After watching yesterday’s game between Arsenal and Aston Villa I was left stupified as to how the team could put in a performance so poor that it perfectly typified everything that went wrong at The Emirates this season.
Having won just two of the last 12 league games the Gooners are lucky they built up such a good points total before February or they could very well be contemplating completely missing out on the chance to even qualify for the Champions League in August. Which is what may very well happen if Manchester City win both their remaining games, or more likely, Arsenal fail to beat a solid Fulham side at Craven Cottage next week. Before the game even started there was disquiet from the Arsenal fans as they chanted ‘6%, You’re Having A Laugh!’ in relation to the hike in ticket prices for next year. A number of key moments and decisions stood out as I was watching the game:
Arsenal, as is becoming the norm in recent weeks, got off to a slow start and were behind as early as the 11thminute when Sebastien Squillaci failed to adhere to the line kept by the rest of the defense and played Darren Bent onside to give him a chance which the English striker finished with aplomb, controlling the ball with his chest before toe poking the ball over Szczesny in one movement.
Four minutes later Bent struck again when Thomas Vermaelen, playing his first game since August, slipped at the crucial moment, allowing Ashley Young time and space to pick out a slide rule pass which the striker finished clinically. This time it was Sagna at fault for failing to maintain a uniform line with his fellow defenders.
Arsenal always tend to play a high line but with a rusty Vermaelen, an out of form Gibbs and an out of his depth Squillaci at the back it was always going to be near suicide against a team who possess so much pace up front.
Poor supply from full backs
Arsenal will never be a team that relies on balls into the box with a big target man getting on the end of them to score goals. At least not while Wenger is in charge. However it is a necessary part of the game and as Arsenal play a system that encourages the full backs to get forward they should be able to provide serviceable ball into the box. Against Villa Kieran Gibbs completed an embarrassing none of four balls attempted into the box. On the other side Sagna managed a spectacular one successful cross out of six attempted. When players with aerial prowess like Bendtner and Chamakh are available for them to aim for the quality of delivery has to be of a much higher quality than 10% over the course of 90 minutes. Especially considering how much possession Arsenal had in the final third, particularly when they were camped there for much of the second half.
The players ahead of the full backs, Walcott and Arshavin, were equally poor for the entirety of the game, especially when it came to final ball. Not one of Arshavin’s six crosses were successful in finding an Arsenal shirt with Walcott holding the exact same record. So over the course of a combined 156 minutes on the pitch the two wingers did not manage to deliver a solitary successful cross into the Villa box. Criminal.
Moving away from the stats it was clear for all to see that both had awful games. Arshavin looked like someone who knew he was being sold in the summer and so couldn’t care less how this game went. Walcott was slightly better, appearing more interested in moaning at the referee than getting on with the game. If Wenger had Nasri available on the bench there is no way Walcott would have played the entire game. He even had a great chance to score at the end but, typically, he fluffed his lines and missed the target form almost point blank range.
Nicklas Bendtner… Wing Wizard?!
The issue that has driven Gooners everywhere demented this season. Once again Wenger persists with deploying six foot three centre forward Nicklas Bendtner on the wing. He lacks the pace to get by a full back and despite his massive self belief he doesn’t have the skill to trick his way by one either. He came on with half an hour to go and was largely ineffective. Ironically it was the one successful cross from Sagna all game that found Bendtner in the box before it fell for van Persie to score. Either Wenger needs to play him in his natural position at the spearhead of the attack or he needs to be moved on and a player brought in who can actually be deployed effectively on the wing.
There will be plenty of cries in the summer for new centre backs and goalkeepers but more than anything at the moment I’d like to see us sell on one of Bendtner or Chamakh and bring in an out and out winger and a top class centre forward for him to supply.
After half time when Wenger switched to a simple 4-4-2 Arsenal immediately looked more dangerous, carving out a number of good opportunities in the first few minutes of the second half. Van Persie adopted a typical ‘number 10’ approach to the game, pulling off his marker and offering a ball to feet for the two midfield players Ramsey and Wilshere to play one-twos with. Chamakh would have been expected to lead the line from thereon out with his Dutch strike partner backing him up. However this was not the case as is seen in the table to the right.
As we can see by using the great Guardian Chalkboards both players tried to get involved in build up play for too often, once again leaving us without a viable target in the box once we had created an opening. An astonishing 11% of Chamakh’s play was inside the penalty area while van Persie didn’t fare too much better with ~18%.
When in search of a goal against a team willing to sit back and soak up pressure and then hit you on the break there should have been one player who just plonked himself in the box and caused some havoc in amongst the defense. Villa were defending from the six yard box forward for much of the second half so the lack of good quality ball as well as the lack of a target to hit in the middle is disappointing. I would like to see us adopt the 4-4-2 next year, to do it effectively though I think Wenger needs to go out and splash the cash on a top quality strike partner for van Persie.
Lack of Passion
Yet again Arsenal fans as well as journalists and pundits are falling back on ‘Old Faithful’ to pin the defeat on. Against Villa it is a perfectly apt explanation though. How many players actually put in a decent performance, or at least looked like they gave a damn? Szczesny, van Persie, Wilshere, Ramsey? Maybe Vermaelen and Sagna to an extent. Gibbs, Squillaci, Walcott and Arshavin strolled about like they were already on holidays, Chamakh started brightly but then faded and, one or two nice touches aside, Bendtner was anonymous and slowed the move down everytime he touched the ball. It’s a team that is desperately lacking leaders who can drag the rest through when the going is tough. Vieira, Campbell, Adams – these were all men you could rely on to drive the team forward when the heads went down. Van Persie has the passion and fire but too often isn’t fit. When he is his attempts to drive the team onwards are actually detrimental to his own game as he drops deeper and deeper to get the ball as he senses it’s up to him to make something happen. Vermaelen is a great organiser of the defence and yet again his absence was sorely missed this season.
After the game there was a pre-planned ‘Lap of Appreciation’ for the players to show some love back to the fans. Less than 6000 fans stayed to watch it, as many booing the players as those who cheered them. The players looked shamefaced and sheepish, as well they should have, before escaping to the safety of the tunnel. Those who booed need to cop on, it’s not going to make the team play any better. Yes results have been very disappointing but booing is going to get the team nowhere.
With the end of season performance and the announced 6.5% ticket hike, unless some drastic spending and squad rebuilding is done in the summer there will be a lot of seats left empty by disillusioned Gunners at Asburton Grove next year.