The result of the match should not disguise that this was another poor performance.
The first half was a copy of the game between Spurs and Borussia Dortmund except that we were the dominant force and we should have punished Cologne as Dortmund who had 63% possession should have punished Spurs. The similarity of approach was uncanny. We owned the ball for much of the first half but Dortmund had several chances to score. We were fortunate that Cologne were not as deadly as Spurs. They played to a plan and as usual, we fell into our usual malaise of taking the ball up to their defenders, then playing sideways and backwards at walking speed, which is now traditionally our regular game.
There was no urgency or passion in our game and no shape to the team. We did have a recognisable back three in Holding, BFG and Monreal, but no Kolasinac at left back. The midfield was Elneny with Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Iwobi. It was not apparent what the shape was because none of them was in touch with each other. Bellerin was in No Man`s Land again and was more often found in Walcott`s position as a right winger whilst Walcott was forever offside. Giroud was the CF but he did not receive any service apart from the occasional misjudged crosses from Bellerin.
To be fair Elneny put in a shift and he did move the ball on faster than anyone else did. He was the only one who tried to move from defence to attack at a proper speed and he did deserve a better response from our forwards. Walcott`s failure to stay onside undid much of his work and when so many balls were wasted, Cologne took advantage. Their goal came from us losing possession in their half whilst Bellerin was in their last third of the pitch. A long ball was heading for their winger who was in the space where Bellerin should have been. Ospina came running out to rescue the situation and he reached the ball a split second before the winger did , but in his haste to clear the ball, he mis-kicked and the beneficiary of the mis-kick, Cordoba, realising that he was stranded well outside the box gleefully lofted the ball over him into the empty net. Thereafter they could have been another goal or two ahead even considering the circumstances of their first goal. Their goalkeeper did not have a single shot to save during the first half.
After that calamitous half, Kolisinac replaced Holding whose nerves were shattered, and immediately, the defence was stiffened and Cologne did not find it so easy to penetrate our rear-guard. As we approached the 60 min mark, Iwobi was visibly tired and struggling and he was replaced by Wilshire. Jack made an impact because he tried to pair with Sanchez who had also been ineffective in the first half. Elneny had a focus for his passes because there was more movement in the attack.
Kolisinac augmented our forward play by charging up the left to support Sanchez and he and Sanchez engineered our first goal, which was a superb volley by the ex-Schalke man. Cologne were rattled and their noisy fans were silenced. Sanchez appeared to be energised by the goal and shortly afterwards he cut in from the left and scored a brilliant individual goal out of nothing. Suddenly, we were rampant and Bellerin put the match to bed with a third goal and a night, which had started so badly became a celebration.
I would not get too carried away by what happened. For most of the game, we had no shape, no desire and our nemesis of sideways and backwards passes, surfaced yet again. Wenger does not seem to be able to purge that from our game. The younger players like Iwobi and Maitland-Niles seem to have caught it and it is difficult for them to adjust from the faster speed they normally play at, to this walking tempo the seniors do when they come up against a packed defence.
Now we have to play Chelsea and I cannot think of a single player in the absence of Coquelin who could be called a defensive midfielder. Xhaka can`t tackle and he is too slow to cover gaps between attack and defence. Ramsey is an offensive midfielder and all his instincts are to forage up field. In his best season, he interlinked with Wilshire and Walcott in the box and Giroud played short sharp flicks to open up tight defences. That simply doesn`t happen anymore.
We now have a clever CF in Lacazzete who can combine with fast moving forwards especially Sanchez but once possession is lost we are in trouble because we are top heavy with forwards, and wingbacks who are all congested in the top third of the pitch. Chelsea are the masters at exploiting the gaps left behind them. There are always empty spaces in midfield and we are particularly vulnerable to diagonal balls aimed at flying wingers who link up with the advancing midfielders while our absentee defenders try to back track to plug the gaps that are there.
The centre backs are drawn apart because one of them has to move out to confront the winger and that leaves another gap in the centre of our defence and we see panic there rather than a solid centre in front of the Goalie.
Elneny is quick and he plays the ball off efficiently, but he does not strengthen our resistance in defence. He looks for spaces to get into and he does not watch the opponents to spot the danger signs. We don`t have a Vieira or Petit who used to be a solid pairing in the “they shall not pass” mode.
For at least 10 years, we have not had anyone of that mould in our team and we don`t have the pairings throughout the team which are the lubrication of the machine.
We are what we are and we have to do our best with the personnel that we have to try to ingrain a shape to the team and a method to play to it, into the psyche of our players. Chelsea are disciplined, and so are Spurs. Every player looks as if he knows what part of the jigsaw he is and where his place is. Liverpool are much the same, but they are let down by a poor defence, so they are not a top 3 team.
Man City are the nearest thing to a complete team in the league. They have powerful midfielders e.g. De Bruyne and deadly scorers in Aguero and Jesus. They have very mobile wingbacks and generally, they all play quickly and accurately. There are pairings and triangles all over the pitch, which gives them opportunities to switch play. Man Utd. are not as accomplished but they are a physically huge team and they play at speed. They are not top dogs at this point but they are getting there. What they lack in the smoothness of City, they make up for in power.
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My order of merit is 1. City, 2. Spurs. 3. Chelsea 4. Utd. 5. Liverpool. Unless we sign better midfielders and devise a system, which the players understand, and can be disciplined in its execution, I do not see any prospect of breaking into the top four again. Wenger signed these players and whatever it was that he saw in them, it is not apparent on the field. He has resorted (infamously at Liverpool) to playing people in positions they are not meant to play in. Bellerin at left back and Kolasinac dropped while Ox filled Bellerin`s spot?
The result of his poor judgement of players and his inability to present a credible opposition to the top 5 teams has, and will in the future, cost us any chance of making the top 4. We concede between 4 and 6 points to each of them every season and that is just criminal. We used to have the odd bogey team, but now we have 5 cast iron teams that we just cannot get the better of.
I dread to think of what will happen on Sunday with the team so ill equipped for the contest.
In closing, I am delighted to say that Jack Wilshire came through the match unscathed and he showed glimpses of what we have missed from him. Best wishes for a total recovery. That little dummy which took two players out of the game in their own box and led to Bellerin`s goal, was a touch of magic.
A sophisticated, articulate Arsenal Man of Mystery. Aged 70 and a bit.