‘Subgate’ has dominated much of the post-Manchester United talk and it’s easy to see why when you consider the reactions of both the fans and van Persie to the replacement of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The substitution was made at a time when the team and Oxlade-Chamberlain in particular seemed to have a great deal of momentum. The reasons for the sub appeared unclear at the time and are still a mystery to those other than Arsène Wenger. The boss claimed that Oxlade-Chamberlain was suffering from fatigue and if that was the case one can’t argue with his withdrawal from the match. I have to say I have my doubts though.
Of course in every substitution there is a player replaced but also one introduced. Yesterday that player was Andrei Arshavin. He has been a victim of much criticism both for his form over the last 12-18 months but also for his contribution in the winner. Disregarding the fact that I see Benayoun as a more valid option over Arshavin (and I find his lack of involvement strange) I’m puzzled that Arshavin is getting the bulk of the blame for Welbeck’s goal. Sure, his defensive capabilities aren’t great but neither are those of Oxlade-Chamberlain or in fact Benayoun. This is all hypothetical but it’s equally likely, in my opinion, that neither of those two would’ve done more than Arshavin to stop Valencia’s driving run and subsequent one-two with Park Ji-Sung.
Why is there no criticism of the actual defenders? Vermaelen was too narrow and was easily bypassed by the one-two and Welbeck was left painfully free in the box by Mertesacker before he sharply fired home. In short, though it was in that moment that we conceded the winner, we didn’t lose the game because of that sub. That substitution didn’t cause our loss at Fulham and it didn’t cause our loss against Swansea either.
It’s been evident for some time now that we’ve lacked the basics usually present in successful teams. I understand that we have an extensive injury list and signings in particular positions could certainly strengthen both the first XI and the squad but there are still issues we can address within the present squad. Wenger often likes to focus on what we already have so I will do likewise. Consider our recent games against Fulham and Swansea for a minute. For both games we put out teams I believe had the quality to win. So why didn’t we?
Finishing or lack thereof
Against Fulham our profligate side reared its ugly head in the first half. Countless chances were made and squandered. A mixture of poor decision-making in the final third and a lack of composure have meant we have often failed to take advantage of key moments in games and this has been a common theme. To further illustrate our wasteful nature in front of goal we have the 12th best goals to shots on target ratio in the league with 28%* (Manchester City are the best finishers with 41% of their shots on target resulting in goals). Put the chances away; build up a 2 or 3 goal lead and, freak occurrences aside, the opposition’s confidence will naturally wilt. Van Persie leads the Premier League goal charts with an impressive 19 goals. Our next highest scorer is Gervinho on 4. That’s not good enough if we are aiming for a top 4 place.
No longer Mr Tiki-taka
Sunday’s match was the sixth match this season that we’ve been outpassed by the opposition. Previously only five teams managed to outpass us throughout the entire 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons combined**. Arsène has acknowledged this in a recent interview which can partly be found in this Daily Mail article (I know, I know) ~> http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-2089931/Arsenal-face-test-passing-philosophy.html:
“I agree we are a little bit less good than last year with possession of the ball but it's down to the structure of the team a little bit, because we play this year with two wingers who are real wingers. And, you know, we are as well a bit more vertical than last year and a little less possession [based].”
He does add that he feels “that in weaker periods of our game we are a little bit more in trouble because we can't keep the ball as well.”
Our reputation certainly precedes us with regards to ball domination and we haven’t monopolised the ball with panache consistently since the 07/08 midfield of Hleb, Fàbregas, Flamini and Rosický. Arteta’s absence has finally raised his profile amongst the majority of supporters but we should still be able to keep the ball better than we have been doing recently. Song, Ramsey, Rosický and Benayoun are all capable technical players and as such could certainly play less careless passes than they do currently. We could also improve our strategy at times by pushing our centrebacks wider, pushing the fullbacks forward and dropping Song back to evade pressure but that’s a discussion better saved for another day.
Pressing rhythm reverberates once more
Those who follow me on twitter will know that I bang the pressing drum quite often. It’s often present in the first few minutes of the match and this is an obvious ploy to try and pressure the opposition into an early mistake. However, it then ceases to nothing more than sporadic chasing. This pressing conundrum has puzzled many fans for a long time. Until it’s sorted by either Wenger or the players themselves into a more constant strategy we’ll continue to suffer. Laurent Koscielny, who in my opinion has developed into the best defender at the club, recently commented on the need for more structure:
“It’s not just about the back four – we need to defend together, as a team, and that makes the defenders’ job easier too. It also helps our attackers if we win the ball in the opposition half, so we need to work hard in all areas.”
In an interview in L’Équipe, Bosscielny, as he is becoming affectionately known, added:
“Without being mean, when you defend with four players, it is difficult. Sometimes you feel alone. When you look at Barça, everybody defends, even Messi. There is a tendency [at Arsenal] to go forward without thinking.”
This leads me to another key aspect of our play, arguably the most important. We seem to lack a coherent structure or game plan and are slow to react to in-game changes. After the loss to Manchester United, Wenger said that “you feel the Manchester United team is a bit more mature in every position than we are.” Look at their defence though and you see a 22 year old in Chris Smalling and a 19 year old in Phil Jones. None of our defenders yesterday, except Yennaris when he came on for Djourou at half time, were younger than 25. The difference, in my opinion, is down to both individual and collective nous.
Take the situation of Djourou for example. Due to our full back injury crisis Johan has had to play at right back despite looking far from comfortable in that position. On Sunday we were up against Manchester United whose strength is clearly out wide. Knowing that Djourou would obviously be targeted, why not aim to give him more protection? While the swapping of our wingers throughout the game didn’t help our makeshift full backs when in position, you would hope that they would provide more defensive security. Without being in the dressing room I can’t know whether Wenger gave out instructions to protect the full backs and these were ignored or no instructions were given in the first place. What I do know is that it’s common sense to protect your weaknesses and this wasn’t done.
Djourou was at least replaced at half time and the young Yennaris should be commended on keeping Nani quieter but the fact that it took until half time for something to be done speaks volumes. Wenger has many strong bows to his management quiver but being reactive to in-game events isn’t one of them.
Arsenal have now lost eight of 22 matches in the league, our highest number of defeats at this stage since the 94/95 season, when we finished 12th*. We’ve also picked up fewer points after 22 matches than in any Premier League season since 95/96*. We are 18 points off top spot and the same number of points away from the relegation zone. That in itself tells a story.
Clearly, injuries and goings-on in the summer have not been conducive to a successful season but despite everything we are still 5th, only 5 points off Chelsea in 4th with (fingers crossed) key players to come back from the treatment table. Problems clearly exist, as I have described in this post, but all is not lost if they are addressed. The teams ahead won’t keep tripping up. It’s time for Arsène and the players to take charge.
* @Orbinho on twitter
If you enjoyed this piece you can follow me on twitter ~> @hazzaboy21
The ‘3 Ps’ – Part 1: Pressing http://www.arsenalvision.co.uk/articles/3789-the-3-ps-part-1-pressing.html
The ‘3 Ps’ – Part 3: Possession http://www.arsenalvision.co.uk/articles/3881-the-3-ps-part-3-possession.html