I have written and re-written this blog a few times. I decided to shelve it until after the F.A. Cup match vs. Watford, a match I was sure that Arsenal were going to narrowly win. However, I was mistaken.
The Arsenal defence needs an overhaul. The two goals that were conceded were both avoidable and typical of the goals that Arsenal have been conceding for the last few years. There seems to be no communication or organisation in the defence. Defensive communication is an aspect that has improved marginally this season with the signing of Petr Cech, but it is still nowhere good enough and it is noticeably absent when Cech isn’t playing. Per Mertesacker seems to make all the right noises to the media, but he clearly does not have the leadership nous on the pitch.
The first goal that Watford scored, by Ighalo, was avoidable. Gabriel was far too tight to Ighalo when the ball came in from Arsenal’s right flank, while Gibbs was just standing, ball-watching. Awful stuff. The second goal was even worse – the ball again appeared from Arsenal’s right side (possibly due to a lack of Bellerin through resting) and found Adlene Guedioura on the left side of the box. Per Mertesacker was guilty of one of the worst pieces of defending I have ever seen. Instead of trying to close down Guedioura, or sliding across to try to block Guedioura’s shot, he just stood there, with his arms behind his back, as Guedioura smashed the ball to Per’s right, past him and Ospina at full stretch in Arsenal’s goal, right into the roof of the net. I can’t help but feel that Cech might have saved that shot, but he’s unavailable for the next few weeks.
Those two goals symbolise Arsenal’s season. Danny Welbeck pulling a goal back in the last ten minutes shows that perhaps he should have started, as Olivier Giroud had little success against a Watford side determined to defend deep and hit on the counter, as so many sides have done against Arsenal this season. This makes me call into question Arsene Wenger’s ability to manage the Club and his tactical acumen. Arsenal’s home record this season in the Premier League has not been great – draws at home to Liverpool, Spurs and Southampton and losses to West Ham, Chelsea and Swansea show that Arsenal have dropped too many points at home, many of those dropped points coming down to both an ineffectual attack and poor defending.
So, where has it gone wrong? For me, the answer lies with Le Boss himself and, to a lesser extent, the coaching staff. His unwillingness to bring in new signings was infuriating to many, myself included. How did so many of us realise that we would lose players through the course of the season to injury yet again, something that has been common-place for years at Arsenal, while Wenger still does not? Most of the fans realised that we needed reinforcements all over the pitch due to the aforementioned injury plague that sweeps through Arsenal every season. I personally feel we are still one centre-back short, in addition to being two midfielders short and we also need at least one more wide forward and one striker to make competition for places and try to eliminate complacency, something that has really crept into Arsenal’s game of late. No matter what players or tactics are there, though, the coaching staff can at least try to coach the defence into, you know, defending, which has not really been happening for much of the last 2 months or so.
Yet Arsenal only purchased a goalkeeper in the summer – a great one, though, in Petr Cech – and Mohammed Elneny, a box-to-box midfielder in the winter window. How could Wenger not see that we had a serious shortage of players, which would leave the Club short of both numbers and tactical options? Some players were already out before Christmas – examples being Arteta, whose legs have clearly gone (the away match to West Brom proved that), and Cazorla, Coquelin, Welbeck, Wilshere and Rosicky who all have missed significant time out of the first team with injury – Rosicky in particular will likely not kick a ball again for Arsenal, as his contract expires at the end of the season. Wilshere has been out all season so far too and Welbeck has only recently returned.
