I know, I know – another column, another unfathomable headline; what is an ‘infinity staircase’, I hear you ask.
Well, it’s this:
You see how the bears are constantly going in the same direction, over and over and over again, only to end up in the same place from where they started, even though they were clearly going up (or down) the whole way along? This is where Arsenal find themselves, as the proof to something that is supposed to be logistically and mathematically impossible.
How else can we explain how an Arsenal team contrived to go 2-0 down at home to a supremely average Watford side, a mere three days after an Arsenal team full of players deemed either not fit enough or not good enough to play on Tuesday, won 5-0 away from home with a performance full of creative verve and energy? It is simply astounding as to how Arsenal do this to themselves repeatedly, and never learn from their mistakes.
After beating Burnley last week, there were a couple of glaring issues that needed to be sorted out in preparation for playing three games in eight days. Some players weren’t going to be able to play all three games because of recent injury issues, some players would have to play in unfamiliar positions, and some players fit into one style of play but not another, so can’t be played in certain situations. These are all very common issues that crop up all the time.
So why, with all of that in mind, did the team line up like this against Watford:
Cech – Monreal, Koscielny, Mustafi, Gabriel – Coquelin, Ramsey – Alexis, Özil, Iwobi – Giroud?
You didn’t need to be a clairvoyant to see that such a lineup would fail to work together. A simple logical progression from the striker down shows this. Olivier Giroud needs quick ball into feet and runners from midfield to go past him in order to be effective. Is this possible when Aaron Ramsey is the only person running past him and Francis Coquelin is the player who is tasked with getting him the ball quickly?
Giroud also needs wingers and full-backs making runs down the line, sometimes to put a good ball in, other times just to spread the defence out a bit and give him room to work in the penalty box. Is this possible when Gabriel and Alex Iwobi are playing on the right wing?
With Giroud stuck in the centre of the pitch, with little support and no-one giving him any service, where does that leave Alexis? Stuck out on the left wing, surrounded by three defenders because the whole defence is ignoring our right wing. Can he perform miracles out there by himself? Yes, but is it a good idea to actually require miracles from him by design?
But the most infuriating thing about the lineup on Tuesday wasn’t any of the above, it was how easily it could have been solved. You can justify Gabriel’s selection on the basis that Hector Bellerin isn’t fit enough to play three games in a week yet, and that’s fine. You can say the same for Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott, and that’s fine too. You can also say that Ramsey and Coquelin are our two best available central midfielders and that they had to be played as a pair because we had no other option. And that’s all fine.
But if Gabriel can’t play in the same team as Giroud, and a midfield of Ramsey-Coquelin nullifies Giroud’s ability to link up play in the midfield, why was Giroud playing in the first place? How did we end up having to play Giroud in a team that was clearly ill-suited to getting the best out of him? If we knew that Gabriel, Ramsey and Coquelin were going to start on the Tuesday, then why was Lucas picked on the Saturday?
If Lucas plays on the Tuesday, and it’s him, Alexis, Õzil and Iwobi up front, then there is far less of a need to play down the wings, and Gabriel’s attacking deficiencies are less of an issue. Ramsey doesn’t have to worry about running from deep any more. Coquelin doesn’t have to worry about being isolated in midfield any more, because Ramsey is running up field as much. As for Saturday, Giroud would have had Welbeck, Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain running past him all game, and Bellerin and Gibbs would have ran down the wings just like they did, giving Giroud as many crosses as he wanted.
Instead, we had all our mobile strikers playing in one game, then none in the other. Oxlade-Chamberlain looked like a stud in centre-midfield on the Saturday, in a system that suits him. Aaron Ramsey looked lost on the Tuesday, he didn’t know where to stand for the free-kick that led to Watford’s first goal, and he had no idea who Gabriel was throwing the ball into before the second goal, even though he himself was the target.
Arsene Wenger can talk about how his players weren’t mentally ready for Tuesday’s game, but he himself has to take a large portion of blame for what happened. You can’t expect a team to play at optimal levels when you yourself fail to ensure that players are put in the best position to succeed in the first place. The fact that Giroud was hauled off at half-time was a clear indication that Wenger knew he had screwed up.
A lot of focus will now be on whether Arsenal can ‘bounce back’ on Saturday at Chelsea, but this will be missing the key issue at hand. Arsenal have prepared for Chelsea. All the players that were rested on Tuesday will be available, and it’ll look like we had a plan in place all along. And we did. But that plan was critically flawed from the outset, because it was either a gamble on Wenger’s part that Tuesday’s flawed lineup would work, or it was a just a plain and simple cock-up.
Arsenal can’t afford to gamble. They certainly can’t afford any more cock-ups. One of either of them will just leave Arsenal in the worst possible place…
Right back where they started.