While our modern definition of hubris may differ from that of the ancient Greeks, it seems higher powers are still perfectly happy to punish it.
And for Arsenal it seems divine retribution is a little swifter than for some of our rivals.
In a month where the professional egomania of a formerly special one and the Dutch schoolteacher in Manchester have both undergone a testing time, Arsenal fans should have known better than to be triumphant in the wake of a narrow how victory against title rivals Manchester City. Particularly with a trip to Southampton on the horizon.
After a few years as an Arsenal feeder club, the team from the south coast has reverted to previous type as bogeymen for all but the best Arsenal teams.
With the strength, industry, positional flexibility and niggle of Wanyama, Clasie, Davis and Ward-Prowse in midfield, allied to the pace and industry (and sneaky cheatingness) of Long and Mane up-front, Southampton rope-a-doped Arsenal even better than we did to Man City. Eschewing possession and pressing hard from the front, they were exactly the kind of opponents that expose all of the weaknesses in the current Arsenal squad, even without the ludicrous injury list that has decimated our midfield. As a smart powerhouse spoiler, Wanyama is a puzzle that Wenger hasn’t really solved, and he has bullied our midfield at St. Mary’s for three years in row now. Davis is another one whose career seems to have been punctuated by excellent performances against Arsenal whenever the opportunity has arrived.
Up front, Mane is just an excellent counter-attacking front man, who has caught the eye since his turn in the 2012 Olympics, and one that I was surprised Southampton faces such little competition for. And Shane Long is Shane Long. Prodigious work-rate, good pace and strength, a darker edge to his game and the kind of player you love to have on your bench. With better finishing and a bit more selfishness he could match Jamie Vardy. With Bellerin still struggling positionally since his return from injury, and Mertesacker understandably uncomfortable chasing balls in into the channels, it was always a concern how we’d cope if they built up a head of steam.
When you take Southampton’s strengths being so well matched up to our weaknesses, I was, like many others more worried about this fixture than the game against Man City. I’d have been even more concerned if I’d known that the consistently incompetent Jon Moss was going to be in charge, with his usual myopia, inability to keep up with play and decision making almost as scattergun in approach as Eboue playing as a right winger.
As it happened, things went even worse than I feared. When Arsenal continue their tradition of having opposition full-backs score wonder goals on their first full debuts, the signs aren’t good. Of course, small margins make such a big difference and the first goal is always so influential in tight games, but even in the face of the fact that Southampton’s first three goals all came off the back of officiating errors (though it was only the second that then became unpreventable), Arsenal still didn’t deserve any points on boxing day.
The issue of size and power in central midfield is always going to remain the elephant in the room until the manager addresses it. In the absence of Coquelin there is a significant absence of both bite and pace, which leaves us spectacularly vulnerable against really effective high pressing. With our full-backs playing high as well, our centre-backs can very exposed very quickly against smart opposition. This is less of a problem with Cazorla dropping back into a hybrid Pirlo/Busquets role as playmaking half-back when we initially start to build up play, but for all their undoubted qualities, neither Ramsey or Flamini can perform this role, and Arteta no longer has the legs (or fitness levels) to contribute in this way.
This can lead Arsenal to being suffocated against a high-press, particularly when the absence of Sanchez pretty much has Giroud as our only reliable out-ball. Of course, there is also clearly the issue of fatigue given the injury dictated inability to rotate or make energy saving substitutions.
I have heard some say that the manner of the defeat was no bad thing as it reinforces the need for reinforcements in Wenger’s mind before the January window opens. Given the continued uncertainty regarding the return date of Wilshere and the increasing unreliability of Arteta, added to the medium term absences of Coquelin, Cazorla and the forgotten man Rosicky, it would truly be madness for Arsene to not invest in the area of our squad that was a cause for concern in August, even without those absences. This is even more of a no-brainer given that Flamini, Arteta and Rosicky are all likely to leave the playing staff in the summer when their contracts expire, and we have the space within squad number limitations to bed in at least one new man between now and the season’s end.
Thankfully, judging by his comments, Wenger agrees, and says he is actively seeking reinforcements in this area. Accordingly, the internet is choc-a-block with links to ball-winning midfielders, and the greatest noise is around Mohamed Elneny with talk of agreed fees and medical examinations.
The 23 year-old Egyptian fits the profile of an Arsene signing for sure, being proven at the level below Arsenal, but having taken a significant step forward this season to date. At 5″11 and with decent pace, as well as having a 92% pass accuracy in the Europa League, this flexible, positionally sound distributer could certainly fill the hole Arteta is leaving, but with a greater goal threat, and much better recovery pace. Crucially, he would also be available for the Champions League. And given that we are only one more injury away from not having enough players to line up in midfield against Barca, this has to be a consideration.
As is always the case, I shall believe the signing when I see it, but I think he quite nice fits the profile of a Wenger player, whilst also potentially being an urgently needed plug in the breached hull of Arsenal’s currently sinking central midfield.
(Disclaimer: Written before Bournemouth clash)