‘Tis the season to be…fed up?
As the nights draw in ever earlier and the days get ever grey-er, Arsenal’s title challenge has wilted badly under the north west Christmas lights.
Is it just the same old story of a lack of intestinal fortitude? Was it another Wenger tactical clusterfuck? Or, in this season of goodwill, do we need to congratulate our opponents?
Well a bit of all of the above.
After defeat to Everton, I wasn’t too crestfallen. Disappointing to have surrendered the initiative, particularly having been so dominant early on, but it wasn’t capitulation.
The hosts were unbeaten at Goodison since we turned them over last season, and Koeman finally picked his best XI for this one. After the early going it looked like an Arsenal stroll was on the cards, with multiple goalscoring looking likely.
For me the biggest factor in the turnaround was the crowd. Loud, hostile and passionate, the supporters were well and truly up for it, and dragged their team back into the game by creating a great atmosphere before their team did anything to merit it.
That said, once woken from their early torpor, Everton were at their best, playing physical, direct football and tactically to their strengths. It started with them roughing up our midfield a little, before then playing at 100mph intensity for the last hour of the match, which we couldn’t quite cope with.
Not that we were dominated. We created chances and opportunities and ultimately were denied by two goal-line blocks and a non given penalty in the last minutes. A bit more clinical and we could have won comfortably (Ozil’s second miss was poor), but to be fair, Everton put in their best performance since late September, both in terms of tactics and energy levels. They have the nucleus of a good side (though Barkley and Lukaku are terribly inconsistent at times), and somehow Koeman manages to get more effort out of his teams when they play us than against other big clubs, perhaps because they know we can be knocked off stride when not at our best.
City on Sunday was another story. Our hosts were in mixed form. They were without their best striker, holding midfielder and centre-half. They were there for the taking.
And it started like that. We got our early goal – great play from Sanchez & expertly finished by Walcott – and looked liable to score almost every time we attached.
Then after about 30 minutes, we just stopped attacking. The second half was a soporific shambles, with the team sleepwalking to defeat, albeit both City’s goals should have been chalked off by the linesman who pulled Monreal back incorrectly in the first half.
Normally, such bloody useless officiating would have me furious with the men in black, but I was too busy aiming my ire at the team. I wasn’t alone. From about 60 mins onwards, Gary Neville was furious with Arsenal, and so was Wenger on the touch line, flapping his arms like a deranged penguin. The team looked lost and lethargic, with the defensive line dropping far far too deep and attacking players having to play in defensive roles.
It was an awful capitulation of a game we could and should have won handsomely. What’s worse, is that it was obvious which way the tide was turning for the whole of the second half, yet the team’s mentality and positioning remained unchanged until the last ten minutes. Very sobering indeed.
So why did it happen after such good recent performances?
It largely comes down to Losing the midfield battle.
In both games, Xhaka looked imperious for the first thirty minutes, but then couldn’t cope when the games intensity and pace were ramped up. He is, of course, still adjusting to the league, and it’s not surprising to see him struggle with several high pace games in a row, when normally he’d be winding down for a winter break. His lack of agility and footspeed are not news either, so he needs more support in these games. Coquelin bust a lung in both, but is a scrapper rather than a distributor, and too needed more muscle around him.
Despite Walcott’s improved effort levels, he’s not going to provide much from the flanks, and the less said about Ozil’s contribution the better. We have seen the German dominate big games, but he is still much more likely to disappear when the going gets tough. It was particularly noticeable against Everton when they roughed him up either side of half time (and when walking off the pitch at the break, and he didn’t fancy it after that).
Starting the Ox at Everton and Iwobi at Man City was always going to be the wrong way round, with the former far more dangerous in games where we need to counter and bolster the midfield with pace, and the latter far more effective in games we can control. The selections seemed odd then and no less strange now, particularly as Oxlade-Chamberlain’s attempted rescue act resulted in a hamstring ping.
Despite all this, for me it is much down to our enforced defensive change that our midfield struggled in both.
In Mustafi’s absence, Gabriel has stepped in and reminded us all why he doesn’t start. He’s fine winning tackles and headers and has a decent turn of pace, but his total lack of composure is massively unsettling for the team.
Firstly, Koscielny clearly has les confidence in him than his other partners, and in both games was guilty of errors made while trying to do the job of both centre-halves at once. This means Monreal gets less help, which I turn pulls either Xhaka or our left winger back to cover, particularly as the Spaniard’s form has faltered this season.
Secondly, Gabriel treats the ball like a hand grenade, despite actually being technicality competent. He shares the obvious terror of making a mistake that is evident in Carl Jenkinson, but without the excuse of missing a year with injury. This puts much more pressure on Koscielny and the central midfield pair, as he lacks the confidence to play any but the simplest passes. City exploited this brilliantly in the second half, by man-marking Koscielny, Xhaka, Coquelin and Bellerin, which ultimately led to Cech endlessly punting the ball downfield in the vague direction of Sanchez. It is instructive that our goal came from one of the only occasions where we built from the defence competently.
Lastly, Gabriel, in both games, was constantly pulling the defensive line back, which in turn pulled the midfield back, and gave us no where to go when we regained possession. Koscielny did try pushing up on occasions, but Gabriel kept dropping deeper, which not only played havoc with our offside line, but needlessly invited pressure.
So what can we do?
Well, thankfully the next set of fixtures are kinder, which is just as well given that aside from Gibbs, Elneny and up-front, we have injuries to all our other squad options. Certainly some rotation is vital, as Sanchez and Ozil simply cannot play 90 mins every week, and the team is looking tired.
Who would have thought in August that come Christmas our only squad surplus would be up front!
This does again pose questions about our youth set up/purchasing of young players. Why do we not have anyone who does not count against squad numbers (i.e. Under 21) ready to contribute? Perhaps this is a chance for Maitland-Niles or The Jeff to make themselves this year’s Iwobi?
Or an early January trolley dash?
Either way, something is needed to freshen things up.
On the plus side – Once a Gooner always a Gooner…