Saturday lunchtime was an uninspiring start to Arsenal’s nightmare run of fixtures.
I suppose one could say that it was a decent run-out for those players needing more time on the pitch, but none came out of the weekend’s FA Cup tie covered in anything resembling glory.
The fact that Hull City were the single most negative team to visit the Emirates for about two years didn’t help matters. When a three pronged attack features a selection of attackers better known for pace than any great subtlety, an opposition set up with 10 men behind the ball and a deep back-line is hardly ideal.
Indeed, it seemed a little counter-intuitive that a Hull City team chasing the golden hello of promotion at the time of the new bumper Premier League TV deal kicking in, threatened primarily by fixture congestion, should show such a completely focused commitment to achieving a nil-nil and a replay. Particularly when Steve Bruce then called on replays to be abolished after the match. Apart from a brief flurry of two ventures into the Arsenal area in the last 10 minutes, Hull’s entire attacking endeavour rested on attempting to win the occasional free kick within punting into the area range, and the one shot on target that they were credited with was about as threatening as an attempted Per Mertesacker bicycle kick.
Sadly, the visitor’s refusal to venture out of their own half unless entirely necessary ultimately only served to illustrate the bluntness of Arsenal’s attack. Wenger talks about finishing as being cyclical, but at present this cycle has a turning circle that makes our aforementioned vice captain look like a dervish in his rotational speed.
Quite apart from the obvious lack of balanced skill sets in our reserve selection (highlighting the absence of our three injured creative dynamos), the squad does appear to be on a consistent mission to ensure every visiting ‘keeper gets the man of the match award. And to greater and greater degrees. Not only did Jakupovic make the most saves by a visiting keeper this year, Saturday featured the most shots the team has had this year without scoring. And I thought we’d had enough of that with Fraser Forster’s display not so long ago.
Naturally some, as is always the case when results don’t go to plan, have shown a determination to ignore the contribution of the opposition, but it has to be pointed out that although half of the shots saved were without any real threat, Jakupovic made three good saves and two truly excellent ones. His celebration when seeing the big-screen replay of his save from Joel Campbell’s free kick was merited, if amusing.
Accordingly, while there is some justification in criticising our chance conversion at the weekend, do we honestly believe that Ospina would have kept all those shots out?
Looking at the performance itself, it’s a tricky one to know how to judge because no-one excelled and equally no-one stunk the place out. It was all generally quite competent (though Alexis’s frenetically ineffective showing off the bench was a concern), but as a team we were badly lacking in spark and dynamic combination play. Hardly a surprise in some ways given that all the ‘glue’ players in the squad were either rested or injured, but there wasn’t any great controlled pattern to the play. In all honesty though, the comparative lack of quality creativity and attacking balance is no great surprise looking at the line up. A Wilshere, Rosicky or Cazorla could have made a real difference.
Looking at the bigger picture, this result leaves the fixture computer in a pickle about how to schedule a replay. With both teams largely playing weekend-midweek-weekend for the foreseeable future, sooner or later it’s going to lead to three games in a week (either around this tie or later in the league), at a time when we can least afford it. The thing is, it’s even more complex than that. The next round of the cup is scheduled to be on Saturday 12th March, with Arsenal scheduled to play on the 2nd and 5th, and with Hull playing on 3rd and 8th. Ultimately, either the winner’s quarter-final against Watford will be postponed, or Arsenal’s trip to White Hart Lane on the 5th, or Hull’s hosting Brentford on the 8th will be moved. Either way, it’s a bit of a mess.
Until then, the fish to be fried just get bigger. On Tuesday night, Barcelona arrive as the best team to visit The Emirates by a distance. The only comparable opposition to date have been Pep Guardiola’s dominant Bayern side, so the home tie of that double header gives us hope, even sans the stabilising influence of Santi Cazorla. While it’s incredibly unlikely that we will a) progress from this tie and b) win the competition even should we do so, a positive first result would do us the world of good before our Sunday sojourn to Old Trafford, and the morale boost of a win would take some of the edge off the tired legs that would no doubt follow any game against Barca.
The United game is hard to call, regardless of the outcome of our brush with Messi and co., because they are still in awful form, but equally still capable of sneaking results in games where they are massively outplayed. The injury enforced absence of Rooney will presumably lead to Martial up-front, which may be dangerous, and of course their fans and several of their players would love to be a fly in our ointment.
With that in mind, an ideal result in the FA Cup would be for them to lose after extra time to Shrewsbury, with a few minor knocks picked up along the way!
Of course our performance schizophrenia is just as much of a reason as United’s for not feeling as confident as perhaps I should ahead of the game at the weekend. The well oiled, well structured team of August to October has yet to re-materialise following our injury crisis, and the flashes of true ‘Wengerball’ interplay that were briefly evident have subsequently only existed in moments rather than extended spells.
Ultimately, though, the same truth remains. If we play well, we can beat anyone else in England, so the onus and control remains with us. Particularly as our most challenging opponents domestically are likely to come at us rather than taking a similar approach to the matches as the Romans did to their imperial ambitions in Scotland with Hadrian’s wall, a la Hull or Southampton. We all know that against domestic opposition, we are generally happiest when the opposition play with a progressive approach, as when it comes to an open game of football we fancy our chances against most. Barcelona on the other hand….