Friday, January 27, 2012

Too Many Holes to Plug

Arsenal 1-2 Manchester United

Not an unexpected result: Arsenal's squad is once again stretched to breaking point. No full backs, no Arteta to help control the midfield area, and little by way of relief from the bench.

The first half was in its own way as scalding as the 8-2 reverse at Old Trafford. Ok, the score at half time was only 0-1, but United's dominance had been complete. And, lest we forget, this is a relatively poor United side who are suffering through their own injury crisis.

That Giggs and Carrick could win the midfield battle when outnumbered says much for the importance of Arteta. Song plays far better alongside the Spaniard, and he continued his poor recent run of form. Ramsey continues to be little more than a passenger- a player who needs a rest but can't be given one because Wilshere and Diaby and Coquelin are out of action. Rosicky, on the other hand, played with drive and spirit, not for the first time this season. He looked tired as the game wore on, but for the first hour or more he looked fresh and his sporadic runouts this season have left a good impression. He should be given more game time.

Van Persie was an onlooker in the first half, and the main threat on United's goal was Oxelade Chamberlain. The contrast between his intelligent pace and Walcott's brainless pace was a damning one for the older youngster. The actual rookie already looks a better player than the perennial rookie. Walcott's defenders have stated in the past that he needed a run in the team as first choice and free of injury. He has had that and the verdict for now has to be that he will never be better than a useful squad player. That his wage demands suggest he believes in his own importance to the first team, without ever earning that kind of status, means that he should really be turfed out this summer.

Arsenl were lucky to be only one down at the interval. Valencia powered a header past Szczesny from Giggs' pinpoint cross. Both of Arsenal's stand in full backs were culpable. Djourou, who had a nightmare and was replaced at half time, gave Giggs all day to line up his delivery, and Vermaelen only reacted too late to Valencia's movement.

Second half, United lost their way, and Arsenal played with some spirit without ever really playing well. A mistake let in Rosicky, who teed up Van Persie, only for the striker to blaze wide. A sitter missed, but Arsenal seemed to gain belief. A scramble saw a Rosicky shot blocked, but at the other end Wellbeck was exploiting Mertesacker's lack of pace and a goal could have come at either end.

Arsenal broke, Koscielny tackling Rafael in the box, finding Rosicky who sent a crossfield pass to Chamberlain. The youngster capped a very bright performance by finding RVP with a clever reverse pass, and the Dutchman shot precisely, through the legs of Evans, across goal, and just out of reach of Lindegaard. A fine goal to banish the memory of his glaring miss.

Arsenal's momentum was stalled by a bizarre event. Jeers rang out as Chamberlain was replaced by Arshavin. Arsenal fans accused their own manager of not knowing what he was doing. Poor Arshavin, with his already tattered confidence, was probably hurt, but it did seem strange to take off Arsenal's best player on the day, especially when Walcott had turned in another anonymous performance.

Whatever, neither the manager's decision or the fans' reaction helped the team in any way. The outstanding Valencia cut through Arshavin, Song and Vermaelen- ALL culpable, not just the Russian- and set up Wellbeck to fire in a deserved United winner.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Half a Team, No Chance

Swansea 3-2 Arsenal

Arsenal were awful at Fulham and they were worse at Swansea.

A similar pattern emerged. A good start, an early goal. Then Arsenal lose their way. The hosts take control.

This time the deserved equaliser came a lot earlier than at the Cottage. Ramsey's dopey foul in the box set the tone for a wretched individual performance. Sinclair beat Szczesny from the spot.

If Ramsey had an awful game,he wasn't alone. Arshavin and Walcott were both disgracefully bad. Both provided a single moment of quality- Arshavin's through ball for Van Persie's opener, and Walcott's cool finish to level the game at 2-2- but were otherwise destructive to their own team's chances of controlling the game.

What did not help in this regard was the absence of Arteta. Some know-nothing blowhards have voiced the opinion that the Spaniard only offers conservative sideways passing. Today we saw just how vital that sideways passing is. With Ramsey flitting around and giving the ball away almost every time he saw it, Benayoun seemingly unsure of his exact role, and a lonely Song having an off day, Arsenal were essentially spineless.

The alarm bells were first set ringing early on, when Arsenal were still in front. A single pass from a Swansea defender- who had just collected the ball from his keeper- and the home side were running at the Arsenal back four. Arteta has done a great job helping make Arsenal a more solid unit. Without him, Wenger fielded Ramsey, Benayoun, Arshavin and Walcott. That is a powder puff team for an away game and it got a performance to match. All of those players had stinkers and it's not an unusual occurance for any of them this season (with the exception of Benayoun, who hasn't had much playing time).

And an inefficient midfield is a doubly big problem if said midfield is failing to protect an already iffy defence. Mertesacker has failed to shore up the backline as some had hoped. Miquel and Djourou toiled manfully in their thankless tasks on the flanks, playing out of position and having to deal with Swansea's speedy wingers. Koscielny was brilliant again,though caught out by Graham for the eventual winner.

