Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Is The Ship Being Steadied...

Or is it springing a leak?

There is no sense of momentum at the moment, one way or another.

Arsenal 5-2 Spurs... Arsenal 2-0 Montpellier... Aston Villa 0-0 Arsenal... Everton 1-1 Arsenal

The home North London derby produced the same result as last season, but the occasion never felt as morale-boosting. Spurs were in front and in control when Adebayor launched into a typically reckless lunge on Cazorla, an act of stupidity rightly rewarded by a straight red card.

It proved a turning point. Beforehand, Arsenal had given away a soft goal, Mertesacker stepping up dopily under Vertonghen's lofted pass before Adebayor gobbled up the rebound from Defoe's parried shot. Shortly after that, Lennon had shot narrowly wide.

After the red card, Spurs predictably ceded some ground, but it is not easy to break down ten men and so Arsenal deserve credit. There was little chance for the atmosphere to grow tense and restless because the Gunners stormed into a 3-1 lead before the break. Mertesacker produced a brilliant header- surely one of the best such goals of the Wenger era- from a Walcott cross, before Podolski's snatched effort dribbled in off Gallas. Then Cazorla shimmied into the area and teed up Giroud to sweep home.

Even with an extra man, this Arsenal team is incapable of complete control, so it was a relief when Cazorla converted Podolski's low cross on the hour mark to make it 4-1. Especially in light of what came after. Bale pulled one back, then had a chance to make it 4-3, but dragged his shot wide. Finally the away side's threat fizzled out and in stoppage time sub Chamberlain released Walcott to restore the gloss on the scoreline.

If derby day delight had restored a sense of confidence, there was little sign of it in a wretched game against Montpellier. Arsenal needed a win to avoid a rather complicated closing game in the Champions League group stage, and they got it, but only after a display that was riddled with sloppy passing. Still, at least the defence looked somewhat solid (though there seemed little interest from the French side) and two nice goals were scored. Wilshere got his first since his return, dinking home from a Giroud knock down, and then Podolski smashed in a cracking first time volley to cap a nice one-two with the Frenchman.

At Villa Park, Arsenal again struggled for a sense of rhythm. They never looked like winning the game, but happily enough, didn't give anything stupid away on the defensive side. Wenger incurred the away fans' wrath by replacing Cazorla with Coquelin when we should have been pressing for a winner, and Arsenal's worrying toothlessness was summed up with the final kick of the game, when the substitute was released into the area at the end of a rare good move, only to slash a thoughtless, harmless cross into no man's land. This result saw an early end to any nascent optimism engendered by the Spurs win, and the lack of any genuine momentum was underlined by a tired performance at Goodison.

Everton were suckered in the first minute by Walcott, returning from injury, but the home team recovered well to enjoy the better of the game. Fellaini equalised after a mistake by Sagna, and Szczesny was kept busy after that, but the fame eventually faded into a stalemate that both sides were probably appeased by.

After a fairly poor showing fourteen games into the season, Arsenal should probably count themselves lucky. They are two points behind Tottenham, one behind Everton, five behind West Brom. With due respect to the Baggies, only a fool would expect them to be in the top four come May, and so Arsenal look fairly well-placed to qualify for the Champions League yet again, assuming there is some kind of improvement on the horizon.

The next seven league games, before a home match against the Champions, are as follows:
Swansea (H)
West Brom (H)
Reading (A)
Wigan (A)
West Ham (H)
Newcastle (H)
Southampton (A)

I think that speaks for itself. The team may look tired and low on confidence, but they have already dropped points in games we traditionally expect them to win, and they need to lose that habit fast. This run of games should be viewed as an opportunity to establish some form and to move up the table. There is plenty of doom mongering these days, and I'm often a part of it, but as mediocre as this team's performances have been, we should still expect Arsenal to take close to 21 points from those seven games.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Decline Becomes Clearer

Two goal leads thrown away- twice in a matter of days.

Arsenal's trademark in the George Graham days was a rugged resolve.

In the first half of Wenger's reign, it was thrilling football and trophies.

Now, and for some time, it has been complacency, inconsistency, unpredictability.

What was once unthinkable has now become the normal state of things.

Nobody was particularly surprised at Arsenal's ability to draw 3-3 at home to Fulham, having led 2-0 in the first half.

What is worrying about this particular farce, and others that have unfolded since the start of the season, is that they seem less the result of profligacy and arrogance, and more a symptom of a decline in quality.

Arsenal not being able to defend is nothing new. But this Arsenal are getting outplayed with a worrying regularity. Not just the traditional roastings against the serious teams. Norwich were hardly troubled by the misfiring Gunners a few weeks back, and now Fulham came to the Emirates full of attacking intent and proved worth at least a draw. It used to be that a lesser team coming to play an open game at Arsenal had you licking your lips in anticipation of the rout that would invariably follow, but it becomes harder to perceive who the lesser team actually is.

Early in the season, with clean sheets and an apparent new emphasis on compactness and solidity, there was a fairly widespread optimism. This optimism should have remained tentative, but was quickly blown out of all proportion. Such exaggeration led to deflation, as Arsenal produced a familiar wet squib performance against Chelsea in the first big home match of the season, then succumbed to Norwich without showing an ounce of attacking prowess.

