Erik Ian Larsen: When squad players attack!
Written by Erik Ian Larsen on September 27, 2010 15:00
Losing 3-2 at home against West Brom hurt. It hurt in that spot that can only be consoled by copious consumption of tequila and local micro-brewed beer. But I wasn’t as hurt by the scoreline as I was by the way we lost. Going down 3-0 to a team like that is just completely, utterly inexcusable, and there aren’t enough swear words invented yet to encapsulate how playing like that, at home, against newly-promoted West Brom, makes me feel. Although I definitely tried Saturday morning.
West Brom is a team we should beat, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. They’re not Blackburn. They don’t revel in mortar fire like the successful anti-football teams do. They haven’t worked on the art of stifling Arsenal as many of the more stalwart Premier League clubs have in the past few seasons. We should beat West Brom, especially at the Emirates, where the finely-groomed grass allows our flowing passes to sizzle untouched between red and white jerseys. We should beat teams like that, but we didn’t.
We were flat, toneless, and complacent (the dreaded C-word round here), and we deserved the 3-2 loss made all the more poetic by Chelsea’s simultaneous defeat at the hands of Manchester City. We could’ve capitalized, we could’ve struck when Chelsea were down. But we sidled laterally, watching as a fantastic opportunity passed us by. Every single match accounts for roughly three percent of our season, so we can’t afford to relax if we want to win the Premier League trophy. We can’t afford to take matches off, even minutes off, assured that our name alone will award us three points. That’s not what great teams and great players do, and it’s been the single most frustrating element to Arsene Wenger’s teams in recent years. Offensively, defensively, and in goal, we were sloppy. Massive mistakes in defense, massive mistakes from our goalkeeper, and unusual boredom in attack until we were already three goals down. That just wasn’t the Arsenal that we know.
Wenger agreed, saying, “We made it more difficult because we were not at our usual level. Not defensively, not offensively. Overall everything was difficult for us today – passing the ball, winning the ball back, winning the one against ones – and we got what we deserved which was zero points. We didn’t deserve more. The positive is that we did fight until the last minute but it was just not good enough at that level to get three points.”
So why’d we lose to the Baggies? Why didn’t the real Arsenal show up? Let’s just get it out there and stop avoiding the issue: We have too many squad players that we’re dependent on to win this season. Abou Diaby, Emmanuel Eboue, and Manuel Almunia, just to name a few.
Those are squad players. And while all three have shown flashes of brilliance this year and in years past, they can’t shake their true identity. Squad players don’t play at the level of first teamers. Not consistently, at least. They’re often slow getting into the flow of the game, often unaware of the context and the urgency of every match. It’s just not something you see from world class players, and relying on squad players, as Arsenal have grown so accustomed to, only leads to disappointment. You need squad players on the team for depth and injury coverage and general competitiveness, but the league should be our top priority, no matter the opponent. Manuel Almunia, who had the type of shocking performance that we all hoped we’d avoid this season, is what he is: A Spanish Second Division keeper with a great name and a great ability to stop shots. That’s it. That penalty he saved? Brilliant. But giving up the penalty in the first place? Dumbfounding. Arsene Wenger couldn’t have stuck his head further into the ground watching Almunia at his worst on Saturday (goals two and three were just jaw-dropping). It was Wenger who showed faith in the Spaniard this summer, and it’s going to be Wenger that will either be vindicated by that faith or shamed by the stubbornness if more performances like that surface.
Abou Diaby’s a squad player too. He’s shown a spark here and there, but between mental mistakes, selfish dribbling, and a noticeable lack of fire, he’s just a squad player. Relying on him to hoist a trophy exposes some of the hidden weakness of our team. Diaby was completely ineffective against West Brom, both offensively and defensively, and he needs to be held accountable for his performance. His lackadaisical effort helping combat the counter-attack, with Alex Song playing especially high throughout the match (Wenger?), was brutal, exposing the defense to runs they probably shouldn’t have been exposed to. Rarely do I have the pleasure of watching a player give up so easily in defense. Thanks for that, Abou.
Once Jack Wilshere was brought into the game in his place, undoubtedly getting a rest from all the work he’s had in the past week, the energy and verve of the team picked up immediately. But stop and think about that for a second: Our 18-year-old English prodigy, getting a blow after one of the first real grueling weeks of top flight football in his career, had to come in and get the team to turn on the pace. Jack’s performance showed me how drastic the disparity is between first teamers and squad players. Jack isn’t a squad player, he’s showing that despite any hesitations about his age, he’s forcing his way into the team alongside Alex Song, whether Wenger’s ready or not, because of his skill, talent, and determination. It was too little too late of course, despite a heroic effort from two-goal Samir Nasri that seriously needs to be applauded, but it was so important to witness that dichotomy in the loss.
I wonder what would happen if Wenger did the same with Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, Henri Lansbury, Wojciech Szczesny, and so many of the other skilled, talented, and determined youngsters we have clawing at the first team door. I wonder what would happen if he actually used Carlos Vela in these types of matches, an immensely gifted player who’s hardly seen a nod from the manager in his young career, instead of Eboue on the wing. Squad players should be a last resort for our club, even against teams we think we should beat. Forget age, forget inexperience, those can’t be excuses anymore (right, Wenger?), so let’s celebrate the marvelous skill and talent we have at Arsenal. I want to win the league first and foremost, I know Wenger wants it too, and that means putting out the most-talented team we can against any opponent.
Now let’s go beat the swear-word out of Chelsea.