I could be accused of only writing as a form of venting, and such an accusation would probably be meritorious. Unfortunately in the last couple seasons, I have rarely had the combination of pride in the team’s play and free time to put together a positive read. There has been growth from this team, and although we continue to be far from actual title contenders in either the EPL or the CL, we are closer than we have been over the past half-decade. Maybe that too is as much a criticism as it is a compliment.
Today we faced a Chelsea side ailing in the league, although fresh off a predictable thumping of Tel-Aviv. Arsenal’s situation provided a bit of a contrast – decent in the league, if not imperious, but having been made to blush after a loss away in Zagreb. Excepting a draw, which was probably the predictable likely outcome, the pre-written headline outcomes would either be (1) Arsenal compound the champions’ misery or (2) Chelsea get their season back on track as Mourinho gets another over Wenger. Just as the sun rose this morning, the latter occurred – Arsenal let their opponents up off the mat and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Chavs start to kick on from here.
Arsenal played pretty well today, it must be said. Theo looked really lively up front and went some way to convincing me he could actually play centre-forward on a regular basis. Even with Chelsea’s stingy, compact and structured defence, he found space behind the lines and asked questions. His presence clearly opened space for the Arsenal midfield too, who dominated possession for much of the early going. Ozil was majestic, Coquelin continued to look like he’s been playing in the league for years, and Monreal found some nice spaces although his chance-creation was a bit lacklustre. I also noted Alexis and Ramsey seem to be struggling to score, and may be suffering from being in their own head a bit on that front.
Like any good play, a peaceful beginning is soon interrupted by the entrance of the antagonist; in this case, the dreaded Diego Costa. Truly a brutish force, intent on destroying all that is good in the world, Costa played his part superbly.
It would be all too easy to cast Costa as the reason for Arsenal’s failings and take some moral high ground to suggest that he should not act how he does. But that would be to miss the point entirely. Costa did exactly what he was supposed to do. Right off the script, he tried to get under the Arsenal players skin using his trademark mixture of talent and grit (bordering on dirty). If you saw the slaps and shoves straight into the face of Koscielny, you witnessed a microcosm of Costa’s character. Koscielny, the shining knight, shrugged off the antics of the man and won the mental battle for a time.
Unfortunately, a newer man to the screen did not know his lines. Gabriel bought into Costa’s chicanery and allowed himself to foolishly become incensed, leading to an unnecessary yellow card. When he was supposed to walk away, Gabriel continued to escalate the situation and Mike Dean duly directed an end to his cameo with a harsh second yellow – resulting in the appearance of a card as red as Gabby’s face. There would be no redeeming Act as the remainder of the game saw Arsenal fruitlessly trying to push a bus up a mountain. It eventually rolled backwards as the Chavs killed off the game late: 2-0 the final.
Look. All dramatic analogies aside, Gabriel is a professional footballer playing against a guy who’s stock-in-trade is mind games. Costa does his job exceptionally well and at this level, you need to be able to keep your emotions in control. Arsenal fans should turn their disappointment inwards and question why our players are so mentally unready for games at the highest level of emotion. This isn’t Mike Dean’s fault (although I thought his handling of the situation was poor) and it’s not Costa’s fault for succeeding in being a rabble-rousing shit disturber (even if you don’t approve it on a sporting level). Gabriel couldn’t handle himself, and Arsenal didn’t have a big enough personality (i.e. a proper captain) to go in there, look at Gabriel and say “Calm yourself down or I’ll put you in your place”. I recognize how tiresome it is to constantly bring up the personalities of yesteryear, but do you think Vieira, Campbell or Adams would allow a player to stupidly talk-and-chip himself into a second yellow? Those guys weren’t strangers to red cards, but they would break someone in half on their way to collecting it. They knew you don’t waste your card accumulation on incidentals arising from talking – if you are going to take a card, you make sure it’s worthwhile.
On that note, I feel obligated to mention my ongoing lack of faith in Cazorla as a DMF. He constantly has to take yellow cards because he doesn’t have the pace or physicality to match the more rambunctious midfielders in the Premier League. He took a yellow today and minutes (seconds?) later had to let Hazard ghost past him because he couldn’t commit another foul. Eventually he did commit a similar foul to the one passed up there and was appropriately awarded a second yellow, compounding Arsenal’s embarrassing day. This position needs strengthening much more than striker. It is a massive weak spot in the Arsenal structure and neither Cazorla nor Arteta are appropriate to play the position the way it needs to be done for Arsenal to compete for the titles they pay lipservice towards. Forget Benzema – this is THE position that needs tuning.
I will part ways for now with this article posted-but-unedited, as my aforementioned lacking free time has since expired. Check back in a day for an update.