Is this the true Arsenal? The Old Arsenal? Because we threw this away like the old Arsenal. The defending was like the old Arsenal. And a typical way to start the Christmas period.
Three headed goals and three defensive mistakes. And now that’s two games where we’ve reverted to last years performances. Maybe that was to be expected. And now we’ve finally lost a game we can stop hiding behind that irrelevant statistic. Maybe now we can focus instead on the issues within the team.
First off, the goalkeeper. His distribution helps this team; his comfort in the ball provides stability to the back four. But, if I remember correctly from my extensive football coaching sessions, the primary point of a goalkeeper is to stop the other team scoring. And today, in particular with their winning goal, he failed miserably. Will Emery persist with Leno? I suspect so. But Cech must be wondering what must happen for him to get playing time in the EPL. I would not entirely blame Leno for the loss but he’s certainly culpable. On that last goal his starting position, as they broke forward, was all wrong and subsequently he never recovered.
Clearly the defense was a mess today. This was game a little too early for Koscielny. He was at fault or at least involved in all three of their goals. He lost Ings for the first two and then should have been able to track Austin for the third. I suspect with Sokratis playing they would not have scored at least one of those goals – he would have at least challenged them more aggressively. But it’s hard to be too critical on his first real game for 6 months.
It’s remarkable with some many defenders unavailable we should lose two more in the course of the game. Bellerin has been one of our bright areas this year and we missed him in the second half. And with Lichtensteiner off the pitch we were a little more exposed for their last goal.
We lost the goal through Ozil trying to dummy the ball and then Monreal was out of position. But there was limited midfield cover thereafter. But that’s because, as was the case last week, the midfield was unbalanced. With Xhaka having to play as one of the three center-halfs, we end up with no creativity in midfield. No Ozil and no Ramsey but Guendouzi and Torreira. The latter is pushed further forward and is therefore unable to protect the defense as much.
Then we have the enigma that is Ob1. He helped set up the first goal with an incisive pass to Monreal. But overall his game is reverting back to AW-like performances. How many times does he receive the ball and pass it backwards? A month ago he would have taken the ball forward. It looks like half way into the season and he’s already run out of ideas. And as for his shooting? In the second half he should have at least hit the target when Aubameyang backheeled it too him. Today was his more ineffectual performance. He seems to have run out of ideas and confidence.
Aubameyang had a few chances to score today but was denied by some good defending. He worked hard but seems to be missing that final spark. He seemed to pick up when Cigarette came on but he’s ratio of goal to chances is not so good over the last few weeks.
There were periods today where we dominated and seemed to be fully engaged but as the game wore on we lost our direction and rive. There was no clear driving force of urgency. A low bar I know, but we were better than we were against Huddersfield. But as the game wore on we missed that spark. It did not appear with Ozil. For someone coming back after a month off and trying to force there way back into the starting eleven I would have hoped for more intensity – not that that is an Ozil metric.
What a weird egg that Mickeytarrien is. Two goals – two vital goals but he’s still not the right guy for this team. That first goal was the epitome of team patience. I can’t imagine how many passes were involved. And it was a brilliant header. But he’s overall contribution is still not helpful to this team. On the breakaways he does not have the acceleration of the other players nor the strength. There was one clear instance in the first half where he lost momentum because we could not sustain the speed of the attack. It seems churlish today to go after him – and he certainly was not to blame for the defeat. But longer term we have to rectify this. I still don’t see how he can be in the starting elven over Cigarette. Maybe this is forced by our defensive problems.
And that’s the heart of the problem today. We concede too many goals. Pretty basic really. Not rocket science. Maybe Koscielny brought back all the old AW experiences today. But until we solve this age old problem we’ll be fucked. I’ve never thought we were a top 4 team. When you look at the results around us it’s pretty apparent. Even a shitty ManU can manage a draw at Southampton. Today we should have definitely earned a draw. It was only poor organization in midfield and weak defending that caused this defeat. The poor organization derives from the personnel issues with the back line and then destabilizes the midfield. But teams need to be able to withstand those issues through a season. In fact, since that great victory over Sp*rs we’ve basically been crap.
The next test is to see which direction Emery takes his team selection in the next EPL game. If he still insists on starting both Ob1 and Mickeytarrien then my hopes for this team will diminish. There is no prospect of these two, long-term, being part of a top 4 team. We need to start Cigarette and we need the defensive cover to be Xhaka and Torreira. It’s funny to consider the importance of Xhaka in this context. The last few years he’s been a liability. Today we saw a couple of his typical suicidal passes from the back. But alongside Torreira he’s a much improved player. And, most importantly, we need Torreira in that deepest defensive cover position. With Guendouzi alongside him he ventures further up field and that exposes an already unstable defense.
Today was the wake up call. This was the type of game I’d been assuming would be happening as soon as we changed manager. That poor, weak away defensive performances that reminded us all of typical AW team losses towards the end of his reign of glory. This is the game that begs the questions as to whether this team – this club – has truly evolved and changed. To the extent that it will help us understand whether we’ve actually made real progress this year, the reaction of both the manager, his team selection and the performance of the players will be very telling. We’ve enjoyed a far better season than anyone had a right to expect. Now we’ll all question whether it was an illusion? Clearly that’s not the case. Again, for periods today, Arsenal outplayed Southampton and wasted it’s chances. But that fundamental vulnerability in defense and that lack of organization is our Achilles heel. Which takes us back to Koscielny. Today was tough on him and us. It showed up his lack of fitness and confidence. Not entirely surprising but ever so costly. On a positive note, it was good to see Monreal survive the entire game. But we need Bellerin back and we could do with the cynicism of Lichtensteiner. But I don’t know if I can bring myself to say we missed Mustafi. But it does highlight our need to buy a central defender in theJanuary window.
Emery needs to stamp his personality on this team. And that comes by changing the squad. Today only goes to show that the cloak of the unbeaten run just hid the fault lines that we knew existed. In many ways we should be grateful that we’ve earned as many points as we have already. I know we’re not as bad as we showed today and that this team has moved forward. It’s just that the core issues in defense are the same ones we had in previous year. The mad scramble up the field, prior to their last goal, that exposed the defense was the same as previous years. One poor result does not unravel the entire team but, for a team that wants to be in the top four you can’t lose games like this. Today we lack the passion and drive of previous games. There was not the speed of play or the urgency of previous games. So, maybe, this is the wake up call we needed. Though it had more in common with the Huddersfield game than the Sp*rs one, there are enough worrying signs that it becomes the first test of Emery. No real pressure, but that’s two games in a row where the team has struggled.
This Christmas period now becomes even more interesting. The midweek cup game – even though it’s against the homeless ones – is irrelevant. It’s the ELP that counts. We need to recover and rediscover the energy and drive we had against Sp*rs. We have one home game and then a trip to Anfield. Let’s see if we can learn our lessons. Let’s see if Emery can fix these problems. One game does not make a crisis but it does provide a window into seeing how he’ll deal with the pressure and the reality of our flaws. Let’s see him pass these next test.