After last night’s game, I lacked the enthusiasm to write a match report. There wasn’t much inspiration to be drawn from a match high on intensity but low on quality, and my Thursday dental appointment didn’t do anything to improve matters.
However, there is nothing like insomnia and a tube journey across town to get the brain ticking over, so I’ve jotted down a few salient points for public digestion.
It was a good point for Arsenal.
Everton away is always one of those fixtures that no teams particularly look forward to. It’s cold, usually raining, and their fans are a vociferous lot even when things are going badly for them. Under David Moyes they play a high tempo, lung busting game, and with Fellaini as a target man, you know there will be a bombardment of long balls as well as the tricky interplay of Osman and Peinaar. Online the general sense of dissatisfaction at our ongoing patchy form led to much grumbling, but Everton haven’t lost at home since we beat them last year, have already turned over Manchester United and are having their best start to a season in years, with their giant Belgian talisman in great form. It’s also worth remembering that two opening day spankings aside, we never have an easy game up there. The Invincibles scraped a one-all draw, and we have lost there three times in the last decade with better teams at our disposal than we have now.
The back five looked strong.
The only real criticism of the defence last night was that Sagna made a couple of uncharacteristic errors, one of which led to the well taken Everton equaliser. That aside, it looked a strong unit despite the disruption of Koscielny’s injury. Unfortunately the Frenchman’s departure meant we lost a bit of height and strength with Gibbs coming on, increasing Everton’s aerial advantage, but the one time the home side had a clear headed chance, Szczesny made a good save. Let’s hope that the absence of Koscielny doesn’t disrupt the group too much, because with Mertesacker marshalling the troops they coped well in a game where we were often on the back foot.
Which leads me onto…
The midfield is still struggling.
Once again the Arsenal possession game largely disintegrated under pressure. This is a result of both team set up and player form.
Santi Cazorla has really struggled in recent weeks against any opposition not called Tottenham Hotspur. He has hit the ‘wet Wednesday night up north in November’ part of the season and has looked fatigued and shell-shocked, as overseas players often do in the their first year in England. His normally sunny demeanour has been thoroughly dampened by physical contests away from home, and last night he looked like he desperately wanted to be elsewhere. This was always going to be the danger with being too reliant on a playmaker in his first season in the Premier League. Perhaps resting him or playing him out wide might be a good choice during the theoretically gentler fixtures coming up.
Mikel Arteta is another having to cope with a change without the luxury of being rested, and his ability to dictate play is somewhat undermined by the increased defensive responsibility resting on his shoulders. The Spaniard’s discipline and danger sense are excellent, making him far more effective in that role than Denilson was, but at times the fact he lacks the physical attributes of a Song, Gilberto or Petit can leave him exposed. He has been out-paced or out-muscled times in recent weeks and was fortunate not to concede a penalty last night. Also teams have been able to negate his distribution from deep by detailing someone to shadow him when we pass out of defence. This is a tactical weakness that has been exposed, and needs addressing.
Ramsey is still very hit and miss, but the criticism he has been receiving from supporters is misplaced. Despite the continued absence of the pace and confidence he showed before his dreadful injury, he is always active and involved, and has an excellent temperament. Despite failing to score, he was our biggest goal threat against Aston Villa, and after setting up Walcott’s goal last night, was on occasion effective at breaking forwards from a central position, and forced at least one save from Tim Howard. His passing and speed of thought will never match up to Fabregas, but he may yet enjoy a sudden increase in goal tally as the Spaniard did at a similar age. That said, playing him out wide is an indication that all is not well with the balance of the team, as he lacks the speed or close control to do so.
But Jack’s*almost* back…
Wilshere was our best midfielder last night. He kept possession well, created space for himself and colleagues and saved an almost certain goal with an excellent intervention having tracked Fellaini. His match fitness isn’t quite there yet and his understanding with the entirely new midfield he is playing with is still developing, but he is already showing us what we missed.
Our front men are doing ok all things considered.
Once again our attacking options were isolated due to the lack of platform provided by the midfield. Credit goes to Everton’s superb pressing and their central defence, who the first opposition to dominate Olivier Giroud in the air. Despite feeding on scraps the Frenchman went close late on with an intelligently guided header from a difficult position. On the whole our crossing was very poor. Sagna never beat the first man when overlapping, and playing Ramsey as an extra midfielder largely left the team devoid of width. The best cross of the night in terms of technique was the one from Giroud to Gervinho late on, which would have been a golden chance for our French target man. Sadly it was he putting the ball in and it sailed over Gervinho’s surprised head.
Walcott too had almost no service, but took his early goal well (the shot seemed to be on target even without the deflection) and put in a couple of decent crosses. His subsequent effectiveness was limited by a knock on his ankle for which Darren Gibson was rightly booked.
Walcott appears to be getting his way.
It was interesting how Theo was utilised in this fixture, and suggests that Wenger is willing to compromise to meet the England man’s demands halfway. Walcott played as a roving frontman, part inside-left and part right-wing, occasionally playing as a partner to Giroud. It resulted in the team having less width, but also directly contributed to our goal. It will be interesting to see how this plays out over the rest of the season, particularly when Podolski is back, but it echoes some of my own thoughts regarding our optimum tactical set up, which I shall be posting before the Swansea game.
We lack a blueprint.
So where are we now? Apart from seventh in an incredibly congested League table, we seem to be invariably stuck between two stools for the moment. Although it sometimes clicks, we essentially have a group of players who are unsure of how best to play together, and a manager uncertain of his best side or even specific formation.
For years, injuries permitting, you could name an Arsenal side and how they would line up without too much head-scratching, but at present this is the first team since Wenger took over without a clear template. As I mentioned in the second half of this article, we have an oddly structured squad and currently are caught as a strange Barcelona-Everton hybrid, without the right composition of players to make either system work. Rosicky’s imminent return will help bring the tempo and dynamism to our possession game that has been sadly missing in recent weeks, but once again in terms of some much needed physicality we are watching re-runs of the Gallic farce, ‘Waiting for Diaby’.
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