Last week has been a morbidly fascinating time to be an Arsenal fan. Matters on the field have been about as agreeable as using a porcupine loofah, with successive losses (humbling against Norwich and damning against Schalke) coming as a jarring contrast to the erstwhile positivity being peddled from the rafters. And I don’t need to recount the smoke, mirrors and hand-grenades of the AGM to anyone. The entire meeting revealed very little that wasn’t known before- Arsenal prioritize Champions League qualification over the domestic cups (why this is so shocking escapes my understanding), Ivan Gazidis can still spin a mean vapor-web of words and sell blocks of ice to the Inuit, and Arsene Wenger increasingly wears the look of a man who watches a building burn for 45 minutes before being given a face-net, a water pistol, and asked to rescue all stragglers. As a supporter barely out of his teens and armed with the financial knowledge of a Bonobo chimp, I’m going to leave the nitty-gritties of yesterday to better qualified people and shall instead rummage in the detritus of our last two defeats.
I’d just like to state at the outset that Arsenal losing is obviously not an alien concept to any of us. We have an impressively vast portfolio of slipped leads, goals conceded against the run of play, and general variegation in momentum. Basically, if there is a cock, Arsenal have upped it. But this one-two jab to the genitals has hurt more than usual because of the uncharacteristic…toothlessness (I abhor using this word, but nothing else fits the bill) we showed in attack. This was far from the patient but ultimately penetrative keep-ball that Barcelona take as canon, and it certainly wasn't the thrust-and-jab, caffeine-fuelled football practiced by teams like Borussia Dortmund. It was just a tepid stew of over-cautious dirge, punctuated by endless lateral passing, over-complication, and the lack of anyone willing to lift the game by the scruff of its neck and change something. One could spot a tired Arteta roving on the center line against Schalke, constantly spraying the ball out wide or up front only for it to come back ten seconds later like an inveterate yo-yo. There was a collective balking at the idea of taking that risk, hitting that cross, making that run into the box. For 180 minutes, Arsenal indulged in light snogging and some over-the-sweater action before straightening their hair, apologizing profusely (it’s not you, it’s me!) and paying for the lonely cab fare home.
Some stats from 7amkickoff’s excellent By the Numbers feature post-Schalke make for worrying reading. Arsenal have averaged seven shots on goal per game in the Champions League, and have attempted just 22 shots in the competition so far (this via Opta). If you look at our most frequent pass combinations, they read Vermaelen-Mertesacker, Arteta-Jenkinson, Mertesacker-Jenkinson, and so on. It’s understandable that these passes are prevalent in a team that likes to build from the back; but we were in perennial build-up phase, that was the problem. Cazorla and Podolski, who've struck up a fruitful partnership this season, hardly combined on Wednesday. Podolski’s non-equation with Giroud against Norwich was even more shocking, with the German not passing the ball to his striking partner at all. Gervinho, who valiantly tried to make things happen and frustratingly fell short, will be painted as a scapegoat; but the players who let the game pass them by were equally culpable.
For all our attacking hesitation, we did face two disciplined sides, both of whom sat back at first and then had no qualms in going forward when our expected onslaught didn't come. It takes just one game to break the cycle, but Arsenal have to do it soon; because for every match we leave the handbrake on, the opposition will be buoyed by previous results and play in the hope of nicking a point or more. I’m honestly worried about the QPR game. We’re definitely going to be greeted by a parked bus, and the longer we persist in our pass-pass-pass-ohletsnotshootbutpass-pass jamboree, the more our confidence will take a knock. There have been Twitter whispers about shifting Cazorla wide so that he can influence the game without being henpecked by three opposition players at all times, and playing Ramsey as CAM so he can run onto Giroud’s knockdowns. I think it certainly doesn't hurt to try, because we need the goals to come from somewhere. Excluding the Southampton game, Arsenal have scored seven times in seven matches, which is not a stat Arsene would want to see.
Fingers crossed for tomorrow.