In the context of the season it’s hard to know how to feel about the last week’s results. The draw at Anfield felt like a massive disappointment, while conversely 0-0 at Stoke felt a good point to have gained.
One suspects that were the games not back to back, there would be a greater overall sense of optimism, but under different circumstances both would have been eminently winnable fixtures. And with our lead the top reduced to ‘nil points’, it’s hard not to feel a bit twitchy.
The games themselves couldn’t have been much more contrasting, but ultimately, the primary reason for dropped points remains the same old story. Injuries.
For all the pre-match media focus on absent friends for our opponents, on Sunday Arsenal missed a front six (or seven!) better than that available to all but one or two domestic opponents.
Against Liverpool, the lack of midfield legs against a hard running opposition playing a false nine was a massive problem, particularly late on, where Flamini’s reduced mobility and Ramsey’s lack of positional discipline were again exposed. With Le Coq, Cazorla and Wilshere all injured, and new boy Elneny still stuck in immigration limbo, we found ourselves in the twilight zone of Arteta time, which once again proved a tactical chocolate teapot.
The late concession of an equaliser was made worse by both the monumental mediocrity of the goalscorer and Liverpool’s efforts against the van Gaal insomnia cure machine on Sunday. Klopp strangely chose the same tactics as against Arsenal against a Man Utd team who are full of running, size, positional discipline and who flood the midfield, but drop deep and lack imagination and ambition. In other words the polar opposite to Arsenal at this moment in time. The complete lack of intensity from both Liverpool players and fans against their most hated rivals, compared to both against us was also surprising to observe.
Ultimately, our Anfield disappointment shouldn’t be overplayed. To feel frustrated with a point having gone behind twice to two excellent goals seems a little churlish. Yes, to concede in injury time always leaves a bad taste, but from conceding the opening goal until the legs went late on, Arsenal were excellent.
The team’s issues were rather different during the annual visit to a wet, cold and windy Mordor (I can’t help feeling suspicious that the fixture generator never sends us to the potteries in August/September or April/May – it’s always the bloody bleak mid-winter).
Despite their evolution into a football team, Stoke show less movement and running in central midfield, but are a lot more defensively solid than the Scousers. With the unusual assurance of a settled back line, the addition of Petr Čech, and a squad rather more characterised by work-rate than in previous years, for once it was creativity rather than steel that Arsenal missed at the Britannia. With Özil now added to the list of absentees, Arsenal found themselves in the bizarre situation of lacking almost their entire collection of diminutive playmakers, with only Aaron Ramsey offering a nod in that direction.
In the absence of four international ‘numero dix’s’, Arsenal had to change shape as well as personnel in midfield, and the lack of creative quality and familiarity showed, particularly sans the combative explosiveness of Alexis. The fact that Joel Campbell was our most creative player was a firm indication of the impact of ongoing selection issues.
It was also clear pretty early on that Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain have no idea how to dovetail as a central pairing, having never really done so before. This was accentuated by The Ox’s ongoing crisis of confidence. His effort levels remain undiminished, but a la Ramsey circa 2011, he is trying too hard to force the play when openings aren’t there, and looks like a man who can’t even remember what it’s like to just enjoy the game.
Having said all that, a point at Stoke is never a bad point for Arsenal, particularly given the other big teams they’ve turned over this season. It was easy to see throughout why their defensive record at home is so impressive, and points shared was a fair result. This is despite Theo Walcott’s penalty shout, which didn’t look convincing in real time, but was actually a fairly clear double foul on the replay. But then Arsenal have been denied much more obvious ones multiple times over the last two years.
The main thing is, we are still top after two of our most challenging fixtures of the season despite a massively depleted squad. No rest for the wicked, though, with a real toughie against a semi-resurgent Chavski coming up on Sunday. The suggestion is that both Özil and Alexis will be back for that one, which should make a massive difference, and perhaps in rather more supportive surroundings than Stoke, we may even see minutes for our new midfield man. Let’s hope they can make the difference in a game Arsenal need to win, psychologically as well as practically.