Arsenil-nil, but Arshavin shines

Arsenal 0-0 Sunderland

Silly old me for getting giddy about that, eh.

Four league goals in six home games, three straight nil-nil draws in the league and 12 league goals from our entire midfield, all season. On yesterday’s evidence – and it’s evidence that has been stacking up all season – our problem is not just with form. As a team, we’ve gone from being spontaneous, lightning-fast and fluid to being all too predictable. And in certain positions, we remain decidedly average.

I don’t believe that for the most part we lack quality. Our defence is sound. We have some fantastic wide men. Arshavin looks seriously promising. In Robin van Persie, we have a world-class striker. Nasri is having a decent enough debut season. With Eduardo, Walcott, Adebayor (last season’s model), Fabregas and Rosicky back, we could explode. But this season, and particularly with the personnel currently at our disposal, teams have completely mastered how to stifle us, especially at home. And two-thirds of the way through the season we still haven’t come up with a way to combat it.

Funnily enough, it’s not just us: Villa and the Russians have both won fewer home games than us; Liverpool the same amount. Wenger touched on the ‘anti-football’ that has permeated the league, where the stakes are so high teams will stifle the opposition and play for a draw from the outset, and we’re not the only side struggling to work out how to deal with it.

But it’s up to Wenger to find a way. Buying Arshavin was probably exactly for that purpose. But despite a very good debut, he can’t perform miracles on his own.

Part of our problem covers old, old ground. In Fabregas’s absence, we lack the central midfield pickpocket, the man with the forward pass when it counts, the fulcrum. We don’t have a physical powerhouse – though Diaby can sometimes steam forward. We have exciting and creative options on the wing, but teams have sussed out that if they deal with the wide men, then much of the time the ball comes into the centre, to the feet of two of the bluntest central midfielders you will care to see. Song and Denilson have learned some defensive arts this season but neither is the driving, clever, forward-passing midfielder that we so crave. Going forward, they offer nothing. How many times yesterday did you see the ball passed inside from the wing, straight to one, straight to the other, and straight our to the other wing? Sideways the whole way.

I don’t want to make them the main scapegoats because it’s not their fault they’ve been dropped into the deep end. And besides, how many of the rest of the side have performed well enough for the whole season to take the moral high ground? How many will make the league’s ‘team of the year’? Not one.

I’d be inclined, given that desperate times require desperate measures, to throw Ramsey in. He can be a little wayward but he’s a clever little player with an eye for goal and for a pass. Give him a chance, I say. He has the ability to make a difference. When we’re not scoring or winning, why go for caution?

Wenger has to take some blame too, for not shaking up our approach enough. Passing our way to victory is just not working at the moment, so we need to be more varied. More direct, perhaps, and more pace on the counter.

It felt all too predictable in the second half yesterday, and though we could have won it in a frantic finale, we didn’t take our chances. Even if we had done we’d still have been dissecting the performance, because things just haven’t changed for large tracts of this season. When teams come to defend, as the last four visitors in the league have, we haven’t had the guile to score more than a single goal at best.

Yesterday, we did start brightly, and much of that brightness came through Arshavin. He came close twice and proved that he’s as unpredictable and talented as he is small (or ‘diminutive’, as small footballers seem to be labelled). Shame he’s not fit because had he been, he may have been the man to draw Arsenal out of their offensive torpor in the second half.

Here are the positives though: I’m confident things can and will change with the returning personnel. Arshavin promises much. Eduardo is only a week away – as is Walcott. We are defending well. We have clawed a point back on Villa.

But at the moment, I worry about Tuesday. I worry about fourth. Hell, I’m even worried about Fulham on Saturday, because if they’ve got an ounce of sense we all know what approach they will take.

Chin up folks – things will get better.

In the meantime, I leave you with a quote from Denilson.

“Since January we have been quite balanced and we have been winning the games we need.”

Spot on, Denilson, other than the four straight draws.


Arsenal since about 1979. Thick, thin and all that.