West Brom arrive at the Grove tomorrow for a game that we would normally be eyeing up with eager anticipation. But these are not normal circumstances. Poor performances, daft mistakes and a worrying lack of goals have left the manager looking a little flummoxed in post-match interviews recently and he’s had to adopt a pretty defiant stance in front of the media. Senior players talk about the need to fight together, work together, and get the fans back on their side. Although Arsene tells us the club is in good shape – and in many respects he is absolutely correct, there’s no escaping the fact that this has been the worst opening sequence to any season during his tenure.
There came a point last season when Gooners and pundits everywhere looked at each other and made the solemn pronouncement that the manager was facing the greatest test of his reign at the club. After the debacle at OT a chap at work even offered me €20 that Arsene would be gone by the end of the season (I took the bet, but not his money).
Now, however, the challenge seems even greater. The mighty dreadnought that was our team of the early noughties has gradually been transformed into a creaking, leaky gunboat with a dodgy rudder. Last season the gunboat hit a couple of mines and survived some aerial attacks, but running repairs were effected and a spirited fight back began with a key battle against the Old Enemy. This season, however, we have run aground since blowing the Spuds out of the water. Not only that, but it looks somtimes as though we’ve lost our way – no charts, a dodgy compass, whilst struggling with a damaged mizzen and three feet in the well, not to mention one of the manager’s favourite able seaman on the sick list (I could go on and on….). There can be no doubt that Arsene is well and truly up against it. But although he acknowledges there are issues, he’s confident that they can be resolved. Is he right?
The statistics for our recent poor run of form make for depressing reading: one win in the last five league games (and averaging only 1.4 points per game over the season so far), and no wins and only two goals in the last four games in all competitions. The midfield has ceased to function effectively and lacks confidence, the defence remains prone to calamitous error and we don’t have enough firepower to make the most of the chances we manage to create. A lot of this is down to the opposition. The likes of Norwich, Shalke, Swansea etc. etc. have played a pressing game and marked our key players closely. Everton managed to prevent us from playing the game as we wanted despite running out of energy after 60 minutes and reverting to a long ball game. The problem is – and you hardly need me to spell it out – that we don’t seem to find a way to cope with the defensive strategy employed by the opposition, and then when the opposition attack we get caught ball-watching and are carved up like the proverbial festive season poultry dish.
I don’t think these problems are purely down to the players on the one hand or coaching staff on the other. It seems more likely each group is failing the other. The gameplan doesn’t work at the moment; consequently the results are not forthcoming, and the players’ morale suffers. But they are sent into the next encounter with the same plan, and it becomes even harder to execute because confidence is lacking and players are scared of making mistakes.
Arsene made these observations on the club website three days ago (at a presser, in fact, but you know what I mean):
“I believe what is important is to play our football, improve the way we play and keep faith in our players. At the moment, that is very important to me. If you look at people’s reaction, everything is dramatic. What is important is to be capable to play football.”
Of course it is very easy in this era of social media for everyone to chuck their opinion around (hence this blog, obviously), and it is even easier to allow one’s texting/typing fingers to rule one’s brain and hurl expletive-ridden knee-jerk reactions around after every poor performance. That doesn’t mean that everyone’s doing it, however. Several well-established pundits, journalists and bloggers have questioned tactics and team selection while maintaining a considered perspective. Everything has not been dramatic.
It’s more likely his comment was aimed at the tabloid hacks in the media and the more extreme end of the club’s supporters. But even the dissent of the angry brigade would be rather less virulent if there were not such a yawning gulf between the capabilities of players and their actual output. Trying to play our particular brand of football doesn’t appear to be working. It seems to me that this is largely because we have become so predictable in our tactical methods that we make it easier for other sides to defend against us. This is compounded by problems with the squad which lacks sufficient depth and balance to provide options when things aren’t working and when key players are tired and injured. There’s no point in keeping faith with your first team players when they are fatigued or carrying a knock. Furthermore, it’s blindingly obvious that Arsene himself is keeping faith with only certain players, having decided with some justification that others (Chamakh and Arshavin – this means you) are not worth considering, except for early-round League Cup purposes. So, while I understand why Arsene is being publicly defiant and resolute, he must surely be aware that our problems need a more thorough fix than “improving and keeping faith”.
