Saturday, November 21, 2009

My Kingdom For A Clean Sheet: Sunderland 1-0 Arsenal

There are probably Arsenal fans who are shocked and devastated by a result they will perceive as raising serious question marks over any possibility of a title tilt. Not me. I'm disappointed, but not surprised, as the question marks have been present this season in triumph and in defeat.

I did mention some weeks ago that Arsenal were in danger of straying into pygmy territory with the set of players Wenger has assembled. Now, shorn of Diaby and Van Persie, we finally managed to put out a team with, by my reckoning, not one outfield player standing six foot tall. After seventy minutes of hearing Matt Le Tiss describe very little of note from the Stadium of Light, I was starting to warm to the prospect of a goalless draw. You almost take it for granted now that Arsenal's rhythmic passing game stutters after each international break. So a clean sheet and a point wouldn't have been so bad. But it was always going to be the case that if there were set plays, there would be trouble. Vermaelen attacks the ball brilliantly and has great spring, but beyond him, do we have one player with any aerial ability? Gallas has a knack of drifting into goalscoring positions himself, but in his own box he's often found wanting. And further up the pitch we've got a bunch of diminutive playmakers and goalscorers who probably don't fancy aerial battles, or are not equipped to win them. As I said before, it sheds some light on just why Diaby and Bendtner were often getting picked ahead of ostensibly superior players earlier this season. With the team we had out today, it was always likely that if Sunderland beat Vermaelen from a set play, they could score. And so it proved with the only goal. Hardly ideal preparation for chelsea next week.

In the attacking sense, Van Persie's injury could be very costly. The team is potentially left with no kind of physical presence, no focal point up front. Eduardo has suffered a career-threatening injury, which may have changed his mindset when going into 50-50 challenges. Van Persie of course is no stranger to injuries but he's a big lad and always puts himself about. Eduardo's game is more about movement than physicality. Having him as our only real option up front will heighten the feeling in other teams that they can hassle us out of our stride; this puts great pressure on the silky passing because there is effectively no plan B. Allied to this is the worry that Eduardo has become hesitant in front of goal, his trademark cool efficiency having been absent of late.

In effect it seems that Wenger has assembled a lopsided squad. We have depth in certain areas, but at the moment we can't put out a team suited to a difficult Premiership away game. These selections should always be a case of horses-for-courses, but in a starting eleven like today's, the onus is on Alex Song to provide a platform, pretty much alone, for the rest to play. Reports suggest he was again impressive but he needs help, and Denilson's imminent return won't be a moment too soon. Even then, Wenger seems inexplicably content with the scenario of our only muscular midfield presence leaving for Africa without any adequate cover, and that, my friends, is farcical.

The result today need not be fatal to title hopes, chelsea at home next week providing the platform for instant impetus. But Arsenal's squad looks ill-prepared for the navigation of what is now a make-or-break fixture. And only for the loss of a few players- for all the talk of an extended injury list, that's all it takes for this group to look vulnerable. chelsea were today missing Drogba, Lampard, Ballack. Even if those guys don't make the Emirates game, I won't be overly confident. After all, Sunderland were without Gordon, Turner, clattermole and Jones and still won. The suspicion still lingers that this Arsenal side are flat track bullies who struggle against the better teams in the league. I'll be happy to be proven wrong, but it's the hope that kills ya, so I'll avoid the pitfalls of excessive optimism. For now.

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