As Arsenal’s positivity balloon was punctured by West Ham, the club, players and fans are reminded that standing still tends to lead to going backwards.
I’ll be the first to admit to being sucked into the pre-season buoyancy that has been allowing most Arsenal fans to float into the season with an unusual sense of calm. But the good ship Arsenal definitely had its hull pierced by some unforeseen rocks on Sunday. Watching the game with family, the performance and result felt like a brick had been lobbed through the window. We had all been sucked into a genuine feeling of optimism, and the collective gloom at the final whistle could have been cut with a knife.
West Ham impressed and were fitter, hungrier and smarter, as Arsenal’s recent record of opening days without a win stretched to 6. The first could be attributed in part to the Irons having played a number of competitive (and ultimately unsuccessful) Europa League fixtures.
Despite it being Bilic’s domestic managerial debut and a chance to shine for some other new arrivals, there is no excuse for Arsenal’s comparative lack of drive in the first 30 minutes or so. The newness of opposition manager and players should have been an opportunity to ‘carpe jugularem‘, to quote the late Terry Pratchett. Seize the throat.
West Ham’s motivation could have easily been replaced by doubt had we set about our business with that same blistering pace from kick-off that has characterised the best Arsenal sides. Instead, there was a strange passivity about the team’s play at times. When one considers how much stronger this team is when a goal to the good, it’s odd that they don’t pursue this goal with maximum gusto as early as possible!
What frustrated me most however, was that we were out thought. Individually, collectively and tactically.
A break in the axis
It is immediately clear that breaking up the Cazorla/Coquelin central axis places more creative onus on the Frenchman, exposing the limitations in his passing game. Ramsey was not as disciplined as against Chelsea, and Cazorla didn’t tuck inside and cover for the Welshman’s forward forays with the same consistency. There is also the same long standing problem that Cazorla out wide and Giroud up front leaves it entirely down to out right winger of choice to provide pace.
At kick off I was disappointed to see Theo on the bench rather than on the opposite flank to The Ox (our most impressive performer on the day), and the result was something we’ve seen before. No pace behind means the opposition can push up and squeeze the midfield, limiting the effectiveness of Ozil and whoever is behind him.
So for me, that one’s on Wenger. As was his reversion to type when it came to substitutions. Chasing the game, so just throw on ‘all the attackers at once‘, a tactical set up which has seldom yielded much in the way of results, and tends to leave us lacking in cohesion and vulnerable to the counter attack.
Stupid, stupid, stupid
Accordingly, putting Walcott on the right and dropping the Ox to full-back simply served to neuter our most dynamic performer as an attacking force and left Giroud just as isolated. Given the Ox’s defensive weakness it seemed doubly pointless. Why not give the massively out-manned Giroud the quick and instinctive Theo as more immediate support, particularly as so many of Theo’s recent goals have been from balls bouncing around in the box? Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Sadly, what stupidity there was on the sidelines was echoed on the pitch. Having finished last season and started this pre-season with collective focus and plenty of Mertesacker’s ‘Automatic‘, the team’s desire to impress led to an abandonment of the interplay that had served them so well in 2015 to date.
Apart from a period either side of West Ham’s opener, there was very little of the high-speed, one-touch combinations that have defined our recent good performances. Despite the malaise of collective passivity, the players seemed to be trying too hard as individuals to make things happen.
I haven’t seen Arsenal players run down so many blind alleys since the home defeat to Monaco.
Coquelin, struggling without Cazorla next to him against a disciplined opposition, decided to try to play like Pirlo. Ozil seemed to be attempting Maradona moments too often, Ramsey often seemed like he was trying to get onto the end of his own passes, and Cazorla appeared to want to play every midfield position at once.
Our midfield seemed to have become so obsessed with fluidity that there were large periods, particularly in the second half, where it became almost impossible to tell who was playing where. This can of course be useful against opposition who employ a man for man approach in midfield, but against West Ham’s strong zonal system, it only served to confuse ourselves.
After the visitors second, there were about 15 minutes where no Arsenal player seemed to know where his teammates were, and nobody was in their best position. At one point we had Ramsey on the left, Oxlade-Chamberlain at number 10, Cazorla on the right, Coquelin in a bid to box role and Ozil as a deep lying playmaker. Madness!
Even the defence and goalkeeper played like talented strangers for much of the game, with multiple parties culpable for both goals, despite the second in particular resting primarily on the keeper’s shoulders.
This individuality did work to a degree with Oxlade-Chamberlain, as on a few occasions he just took the ball at the opposition, and had them running scared. Too often, however, he was not adequately by team-mates either getting into the box for him to cross to, or getting into positions that he could give and go with.
In terms of working for the team, I thought Giroud showed not only his usual impressive battling qualities when basically surrounded by giant defenders for the entire game, but also a welcome propensity to contribute in wider positions and chase back to defend. But again he, with the balance in midfield wrong, continually found himself isolated and swimming against the tide.
‘One of those days’
The were also the same off-highlighted deficiencies from our beefcake up front. We all know about his lack of pace and the way this allows the opposition to press, and nothing can be done about that. We also know that when he fluffs his first chance or two, it tends to be ‘one of those days‘. He didn’t have any absolute sitters, but he had a couple of weakly scuffed efforts in the first half and should have done better with a late header and later half-volley at the near post from a cross. It seems a little harsh to criticise the failure to take half-chances, but the reality is that as this level, it is what makes the difference.
What do we do?
Sadly, resolving this issue is, as we know, not so simple. Most of the top teams in Europe are looking for a striker with power, pace, tactical awareness and clinical finishing. The Benzema rumours won’t die despite both clubs manager’s refuting them, but this still seems a long shot to me. But who else is there whose basket we might want to put our striking eggs into? As discussed before, there is no easy option quick fix. Only Diego Costa or Sergio Aguero in England are clear upgrades, and both have hamstrings that are not known for their durability.
Hopefully the lack of urgency and intelligence we saw on Sunday can be attributed to a tactical imbalance and a bad day at the office, as the team has definitely shown enough to suggest that this was a blip rather than the norm. The striking issue, however, will remain the elephant in the room until further notice.
There is also the question of cohesion versus competition. We know this squad isn’t far away and, in theory at least, Cech was a step in the right direction. But signings aren’t just about numbers. They are about impetus. After the last two season, Arsenal of all clubs should realise this.
A more experienced goalkeeper is a good thing for sure, but nothing lifts a squad like a top class striker, both in terms of practical impact and the emotional lift and confidence it gives a team, who, lest we forget, still has no-one who has won a title in England. I’m not advocating buying for its own sake. Rather that paying over the odds for the right man might well be a wise investment at this stage.