With just two points from a possible nine, Arsenal’s title challenge has faltered in the deep midwinter, and the usual questions have been raised by ‘independent’ observers.
For once, disappointments haven’t stemmed from a lack of fight, but a lack of personnel, leading to a lack of quality and balance.
This squad has been limping along without key players and without any ability to rotate for almost two months now, and it’s no surprise to see that catching up with the team.
Of course on Sunday we experienced a shortage of personnel in a slightly more immediate sense. In hindsight, Mertesacker would have been better served letting Costa go rather than lunging from distance when the offside trap failed. Particularly given that the Chelsea man is exactly the sort who evidently prefers to accentuate minimal and non impeding contact with a level of play acting that would make WWE professionals proud in order to ensure a red card, rather than just running in on goal and having the clear opportunity that Mertesacker was sent off for denying him. But the fact that Costa is a scumbag who veers between crafty cynicism and borderline lunacy is known to everyone who watches football bar the officials (that’s right kids, still never been sent off in England despite headbutts, stamps, attempted punches etc), and one can’t give him that opportunity. Costa may be a villain, and it may have been played for, but ultimately it was done so successfully, so there can be no real argument against the red card.
While a certain amount of blame has to rest on the German’s shoulders (with a nod to Koscielny’s ongoing issues with the offside ruling), it stemmed from the same problem that has been hampering the team for two months. A lack of balance in central midfield leading to a lack of pressure on the ball. Quality players when given time and space on the ball create quality chances. And despite their poor season, Chelsea’s title defending squad is brim full of quality.
Ramsey and to a lesser extent Flamini are both very good midfielders when utilised correctly. Sadly Ramsey AND Flamini doesn’t make a midfield. As Lewis Ambrose pointed out in his impassioned defence of the Welshman, this is not due to any lack of work-rate on Ramsey’s part, but rather the fact that due to Flamini’s declining athleticism and decisiveness defensively, he needs a partner that sits deeper and distributes (a la Cazorla) rather than a box-to-box runner.
This is in part because Flamini is only nominally a defensive midfielder. He is instinctively a box-to-box man himself, whose defensive attributes are greater than his attacking ones, as evidenced by our best chances in the box all falling to him. Actually, his timing of runs from deep into the box are excellent, but that’s not what we need from him.
Both would be much more effective alongside those who are missing. Ramsey’s strength at breaking forward would be far less of a risk if backed up by Coquelin’s pace, aggression and decisiveness. Flamini’s lack of pace and tendency to push too forward or drop too deep would be better supported by the deep-lying playmaking of Cazorla or potentially Wilshere. It also seems likely that were the game a month later, the new boy Elneny would have been a real consideration for a central berth too.
On top of that, there were question marks about the fitness of both Giroud and Özil leading into the game, and with Sánchez only fit enough for the bench, Arsenal entered the game with one hand tied behind their back. Of course, as is par for the course when we play them, Arsenal’s depleted numbers were matched up against a Chelsea team with no injuries at all. It used to be Man Utd we always played with a massive injury disparity in their favour, but as their fortunes have turned, it is Chelsea who now seem to benefit from that timing.
It isn’t ALL doom and gloom though. Our next game is a home FA Cup tie against a promotion chasing Burnley side who may have other priorities, which should allow some rotation (and the introduction of Elneny and a rumoured return for Coquelin), which will hopefully give the likes of Özil, Giroud and Sánchez to get back to 100% fitness, before the next push of league games against Southampton, Bournemouth and Leicester. There was also some encouragement in the cameo from Alexis, who immediately added energy, drive and caused a little chaos in Chelsea’s defensive play, showing that he is ready to contribute at his usual level going forward. There was also some encouragement in the performance after the shock of the red card and conceding the first goal. While vulnerable to the counter late on, Arsenal created enough chances to get something from the game, and there were periods where Chelsea were visibly hanging on. It’s not much of a consolation, but given our previous capacity to wilt in big games when things went against us, it still shows improvement.
Away from the games themselves, it’s worth remembering Arsenal took the same number of points from the same three fixtures last year, and this year are still within 3 points of the top of the table. We are still very much in the thick of things, with numerous players to return to full fitness and hopefully contribute between now and May, and our late trip to the Etihad aside, Arsenal have a friendly domestic fixture list in the last two months of the season.
So the question is, can the current available players make Arsenal stay in touch until more of the walking wounded return?