Heroes and Villains: Thoughts on a mixed performance
Written by Ben on November 28, 2010 21:30
Last week was a wretched one for the Arsenal. A home defeat against our local rivals and a completely unexpected away defeat in the Champions League were compounded by another hamstring injury for our captain. In both matches, whenever any pressure was placed on the side, implosion was the result.
This was more worrying than the actual results, as there seemed to be an aura of fragility pervading the club and its players. Defeat was twice snatched from the jaws of victory as goals were leaked and chances were spurned at an alarming rate. All in all, it was a bad week.
For me, there seemed to be glaring issues in defence, fitness and mental fortitude that need to be addressed if the Gunners were to “turn the corner” and get back into the winning groove in the months ahead. They passed their first test against a determined but limited Aston Villa side, but did Saturday’s victory really mark an improved performance?
Saturday was a timely reminder as to why we use a thesaurus. Sometimes we see something that makes us want to throw nice words at it. Arsenal’s passing, movement and attacking verve– especially in the first half– was one of these things. By half time I had given up on words and had instead regressed to a system of appreciative grunts and woops. Nasri and Arshavin were in particularly fine form, but Rosicky and Chamakh also played their part in a consummate attacking display.
I only have two quibbles with the offensive performance: firstly that more goals were not scored in the first half, and– more importantly– the complacency that started to creep into the game after Chamakh had made it 3-1. At this point the Gunners were completely dominant and seemed to be able to carve Villa up at will, but they seemed uninterested in scoring anything but the perfect goal.
More than once an Arsenal player had a decent shooting chance but tried to tee up a teammate, play an extravagant flick or just dawdle on the ball. It should have been 4 or 5-1, at which point another Villa goal wouldn’t have mattered. A quick glance at United’s 7-1 mauling of Blackburn shows how it should be done.
But I digress. We should never lose sight of the fact that watching Arsenal with the ball is a privilege. On its own it may not be enough, but it sure is something.
A week of determinedly bad defending was capped off by a defensive performance that ranged from shaky to downright inept, with moments of blind panic thrown in. Every member of the backline was culpable to some extent.
Despite making a number of crucial blocks and interceptions, Gael Clichy kept up his record of being good for at least one defensive blunder per match. Clichy was at fault for the first goal, backing off from Ciaran Clark in anticipation of a wide pass to Ashley Young. Unfortunately, that gave the Villa man a clear sight of goal from 20 yards out. Sagna was more solid, but his attempted clearance from a cross gave Clark another gilt-edged chance to score from 6 yards out.
As for the central defenders, Koscielny made a couple of good tackles and covered well in general play, but was almost always second best in aerial duals. Marking Richard Dunne is not a forgiving task, but the Villa captain was able to cause all sorts of trouble from set pieces. And then there was the panicked clearance across goal in the final moments. Along with Alex Song, Squillaci wasn’t strong enough in dealing with Clark as he headed in his second goal.
Whenever Villa got anywhere near the Arsenal penalty box they looked like scoring. The defenders need to take responsibility for this fragility, because the defensive pressing from the rest of the team was top-notch. They harried the Villans all over the pitch, causing mistakes and picking off passes frequently. Under so little concerted pressure, it was very disappointing to see the defence struggle so badly.
For the brief period(s) in the second half where Villa only trailed by one goal, I had a horrible sinking feeling in my stomach. Despite their dominance, Arsenal seemed hell-bent on throwing away the points. The ghosts of the Spurs game were clearly on show. That sense of impending doom will take a while to be erased from the minds of supporters and the players themselves.
In the media, the blogosphere and even amongst themselves, Arsene Wenger and his side have faced some serious questions over the last few days. How would they steady a creaking defensive unit? Would they be able to maintain their physical and mental strength over the duration of ninety minutes? I for one thought that these questions were vitally important if the team was to beat Aston Villa.
But I was wrong. Hell, we were all wrong. In typical Arsenal style, Saturday’s game didn’t see the Gunners attempt to solve their defensive and mental problems as much as try (and succeed) to win in spite of them. They defended atrociously at key points in the game, displayed the mental fortitude of a lobotomised wombat and always looked likely to implode against an injury-ravaged and one-dimensional Aston Villa side. But in spite of these frailties, they simply scored too many goals not to win the game– they won despite themselves.
So what can we take from this? To be honest, not a lot. I was happy to be proved wrong in this match, but I think we’re deluding ourselves pretending we can pull this kind of attacking exhibition out of the bag every week. Sooner or later the Gunners are going to have to deal with their defensive demons, and sooner or later they will have to learn to withstand and alleviate concerted pressure. And if nothing else, the last week has shown us that we can’t really afford to leave learning those lessons any later.