A shell shocked-expression was written on the face of every Arsenal fan and Arsene Wenger, as they saw the unthinkable happen; the lads in red and white had capitulated to their bitterest derby rivals at home after 17 years. More than Tottenham winning the game, it was a game which the Gunners contrived to lose; it was as though they were on a mission to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The manner of the loss is certainly going to rankle Gooners in the years to come. Had Thierry Henry, who was incidentally amongst the spectators, been on the field during this loss, he would have certainly hung up his boots! If the prospect of climbing to the top of the table by defeating their neighbors doesn’t bring out the best from the team, then it is a serious situation for Wenger and the fans alike.
There’s no doubt that the players will be as upset by the defeat as the fans; after all, they are human. They were poised to take the game away from Spurs, but Redknapp’s substitutions and change in tactics in the second half did them in. Their contrasting second half performance raises serious questions about the tactics deployed by Wenger and the consistency of most of the players in the team. Let’s have a subjective look at some questions.
Has the defense improved from last season?
It’s a well-known fact that defense has always been Wenger’s weakness, and Le Professor sought to turn it around with the signing of Koscielny and Squillaci. However, Vermaelen’s Achilles injury, coupled with a number of suspensions for Koscielny from two red cards, meant that Squillaci and Djourou featured in most of Arsenal’s games this season. Despite being back-up defenders, the duo proved to be the best combination, having delivered consistent performances in the back and featuring in most of Arsenal’s away wins.
Djourou has rediscovered his form after a lengthy layoff, and proved his aerial prowess in handling long balls. However, he tends to be caught out by pacy forwards or wingers, and Manchester City exposed it to the hilt. Squillaci has experience under his belt and has been solid so far, but he was unable to inspire the defense in games like the Chelsea one. Koscielny’s technical ability and good positioning is often overshadowed by his inexperience and difficulty in adjusting to the pace of the Premier League. The defenders have been unable to deal with set pieces, both offensively and defensively. It is interesting to note that all of Arsenal’s three home defeats have happened with Koscielny and Squillaci in the center – a mere coincidence or a real picture of Arsenal’s ineptitude at the back?
Sagna continues to impress with his tireless running and solid shifts on the right side of the field, and his improved attacking capabilities have benefitted Arsenal a lot. On the other hand, Clichy has been blowing hot and cold this season; he has worryingly been caught out by nimble footed right wingers on most occasions, and does not track back as well as Sagna on counter attacks. With Gibbs emulating van Persie in terms of physical frailty, the lack of competition has fostered a sense of carelessness in his attitude on the field. The left-sided combination of Koscielny and Clichy is a crack in the Arsenal wall, and West Bromwich exposed it.
It’s high time the defense shook off its frailty and came of age, the away performances notwithstanding. The players are no longer young, and have professional expectations that they must fulfill, for Arsenal is a big club and deserves a better backline than this. It would be a good idea to appoint a defensive coach, someone like Tony Adams, who could drill into the players the very basics of defending. If Vermaelen can get rid of his Achilles problem once and for all, pairing him with Djourou would strengthen the defense considerably.
Should Song involve himself in attacking duties?
The Cameroon midfielder has been noticeably making a lot of forays into the final third of Arsenal attacks, leaving Wilshere or Denilson to cover in the middle. While this can be construed as adding an extra man in attack, it must be kept in mind that Song is a defensive midfielder, whose primary role is to shield the defense, break up opposition attacks and pass the ball to the creative players – as simple as that. Although he is committed on the pitch, he tends to ignore his basic duties of defending and gets carried away in the pursuit of scoring goals. This does not augur well for the team, as the defense is not strong enough to handle opposition attacks without his help.
Arsenal fans would love to see the Song of last season, making crunching tackles a la Makelele and bossing the midfield, leaving the attacking aspects to Cesc and co. If he is trying to emulate Patrick Vieira, who has a good goal scoring record as well, he must realize that the Frenchman had the likes of Ray Parlour, Martin Keown, Sol Campbell and Lauren behind him to mop up any attacks from the opponents; the current back four is nowhere near that formidable wall. Wenger should no longer give him the license to attack, and instead hand over the box to box roles to either Wilshere or Denilson, who are more than capable of doing the job.
Is there enough creativity in the midfield?
