Plenty has already been written about yesterday’s traumatic game, both in the national newspapers and the Arsenal blogisphere. Arsenal lacked cutting edge, seemed to serious lose their shape at times, were undone by forced changes at the back (four separate back four lineups in one game is far from ideal – even if Podolski was only a begrudging left back for a couple of minutes), the referee made some questionable decisions and the crowd booed at full time.
All in all, a grim start to the season. But Wenger was right to point out in his post-match interview that Arsenal should still have the quality to put away a young Aston Villa team, even if the referee is having a shocker. This suggests a number of issues:
- Arsenal haven’t gone out and signed quality (as if that hasn’t been written before)
- They lack squad depth due to injuries (Frimpong, Sanogo and Gnabry all on the bench)*
- The team mentality is still prone to occasional weakness (we should dominate a game after scoring so early)
- The team simply don’t look match fit
This last point is what I would like to focus on in this post because, well, I think we’ve all seen plenty written about the other topics.
The most obvious point to make is that a number of Arsenal’s players chipped in for their national teams on Wednesday. Arsenal had Sagna, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott, Cazorla, Giroud and Podolski all representing their national teams (let me know if I missed anyone). But other teams had a large number of players away on national duty and managed just fine during the opening game of the season, so this surely can’t be the only reason why we looked weak.
I believe that we need to ask serious questions about our pre-season preparation and examine what state of physical fitness it leaves our players in. It can’t be an issue with the number of games that we played because, again, you only have to benchmark Arsenal against other Premier League sides to see that we played a decent number of matches.
Looking at the Asia Tour, for example, I wonder if our most important players got enough match time. Sure, it was great to see players like Olsson, Akpom and Zelalem burst onto the scene (and, boy, doesn’t Gedion look like a great prospect!), along with the likes of Gnabry and Eisfeld making their second appearances on an Asia Tour. I’m sure the experience will be great for their development. But at the moment they aren’t too close to the first team squad lining up every week (in terms of quality, not squad numbers).
Our defender scertainly had a lot of game time, but that was more down to a lack of options than anything else. And even then, if Koscielny was entirely match fit I don’t believe that Agbonlahor could outpace him in the way he did for the penalty incident (he may only be one or two percent off, but in the Premier League that is clearly crucial). Further upfield, the likes of Wilshere, Rosicky, Podolski, Walcott and Cazorla didn’t feature as much as they could have done (this was down to fitness levels in some cases).
And that told in the game against Aston Villa. When we we are down to ten men and trailing 2-1, that’s when our players need to find an extra burst of energy to create something spectacular. No-one really looked like doing that yesterday, with the exception of two artful runs from Rosicky which he lacked the composure to convert. Even Aaron Ramsey – Arsenal’s perpetual motion machine – looked exhausted.
Clearly offering youngsters the opportunity to tour with the senior squad is a great experience and very central to Arsene Wenger’s philosophy on giving youth a chance, but it should never be at the expense of the first team. It seems strange that Miquel, for example, would join up with the squad for the tour and then get shipped off on loan for the last season on his contract as soon as he gets home.
And maybe there is more that can be done on physical conditioning in the normal training sessions to get our players up to scratch. Physical fitness is not just up to game time – something that Arsenal would have done well to remind Santos and Arshavin in the past and Bendtner now (we’ve all seen the recent pictures of our footballing deity and reiki healer). Aston Villa are a youthful team, but so are Arsenal and we should never be in a position where the opposition is fitter than us.
But this isn’t the first time this has happened. For the last two seasons Arsenal have broken Arsene Wenger’s record for the worst starts to a Premier League campaign. Remember the dull draws at the start of last season? And I don’t need to remind anyone of the score against United the season before. I’m not necessarily saying that we will repeat the pattern again, but with our current lack of squad depth and fitness levels I do worry for this week’s Champions League qualifier. Will Gibbs, Sagna, Rosicky, Ramsey and Wilshere all recover? If not, who will play and what will their levels of fitness be?
Clearly the lack of squad depth and quality signings is a reason for alarm. But let’s not forget that this squad finished last season so strongly. So yesterday’s performance surely can’t just be down to a lack of signing and poor refereeing, can it?
*Interestingly we have the third largest squad registered with the Premier League this season, bloated full of youngsters who have survived the summer cull.
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