Indefensible defence and a lesson in possession

Arsenal 1-2 Chelsea

Had Giroud not skewed a very decent chance to equalise wide in the dying breaths of the game yesterday, we might all be taking a different tack this morning. But it didn’t happen and taken as a whole there’s no getting away from the fact that it was a hefty bump back to earth.


From my vantage point we never had control of the game and that’s what it boils down to. Chelsea were more composed but above they kept the ball really well. The Opta stats suggest that we edged possession 51.4% – 48.6% but from where I was sitting it was us hurrying our passing, stretching to retain it or scrabbling to win it back. Chelsea also harried really well to retain it. That might explain why Cazorla had such a quiet day – not that he was the only one.

That old chestnut

Nevertheless, things might have been different had we defended better. I do think we have made big strides already this season but yesterday it was a return to the dark old days where set pieces induced what can only be described as a case of the heebie-geebies. Wenger didn’t much like what he saw either:

Defensively we were just not at the level you have to be in a game like that, which is where we were punished today… We did not attack the ball, on either goal. The difference between Chelsea on set-pieces and us was the way they were in the air – it was obvious today.

The bottom line is that Koscielny and Vermaelen had games to forget. I was one of the many – if Twitter is any guide – who thought dropping Mertesacker was a reasonable shout given the mobility of Chelsea’s attack but clearly that didn’t work out. We should have gone with Robolegs, who is having an outstanding season, but it’s easy to say in hindsight. Prior to the season starting I’d have had Koscielny and Vermaelen as my one and two, but it speaks volumes about Per’s form that I’d now be inclined to have him as the lynchpin at the moment. If yesterday was any guide we should have gone on form and form alone. I’ve just watched the goals again and both are disasters. I’ve gone squiffy thinking about it and I can only hope that Bouldy keeps them in for defensive detention this week.

I must say though that I was again impressed with Gibbs and Jenkinson who were tenacious to the end. Our midfield had to shift around once Diaby went off – you guessed it – injured but neither Oxlade-Chamberlain nor Ramsey nor Walcott nor Cazorla were able to wrest the momentum of the game away.

Up front, neither side had bags of shots on target which makes our defensive lapses – and I suppose our inability to take the chances that did come our way – the more frustrating. Fair play to Gervinho for a sensational finish and for already matching his goals tally for the whole of last season, but he doesn’t feel like the long-term solution up front to me. Nor did bringing on Giroud have the desired effect but he didn’t have much time to get into the game, either, and by all accounts most of his goals last season came as a starter and not as a sub.

We’re now some distance – seven points – off the top already but it’s not time to don the hairshirt yet. We were second best in possession yesterday, defended badly and missed a clear-cut chance to get at least a point. Room for improvement on all three counts.

Not a great day, basically.

Another fine mess…

Blackburn 4-3 Arsenal 

Back to the drawing board.

To be honest, the drawing board would be an improvement on the losing board, where we find ourselves time and again after another false dawn. Collaps-o-Arsenal© is not a fleeting blip, it’s endemic, and the most worrying thing of all is that Wenger seems entirely powerless to remedy it.

So it’s hardly surprising that there’s been another major outbreak of introspection among Arsenal fans. These on-field failings have been happening for years, and they are not abating. There is an unpleasant whiff of decline in the air.

There comes a time when even the most ardent Wenger fan has to ask whether the real problem lies not with defensive training, or with a mysterious lack of concentration, or with a lack of quality players, but with Wenger himself. I don’t want to draw that conclusion, because my respect for his achievements at Arsenal is pretty much limitless. I am desperate for him to find the elixir for sound defending and steely concentration. And then to pour it down the throats of his squad.

But that’s the question more and more people are posing, myself included. He’s been asked several times already this season, after bad defeats, whether he’s going to resign. That in itself is unprecedented. This is certainly the lowest point of his Arsenal tenure. Can he turn it round? He hasn’t yet.