The wretched, listless display we saw at Old Trafford was dispiriting, but at least familiar. The response to that defeat- throwing away sizable leads to draw successive games- has seen the mood shift from deflation to panic stations.

Some may have thought that Arsenal's worst problem  this season would be something approaching boredom- can't win the title, can't win a cup, but will get into the top four again cos we always do, no need to panic- but at the moment, this team doesn't look good enough to accomplish even that. Their record in this campaign so far speaks for itself.

So it is with trepidation that Arsenal fans should regard the next game, at home to Spurs. Last season, Arsenal's stirring fightback in this fixture proved the catalyst to reignite a stumbling season, and propel the team into a very respectable third-placed finish. It's early days yet but a similarly emphatic result either way this time around could have a similarly decisive influence.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Annual Defeat at Old Trafford

Manchester United 2-1 Arsenal

A close scoreline. Not a close game.

The last time Arsenal took anything from Old Trafford was towards the end of 2008/09, when they coasted to a goalless draw that was enough for them to seal another title.

Arsenal have won one league game away to United in the last ten years. They never perform at Old Trafford.

This time around, United didn't have to be good, but still could have matched the eight goals they scored in last season's game. In fact, they made a greater number of gilt edged opportunities here, but whereas last time they were freakishly clinical, this time they were wasteful, and let Arsenal off with a flattering final score.

Vermaelen set the tone for a wretched performance by teeing up Van Persie for the game's opening goal with less than three minutes on the clock. The further we get from Vermaelen's early days at the club- when he seemed an endearingly wholehearted, all action defender- the clearer it becomes that he is a liability. His positional play is consistently poor, and when he makes the kind of schoolboy errors that pockmarked his performance on Saturday, there really isn't a way to justify his continued presence in the starting line up. Except for the fact that he's been made club captain. So the captaincy farce, like the goalkeeper farce, continues for another year.

That being said, he was in abundant company in not turning up for this game. Santos and Ramsey both struggled again, raising the question as to why Wenger refuses to take them out of the firing line. Ramsey is a central midfielder and lacks any real pace or trickery. His common inclusion on the right of the attacking three seems confusing and self-destructive. Together he, Giroud and Podolski must rank as one of the most toothless attacks that lined up anywhere in the Premier League over the weekend.

Are there other options? Yes, but they are ones that Wenger does not seem to appreciate at the moment. Arshavin may be a frustrating figure, but he is surely too talented to be frozen out when alternatives are so limited. Walcott is the victim of his own greed, perhaps, but Wenger needs to be more pragmatic and admit that sadly, Arsenal are now bad enough that the brainless but sometimes effective speed merchant is a part of their best eleven.

At the back, meanwhile, Santos has served substantial notice of his status as a liability, and Vermaelen could be moved to left back, allowing Koscielny to take his rightful place in the centre of defence. Or Sagna could be moved left and Jenkinson come in on the right. But no. We are forced to tolerate the calamitous Brazilian again.

What was most disconcerting, perhaps, was the malfunctioning midfield. Wilshere, Arteta and Cazorla probably constitute as technically proficient a trio as Arsenal have ever fielded in the centre of the park, and should certainly be expected to exert some degree of control against Carrick, Cleverley and Rooney. It never happened. Arsenal never had a foothold in the game.

Part of it was down to Rooney's effective man-marking job on Arteta, which meant that Arsenal found it difficult to build from the back, but that should hardly in itself be an insurmountable obstacle. Maybe it was just that the trio are unused to playing together, or that Arsenal are lacking muscle in that are of the pitch. But it is the weakest area of the United team and still the home side were almost completely untroubled.

The question is thus raised again as to whether Wenger is at this point capable even of exacting the maximum from the players at his disposal. To be fair, the fact that they secured Champions League football again last season means he still deserves a lot of credit for regrouping after a couple of hellish periods, but Saturday served up another reminder of how long it's been since Arsenal performed convincingly in the games that matter most.

It's so disappointing to see that United, a team who have done it all, are still palpably so much hungrier than a group of players who have won nothing at all. Patrice Evra enraged Arsenal fans and players alike in 2009 when he described United's procession  to victory in that year's Champions League semi-finals as a contest of "men against babies", but the words cut so deep because they carried an edge of truth. Here, it was the despicable left back who was allowed to head home United's richly deserved second goal and finally put the game to bed, after Rooney had dragged a penalty wide and he, Van Persie and Valencia had spurned opportunities from open play.

Cazorla found the top corner with a peach of a shot just as the game finished, but the contest was long over, especially after Wilshere was sent off for picking up a second yellow card. There was a real sense of optimism around Arsenal after they fought their way to a point at Eastlands, but that positivity has evaporated in the interim after listless displays at home to Chelsea and Schalke and away to Norwich were punished. Another defeat against United means that Arsenal are worse off, points-wise, than at the same stage last season.

Thus we are left to watch three superior sides disappear into the distance, and worry as to whether Andre Villas Boas will affect much of an improvement at Tottenham. Another long winter, in other words.