There needs to be a tactical rethink, and a change in the structure of the team, by which I mean both in personnel and organisation on the field. Both of these issues are fundamentally interlinked. Not only has the squad has failed to develop in the way the manger had hoped and anticipated, but key personnel have left. The new players that have been brought in our obviously talented, but they still haven’t provided the wider range of options that we need. Our midfield is in particular need of attention – this is not a criticism of our existing trio, but I can’t help feeling (as I’ve said before) that there is need for someone with greater physicality and presence in the mix.
Yesterday’s Tactics Column at Arseblog highlighted Arteta’s role change compared to last season. When he played with Song one of them could join an attack knowing the other would remain deep to protect the defence. When Arteta was injured our results suffered because Song lacked the discipline to stay back with no-one there to cover his forward runs. Now Arteta remains much deeper and leaves Wilshere and Cazorla to do the attacking. Unfortunately this makes it much easier for the opposition to mark him, and likewise Wilshere and Cazorla. All three of them find themselves isolated, and the man on the ball has no option but to put his foot on the ball, turn and play it back the BFG. Perhaps having Wilshere and Arteta alternate roles during games would introduce an element of unpredictability? Jack has played the deeper role before, after all, and this would bring him closer to Arteta as the Tactics Column suggests. This would change the formation somewhat, but that’s surely no bad thing at this stage. Whether or not Arsene is contemplating a mid-season tactical rethink is another matter. It would be unprecedented as far as I am aware, but it seems a necessity.
It seems to me the key element missing from Arsene’s plans for this season has been Diaby. I have remarked on this blog before (and others have made the same observation elsewhere) how Arsene took a massive gamble in not looking for an alternative to the Frenchman in the transfer market. Perhaps he did look but didn’t much fancy what he found. If he could stay healthy Diaby would provide a far better balance to our midfield, but hoping/assuming he would remain fit was a leap of faith. I have a very strong feeling that Diaby will not make any meaningful contribution for the rest of the season… or perhaps even any other season. I hope that I’m wrong, but I would be very surprised if he regained sufficient fitness to make a significant number of appearances, let alone starts.
The logical thing to do, therefore, would be to find a replacement for him. Unsentimental, perhaps – but keeping faith with a player who may never be physically robust enough to withstand the demands of the Premiership seems like a luxury we can no longer afford. A lot of Gooners are looking at next months transfer window and wondering who Arsene’s two possible purchases might be. I must confess I haven’t a clue. The media through several names around but it appears as though a lot of these – e.g. M’Vila, Gotze, Llorente – are mentioned simply because they’ve already featured in media speculation over the past 12 or so months, and it’s far easier to regurgitate and rehash old reports than do some genuine research. I’d rather not buy two players though – how about a midfielder, another striker and a left back for a start? A centre half might not be a bad idea, but it’s highly unlikely Arsene sees the need.
Rosicky’s return should be a matter for general rejoicing as he seems one of the few players we have with the determination to keep the ball moving quickly and with purpose. He played a key role in our resurgence last season, and it would be an opportune moment for him to exert a similar influence now. Walcott and Podolski aren’t fit for tomorrow, which in the former’s case may be just as well for his own sake. The manager has expressed his frustration at the stagnation of Theo’s contract negotiations, and another performance like his last would have brought a lot of negative attention from the faithful at the Grove. At this stage, Theo should own up and stop treating us like idiots.
On a final note, Liam Ridgewell will be turning out for the Baggies tomorrow. He’s a player I developed a thorough dislike for when he was at St. Andrews, and this week he confirmed what an odious, classless moron he is by appearing in The Sun, sitting on a toilet with wads of cash littering the floor at his feet, while wiping his arse with a £20 note. I am fully confident that all right-minded Gooners at the game tomorrow will be eager to show him the warm welcome he deserves.
Up the Arse. And here’s hoping for a win…