He’ll get more time, as he should because he’s earned it, but I don’t believe for a second his position is unassailable. He’s not made of teflon. We are seventeenth in the table, have conceded 14 goals in five games and have the worst goal difference in the league. What is the club’s ambition this year – fourth place? It is of course early days, but it looks like a tall order at this moment in time. Would the club be prepared to pass on Champions League football for a season while Wenger sorts things out? They might well do. Who knows.

We don’t want for decent players. Sagna? Excellent. Mertesacker? 75 caps for one of the best national sides in the world. Szczesny? One of the most exciting young keepers I’ve seen in ages. Koscielny? Improving. Vermaelen? Class. Arteta, Wilshere, Gervinho, van Persie – the list goes on.

But taken as a unit, things are not consistently working. Haven’t been for ages. Nobody, I suspect, fears us anymore. They probably simply sniff a good opportunity.

That’s got to change.

Match report: The wait goes on


Arsenal 1-2 Birmingham City

As a football fan you roll with the highs, but you also have to cope with the lows. Barcelona, a few weeks ago, was as good as it gets. Yesterday, losing in the last minute to an amateur defensive error, was of course the opposite.

You could line up the disappointing aspects of that game and ask them to form an orderly queue, but for me the most frustrating thing was the way we played. We had good, short bursts in each half, and plenty of possession, but overall the Arsenal that we wanted to see just wasn’t there for enough of the game. We did make Ben Foster work at times, and scored a superb equaliser, but we just didn’t do enough. I have no idea why.

Of course, credit to Birmingham. They hustled and harried, knew our weaknesses, played to them well, and it worked. We were undone by bad defending at a set piece and by a freak defensive howler. Had we played better it may not have mattered. But in a tight game like yesterday’s, those mistakes were pivotal. They deserved to win and you can’t begrudge them a first major trophy since 1963. That’s a lot more than a six year wait.

We missed Walcott and Fabregas, but that’s no excuse. Most of our best XI was out there but how many of them can you say played the game of their lives? Wilshere was tireless again but he couldn’t do it all on his own. There’s little point hauling players over the coals but I do look at Rosicky with increasing frustration these days. I don’t think he’s done enough in recent weeks to merit a starting place in a cup final, and he struggled again yesterday. But there you go – he wasn’t the only one.

As for the goals, well both were easily avoidable. It was not the finest hour for Koscielny or Szczesny. I imagine they’re feeling particularly blue this morning.

It was a big test, and we failed it. Wenger desperately wanted to win this to push on and hush the naysayers, but the wait goes on. He’ll be as frustrated as anyone that we did not rise to the occasion. Were we hampered by the ‘need’ to win something? We could debate that until the cows came home.

The fans filing out at the end were pretty mutinous (‘Wenger get your chequebook out’ being a familiar refrain). There’s nothing wrong with letting off steam at the end of a bitter defeat. It was pretty hard to be anything other than downbeat.

I dipped into the interwebs and sure enough, there are already acres of newsprint dedicated to the potential psychological effect of this defeat on our prospects for the rest of the season. Certainly, it will be hard to shake off. But luckily for us we have a very winnable FA Cup replay on Wednesday. Better that way than a ten-day wait to stew on things.

The reaction again the O’s will be interesting. The team Wenger picks will be interesting.

Ah well, onwards and upwards.

Need a pick-me-up? Own an iPhone? Here’s a wallpaper made from the ’92 away shirt to cheer you up.

Hesitations – not what you need

I’m not convinced I’ve quite mastered the direction of this season. A campaign that has had some impressive highs – six goals scored twice, five goals once and four goals four times – has also seen some of the ropiest home form for a while, and yet here we are at the top of the league. Are we enjoying it? Well yes, of course, how can we not be, but the team is running the home fans through the mixer. It’s been very Arsenal.

There’s no doubt that Nasri and Chamakh deserve plaudits aplenty for their goal hauls this season – both have been excellent and their contributions have been priceless in keeping us in the hunt. They’ve scored 21 goals between them which in bingo terms is the key to the door.

