This was an Arsenal performance of contrasts. There was much to admire but anxieties remain that we will fall short of our number one goal – the Premier League.
As to the positives they were clear to see. Elneny played well on his debut – he was busy, prominent, challenged and committed. It is always dangerous to read too much into first matches – we all remember Vieira’s against Sheff Wednesday but in another sport Frank Hayes scored 109 in his first innings for England and subsequently failed to keep a regular place and spent his career in the Championship and not the Tests. But I am sure Wenger has chosen well. He will nurse him along and he will be a major influence. It helped that he played alongside Coquelin who was feeling his way back after a long term injury. The thing about Coquelin that so impresses is that he does what he is good at – he wins the ball and makes the simple pass to another player. He does not try to be something he is not – an attacking midfielder. He has the discipline to leave that to others. Iwobi too is beginning to look the part with strong runs and physical presence
Another positive we played a high pressure passing game – we flowed, made opportunities and could have scored more. This is not to demean Burnley. They have such a good manager and are making a real challenge for a return to the Premier League. So to make chances is good news even if we were unable to score more than two. Gibbs, so loyal, so uncomplaining and so dependable had a good game and Chambers – always a worry at right back after poor games against Anderlecht and then Swansea last season – was solid and took his goal very well.
Also we should not overlook the quality of our second goal. I watched the game from abroad without the benefit of action replay so the number of passes that led to the goal was not rerun but it looked impressive.
So why the negatives? – After all we won, we are in the Fifth Round and we played well. We made many changes and still produced a good team performance. And we had some new players on view that impressed. So with all the positives why the worries? In one phrase – We looked quite vulnerable in central defence! Burnley knew this and all the Premier League coaches who watch all the matches to review strengths and weaknesses of their upcoming opponents will be making notes. The problem, it seemed to me and I have never coached any football team at any level, was not the full backs but the ball into the heart of the defence. We were ill at ease, never confident, always on edge. Mistakes were made early on with balls played on the ground – by both Koscielny and Gabriel. Confidence slipped and then we looked weak at dealing with high balls.
Maybe the problem was that Cech was not playing. You feel he is the boss at the back and gives direction but Ospina, with the Olympiakos boob in mind, cannot perform that role. He wants to do well, inevitably, but he is nervous and prone to error as he seeks to assert himself and return to top form. But he never can have a run – he is the reserve. Cech is number one but Ospina needs match experience to keep himself ready if required. But he is unsure. It happens in life generally in all areas of activity and here it is worth recalling that perceptive observation of Wenger’s that “confidence comes slowly and goes quickly”. It is a laborious process re-acquiring self-belief and Ospina is in mid-stream.
Regardless our central defenders, coached by Bould, should still be strong and secure and reassuring but they weren’t. And it is this worry that diminishes the confidence in a successful run-in. Zouma scored unchallenged for Chelsea at the Bridge, Costa scored with scarcely a challenge last week at the Emirates and Vokes easily outjumped our defenders for Burnley’s goal yesterday. We can expect in every match now until the end of the season that our central defence will come under pressure. Coaches will work on this. Kane and other strikers will know the score. The challenges will come. If we meet them and grow stronger with every ball that comes in we will succeed but if we remain vulnerable we will fall short. And it is not just the high balls. It is also the balls on the ground, the tackles, the interventions and the booted clearances as well.
I am an optimist and not a pessimist. We can certainly do it. We need to get a couple of good games under our belt and the confidence will return but in the aftermath of victory we cannot overlook the basics that might yet be our undoing.
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