I just can’t work this Arsenal team out. Neither, it seems, can Arsene Wenger. Any sparks or signs of promise are almost instantly wrecked by the ability to completely self-destruct. Despite a generally improved performance against Manchester United on Saturday, Arsenal still managed to let the worst United team I’ve ever seen leave the Emirates with a 2-1 win.
How many other clubs in the Premier League could dominate a match so much, but then just before the hour mark, go 1-0 down at home against a team who hadn’t managed to have a shot on target and, in the process of conceding, manage to have their goalkeeper go off injured? Only Arsenal. It’s immensely depressing that such a stupid run of events wasn’t even a surprise.
It wasn’t even the patchwork defence that was the main problem on Saturday. Generally, they marshalled Manchester United pretty well. In 99% of games, if you limit a team to no shots on target, they won’t score. This is Arsenal though.
The biggest problem which struck me was the lack of ideas, especially in the second half. In the first half, Arsenal played at a high tempo, pressed Manchester United well and didn’t make it comfortable for the opposition. Chances were created and, for one of the first times this season, I thought playing both Ramsey and Wilshere was sort of working. The only thing missing was a goal. Welbeck was guilty of missing a few opportunities, but Jack Wilshere blew an incredible chance when one-on-one with De Gea. It was decent goalkeeping, but that was a wretched miss from Wilshere. I can’t help but feel it was indicative of the fear that Arsenal are playing with at the moment. Wilshere thought too long about what he was going to do rather than instinctively sweeping the ball into the net, so he finished tamely straight at De Gea.
After missing the chances, Arsenal seemed to panic before conceding the opening goal. It’s hard to attribute any blame to Kieran Gibbs, despite him scoring the own goal, as he was pushed into his own goalkeeper and then tried to do something when the ball came towards him on the ground. Wojciech Szczesny’s unconvincing punch and the lack of effort to close down the initial cross were much more infuriating.
After the goal, apart from Arteta, all of Arsenal’s midfielders and forwards seemed to want to be on the shoulder of the Manchester United defence and run in behind. But, obviously, if everyone is waiting to make that run in behind, there’s no-one in the centre of the pitch to play the passes through. The lack of options for players to pass to when the back four had the ball was genuinely staggering. Even when the likes of Sanchez and Oxlade-Chamberlain got on the ball, there was virtually no movement from the players around them. Everyone was just waiting for someone else to make it happen, which is inexcusable at the top level of football.
There was a huge gap in the number 10 position for the majority of the second half. While he’s good to be a scapegoat for some people for not trying hard enough, it was clear on Saturday how much Arsenal miss Mesut Ozil. The way he glides into space and always looks to be the link man would have been invaluable against Manchester United considering how everyone else was effectively in a line up front.
Arsene Wenger often talks of players making their own decisions, and how as a manager he creates an environment for the players to be able to work things out for themselves. Sometimes, you have to abandon that because the players looked clueless as to how to break down a shoddy Manchester United defence. Wenger should have been instructing the likes of Cazorla or Ramsey to demand the ball in the midfield and to offer some sort of option to the defence when they had the ball.
After going 1-0 down, Arsenal had almost no discernible tactics going forward. When players of the quality of Sanchez, Welbeck, Cazorla, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ramsey are on the pitch, that is an absolutely ridiculous situation to be in.
Arsenal only really looked dangerous again when Olivier Giroud entered the fray. It’s a great credit to Giroud, and the medical team, that he’s back on the pitch three months after a leg break, and he didn’t look rusty as he caused the defence a new problem. It wasn’t a piece of tactical genius, but at least with Giroud up front Arsenal had more of a structure and someone to get the ball into, rather than just having a line of players waiting for a through ball or a pass over the top of the defence.
It will understandably get lost in the memories of the game as it came after the Gunners were picked off on the counter-attack again for Rooney to make it 2-0, and because Arsenal should have beaten such a rubbish team, but Giroud’s goal in injury time was one of his best of the club.
So where do Arsenal go from here? In previous years, it’s been easy to scapegoat players when things haven’t been going well. But this time there is no Emmanuel Eboue, no Mikael Silvestre, no Nicklas Bendtner, no Denilson and no Andre Santos. The quality of the players isn’t the main issue. The problem is mismanagement by not having enough defenders, and not tactically getting it right. The players do have to take a large amount of blame, it wasn’t Arsene Wenger who missed the one-on-one in the first half, but more than ever the manager hasn’t got a handle on how to get the best out of this team.
It does feel like we’re on the road to the end now with Arsene. I love him, but I’m really struggling to see how he can take this squad forward. Apart from lacking numbers at the back, he’s assembled a decent squad with a lot of quality, but he doesn’t know how to use them. Why is a player who could have filled the number 10 void, Tomas Rosicky, not getting a look-in? When we need goals, the most clinical finisher at the club, Lukas Podolski, is being consistently left on the bench.
I don’t think this team needs major surgery, and when others return from injury, the potential is there to go on a good run of wins. But this team needs guidance. It needs a strong leader. Arsene Wenger needs to show some leadership and some tactical nous, otherwise this slow car crash to his Arsenal departure will continue. I really really hope he does turn it around because of the great things he’s done for the club, but it’s incredibly difficult to see it happening at the moment.