It’s interesting how things have changed in just one year. Last term, our four highest scorers – Fabregas, van Persie, Bendtner and Arshavin – scored 53 goals between them, yet just a few months later only one of those players, Arshavin, is on target to match last season’s haul. Thus far, those four have just 14 goals.

So thank heavens for Chamakh’s impressive debut season and Nasri’s astonishing vein of form. Mon chapeau est doffed, as they say in France.

But really, we’ve got to lick this home form. Key to any improvement, as Wenger is happy to admit, is a defence that can defend better.

Wenger: “We had some hesitations at the back”

We’ve conceded 10 goals at home – a record bettered by a similar number of Premier League sides, including sieve-like Villa. Away from home, we are passing muster on that front but there’s undeniably room for improvement on the hallowed turf of the home of football.

But you know what? With Nasri fizzing away, Arshavin regaining form, Chamakh doing his thang and Wilshere bursting onto the scene, I know what it’s better to concentrate on.

When we are being attacked with gusto though, I may from now on just put my fingers in my ears and sing “la la la la” until it goes away.

Rock me, Matheus

Braga 2-0 Arsenal

Here’s what Djourou said in the tunnel after last night’s defeat:

“We had the game under control and two counter-attacks and silly, silly mistakes – we can be disappointed because we should have won the game easily, it’s very hard to take. A point would have qualified us so it’s a shame to concede goals like that, I just cannot understand.

We have to look again, that shouldn’t happen. It was a lack of concentration, the team needs to concentrate and do better than that.”

Heard any of that before?

Just a few days after the team last made silly mistakes and lost concentration, they did it again last night. What had been a Champions League procession – we took nine points from nine – has become a breathless struggle for qualification. At least we are up against Partizan, nought points from 15, and are at Fortress Emirates (where the drawbridge keeps getting stuck on ‘down’). And at least we are getting value for money on our season tickets with a final group stage match that actually means something.

What of the game? It was rubbish. Wenger spoke after the Spuds defeat of the potentially worrying effects of giving up a two goal lead against our biggest rivals, and last night their hangover was so painful to endure I was reaching for the alka seltzer long before half time.

We had oodles and oodles of possession and passed the ball to deflation, but did next to nothing with it. 633 passes attempted (Braga: 248), 550 completed (Braga: 166). Shots on target: 1.* One measly shot on target.

So there was a reaction to the Spuds game, but not the one Wenger had called for.

Wenger was left belching fumes afterwards, directing much of his ire to the “useless” match officials for not giving as clear a penalty as you will ever see for a tackle on Charlie Vela. That should have given us a 1-0 lead and possibly – though there are no guarantees with this side – a cathartic victory. Fifa now have about 16 assistant referees dotted around the place yet not one of them apparently saw it.

That gave us time for a good old collapse. Both goals were utterly avoidable – yet more bad defending. The first was a punt right down the middle, which sliced the defence open like butter. The second was another counter, but this time Matheus had three players buzzing around him. Not one of them made a tackle.

It was a strangely lifeless, lethargic performance and there’s no doubt that we’ve dumped ourselves into a huge rut of our own making.

Unlike great sides, we never just bounce back after a defeat. We tend to take another one or two on the chin before staggering back to our feet.

Last night, we looked anything but a great side. We looked depressingly average.

Villa will be licking their chops at the thought of facing us on Saturday.

They will suspect we are there for the taking.

* Stats courtesy of Total Football CL 2010 app

A grumpy man’s belated thoughts

Chelsea 2-0 Arsenal

I must admit, I haven’t taken this one well. I was exceptionally downbeat after the game on Sunday. As soon as their first goal went in, my mood darkened.

For years, we held the upper hand over Chelsea, and once those things take hold, they can be hard to shift. In recent years it’s swung the other way more than we’d all like it to. But I doubt it’s down to being a jinx or a mental block. The harsh reality is, they remain a better unit than we are, just as we were better than them back then.

Maybe now at times only marginally – Wenger maintains, optimistically, that it’s close – but better than us all the same. More experienced, cannier, more disciplined, more solid and more ruthless.

