Arsenal go AWOL

Arsenal 2-3 W.B.A.

I have for a long time inexplicably looked out for West Brom’s results, a footballing peculiarity I can trace back to collecting Panini stickers in 1980, when theirs was the first team I had all the stickers for. At that time, with players like Robson and Regis, they were one of the better sides in the old First Division.

Yesterday they may have won a few more admirers with a display of real craft, commitment and counter-attacking skill. It’s very unusual for Arsenal fans as one to applaud an away side off, but all four corners of the ground did just that yesterday. The Baggies had been brilliant.

But what of Arsenal?

With very few exceptions, we were lifeless, listless and sloppy.

The fact that Wenger was left scratching his head – “I didn’t recognise my team today… many players made massive mistakes… unexplainable” makes any objective judgement on what went wrong pretty tricky.

Something, as Wenger said, wasn’t right from the start. I said to my brother, 15 minutes into the game, that I thought we were going to struggle and he shot me down in flames for being a miserable old git. But I was right; there was a lack of focus and urgency throughout and we got what we deserved.

For a side with title ambitions to find itself 3-0 down to a promoted side, having already conceded a penalty, tells you that it wasn’t all about the excellence of West Brom’s performance.

That lack of focus and urgency, coupled with a pandemic of defensive errors, made it the mess it was.

Between the sticks, Almunia was an absolute disaster. It was he who gave the penalty away, but if you thought his smart save would be the springboard to a commanding second half performance, you couldn’t have been more wrong. He was blameless for the first WBA goal, but erred badly for the second, and ambled unconvincingly out his box, leaving the goal gaping, for the third.

With every error he and his understudy makes, Wenger loses credibility. There is only so long you can defend the indefensible. The simple fact is this: Lehmann was dropped for making two errors. Wenger cannot drop Almunia for his multiple errors because the only other established option is even worse. The situation is risible.

The ironic jeers that then greeted every simple piece of handling will not help his confidence but the fans are not aiming their frustration at him, they are aiming it at Wenger. Like the caller who rang into 606 and called Arsenal a team with a £56m profit but a 56p goalkeeper, they do not understand how this three-year-long experiment has not been shelved.

But let’s be honest, he wasn’t the only one and it would be most unfair to pick on him alone. Watching your defence unravel in front of you in the way it did would have tested the mettle of any goalkeeper.

Sagna at right-back was all over the place, Song and Eboue were sloppy and ineffective. Diaby, Chamakh, Arshavin – the list goes on. Our two new central defenders, having quietly impressed in the season’s opening salvos, looked vulnerable all game.

Of the starters only Nasri, who battled hard all game and deserved his two goals, comes out with credit from yesterday’s mess. Wilshere did OK but he’s no superman.

For me, the most frustrating thing about it was the sense that having taken several steps forward in the early stages of this season, we’ve shot ourselves in the foot with this performance. Two steps forward, one step back.

All the old Arsenal failings – poor goalkeeping, sloppy defensive errors, plenty of possession but no way through, lack of bite and fight – reared their ugly heads again, just when we needed it least.

I accept we played 120 minutes in midweek, and our injury list is very long. But these are not excuses – the players are all experienced, and mostly all internationals. They just never turned up. It worries me that without Fabregas’s effervescence and bloody-minded will to win, we can at times look like a sports car without a driver.

We can but hope it’s a one-off, but it’s a worry, because we’ve been here before in seasons past.

Blip or bubble burst? We’ll know soon enough, with two huge tests next week.

Arsenal’s capitulate, late show

Wigan 3-2 Arsenal

Wenger said on Friday that we were “very close” to winning a trophy. This morning, a trophy has never felt further away.

Yesterday’s ten-minute capitulation at Wigan hammered the final nail into the title coffin and was so dispiriting that people are very reasonably asking: can we keep hold of third now?

It was a game in which almost all our weaknesses were ultimately brutally exposed. On yesterday’s evidence we are a team without a goalkeeper that collectively cannot defend, whose squad players lack the wit, composure or drive to hold onto a 2-0 lead for ten minutes when the pressure is on.

It does unfortunately mean, coming so close to the end of the season as it has done, that some people will just as likely remember this campaign for unacceptable giveaways like this (and there have been more, West Ham and Birmingham spring to mind though at least those were draws) than the general progress that many Arsenal fans feel has been made. It would be a shame if that were the case, though we do now have three games to do something about it. Win those and we will finish on 80 points – a huge total for a team in third place. Lose another couple and the season will end on a very sour note indeed.

Much depends on what Wenger says and does to his team between now and Saturday. He knows that the success or failure of this squad reflects on only one person: himself. He knows that for every poor goal shipped, for every goalkeeping error, for every piece of complacency, he is the one scrutinised. Rightly so. They are his players.

I have no doubt he himself is tired of having to talk up the togetherness and spirit of the squad, only to see car crash endings like yesterday’s occur. His players should not have to be cajoled into a performance by the manager, but that’s the job he has on his hands this week. They should be doing this themselves, it’s basic stuff. Determination, drive, urgency. These are givens.

Wenger was furious after the match, accusing his players of a lack of cohesion and discipline. He sensed we were struggling to keep hold of the ball and make chances – yet he did not bring van Persie on until it was too late. Why?

