After a disappointing week, the international break could not have come at a better time for the Gunners – assuming there are no more injuries sustained in pointless friendlies.
As I wrote last week, the Arsenal first team squad is stretched to breaking point, and since then this has cost us twice.
The Bayern match was not such a disappointment, despite the scoreline, because even a full complement of Arsenal selection options would have struggled against the best team in Europe hell-bent on revenge for the game at the Emirates. Certainly four of the starting eleven in that fixture would not have started under normal circumstances, but playing at a higher tempo and more clinical in front of goal, Bayern had too much for any combination of players we had selected. But the paucity of options on the bench killed any impetus we may have had in the final third of the match.
It was an odd game, because ultimately the only thing the result changes is the scoreline we will need to beat Olympiakos by on matchday six. It was also odd, because despite the fact the game was over long before half-time, Arsenal created enough opportunities and promising positions to have scored three or four with better precision and greater fortune.
But it was always a hiding to nothing. The absence of Koscielny and Bellerin destroyed our defensive balance, and the absence of Walcott and Welbeck neutered our counter-attacking intentions and allowed far more pressure to be put on our central midfield. As we’ve seen so many times before, Giroud’s lack of pace allows the opposition to play a high defensive line and squeeze our midfield much more effectively. This is not to decry the efforts of the burly Frenchman, but tactically he is not a horse for every course.
The same problems were all too visible at The Emirates against the noisy neighbours. Against a back four to a man quicker than any of our attacking options, Spurs squeezed the life out of our midfield, allowing Pocchetino’s patented pressing to flourish against our central pairing. This was not helped by visible fatigue levels in the Coq-zorla axis, and the leniency of Mr. Atkinson on the more robust and cynical challenges of the Tottenham midfield.
It seems churlish to criticise a referee in a game devoid of any big decisions, but given how many times Coquelin or Cazorla get booked for their first or second foul, watching Dembele, Dier, Lamella and Dele Alli make three or four each without even a conversation (particularly some cynical drag backs and trips) is somewhat galling. But as was pointed out elsewhere, Atkinson has been declining as a match official for two or three years now.
Either way, regardless of that minor irritation, I’m not sure anyone can argue with the justice of the points being shared. Tottenham got both their selection and tactics spot on to exploit Arsenal’s lack of warm bodies, and it was only really the Gunner’s pride that allowed them find the reserves to grab a point and feel unlucky not to sneak a win. The back four seemed to lack concentration, perhaps unsettled by selected changes, and Ozil apart, the performance was characterised by a lack of composure and slower decision making under pressure than of late.
It was another odd game, in that despite Tottenham’s periods of control and Arsenal’s apparent fragility in central midfield and at the back, Arsenal actually created the better chances on balance. Given his recent form, Giroud will feel disappointed not to have buried at least of those very presentable headed chances in the second half, not to mention the snap shot that fizzed just over.
The continuing bright spot is that all of those chances plus the goal were created by our October Player of the Month, Mesut Ozil. With 10 Premier League assists so far this year (the fewest games ever to reach that number), and at least one in each of the last six games, the creator supreme is silencing his critics week after week. As Leutrim pointed out last week, his current rate is record breaking. It’s frightening to think what more clinical finishers in the squad could do to that figure, as he has created 54 chances in the League, seven of which were on Sunday. His crucial role at the weekend was nicely highlighted by ex-Spud Jermaine Jenas on the BBC website.
With his first 18 months characterised by flitting in and out of form, fitness and positive frame of mind, his play of late has been determined, decisive and incredibly consistent. The laconic figure that often gave the impression of pining for Madrid has now allied his undoubted brilliance with a sense that this is HIS team, and that he can drag us to where we aspire to be. If he were to join the list of walking wounded, things could unravel alarmingly.
Elsewhere, it’s been hard to know what to take from the last week as far as lessons learned. Debuchy is slowly creaking back into form, but his lack of dynamism compared to Bellerin is a stark comparison. Flamini’s Sunday cameo reminded us that his lack of positional intelligence doesn’t make up for his effort levels when the team is struggling (despite never losing at the Emirates!), and Arteta looked a more viable option in that situation. Campbell has shown flashes, such as his fine effort pawed away by Lloris, and the odd cross against Bayern, but despite his work-rate, a long-term future looks unlikely.
In the plus column, it was great to see Kieran Gibbs reprise his youth role as a wide-man to crucial effect, scoring one, and being very close to getting another. A good reward for a loyal and uncomplaining Arsenal man.
Looking ahead, we are in a great position domestically and are not yet dead ducks in Europe. I’m sure at the season’s start any Arsenal fan would have taken joint-top in mid-November, even without half the squad being injured. While we’re not expecting too many back directly after the international break, the fixture list on the horizon isn’t too daunting. Our next six games are against West Brom (A), Dinamo Zagreb (H), Norwich City (A), Sunderland (H), Olympiakos (A) and Aston Villa (H). Even with a depleted squad, we should be favourites for the five of those six at worst.
Hopefully the break can alleviate a little of the composure undermining mental fatigue that afflicted the team on Sunday (hardly surprising after the awesome performance by the opposition in Munich). The fact that Cazorla’s substitution was necessitated by dizzy spells (and his preceding performance to be honest) suggests the little Spaniard might benefit from a day off and a bit of his native sun.
Hopefully this comparatively generous run can allow a little rotation and more importantly for those returning from the treatment table to not be rushed back ahead of time. The way the manager is challenging his players after poor performances shows that this team CAN win the league this year, and as such, managing the resources at his disposal with one eye on the coming months will be crucial.