete under those circumstances, but also a sobering reminder that you must have your best players at the ready if you want to beat the best teams, particularly on their ground. And all too often, we don’t have the players we need the most.
There’s no denying that defense and goal keeping were our achilles heel last season. Arsene Wenger himself acknowledged that we conceded too many goals to win the title. We conceded 41 goals to be precise. And while it’s still very early days, and a little reckless to make projections, we’re on pace to concede 44 this season. Again, it’s a bit absurd to project a season’s worth of goals based on six games. But since we’ve yet to play teams like Chelsea, United, City, Spuds, or Villa, the statistic is worth a moment’s consideration. We haven’t exactly played the attacking power houses of the premier league and we’re still finding it difficult to keep our opponents out. That frailty was exposed with alarming simplicity against West Brom on Saturday.
While Laurent Koscielny has made a mostly creditable debut in English football, he has also shown a penchant for the killer mistake. His tackling is good, and his positioning has been mostly excellent, but his power is a concern. Against the monstrosity that is Didier Drogba, that could be a telling liability. Johan Djourou doesn’t look anywhere near ready for every day football and was caught in awful positions by Partizan Belgrade on Tuesday. Sebastien Squillaci has decent size and strength, but has proved that the rumors of his lack of pace were not exaggerated. Without Thomas Vermaelen to anchor the center of defense, it’s hard to feel confident against teams with a formidable attack.
Although the center of defense has been a worry for the past few seasons, our full backs have been mostly reliable. Barcary Sagna made one horrible mistake on Saturday, but despite being unable to deliver even a half-decent cross, he’s a reliable defender. Gael Clichy, on the other hand, has proven a continued liability. Maybe he never overcame the trauma of that horrible day at St. Andrews, but something has happened to Clichy. He doesn’t even look as fast as he once did. But the bigger problem is his obvious fear of closing down his man. Once the ball is in the penalty area, Gael looks like he doesn’t want to be anywhere near the action. When he does have the ball, he panics under the slightest duress and has been giving away possession in terrible areas with regularity. Kieran Gibbs is surely close to stealing the starting spot from Clichy, but isn’t exactly an expert tackler himself.
Despite the obvious shortcomings in defense, I thought that our defending looked decidedly more assured for the first few games this season. We still conceded goals, but didn’t seem to have that panicked look of a team that could concede every time the ball entered our half of the pitch. I thought the performances against Blackburn, and even against Sunderland were evidence of our improvement. On both occasions, the team looked organized and self-assured. We didn’t panic when the ball was lofted into our penalty area, and we managed to make decisive clearances. It was reassuring.
But being horribly exposed against West Brom on Saturday, and often caught out by Partizan on Tuesday has served to raise old concerns about the defense. Suddenly, it seems as if we haven’t progressed at all. And there’s no worse time to be questioning the solidity of our defense than heading to Stamford Bridge for a nearly “must win” match on Sunday. We need to be solid at the back if we’re going to compete at the weekend. That includes a confident display by our goal keeper.
Unfortunately, goal keeping is another area of great uncertainty at Arsenal. At this point is would be senseless to rehash the summer goal-keeping transfer saga. It’s been over-analyzed already. But the fact remains that Arsenal have a real goal keeping crisis brewing. I think it’s only fair to point out that Manuel Almunia has had a perfectly acceptable start to the season. He’s been relatively reliable and handled some difficult situations, like blackburn’s aerial assault, with class. Sadly, his howler on Saturday opened some old wounds and he was loudly booed by segments of the home support. It wasn’t the right response from the fans, but it shows that supporter patience with Almunia was only ever going to extend to his first cock up. Now, with Almunia “injured,” we have another problem on our hands.
Lukasz Fabianski is the world’s greatest goal keeper. At least that’s the idea you get when you listen to Arsene Wenger. And perhaps that’s precisely what Wenger sees in training. But the fact remains that we see something very different in competitive action. Fabianski has made enough high profile mistakes to end three Arsenal careers. And yet he’s given chance after chance to do it again. His last meeting with Chelsea was a train wreck that ended with Arsenal crashing out of the FA Cup just short of the final. It was a wretched performance that won’t soon be forgotten…and it’s far from his worst. Fabianski cost us key Premier League points last season with comical mistakes, and that’s nothing compared with what he managed against Porto in Portugal. If you don’t want to revisit last season, then you need only look as far as last week when Fabianski conceded a goal that, despite being scored from an offside position, the Pole should have kept out.
