I miss the optimism that was around after the 3-1 win over Stoke. After going behind to an extremely dodgy penalty, Arsenal had shown fight and resilience and looked really ‘up for it’. Eight days later and all of those traits, that seemingly Arsenal had improved on this year, were thrown into question again after two repeat, inept, performances.
Had Arsenal played well against both Everton and Manchester City and still lost to a wonder goal or two, or even been completely shafted by some outrageously terrible refereeing decisions, it could be written off as an unlucky week. It’d still be immensely damaging in terms of points dropped, but you’d at least be able to see some signs of hope that Arsenal weren’t going to be found wanting for effort and quality in big moments. But Arsenal didn’t play well in either game. Twice in a week, the Gunners went from being 1-0 and in control of the game, to losing 2-1. To do it once at Everton was careless, and had there not been blocked shots on the line and a penalty awarded at the end of the game, things could have been patched over. But to make the same mistakes on Sunday at Manchester City was maddening.
Both Everton and Manchester City came into their games with Arsenal with slightly fragile confidence and defences that were rife for some punishment. Both were rocking at 1-0 with Arsenal looking dangerous against them every time they got into the final third of the pitch, but for some reason, there was a lack of killer instinct and Arsenal took their foot off the pedal having only scored one goal. For a team that has been so free-scoring this season, I can’t fathom why they didn’t sense the opportunity to play their way round two static back-fours and kill both games in the process.
It’s hard to pinpoint one main reason for why Arsenal performed so poorly for the most part of both games as it seems to be a combination of issues. As much as we might try to deny it, clearly Arsenal have a problem mentally in the bigger games, as they seem to freeze in certain situations. Defensively, Arsenal are beginning to concede cheap goals. While there are legitimate claims to be made for both Manchester City goals being offside, both situations could have been defended infinitely better. Going forward, why did Mesut Ozil struggle to make much of an impact in either game? The midfield had been functioning better, so why did it suddenly feel like the back four was exposed too often in the last week? Plenty for Arsene Wenger to ponder in the next week.
The defeats are made all the more frustrating because it had felt like Arsenal did finally have a solid squad, with plenty in reserve, to really challenge. Players were being kept on their toes by competition within the squad, and there seemed a genuine realisation in the squad that they have been underachieving in the last few years and that they’d do everything to stop that from happening again this season. It feels like the first four months of the season were three big steps forward for Arsenal, but the last week was four steps back.
There has been a lot of individual criticism of Mesut Ozil in the aftermath of the last week, and in isolation, Everton’s winning goal at Goodison looked very bad on the part of the German. He then had lazy accusations thrown around after the defeat to Manchester City. But he shouldn’t be the only one singled out. No-one in the team can look at those two performances with any pride. One of the problems for Ozil on Sunday was that he didn’t get much of the ball in the final third to be effective, adding to the lacklustre look of the team. While I understood why Arsene Wenger wanted his team to sit a bit deeper against City as it worked well when Arsenal won 2-0 there a couple of seasons ago, I’d like to have seen the Gunners push on a bit more and really pressurise the wilting home defence. Had the Gunners been able to get more possession higher up the pitch, they’d surely have created more chances. Rather than taking the game by the scruff of the neck, Arsenal seemed to passively wait for City’s response when they should have made it impossible for the hosts to get back into the game by getting another goal.
All is not lost completely as Arsenal have shown that they can go on a long unbeaten run, but with Chelsea continuing to win and Liverpool and Manchester City going past the Gunners, there is a strong sense of doom around after a dreadful week. Another defeat over Christmas and the league would virtually be ruined, despite the good work done by the team for most of the season. But it’s completely their own fault for throwing away two leads against teams who were low on confidence and were ready to be beaten. Now it is Arsenal in that boat and the Gunners could do with playing a team as friendly as themselves to throw away a game to restore some confidence.