Happy New Years all. Hope it was as enjoyable for you as Artur Boruc’s appeared to be, as I’m convinced he was still drunk by the first 15 minutes of today’s match. Meanwhile all of Arsenal looked hungover as our team displayed another tired and disinterested performance.
“Painfully dull” would be the best summation I could provide for today’s game, which had me debating switching off the TV after a first-half of misplaced passes, squabbling between teammates, a nightmare performance from Sagna, and nothing on show from the forwards. Super Theo, Sunday’s saviour of all Arsenal kind, followed up his Newcastle performance by virtually disappearing from the field of play today; fortunately conversions of the cross are what Saints do best, with Do Prado giving us an undeserved equaliser before half. I kept the faith and continued to believe, hoping for redemption in the second 45. (Look at those clever religious allusions!)
D’oh! Prado, nothing immaculate about it. (image: Sportsnet Online screencap’)
That belief was not rewarded. The second-half followed the same formula as the first, and the introductions of Ramsey and Gervinho on 74′ did little to help an already ailing Arsenal attack. While both these players have drawn significant ire from some this season, it is the latter of these two I take real issue with. Gervinho offers NOTHING to our play. He slows the ball down every single time on the left side, waits to get double marked, and proceeds to either lose possession or play an ineffective ball. I had him pegged to be our most improved player this season, but he has not made progress on any of the flaws in his game that were already glaringly obvious last season. If anything, he’s worse than ever for them.
Today badly needed some Arsenal players who were hungry to show something. Our starting XI were bright initially, but as soon as So’ton turned up the resistance, we crumbled. We’ve seen this pretty frequently under Wenger: big wins followed by sub-par performances against a “weaker” team. It’s as if the Arsenal players simply expect these follow-up games to go there way by merit of their previous performance; more often than not, it’s nearly (if not entirely) an unchanged side that goes on to lose that second game. What should be happening is that fresh, rested players should be getting the start in the following game and be told “go out and do better than the other guys did last game”.
Instead, we watch the same players go through the motions and based on their body language, appear satisfied with a single point against one of the Premiership’s worst teams. The throw in at 90+2.5 minutes, where Gibbs(?) is sauntering to the ball having clearly given up on a win, was embarrassing. With 20-30 seconds left to go, the players should be throwing everything forward to not accept a draw against a relegation-threatened side. Even if you argue the players can’t see the specific amount of time left, there’s no excuse to look so exhausted when all you’ve managed is 1-1 against such a team. A club of our stature needs to be doing a lot better than accepting a draw at Southampton.
I’m pretty disgusted with was on display today. It was a microcosm of Arsenal in 2012. Wenger said after the game “It is difficult to identify any specific thing. We have to sit down and analyse that together,” but I don’t believe it’s that difficult to see what our problem is. I’ll give you the answer in a visual cue (image from Bleacher Report).
Arsenal’s one-and-only formation, the ‘4-3-3’.
Our 4-3-3 is either specifically set up to, or simply deteriorates into, moving the ball to the sides. We rely on our LWF and RWF to play 90 minutes at both ends of the pitch and our LB and RB to supplement the attack with overlapping runs and/or offering support. When we attack, we tend to set up a perimeter around the 18 yard box and move the ball around it, waiting for an opening. This causes a problem. We don’t have any players who are willing to try to beat a defender with a dribble/move to make an opportunity. Instead we pass the ball sideways. We do not make enough incisive passes – whether that’s because nobody makes the run, nobody wants to try the pass, or both. And nobody on this team appears willing to shoot from distance. So what results is we end up pushing the ball out wide and eventually putting in a cross, devoid of any other options or ideas. The cross has ONE target in a box of two, three, or four defenders. To couple with our typically below-average cross quality, now we have Theo playing in the centre, who is never going to win the header. Possession is lost to the keeper’s clutch or a goal kick, and ~8 of our players now expend energy running back: a pattern repeated frequently over 90 minutes.
Basic Arsenal attack (image: photoshopped original)
By the second half the legs of our side players – namely the LWF and RWF – are understandably exhausted. Frequently losing possession means those two players (e.g. Podolski and AOC) are running much of the field’s length, both directions, often at high-speed. Naturally their attacking prowess becomes dulled as the game wears on, losing a “half-a-step” of pace. This isn’t as problematic for some 4-3-3 teams like Barcelona and Spain, because they retain possession which saves their players’ fitness levels. However Arsenal aren’t currently of high enough quality and as such, we’re demanding a ton (physically) from our LWF, RWF, and our three central midfielders. Fortunately we are blessed with incredibly fit LB and RBs, which is less of a problem area (except that Gibbs, who is remarkably athletically, isn’t an equally remarkable defender).
Arsenal’s attacking play boils down to this predictable equation that other managers have surely clued into by now. With our dependence on width, due to a lack of dribbling, passing, and shooting in the middle, the opposition knows how to get Arsenal to push out wide, and how to defend against them once they do. Arsenal’s attacking side players get tired, faster, making them worse both offensively and defensively, while the central player is offered little service on the ground and must battle multiple markers alone in the air.
The current tactical setup is deficient. It’s certainly useful, but the 4-3-3 should not be our ONLY formation/gameplan. In games like today, we could have benefited significantly from a tactical reshuffle but instead we put on Gervinho and Ramsey and continued to smack our head into a wall hoping for a different outcome than the first half. Having a “plan B” would also give opposition managers a lot more to think about when approaching an Arsenal fixture.
One solution is to have a game-breaking player (in the mould of a Hazard, Goetze, RVP, etc) who can make a moment of magic to break a tie open. Unfortunately these players are typically in the “world class” bracket and we refuse to pay the necessary amounts for them. We had two of these rare players recently – RVP and Cesc – we sold them both. Theo, as demonstrated today, is not one of these players and should not be paid like one (as discussed in Consistency of Delivery: The Theo Problem).
The second (and more realistic) alternative for us in our current financial situation is to simply be more efficient tactically, from player selection to gameplan formulation and everything in between. Arsene Wenger has shown to be disinterested in doing that for a long time however, and it is that stubborn reluctance that really frustrates me… and in my opinion, leads to results like 1-1 away to Southampton with nearly a full squad available.
If Wenger can’t identify these problems, I’ll happily be paid 7m GBP a year to do so; or at least, be fine with seeing someone else get paid that money who can.