But let’s scotch one preconception now – we didn’t lose on Sunday because we are by nature shot shy, or as David Pleat put it in the Guardian, “reluctant shooters”. According to @orbinho, we lead the table in terms of shots on goal at 143 (the Telegraph has the stats slightly lower but because they do not include blocked shots). Ordinarily, we have plenty of shots. The trouble yesterday was that we were not able to take any of the presentable or half chances that did come our way. We couldn’t get through and when we did, we fluffed our lines.

Against a team as parsimonious as Chelsea, you have to be ruthless and for a long time, ruthlessness is something we have not been noted for. How many times have we said this now? It’s easy to say of course – but it’s not a tap that can be switched on or off. It can’t be drilled. It comes with experience.

And talking of parsimony, we really need to work more on the defensive side of our game. Yes, I know, as chestnuts go that one is positively antediluvian. But it’s also been true for a long time – I suspect most teams will fancy their chances of nicking a goal against us, and that can’t be right, can it? It is possible to tighten up defensively as a team, but still attack with hammer, tongs and bells ringing.

I don’t think it’s all about the personnel. We used to let goals in with Campbell, Gallas and Toure. Koscielny and Squillaci have both looked good at times this season, but they’ve struggled a bit in recent games and the midfield ahead of them is not helping matters. It’s about defending as a team, and that is something that can very much be addressed on the green fields of Colney.

Positives – yes, the benefit of a day of reflection tells me there were. We put some decent yards in, we had plenty of possession, we matched them physically. An improvement on last year on that front, for sure. Fabianski was solid, Wilshere played well again, and Arshavin at least had his shooting boots on. Sagna showed that his WBA wobble was just that.

But we came up short, again.

As we now head into another international fortnight, we can at least be grateful that injured players do not get called up for duty. We have two weeks to cajole Fabregas, Walcott, Bendtner, Vermaelen and whoever else can be magically hauled off their sick beds back into the first team.

Clear the heads, move on.

Defenders: Out with the old and in with the new

So Phil Senderos has officially left Arsenal – two seasons after he effectively did anyway.

There’s been a lot of goodwill on Twitter and across the blogs and that’s fair enough. Senderos was an uncomplicated player who gave his all, never moaned and represented the club very well indeed.

He was an up-and-down player though, with some commanding performances early in his career contrasting with plenty of wobblier ones at other points. Perhaps not surprising for a young player – one who is still only 25 years old now.

But I’m glad he’s gone.

Why? It’s got nothing to do with him at all. He’s a player who can and probably will still come good given the chance and a fair wind with injuries. Who knows, that may have happened at Arsenal in the past, but it’s not going to happen now. So he needed to go to reignite his own career, but nor is it a bad thing for Arsenal either. As a club, we need to properly address our defence, and we won’t do that by looking backwards.

Which is why there’s no reason to despair at the prospect of Gallas, Silvestre and even Campbell’s departures either. All are past their best, and while Campbell is a special case – his desire was palpable and put others to shame at times last season – even in a best-case scenario he’d have been third choice in 2010-11.

Look at our defensive record over the last few seasons. We’ve conceded 8, 9, 13 and 9 goals more than the league winners since we moved to the Grove, a consistent deficit. We have not eradicated bad defending as a unit, nor have we eradicated individual lapses of concentration – so much so that we are now seen as defensive soft touches. We get targeted between the sticks and we get targeted at set pieces. Such targeting often works.

That’s got to change, and a clean sweep of the brush might not be such a bad thing.

There’s no point worrying that if all three depart, then we’ll only have Djourou and Vermaelen left. There’s no way Wenger would leave it that way.

Sure, there’s a risk that starting next season with a new keeper and two new centre backs might be unsettling for a while. But it’s a risk worth taking compared to another season of the same problems.

In the meantime, I hope Big Phil makes it big and proves Wenger wrong. Not many players have left and done that – but I can’t imagine many Arsenal fans would begrudge him a renaissance if he did.