But I’m not looking at this properly. I’m supposed to forget every cock up. I’m supposed to overlook every error. I’m supposed to forget the lapses of concentration, judgement and composure. Why? Because Lukasz had a decent game on Tuesday. He had a decent game damn it! So that means he’s a great keeper. Clearly our number one, and ready to keep a clean sheet at Stamford Bridge. Now excuse me while I take one more hit from this pipe.
No, that’s simply not reality. The fact is that Lukasz Fabianski has shown a shocking lack of composure in almost every match he’s played for Arsenal and the weight of evidence against him is too strong to ignore. Can he play well at Stamford Bridge? Of course he might. Will I root for him on Sunday? As hard as I can. Is it realistic to expect a solid performance? No. It’s not realistic. It’s pure, blind hope. Fabianski will be keeping goal in front of a defense that’s coming off its two worst performances of the season at tough away ground against arguably the best team in England. It’s a tough one to swallow.
I just keep thinking that we make too many judgments without perspective. So let me ask it this way. Think back to late May. The season is over. It ended in bitter disappointment and we have problems that need to be addressed. The manager has just acknowledged that we conceded too many goals to compete, and he plans to address that. What if I approached you then, and told you that I was from the future. I then told you that we would be heading to Stamford Bridge in October with two center halves with 8 games of Premier League experience combined. Then I topped off that good news by telling you that Lukasz Fabianski would be starting in goal, and that the guy behind him would likely have never played in the Premier League before. How would that news have sat with you in May? Now ask yourself why it should be any different in October.
When you look at it that way, I have to believe that you would have been enraged at the idea that Arsenal could be so poorly prepared for a new season. It would drive you crazy to think that we could suffer through a season of defensive instability only to enter the next season equally uncertain at the back. And yet, that’s exactly where we find ourselves today. Laurent Koscielny and Sebastien Squillaci will be standing of front of Lukasz Fabianski trying to repel the Chelsea attack on Sunday. That’s the reality. So I have to ask; are we fooling ourselves? All week I’ve read tweets and blogs saying that we can get a result at the Bridge. Based on what?
We won’t have our most experienced and talented CF on Sunday. We may not have our captain and most talented player pulling the strings in midfield. We won’t have our best central defender and only really reliable option. And we’ll be playing a young man in goal who has proven time and again that he can lose a game all on his own. It’s not ideal. It’s not even very good. I find myself wanting to believe that we can win on sunday, but I also worry that I’m fooling myself.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Chelsea are nearly as good as some people make them out to be. I think they have weaknesses that we can exploit and I certainly don’t believe their defense is good enough to keep us from getting a goal or two. If we have Cesc on Sunday, and we’re able to control the midfield, and Alex Song doesn’t go “walk-about” like he has all season, then I think we can dictate the game to Chelsea. In fact, we did that to them when we visited the Bridge last season. Unfortunately, it was our inability to defend their few attacks that cost us the points. Somehow, Chelsea managed to beat us without looking like they ever really worked up a sweat. They sat back, let us bring the game to them, and seemed to know that when we gave the ball away, we’d be vulnerable to their every counter attack. And that plan worked flawlessly.
On Sunday, we will have to defend as a team, show great determination, and hope for a repeat of Fabianski’s Tuesday form if we want to come away with anything from our trip to Stamford Bridge. We can play pretty football all we want, but it matters little if we’re picking the ball out of the back of our net the moment we give the ball away. I’m hopeful that we can beat Chelsea. At a minimum, I think we can earn a draw. Chelsea lost their last 2 domestic matches, and looked less than inspired doing it. If Newcastle and City can beat Chelsea, then I’m certain we can match the feat. But it’s only going to happen if we prove that we are a better team defensively than we were last season. At the moment, it’s hard to say that’s the case.
But I don’t want to leave this on a negative note. I don’t want you to think that I have no faith and no confidence. We’re as talented as Chelsea if not more and there’s a chance for our team to prove that on Sunday. Some of this will come down to pride. We were embarrassed by United and Chelsea last season and you have to believe that the players were stung by that. Now they have a chance to stand up and be counted. Two seasons ago, on the back of 2 consecutive Premier League losses, Arsenal went into Stamford Bridge in November and won a game that no one thought we would. There is no reason why we can’t do the same on Sunday.