Aaron Ramsey, a player I am not a fan of due to his continuous over-elaboration on the pitch, is also now injured and will be out for at least a month. He has missed many matches over the past few seasons due to persistent thigh injuries – something that is obviously a weakness for him and something that he seems unable to properly recover from, possibly due to being rushed back with insufficient resting time to heal the injury properly. Why does Wenger rely on him so much and, more importantly, since this is a known issue for Ramsey as it keeps recurring, why has some back-up (at the moment, that would be Iwobi) not been used more often so that Ramsey can get a longer rest? Why would Ramsey be worked hard enough in training for these injuries to keep occuring? This speaks to my thoughts of poor player management over the season by Wenger. If Ramsey is over-working in training, Wenger should pull him aside and make him ease up to avoid injury. If that doesn’t work, don’t play him as much. It is a simple solution. Wenger is the manager and the buck has to stop with him on this one. Yes, I can understand not wanting to over-play a young player like Alex Iwobi too much, but, with Ramsey’s, Wilshere’s and Rosicky’s injury records, why was a back-up not purchased if Wenger didn’t want to over-play Iwobi?
The Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast recently pointed out that Ramsey was the player most dribbled past in the League – that is a poor statistic and one that again demonstrates poor defensive organisation. Ramsey claims to be a central midfielder, yet has largely been ineffective in this area as the squad do not have sufficient depth to allow Ramsey to play as he wants without a significant cost to the team in terms of defensive organisation. Ostensibly, he is more of an attacking midfielder who likes to play behind the striker, a role he fulfils for Wales, but that position is occupied by one of the best players in the world in Mesut Ozil. Ramsey’s best form for Arsenal came in the 2013-14 season – at least some of this time was during the period when Ozil was injured and Ramsey was able to play the role that he wanted.
Another issue was keeping Mathieu Flamini for another season. Flamini was average last season but has suffered a performance dip this season. However, he has not often been partnered with a player who can cover when he decides to run forward (e.g. Coquelin or Cazorla, due to injuries mostly), which can leave the defence exposed to counter-attacks. Flamini is also prone to picking up cards at an inopportune time – how can Wenger not see that another player would be needed to cover in case of suspensions here?
Defending from the front has also been a problem for Arsenal. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott have offered virtually nothing defensively this season and, unfortunately, have offered very little in attacking prowess either. When you are without the ball, defending has to start from the front as attacking players need to try to win the ball off the opposition holding midfielders and defenders, which doesn’t seem to happen much at Arsenal, with the exception of Olivier Giroud. You can at least partially forgive an attacking player who manages to make things happen on a consistent basis for defensive lapses or works extremely hard trying to make something happen (e.g. Alexis), but for attacking players who are consistently passengers? I think that is unacceptable to anyone and at least some of the fallout for their poor performances must fall on to Wenger, who selected both players far too often over Joel Campbell, who had clearly shown better form and more effort from both an attacking and defensive standpoint.
That is not to say that Giroud and Alexis are without failings. Alexis’ form has been very poor when compared to last season and has been very predictable in his play to opposition defences, always trying to cut in from wide positions to shoot at goal. Giroud still has a low shot conversion rate – that is not good for a player who is unable to find space often due to a lack of pace. I think something will click eventually for Alexis. As for Giroud, he needs to work on his first touch more and he must be encouraged to take more long-range shots – it can’t really go any worse trying to shoot from range, as Arsenal in general seem to blast them high and wide often from close range (I’m looking at you again Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott) or hit the woodwork.
A change in manager and, perhaps, a change in coaching staff could improve results or performances on the pitch. I don’t subscribe to this notion that young players would not get much game time for the first team at Arsenal – we always have injuries, some of them already outlined above. Some teams have played many of their young players in times of injury or suspension to first-team players, who have come in and done well – some examples would include Luke Garbutt at Everton, who came in for the injured Leighton Baines and played decently before being loaned out to Fulham upon Baines’ return, in addition to Matt Targett and James Ward-Prowse at Southampton, the latter now ostensibly being a first-choice with the departure of Morgan Schneiderlin to Manchester United and the poor form and injuries sustained by Jordy Clasie in at least the first half of the season. Young players do make errors on the pitch but can offer energy and a different tactical option over other more well-known players in general but Wenger seems afraid to use them for more than the closing few minutes of a match when there is little chance of changing the outcome of that match, which is disappointing.
OK, that’s enough from me. I hope you enjoyed reading all this. Have a good one. Please comment below if you feel the need to or hit me up on Twitter – my handle is @timjbharg. Cheers!