Bleh. After my vaguely optimistic preview the natural order of things returned. Good strikers always score against their old clubs, Arsenal can only beat Man U if all the best players are fit and firing, and Ferguson always manages to get his selection of players and officials spot on against us.
I’m not particularly keen to invest time in a match report. Van Persie got his inevitable goal out the way early, thanks a Vermaelen blunder. Mannone kept us in the game with vital if regulation saves. Equally inevitable, they got a super soft penalty for handball with Cazorla’s hands in front of his eyes. We offered nothing going forward for about an hour. Then a fantastic save from Manonne from van Persie, but United scored from the resulting corner through the ever loveable Patrice Evra. Wilshere got two yellow cards for challenges that weren’t as bad as the ones that should have got the same fate for Cleverly. Carrick committed three or four bookable fouls and got one yellow as well, but as he was holding their midfield together, he was always going to get a free pass. Giroud missed a header, hit the post from an acute angle and was denied from close range, and in the last seconds Cazorla curled a worldy into the far corner. The Arsenal fans totally outsung the United ones, and at 2-0 down in the last ten minutes were all you could hear. There was a brief rendition of the old Van Persie abuse song, and United fans countered with a topical take on the annual Wenger paedophile accusation. Rooney deservedly man of the match. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
In terms of positives, there aren’t a lot to take from this one. Mertesacker and Sagna and Mannone were solid, and we have no new injuries. That’s about it. It is now our worst start to a season since we finished twelfth in 94-95. We are blunt up front, and we didn’t deserve anything from today despite the usual refereeing gripes.
A lot of the early season optimism has evaporated.
The initially incredibly effective Podolski/Cazorla combination has disintegrated, with the German’s technical limitations exposed badly in recent games, and he currently feels compelled to retain team width and assist with Andre Santos’ defensive limitations. Since Gibbs has been injured the over-loaded left side axis has vanished for reasons well explained here. Podolski’s strongest attribute has always been his finishing, and our current tactical model is preventing him from getting in positions to get shots off. Santos keeps showing he is a wide midfielder rather than a full back, and although a very good footballer, not a defender.
Arteta’s game control has been nullified in recent fixtures, with opposition managers now putting a shadow on our metronome. He lacks the pace or physicality to really cope with this, so needs more help from his team-mates. Giroud is often totally isolated, thus negating his physical presence and link up play, and giving him very few opportunities to get shots off. This is compounded by our dreadful crossing ability. Arshavin and Rosicky are by far our best crossers of the ball, but are not going to see a lot of game time. Walcott continues to be out of favour, and lacks penetration out wide against top full-backs like Evra. To utilise his abilities most successfully, he needs midfielders who can play long balls early, and players in and around the box he can play one-two’s around the corner with.
Defensively, when all are fit, we have good balance, and once again Mertesacker and Sagna were largely faultless today, but we have no organisation without the German. At present he and Koscielny are the strongest and most complementary partnership, but Vermaelen is club captain. It will be interesting to see how that plays out. Santos would be fine as a reserve left back if our first choice one was as injury resistant as Cole or Evra.
Apart from issues of player quality and form, the current malaise is far deeper and more worrying for fans. It seems that for the first time since his arrival, the manager genuinely doesn’t know his best eleven, or have a cohesive attacking model that dictates player recruitment or even the team’s identity. The youth movement was necessary due to financial pressures and nearly paid off in 2007/08, but ultimately failed due to the lures of Barca, the riches of Man City and the stalled development of Bendtner, Denilson, Djourou and others. Since the near miss in 2008, when our strikers and wide players all got injured just after the transfer window closed, Wenger has attempted to follow the Barcelona model. This is reflected in the signings of Cazorla, Arteta, Arshavin and Santos, but he has exclusively bought forward players who are largely incompatible with such a system, barring the utterly erratic Gervinho. Our central midfielders, the ever absent Diaby apart, are all naturally suited to the current 4-3-3 intricate passing game. Wilshere, Rosicky, Arteta, Cazorla can all flourish in this system, as can Ramsey when on form. However, all our forward players are far more suited to a 442 or as a 4-4-1-1. None have the combination of size, pace, movement and control required to play as a lone striker, and all instantly look far more dangerous with a partner. If you intend to play converted strikers like Podolski and Walcott on the wings, you need a central striker who can retain possession, but is also skilled enough to drop deep, and quick enough to transfer from a shadow striker role to a orthodox front man as a move unfolds. Like Van Persie!
We have a lot of good players, although not comparable with Manchester United, Chelsea or Manchester City, but we currently lack a clear cohesive footballing philosophy throughout the team and squad. It is fine to develop a hybrid approach, but we have half a team of possession footballers and half of high tempo physical players, and the positional balance is not right. A fit Diaby brings more balance to the midfield, but only ball retention player we have with the skill or pace to play wide to resolve the issue of balance in our forward line is Cazorla, and we have no-one yet of a level to take his place at the front of our midfield trio. Unless we decide throw Chamberlain into the deep end and make him first choice in either role, which would be a massive risk.
I, like most Arsenal fans of any vintage, would instinctively love to return to a 4-4-2 or at least a 4-4-1-1, but this would leave our under-powered and largely one-paced central midfield very vulnerable unless Diaby suddenly has a miracle recovery. I’m also not sure we have enough genuine wide-players to give the squad the creative balance it requires, and in all likelihood, Podolski is the only front man who can drop off and get on the end of through balls. Our jigsaw is full of good pieces, but not enough of them are from the same set.
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