A loss. Two goals conceded. No goals scored. Another sending-off. Another injury to a defender. Not exactly halcyon days for Arsenal at the moment. If you didn’t watch the match, you would naturally assume that Arsenal lost from a combination of bad defending and inexperience. That’s hardly the case at all. If anything, it was the experienced attacking players that let Arsenal down on Saturday. But rather than wallowing, let’s start with the positives to lighten the mood.
Arsene Wenger has been under pressure to sign a defender or two all summer long. That’s mostly in response to the way the defense played last season, particularly on set-pieces. But I think we have seen already, in just three matches, how much this team missed Thomas Vermaelen last term. He’s been fantastic so far and was absolutely imperious in this match. Liverpool were supposed to be most threatening on set-pieces and we gave away plenty of them on Saturday. But every time they delivered the ball, it seemed magnetized to Vermaelen’s forehead. His leadership and quality has totally changed the complexion of the way this team defends.
The other thing I’ve noticed is that Szczesny’s attitude has also had a positive impact on the defense. He’s not only the best keeper we’ve had at Arsenal for years, he’s also the most animated. He organizes the defense and commands his area. Having a keeper like Szczesny on the pitch saves us goals and makes the defense look better.
At this point, if Arsene decided not to bring a defender into the side, I’d be comfortable with that decision. Many will disagree, but I think there’s adequate quality. Vermaelen and Koscielny have the makings of an excellent partnership. Obviously we’ll have to wait and see just how long the latter is sidelined with a back injury, but I have complete confidence in their ability to keep us resolute at the back. Meanwhile, Johan Djourou is a quality third-choice center back. The real concern has always been about Sebastien Squillaci, but there are now reports coming from France that Squillaci is not in the manager’s plans for this season. Frankly, his absence is “like a new signing.” Just having him out of the team makes us better defensively.
What we learned today, is that Ignasi Miquel is a capable and composed defender in the making. It’s one thing to know in advance that you’re going to play against Liverpool in the Premier League. It’s another thing entirely to be forced into the action thanks to an injury. But Miquel never looked overwhelmed. It’s too early in his career to expect too much from him, but he held his own throughout the match. He will take some of the blame for the opening Liverpool goal, but that seemed more a freak accident then an error by the spaniard. And that’s without mentioning that the initial pass should’ve been ruled offside. Overall I was impressed by Miquel and if he will serve as our fourth-choice center-back for the rest of this season, I don’t think it that’s cause for panic.
Miquel wasn’t the only youngster that impressed either. Carl Jenkinson hardly put a foot wrong throughout the match and even delivered a few good-looking crosses that no one decided to attack. It was an impressive performance from a young man who’s last starting appearance was in League One.
The man of the match, in many ways, was Emmanuel Frimpong. At times he was our best player on the pitch aside from Vermaelen. Although he does give away a few too many fouls, Frimpong seems to have excellent tackling technique to go with his obvious strength. But what surprised me is how well he played with the ball at his feel. It’s obvious that he’s watched Jack Wilshere in training. When he received the ball from defenders he turned quickly and charged up the pitch, turning defense into attack. He also showed a bit of a nasty-streak which is something this Arsenal team could probably use. But that attitude, combined with a bit of inexperience, also cost us today. Unfortunately, his sending-off was an important reason for our defeat. And now we will face United at Old Trafford without the only two holding-midfielders in the first team.
It’s clear to me that we’re watching a star in the making with Frimpong. When you think back to Alex Song’s ascension into the starting XI, it was fraught with poor performances. At times, it looked like he would never be good enough for Arsenal. Thankfully, Arsene’s belief in him eventually paid off. But Frimpong already looks a natural playing at Champions League and Premier League level. On Saturday, in 70 minutes, he lead the team in tackles, made four interceptions, never turned the ball over and was never dispossessed. He clearly has all the physical attributes needed and only lacks the experience. I have the feeling he’ll get plenty of it this season.
When looking forward to this match, I was convinced that we had the quality to get goals against Liverpool’s shaky defense. But that proved completely unfounded. At the moment, Arsenal’s attack looks as poor as I can ever remember under Arsene Wenger. We have yet to score in the Premier League and managed just the single goal against Udinese.
Against Liverpool, the problems started in midfield where Aaron Ramsey is struggling to find form. I have to laugh at some fans’ reactions to last season’s win over Manchester United. There were many suggestions that we could afford to sell Cesc because we had Rambo. That’s obviously ridiculous. Ramsey will become an excellent player for us, but he’s far from Cesc’s level at the moment. He has too much responsibility on him right now and his performances bear that out.
