On a weekend where the Arsenal tail attempted to wag the dog, like England’s bowlers after another batting collapse, the team’s combination of pride, endeavour and mental fragility was on full display.
Despite continual accusations of lack of effort or not caring, it was another performance that supports the view that it is not a failure of work-rate or wanting to do well that is undermining this team, but a fundamental absence of confidence, combined with mental vulnerability, a current lack of team cohesion and a group of whom many lack consistency.
Both defeats at Old Trafford and against Swansea (although attributed to a lack of effort in some quarters) were clearly the result of a lack of confidence and mental strength under pressure. On both occasions, Arsenal came out with intent, dominated the early exchanges, created chances or half chances (and even scored against Swansea) and looked the better side…before conceding a slightly lucky or cheap goal. At which point they fell apart. Conceding was followed by looking as though they would again at any moment, and the attacking play was an unfocused huffing and puffing in hope rather than expectation.
The same mental disintegration in the face of self-imposed adversity was evident on Saturday, but something made the team find the resources to come back from their disappointment against the odds. Both Coquelin’s stupid red card and Spurs’ opening goal were symptomatic of the panic that flows through this squad at the moment, but thankfully neither blow proved terminal.
Perhaps it was the pride of being against local rivals. Perhaps it was the knowledge that this really was last chance saloon. Or perhaps they recognised that for all Spurs’ form, Arsenal have the better players.
As it happened, ten-man Arsenal were in the ascendancy in the last 20 minutes, and once again were let down by inconsistent officiating from an official unduly influenced by the home crowd, which is a surprise for the usually relatively immune Michael Oliver. Had he refereed the game equally, Lamela and Dier would have departed early as well and Arsenal would have had a massive advantage late on.
As well as the team showing an ability to dig deep mentally, the manager awoke from the torpor of recent weeks, by finally making the tactical adjustment that so many of us were crying out for. After nearly 12 months of largely impressive tactical flexibility from January 2015, Arsene has been massively culpable in not changing the balance of the side when it has stopped functioning. Between November and early January the sheer number of injuries in the squad left little room for manoeuvre, but with the recruitment of Elneny and return of Coquelin, other options have been available for over a month.
With the absence of Cazorla, the endless injuries of Wilshere, and that inability of Arteta to play more than 30 mins without pinging something, there has been an understandable lack of distributors centrally, which has knackered the team’s creative balance and put more pressure on the back four. Ramsey can pass, but he’s a runner not a creator at heart, and it’s no coincidence that his best form centrally was in the final days of Arteta’s realistic first team contribution.
Where Wenger has been slow to adjust is in recognising that Coq-Ram partnership is nearly as counter-productive as the Flam-Ram one. No passers and two runners, one of whom is too busy trying to address creative deficiencies elsewhere to hold his position in the middle third, while the other is consumed with putting out fires. As such, although it may be too little too late, I’m sure I wasn’t only one of a lot of pleased Arsenal fans when the tactical adjustment of bolstering the centre and pushing Ramsey wide was announced before kick-off. It’s certainly no coincidence that with this adjustment Ramsey scored and had a couple of other good chances, and Bellerin assisted twice. And while looking a bit lightweight and unsure at times, Elneny stopped us being overrun centrally.
The great irony is that a point at WHL with 10 men would normally be a great result, but apart from helping to undermine Spurs’ title challenge, it feels a little bit like closing the gate after the horse has bolted.
Indeed, there was something about Arsenal’s performance at White Hart Lane they reminded me of the scene from Monty Python and The Holy Grail with the old man on the plague cart.
“Bring out your dead…bring out your dead…”
“I’m not dead yet…I’m getting better…I feel happy!”
“Bring out your dead…”
While it’s positive to see this team ‘not going gently into the night’, Arsenal probably need nine wins out of nine to have any realistic chance of winning the league, barring spectacular implosions from those ahead of us.
As I’ve pointed out before, Leicester’s fixture list is VERY friendly, and they now have an eight point advantage over us. And they have proven themselves to be incredibly consistent to date, with Riyad Mahrez frequently being decisive.
So over to you, Arsenal. Good to see signs of life at the weekend, but any margin for error has now passed. We haven’t seen a convincing run yet this season, but a few wins on the spin might apply some pressure to first the noisy neighbours and perhaps even the fleet-footed Foxes in the distance.