The best that can be said about the weekend’s game is that it stopped the losing run.
While bias can point to referees post-match saying Navas’s yellow card should have been a red, and Fernandinho getting away with two fouls worse then Coquelin’s or Mustsfi’s yellow card offences before finally being booked, our continued wait for football to creak into the 21st century with video refs doesn’t change a far from convincing outing.
The team’s obvious lack of confidence was understandable, but its lack of cohesion less so.
This wasn’t just the usual tactical ineptitude, but rather a sense of a team not all pulling in the same direction.
For all the usual tedious talk about mental strength, we showed an extraordinary brittleness at points and more worrying, a lack of the collectivism that has defined most of Wenger’s teams. We’ve seen this team looking tactically uncertain many times before, but at present they seem to be a group looking in different directions. And it has to be said, our star men aren’t providing the kind of galvanising effect that characterised real Arsenal heroes.
The amount of time Sanchez spent complaining (and at one point berating a team mate’s error while an opponent ran straight past him with the ball) was hardly earned given the paucity of his overall performance. Bar one brilliantly improvised ball that led to Theo putting a half chance just over, and some good link play with Monreal, our Chilean star was poor, needlessly illustrated by losing possession on the edge of our box three or four times. Not to mention running down a lot of blind alleys. This isn’t an attack on him as such, because he is fundamentally a risk/reward player, but having a go at teammates every few minutes when you bringing a lot of risk for very little reward doesn’t sit well.
On the other side of the coin we had Ozil, the collectivist with questionable fire. Once again his effort levels were criticised by the simplistic, but it’s a bit more complex than that.
It’s not that he wasn’t working hard, but rather that his decision-making about how to use his energy was very curious. At times, his working back to slow opponents was exemplary, but often unnecessary. Yet, when the danger was all too real, he was ‘after you, Claude’ in his approach.
Certainly, his laxness, both in and out of possession, was a massive contributor to Man City’s deflating second goal. Wenger’s captured sideline reaction to the whole passage of play was one of unfolding frustration and anger. He later described it as a “lack of defensive focus”.
To be fair to Ozil, it was pretty obvious he was lacking match fitness following recent absences.
This team’s mental befuddlement also extended far beyond our main men, and it would be wrong to single them out beyond our perhaps unreasonable expectations. The team’s reaction to both goals, particularly Theo’s, didn’t suggest a great collective fighting spirit or a confidence to take the game by the scruff of the neck.
On top of that, though it was excellently executed, Leroy Sane’s opener was the fifth time in the last six games Arsenal have conceded in the opening fifteen minutes. At least this time we didn’t lose. Conceding so early with such regularity again suggests a lack of collective focus.
In short, this team looks mentally shot, and more so than at any point under this manager before.
Of course, in the fractious atmosphere people are looking for scapegoats even beyond the manager.
The once credible Myles Palmer decided to focus his ire on Theo Walcott, despite the Englishman once again scoring against strong opposition and generally retaining possession well despite an awful lack of service.
Others singled out different elements of our back four, despite none being particularly poor individually. Bellerin’s positioning on the first goal was naive and Mustafi was rash at times, but both recovered as the game went on.
In all honesty, the current malaise is team-wide, be it tactical or mental.
That said, our central midfield is totally inadequate for the task being regularly imposed on it.
The team’s current 4-2-3-1 set-up puts a lot of pressure on the two in question, and Xhaka and Coquelin as a partnership are, at present, nowhere near the required standard.
This isn’t a new problem.
The last time Arsenal had a regularly functioning midfield two without Cazorla was the Arteta/Ramsey model in the first half of 2013/14 before our ex-captain’s legs fully went.
Wenger’s tactical model over his entire tenure has been dependent on central midfielders being able to receive the ball from the back four and transition it forward under pressure.
Coquelin lacks the technical ability despite having the mobility, and Xhaka has the passing range but not the speed or ability to evade pressure.
The Frenchman can thrive alongside a possession genius like Cazorla as he can focus on his strengths of pressing, covering ground, and playing simple possession.
The Swiss can be great against defensive opposition, but when denied time and space lacks the agility or composure to break an effective press. Worse still is his disciplinary record, as his tackling technique is sufficiently poor as to neuter him entirely as a defensive entity once booked, as we saw at the weekend.
For me the fact that both were playing poorly AND were on yellow cards meant I would happily replaced both with Elneny and Maitland-Niles, despite the latter’s inexperience.
Essentially, Wenger’s tactical set up relies on his central midfield to be the strongest area of the team in terms of personnel, but his activity in the transfer market has not reflected this priority.
I’m not ready to give up on Xhaka yet, but if his performance levels are the same a year from now, I’d happily send him to a league more suited to his current style, like Serie A. As for Coquelin, as much as I like him, he shouldn’t be first choice at this club.
So where are we?
A mentally disintegrating team run by a tactically unconvincing manager, with star players off form, and only partially committed to the cause, alongside a non-functioning midfield.
No wonder pre-match Gazidis felt obliged to offer some meaningless platitudes about being ‘a catalyst for change’. All that has achieved, however, is to feed speculation while satisfying no-one.
Vague sound-bites may be all well and good in the corporate and political worlds, but in a context where people’s accord and willingness to ignore the emperor’s nudity cannot be secured by their desire for self advancement, bland bullshit just won’t cut it.
It’s one thing nodding and smiling at the empty words of someone who pays your wages.
Quite another when you are the one paying.
It’s just another example of the paralysis gripping the club from top to bottom.
My guess is that negotiations between the board and manager are at the stage of ironing out fine details.
Whatever it is, they need to conclude and announce the outcome as an ever increasing matter of urgency, because until then the fans, players and everyone else remain stuck where they are.
And it isn’t a good place for any of us.