On Saturday, Ramsey wasn’t able to get the attacking players the ball in good positions or find space behind the Liverpool defense. Looking at the Opta stats Ramsey made just 54 passes without attempting a through ball. He was dispossessed four times and turned the ball over twice. Ramsey also failed to create his own offense. He didn’t have a single shot in the match. Of course, he did suffer the misfortune of being credited with the own goal. But Ramsey wasn’t the only Arsenal player to disappoint.
The fact that Wenger had to hand a start to Samir Nasri shows just how little depth we have in midfield. Nasri was active at times in the match without really creating scoring chances for his teammates. Despite making some good runs at the Liverpool defense, I think Nasri proved, once again, that he is not cut out for the creative midfield role. Nasri made only 59 passes, just 7 more than Vermaelen, and didn’t play a single through ball. Meanwhile, he was dispossessed 9 times, which is terrible for someone playing in the middle of the pitch.
Theo Walcott and Andrei Arshavin also had shocking performances. Arshavin had a few successful dribbles but completed a poor 64% of his passes. To his credit, he created Arsenal’s one good scoring chance of the match when he pushed his man off the ball in the Liverpool area, cut the ball back for van Persie, and the Dutchman scuffed his shot right at Reina. But at times Arshavin looked like he had the wrong boots on, completely mishitting the ball on several occasions.
And what can you say about Theo Walcott? He was the hero on Tuesday but could’ve sat in the stands on Saturday. He had just 33 touches and made just 15 passes in 80 minutes against Liverpool. That’s almost exactly half of Arshavin’s contribution and the Russian was woeful in his 72 minutes. Theo’s ineffectiveness, combined with Arshavin’s, left van Persie looking an isolated and increasingly frustrated player. I can’t ever remember seeing those three have less impact on a match.
The combination of a sterile midfield and toothless attack meant that Liverpool were rarely troubled defensively. That made it all the more inviting for them to press for a winner when we were reduced to 10 men. Perhaps Liverpool were fortunate to win, but when you have a player of Luis Suarez’s quality on the bench, you always have the ability to change the game. That’s precisely what we’re missing at the moment. It speaks volumes about the lack of depth in the side at the moment that Wenger’s only available option when Frimpong received his red card, was to bring on Henri Lansbury. Like him or not, he’s a player that was contemplating leaving the club because he couldn’t get any playing time. Saturday he was our only midfield substitute.
Despite the wet weather and uninspired play, the home support was better than I expected. There was even a brief rendition of the Nasri song and not as much booing or demand for spending money as I might have anticipated. But you can forgive a little anxiety at the Emirates. Arsenal are in real trouble right now. While injury concerns and suspensions are a contributing factor, the reality is that the team needs reinforcements. Going back to last season, Arsenal have now won just 2 of their last 13 Premier League matches. We clearly weren’t good enough last term, and we’re worse off now.
Wenger might still do some buying, but he’s cost his team by waiting. If we lose to United next weekend, we could be 8 points behind City and United, and 6 points behind Liverpool and Chelsea. Not where you want to be at the end of August. And I won’t even contemplate the ramifications of failing to qualify for the Champions League. Let’s jump off that bridge when we get there.
I do have two responses for fans suggesting that we couldn’t buy players before Champions League qualification was assured. First of all, Ivan Gazidis said exactly the opposite. He said we weren’t holding back resources for any reason. But if you’re suggesting that players won’t come until we’ve qualified, I’d point to the team that just beat us on Saturday. When they sold Torres they signed Carroll and an excellent player in Suarez. This summer they acquired more experienced players regardless of what you think of their quality. Do they have Champions League football to offer? No. But they managed to strengthen their side. As far as I’m concerned, if we are waiting to see what happens in the qualifier before buying, it’s down to greed and greed alone.
Now we have a few days before the trip to Italy. That match could well decide our season. It sounds like hyperbole, but if we fail to qualify for the Champions League, after the summer we’ve had and a poor start domestically, it could take a long time to steady the ship. Conversely, if we manage to get into the group stages, it will give players and fans alike something to celebrate in advance of some additions being made to the squad. … Hopefully.
It was a depressing Saturday for Arsenal. One that we should just put behind us. If you want to be kind, then you can attribute this match to bad luck and injuries. There’s certainly plenty of truth to that. But I think we know those excuses can only last so long. Let’s face it, every club suffers injuries and bad luck. Arsene Wenger said that it’s not all doom and gloom at Arsenal right now, but as the clouds get bigger, the silver linings get harder to see.
Once again, we can be proud of our youngsters. They acquitted themselves well under the most challenging of circumstances. I’m sure there will be plenty more to come from them down the road. As we’ve often heard over the past few years, the future still looks bright for Arsenal. Now…about the present…