Dear angry, depressed, resigned Gooners, I’m back with my weekly column.
Inspired by Dave the Master and his brilliant piece on why Arsène Wenger should rotate his left-backs, I also try to find some positives in these gloomy days.
The defeat suffered against Chelsea has reminded us that we still have a lot to go before being considered as genuine title contenders and that, despite having the best and most complete squad in years and plenty of hope, we’re still short – one way or another.
Sadly enough, we all knew that it would have been difficult to come out of Stamford Bridge with a positive result, so it was the inexplicable loss at home to Watford that really hurt, I believe. Had we won against the Hornets and lost to Chelsea, the mood would be slightly different – and so would be the league table.
We didn’t play that badly against Antonio Conte’s team, in fact; the encounter was quite balanced until Marcos Alonso’s vicious attack on Hector Bellerín and the consequent goal. Until that turning point, we even showed some encouraging pressing and made life difficult for our opponents to take the ball out of their box with Alex Mesut Özil and Theo Walcott blocking any passing line to the wing-backs, Alex Iwobi closing on Matic and Alexis attacking Courtois – to force a long ball or a difficult pass to David Luiz.
Once they scored, though, the whole tactical plan and approach changed and suddenly our opponents were in the ideal position: sit deep, invite the Arsenal and punish them on the counter.
There are many reasons behind the defeat as we were inefficient in front of goal – Gabriel and Mesut Özil really should have scored – we were tactically predictable once Hector Bellerín came off and we switched from a plain 4-3-3 to the usual formation and we were mentally weak as none of our players tried to force a change to the gameplay but always picked the safe option, instead.
Add to that some bad luck – the controversial opener allowed and Courtois brilliant display – and a few schoolboy errors (Coquelin!) and the defeat was inevitable.
That said, I don’t believe the narrative of us being outplayed by Chelsea or being dominated by them and I don’t agree with the general ras-le-bol that is so popular among fans, these days.
There are still positives about our team and even about our manager (!), whose legendary stubbornness and tactical ineptitude was clearly disproved by his team selection ahead of the Stamford Bridge clash: how many were calling for Mesut Özil to be played wide, in big away games? How many were desperately shouting for Olivier Giroud to be dropped in favour of Alexis, as our central striker? How many were insisting that we should play a 4-3-3 and not the obsolete 4-2-3-1?
Well, Arsène Wenger did plan all of that and finally listened to you guys, you should be happy.
Unfortunately, it didn’t last long but that was due to some external, unexpected factors and not to the French dinosaur’s creed; you can’t keep the same tactical approach if you replace Hector Bellerín with the less-mobile, less-assured and less-pacy Gabriel, you must admit the manager had very little choice once the Spaniard was knocked-down.
I’m not saying Arsène Wenger was faultless for the defeat and I’m not against a change at the helm, when the season ends, but I want to be fair in the judgment of his actions and errors; he showed a tactical flexibility that very few people would have expected and this is one of the positives of the day, at least we know that we can different tactical plans, depending on who we are facing.
Chelsea players were smarter and sharper than us, especially once they took the lead; before that, the general feeling was that Antonio Conte’s men were a bit surprised by Arsenal’s reluctance to take initiative and leave spaces behind their midfield line, as they were clearly struggling to get Diego Costa and Hazard involved in the game.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was another pleasant surprise of the day, his mature display in central midfield was a real breath of fresh air and gave us some inventiveness and pace, although he didn’t find much cooperation around him.
He didn’t have much impact but it was also down to the lack of movement from Alex Iwobi – who had the worst game since his breakthrough – Alexis Sánchez and Theo Walcott, all of them being rather anonymous throughout the game.
With Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey injured, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain could form a very interesting duo with the returning Granit Xhaka, whose ban ends after the home game against Hull City.
This atypical pair has all the ingredients to work well, with the Swiss controlling the game from well-inside our half and the former Southampton man bringing the sudden spark, the unexpected change of pace to our game.
We desperately lacked speed and power against Chelsea and this duo can bring exactly those two qualities, plus a superior technical mastery, compared to Francis Coquelin; moreover, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s hunger to finally find a place on the pitch and Granit Xhaka’s desire to win over his critics could prove to be decisive to restore some passion and drive in our slow, sloppy midfield.
All of this is theory, of course, but something similar happened when Arsène Wenger “accidentally” paired Aaron Ramsey with Mikel Arteta or Francis Coquelin with Santi Cazorla, our team could suddenly find a new dynamic and balance.
After all, this could be the revolution some fans, pundits and journalists are crying for when they compare how Antonio Conte turned Chelsea’s fortune around after the football lesson he was taught at the Emirates Stadium, not too long ago.