As I said, I do think we have improved, I think many of our players have improved, but without the core of our team our squad has been badly exposed. And we still lack what we need most – a killer instinct. That might come with time, but it’s clear that we need a couple of players who possess that attitude to come in over the summer and infuse the current squad with it.

Sometimes, some of them seem incapable of motivating themselves, and that is unforgivable.

The goalkeeping situation is now critical. Wenger must know that. Neither of our main goalkeepers are good enough for this football club and as a statement of intent, both need to be shipped out in the summer and replaced with someone from the top drawer. Why this was not addressed in January when it was plain to see is amazing.

Overall, it was a performance that has clouded a lot of the good things that have gone on this season. But those clouds cannot be ignored because they keep reappearing.

How we move on is the million dollar question and I suspect this summer could end up being the defining one for this team, and perhaps also for Wenger.

Missed chances, dropped points

Birmingham City 1-1 Arsenal

At the risk of repeating myself, a draw yesterday did indeed end up feeling like a ‘hammer blow’. Wenger merely called it a ‘big blow’, but if you squinted you could read the word ‘hammer’ in the furrows of his brow during the post-match interview.

The nature of the draw made it that bit worse too. Had we been the team that equalised in the last minute having been 1-0 down then it would have felt like something had been plucked from the embers. As it was, an avoidable last minute equaliser made it feel almost like a defeat. It was two points dropped with bells on. Twitter was a gloomy place to be at 5pm last night.

We’re now three points behind, but with the goal differences of our rivals disappearing over the horizon, it feels more like four.

Still, I’ve made the mistake of writing us off on more than one occasion this season and I won’t be so stupid as to do it again now. With Utd and the Russians playing next weekend, there is a guarantee of dropped points from at least one, and maybe both of them. The picture changes so fast, even if the room for wiggling is diminishing.

Almunia is the one getting the negative headlines this morning. Despite improved recent form, including that excellent penalty save against West Ham, he retains the ability to take backwards steps right after taking forwards ones. Goodplaya doesn’t blame him for the goal but I think he’s being a bit generous. The Spaniard should have done better.

Almunia’s a lucky boy though, unlike Lehmann before him, because there’s nobody else good enough to give him a run for his money. Someone with more experience and fewer nervous tics than Fabianski would might well have displaced him by now.

Not that his late intervention was the only crack in our armoury. To blame him entirely for the dropped points is too simplistic.

Walcott did very little. Far too little. City were tough opponents – their home record is there for all to see – and they disrupted our rhythm to good effect. But even taking that into account, we did not get going until the second half – not until Walcott and Rosicky were replaced with Nasri and Arshavin in fact – and had we taken one of our two very good late chances, then this morning we’d still be moaning about Almunia but in the context of a win.

It wasn’t to be of course.

Positives? Of course there were. The spirit is there for all to see. Nasri and Diaby are in the form of their Arsenal careers. We didn’t lose against a decent, committed side.

The great thing of course is there’s no time to dwell, as it’s Barcelona on Wednesday.

Is Iniesta really out? I’ll believe it when I see it.

Arsenal’s 15 minutes of lame

West Ham 2-2 Arsenal

There are draws that seem like wins, and there are draws that seem like defeats. Today’s was both – depending which team you support.

Deeply frustrating if you’re an Arsenal fan though. Coming back from two goals up might be a theme of the weekend, but it doesn’t make it any less infuriating, does it?

Not being able to knock a game on the head is one of those recurring faults that Arsenal still haven’t banished. Wenger knows it only too well: “We want to learn of course to finish these games off,” he said. “That is basically the most important lesson of the day.”

It’s not the world’s worst result and in general, most of us are pretty happy with the way things are going, but I think that there are still plenty of things we need to sort out if we want to consider ourselves realistic challengers. We’re far from being the finished article.

Clearly, not being able to finish a game off – even when in a position of strength – is one of them. Both goals today were entirely avoidable. For the first, Mannone saved well but palmed it right back across the goal. Really rookie goalkeeping, I’m afraid. And for the second, whether you think it was a harsh penalty or not, Song really didn’t need to make that challenge at all. Cole had his back to goal and was on the edge of the box.

That’s tied into experience, and collective concentration, neither of which are easy to teach. But we’ve been caught out two or three times by lapses this season – perhaps more – and if it hasn’t already been addressed (I’d be amazed if that were the case), then it needs rapid attention.

What of this lack of a killer instinct? Wenger said “when you make a problem of it, it becomes a real problem.” Cryptic as ever.

The second issue that has been bubbling along is the goalkeeping one. Almunia was dropped, for one reason or another, and while Mannone has done well for a 21-year-old, he’s simply not up to the job yet. Do you have faith in Fabianski though? And what about Almunia? Clearly Wenger doesn’t trust him either so we’re in a very precarious position there. It’s ludicrous, to be honest.

So plenty to ponder, but overall, given we have moved into third and we’d be second if we won our game in hand, the garden has hardly been stripped bare of roses.

Luckily for us, many results went our way this weekend. But Wenger will know that we can’t afford to keep on letting points slip like we did today.

It’s a game we should have won.