After midweek wins for Leicester, Spurs and the two Manchester clubs, our disappointing draw with Southampton felt like a defeat. Whilst there will undoubtedly be a few more twists and turns in the title race, a paltry return of just three points from the last twelve on offer, coupled with the knowledge of difficult away fixtures against United, Spurs, Everton and Manchester City still to come, makes it difficult to be positive about our chances of landing this season’s crown.
During recent weeks I have found it has become increasingly difficult to contain my growing frustration towards both Theo Walcott and Arsene Wenger. It is not solely the frequent missing of chances on Theo’s part that is testing my patience but his overall contribution, or lack of it I should say, that has made it open to debate whether his current form warrants the game time he’s being given. Particularly ahead of the promising Alex Iwobi, who impressed after coming on as a substitute at Stoke and was our best performer against Burnley, (as he was v Sunderland in R3.)
In the past I have criticised Arsene for his poor in game decision making and his failure to be proactive from the touchline in terms of reacting to on field situations. There is no question that our last two league encounters have provided further examples of why I consider my criticisms to be justified. Firstly, Arsene’s decision to replace Olivier Giroud with Gabriel following Per Mertesacker’s early dismissal against Chelsea, not only removed the focal point of our attack but also the one player in the side who excels at holding the ball up when under pressure and the better option would have been to replace Theo instead.
Olivier’s hold up play and aerial ability also makes him a useful player to have in the side when defending set pieces, especially in circumstances where we are suffering from a numerical disadvantage. Some supporters will undoubtedly defend Arsene by stating that Olivier was suffering from a knock he reportedly picked up in training but if that was the case and he didn’t have the physical capability to play for at least an hour, why was the Frenchman selected to start the game in the first place?
I’d perhaps have been more understanding of the logic behind the change had Walcott been in top form and scoring goals on a regular basis alongside a fully fit and firing Alexis Sanchez, but as it was, we might as well have played with only nine men such was Theo’s minimal contribution and it is safe to say that his poor performance came as no surprise to most supporters.
Another example came late on in the stalemate with Southampton when the team was searching for the breakthrough that would have given us three crucial points. Can someone please explain to me what purpose was served by replacing Mathieu Flamini with the equally defensive minded Francis Coquelin? Surely a better option would have been to bring on the attack minded Alex Oxlade-Chambelain, who despite being out of sorts, still offers significantly more goal threat.
Whilst I can accept that Alex’s positional naivety has at times led to him making mistakes in defensive areas which have resulted in us conceding, I felt that in a situation where the team was dominating possession and piling on the pressure, his introduction was worth the relatively small gamble it would have represented, so it is difficult to understand why Arsene appeared so content to settle for a solitary point.
At this juncture I will point out that I do not hold Arsene solely responsible for our disappointing results against Chelsea and Southampton. He is not directly responsible for the challenge that led to Mertesacker’s dismissal, nor the poor decisions made by match officials or the team’s wastefulness in front of goal in a game where we had twenty two shots and still failed to find the back of the net. However, as I mentioned above, there are decisions that could have been made that may have influenced proceedings.
I will also use this opportunity to express my concerns about the nightmare possibility of Spurs winning the title, which despite the denials of many Arsenal supporters, has suddenly become a worryingly realistic possibility. Without wanting to praise them, as an individual who says things as I see them, they have become an organised outfit and a difficult team to beat. One that doesn’t roll over and let the opposition tickle its belly in the same fashion that we did at Southampton on Boxing Day.
It is no exaggeration to say that in Harry Kane and Dele Alli, they also have two of the most in form players in the division. The mere thought of them even finishing a place above us, is enough to make me want to throw myself through the nearest window. Please, if it’s not us, anyone else but them.
On a positive note, I was pleased with what I saw from new signing Mohamed Elneny on his debut against Burnley. Without being exceptional, he was quietly efficient and appeared to possess the ability to regularly find space and make himself available for team mates. The fact that he doesn’t hesitate at attempting to shoot from long distance is an added bonus and one that I hope doesn’t get coached out of him.
Although its early days and it’s a possibility that our new recruit received instructions to play further forward with Francis Coquelin in the team alongside him, there was little evidence to suggest that Elneny is the tough tackling defensive midfielder who will provide competition and cover for Francis. This is not to say that I don’t think he will be a good addition, I’m simply saying that based on my first impressions, his attributes make him a potentially valuable asset in a more advanced role.
Whilst I wouldn’t put my house on us winning the title this season, I certainly didn’t think Leicester would be leading the table after twenty four games either. With that in mind, there is still enough time for us to find some form and turn things around. Let’s hope the first steps towards us doing exactly that will be taken this weekend at Bournemouth’s Dean Court stadium.
Onwards and upwards….