The Gunners approach the business end of the season still flying high and challenging for the title. But, as Aanu Adeoye reports, some sadly all-too-familiar failings might yet be their undoing.
When Mark Clattenburg blew the final whistle on Wednesday, boos of disapproval rang loud across the Emirates. A 0-0 draw against Manchester United anytime isn’t something to be ashamed of, but in the context of things, it wasn’t difficult to understand why the Arsenal fans were left unimpressed by the snooze fest they had just witnessed. This was the worst United team in 20 years (or for as long as some of us have been alive), managed by David Moyes’ limp methods. Coming into Wednesday’s fixture Arsène Wenger’s men were the only top 9 team that had not taken points off the Red Devils. This United team, without mincing words, was there for the taking.
The Gunners are halfway through their hectic February schedule with Cup games against Liverpool and Champions’ League holders, Bayern Munich still to come. Following the shambolic 5-1 loss at Liverpool, a response was needed from this group of players. Anyone who saw the game will tell you it was evident that both teams set up in a “don’t lose” manner. The game was devoid of the fast paced counter attacks and breathless derring-do that this fixture has become associated with in past years. While seasoned internationals hate losing, the display on show was the fear of not losing. A marked difference.
“I felt we were nervous, yes,” “It is not worrying because we care about what we do and when you concede five goals like we did on Saturday … we are only human beings and that is always what you get after a game like that.”
“Sometimes you don’t score because the team was highly focused not to concede. That maybe restricted our game going forward a little bit because we were certainly hit by the five goals we conceded on Saturday. You could feel that here. When you are hit like we were, the players want not to lose it and we could have lost it in the last five minutes,” was Wenger’s assessment of the draw, justifying his team’s preference to tighten things at the back rather than going all out for the much needed three points. The 1-2 home loss against Borussia Dortmund in the UCL definitely played some part in Wenger’s thinking, a game they controlled for long periods only to be undone by the German team’s swift counter attacking. They had lost while trying to win.
The 6-3 reverse at the hands of Manchester City in December was also followed by a tame goalless draw against Chelsea. Shoring up the back before attempting to get it right upfront. But the circumstances this time around were different from those of December. With Victor Anichebe’s late equalizer for West Brom ensuring Chelsea dropped points the day before, a win of any shade would have taken Arsenal back to the summit of the Premier League. That in itself was enough motivation for a game of this magnitude. It is therefore understandable why the boos filled the air after the final whistle had gone. The fans saw it as an opportunity missed, Wenger and his men – at least in press conferences – didn’t.
Much as been said, written and tweeted about £42 million record signing, Mesut Özil’s performances in the big games this season. The German has come in for criticism from different quarters – maybe unfairly so, – with his performance against Liverpool in particular the major talking point. Twice he lost the ball carelessly and twice Liverpool scored from capitalizing on his errors. The German had one of his better games against United creating seven chances, completed four of his dribbles and made two tackles – two more than Jack Wilshere. The tale of Özil’s night could have been different if Arsenal had their more direct players in Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey available. Walcott has been ruled out for the rest of the season with an anterior cruciate ligament while Ramsey has been out injured since suffering a thigh strain at West Ham on Boxing Day and suffered a setback on his return to training. During his time at Real Madrid Özil served as a counter attacking outlet, laying the ball into players making forward runs ahead of him. Cristiano Ronaldo was particularly efficient in this regard. Joachim Low’s German team are set up in this manner. With players filling the gaps ahead of him, the German international is at his scintillating best. Gareth Barry and the English National Team can attest to this fact after that forgettable afternoon in Bloemfontein 4 years ago.
It is then perhaps mind boggling and worrisome that Wenger ignored his squad’s obvious deficiencies in the Winter Transfer Window. With his squad screaming for attacking reinforcement Wenger brought in over-the-hill Swedish midfielder Kim Kallatrom. The signing was bland and unexciting, it was just a lazy attempt at bringing someone in. Adding to the numbers, if you see it that way. That Kallstrom came with an injury ruling him out for six weeks only made matters worse and with Mathieu Flamini only one game away from returning from his 4-game suspension, it is not wide off the mark to suggest the less glamorous Kim K might not kick a ball during his time in North London.
Olivier Giroud has played 34 games in all competitions this season, scoring 14 goals in the process. The Frenchman has started 32 times coming on twice as a substitute in the Cup games against Chelsea and Coventry. With Nicklas Bendtner and Yaya Sanogo not good enough at the highest level and Wenger seemingly not trusting Lukas Podolski enough, Giroud has carried the burden alone all season long. His ability is constantly under scrutiny and the man, to put it simply, is in need of a rest. Largely anonymous against Liverpool and missing a raft of gilt edged chances against United, Arsenal need more. The outcome of the United game could have been different had Giroud connected with Bacary Sagna’s excellent cross in the dying stages of the match. That alone summed up his impact at Arsenal. Brilliant against the smaller teams, but with only a solitary strike in 14 games against Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United and Chelsea. He isn’t the deciding factor that affects the outcome of a top of the table clash. While Giroud is brilliant at holding up the ball and bringing others into play (his part in Wilshere’s goal against Norwich can not be overstated), it is a painful sight to see the big Frenchman lumbering as Arsenal begin their attacks. Arsenal’s numerous forward forays are slow and less effective because the man leading the line cannot beat his marker for pace. It is of no fault of his that he is the Gunners only option upfront as Wenger’s failure to add to his squad first in the summer and in the winter is bordering on insanity.
Arsenal are only one point behind leaders Chelsea and with upcoming League fixtures against Sunderland, Stoke and Swansea to come, anything less than a return of 9 points is unacceptable. But first, they have to get through the home ties against Liverpool in the 5th round of the FA Cup and the first leg of their UCL Round of 16 clash against Pep Guardiola’s Bayern. On the basis of their big game performances this season, there aren’t many reasons to be optimistic. Should Arsenal suffer the ignominy of winning nothing, the whispers of “I told you so’s” are bound to rent our airwaves from pundits all over the country. Something has to give in the coming weeks if a season that started with so much promise isn’t to end up like the eight previous ones; trophyless.
Arsène Wenger has always spoken of getting a ‘response’ from his group of players and if there’s a time to show the stuff they are made of, it is now.
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