Looking at the Arsenal team sheet, it is pretty medicore stuff. A team of sometimes capable, but utterly inconsistent footballers. I have talked about complacency a lot over the last few years but today it struck me that this Arsenal team really isn't much better than what we saw today.

They were outpassed for periods. Outfought for periods. By a promoted team. Credit to Swansea for the positive football they play. But there was a time when the thought of a lowly side "having a go" at Arsenal would have you licking your lips in anticipation of the gaps they would leave behind, and how Arsenal would exploit that.

There is scope for improvement this season. Once the defence is pieced back into something recognisable, Arsenal may begin to grind out results again. That is the best we can hope for this season. In truth, glorious football is now but a memory for Arsenal fans. Beneath all the lazy media stuff about Wenger's pure philosophy, the truth is that Arsenal haven't played anything approaching fantasy football in years. Certainly not with any regularity.

Now, they need Vermaelen, they need Wilshere, they need Arteta, and they need to get scrapping again. But 4th place is looking less and less likely. After 21 games, in which Villas-Boas's Chelsea side have encountered serious problems, they still have a four point lead over Arsenal. Spurs, despite their blip against Wolves, will soon disappear into the distance if they keep up their swashbuckling form.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Egomaniac Returns

Arsenal 1-0 Leeds

It was like he'd never been away. If there was a trademark Thierry Henry goal, that was it. And it was pretty close to a trademark Thierry Henry celebration, too- the bellowing, the chest-beating, and the refusal to allow team mates to share in his moment.

Thierry Henry is an Arsenal legend, no doubt. He will probably remain the club's record goalscorer for a long, long time and it's hard to think of many prolific goal getters in recent decades who have been as thrilling as the Frenchman.

But, although his goal against Leeds was an uncanny impression of his own younger self, the truth is that Henry is long past anything approaching his best, and the extent to which he can help Arsenal now is questionable.

Much will rely on his willingness to play second fiddle on a stage where he was once undisputed king. He has been careful to project humility in his remarks, but his showy celebration last night suggests that his egotistical side is still present.

The fact that Henry probably can still make a difference to this team is more an indictment of the squad than a tribute to his powers. Beyond Van Persie, there has been a painful lack of firepower. Marouane Chamakh's play has lost the conviction that initially made him look a shrewd signing. He never looked much of a finisher but his workrate, aggression and awareness of those around him have all regressed so that it is almost a relief he is departing for the African Nations Cup. The signing of Park Chu Young seems a disaster, as he is not considered worthy of any playing time.

Gervinho and Walcott are infuriating in different ways. The Ivorian in has a habit of looking the most dangerous player on the pitch until it comes to the rather important business of shooting for goal or playing a telling pass. Walcott can finish and can provide accuracy in the final third but when he is up against a good full back, he is too often shunted onto the periphery of the game, sometimes to the point that Arsenal may as well be playing with ten men.

In short, the fact that the return of Thierry Henry can be seen as some kind of solution only suggests the magnitude of Arsenal's problems up front. These are problems that will remain after Chamakh and Gervinho return and after Henry goes back to America. And the alarm bells will be deafening if Van Persie succumbs to injury at any point, which hardly seems impossible.

Henry's cameo against Leeds was brilliant, but the serious business between now and May is in the league, not the FA Cup. And Arsenal need more than an ageing legend to secure that top four spot.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Struggle Continues

The teams that Arsenal are fighting for 4th have been dropping points; Arsenal have followed suit.

Fulham 2-1 Arsenal
This game might well have turned on a classic goalmouth scramble soon after Koscielny's first half opener. Both Ramsey and Song were denied by desperate saves. Fulham stayed in the game and it remained 1-0 until half time.

Despite the harshness of Djourou's second yellow card, Fulham were well worth their victory. Wenger paid for long term and short term oversights. The lack of a viable alternative to Van Persie- and the absolute lack of faith in Chamackh, which can't be helping the man's confidence- is taking its toll. Van Persie already looked knackered against Wolves, and has played twice more in less than a week since that game.

The injury crisis at the back is plain unfortunate, but Wenger's handling of this game could have been better. Fulham had pinned Arsenal back for almost the entire second period. High balls into the box were causing havoc, as usual, and both Senderos and Dempsey should have equalised. Arsenal needed an outlet on the break but both Walcott and Gervinho were replaced. On came Benayoun and Rosicky and with that went any real attacking threat. The game became a siege on the Arsenal goal.

The equaliser was disappointing, but felt inevitable. Szczesny flapped at a corner, Senderos headed into the goalmouth and Sidwell found the net.

Fulham almost seemed to run out of steam. But there was a final twist as Squillaci, whose name has become a byword for calamity, inadvertently headed across goal for Zamora, who steered a brilliant first time volley inside the near post.

A late winner today for Chelsea. A late defeat for Arsenal. Neither side have any great sense of momentum at the halfway stage and the possibility remains that Liverpool will surge back into contention for a Champions League spot. Arsenal are running out of steam at a vital time and it may need more than the return of a once great marksman to restore order and consistency.