This season has been a welcome change from the recent ones, as Arsene has a nearly fit set of players with attacking flair at his disposal, giving him the option of a strong starting line-up and an equally impressive bench, despite Diaby missing out due to injury. Samir Nasri has been stellar, having scored eight goals so far for the Gunners, while Cesc Fabregas continues to deliver killer passes from the center. Arshavin has been struggling to score, but has made a number of telling assists. Jack Wilshere and Rosicky enhance the creativity aspect. Then, why is Arsenal still struggling to score in some of the games, while plundering goals at will in others?
One explanation for the inconsistency in midfield is the inability of this side to break down opponents who park the bus in front of their goal. The games against Newcastle and Chelsea saw Arsenal dominate the proceedings but fail to breach an industrious defense, which cut off all supplies to the forwards and denied space to midfielders just outside the box; this tended to frustrate the players, resulting in a drop in performance as the game progressed. Teams are happy to sit back and attack from set pieces or on the counter. Another pertinent point is the predictability of Arsenal’s passing game, which showcases Wenger’s lack of a plan B. By following the same tactic week in and week out, it is easier for the other teams to identify which players to stifle; once that is accomplished, Arsenal’s attacking potency is effectively reduced by half. Rosicky should be given more starts from now on, and rotation among the midfielders without affecting the attacking edge is vital, especially with the upcoming congested fixtures this season.
Rosicky – Deserves more starts
Chamakh – How good is he?
Chamakh was signed because the Moroccan had all the qualities to fit into Arsenal’s system, while adding an extra dimension to the attack with his aerial abilities. So far, he has impressed with his work rate and headed goals, but is still an unfinished product for a 26-year old. He has the ability to score when involved in a build-up with his teammates, but doesn’t have the knack of conjuring up goals on his own, unlike Bendtner or van Persie. His heading prowess is in contrast to his poor foot work, and his slight hesitancy on the ball when in a good goal scoring position has often undone all the hard work by the midfield. If he works on his decision making, he can be a much better player upfront; a partnership with van Persie could reap benefits for Arsenal.
Injuries to other forwards in the early part of the season has seen Chamakh start in almost all games, and it is natural for him to feel the strain of the hectic schedule, especially with international friendlies being thrust into the mix. Fortunately, van Persie, Walcott and Bendtner are all ready to take his place. Van Persie could have easily been an Arsenal legend, had he not been as brittle as glass. Walcott is painfully one-dimensional as a right-side striker; contrary to what Wenger believes, his plan has always been to rely on pace, and his crosses and passes are hardly worth a mention. Bendtner announced his return from injury with two well-taken goals, but his recent outburst could have been avoided.
Wenger – Is he to be blamed?
Wenger has been puzzled by his side’s run of results at the Emirates, and has failed to find out what has exactly gone wrong. It’s not the first time he has been clueless, and part of it is due to his own stubbornness and his poor match reading skills. For the Spurs game, he had put out his strongest XI, and yet ended up with egg on his face; while the players are to be blamed for a poor result, it is ultimately the manager who dictates how the game should be played by the team, and Wenger was clearly outwitted by his counterpart Redknapp in the second half. When a team is 2-0 up, why still play the attacking game and leave gaping spaces in the middle of the park? If the intention was to increase the goal lead, the creative midfielders could get the job done without Song being adventurous.
While Wenger advocates the 4-3-3 formation, perhaps to enable a more liberal way of attacking, he forgets that playing in such a manner requires continued commitment from all the players for the entire 90 minutes of the game. When more than half of the players were involved in international duty just three days before, how can they be expected to deliver consistently for the whole game? Arsenal hit top gear too soon in the first half, and ended up deflated at the onset of the second half. Wenger’s substitutions were also puzzling; taking off Chamakh for van Persie removed one more chance of defending aerial balls in set pieces, which ultimately ended with Kaboul finding the back of the net. The logical thing would be to play Walcott for Nasri, van Persie for Arshavin and Rosicky for Denilson, and play a 4-4-2 formation which would keep the Spurs midfield busier, and also increase chances of getting a late winner. One can only hope Wenger doesn’t turn a blind eye to these defeats and be more flexible in team tactics, if he is to make Arsenal a title contender instead of also-rans.
There’s no doubt the Spurs result will leave a bitter taste in the mouth for all involved with Arsenal, but it’s just fourteen games into the season, and Arsenal has a lot of ground to make up. Despite these slip ups, Arsenal are sitting third in the table, only two points behind Chelsea and Manchester United. A win against Braga and a decent string of results in the next few league games will go a long way in easing the pain of this defeat. Once the defense gets sorted out, and Wenger becomes more open to tactical flexibility instead of making excuses, then things could look up for the men in red in white. If it is not to be, it could very well be ‘yet another season’ for Arsenal fans.