Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Southampton, Set Pieces and Other Rambling

“I genuinely can’t understand the extreme nature of some of the reaction”.
That quote is from Arseblog’s Wednesday morning article, in response to the doom and gloom of Arsenal fans everywhere following the 2-2 draw at St Mary’s on Tuesday evening.
On the one hand, I understand why Andrew Mangan said it.  One draw, one bad half, two points dropped – this is in no way the end of Arsenal’s season, and does not, by itself, suggest that we’re about to implode.  Or explode.  Or displode (yes, it’s a word).  We also drew against West Bromwich in October, lost to Man City and Man United, and those weren’t the ends of our season either, any more than Chelsea’s 0-0 draw with West Ham on Wednesday night was the end of theirs.  Even the Invincibles didn’t win every game.  The title race is still well and truly on, and this is still Arsenal’s best shot at winning the Premier League for years.
Having said all that, I must confess I can understand the nature of some of the fan reaction at an emotional level.  All season, we’ve been watching in a state of disbelief.  Arsenal have been playing fantastically, and showing some real strength and professionalism, but so ingrained is an Arsenal fan’s sense of pessimism that we have all been sitting, waiting for that moment when the true, brittle nature of the team, which we’ve suspected has been there all along, is exposed, and our season comes crumbling down around our ears.  There’s also an awareness, reinforced by Match of the Day pundits, that City and Chelsea have fundamentally better squads than we do, and that our credentials only lasted as long as we were ahead of them.  Now we’ve fallen from the top of the table, it is hard to imagine how we will claw it back from City.
So, there’s some pop psychology for you.  For me, though, more worrying than the result against Southampton is the injury situation.  With Walcott, Ramsey, Wilshere, Flamini and Rosicky all out for the count, our previously impressive midfield now looks positively threadbare, and although the return of Podolski, Arteta and Ox is welcome, it doesn’t cover the holes by a long shot.  Wenger has made noises about hoping to have some good news before the end of January, and while it’s easy to joke that Arsene only brings in midfielders, at this point it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, particularly if they were versatile enough to also play wing/fullback/defence/up-front/goalkeeper when needed.
One thing I’ve noticed that Arsenal are lacking is a dedicated free kick taker.  It has been remarked (on Sam’s Match Reports podcasts, among other places) that this season has seen a high number of direct free kicks scored, many of them superlatively.  Every big team has someone who can step up to a dead ball and put it into the top corner over half the time: Liverpool have Suarez and Gerrard, Everton have Baines, United have Mata and RVP, Chelsea have Hazard and Oscar and Lampard and Luis, and City have Yaya Toure plus probably some other people I can’t think of right now.  Whenever anyone of those players gets an opportunity to take a free kick in the final third, your pulse quickens – you can feel that, even if this isn’t going to be a goal, it’s going to be a damn good free kick.  Even mid-table teams like Villa, Stoke and Sunderland have a specialist in their midst.
Arsenal lack that.  This season we’ve seen free kicks taken by half a dozen players, and the closest we’ve come to scoring from one is Ramsey’s goal against Stoke from Özil’s deflected shot, and Giroud’s header from Walcott’s lofted kick.  Whenever we get a free kick, whether it’s just outside the box or forty yards away, I never get excited, because I know it won’t be a goal.
This is slightly ridiculous for two reasons.  One, Arsenal’s tendency to be the fouled rather than the foulers (Jack Wilshere alone buys half a dozen free kicks a game) means that we are almost guaranteed an opportunity each match; if that opportunity could be turned into even a 25% chance of scoring, that’s probably going to average a goal every two or three games, and there isn’t a lot that even the most stubborn defence can do against the sorts of free kicks that we’ve seen Suarez, Oscar and Toure take this season.  It’s worth also noting that none of the players I’ve mentioned so far is a worse player for their set piece delivery – in fact, I’ve pretty much mentioned the best players in the league.
The second reason is that we’ve seen from our corner kick taking that it is clearly possible to practice and improve on this sort of play.  Cazorla, Özil and Walcott have got to the point where, most of the time, they can drop a corner on Mertesacker’s head for the perfect flick-on, and that’s come from nothing more than being drilled to get it right.  Well, good, we’ve got corners down now, so let’s move on – have those three (or someone else – Arteta, Wilshere, Ramsey, Podolski, Gibbs, Jenkinson, Gnabry and Oxlade-Chamberlain could probably all pull it off) practice putting it into the top corner for an hour after training every evening.  Free kicks are just that: they’re a free opportunity to gain an advantage.  We should be taking that advantage.
Anyway, sorry for the rambling nature of this article.   We now have 2 days to the end of the transfer window (not holding my breath) and 4 days before facing Crystal Palace.  Whether by free kick, possession play, route one or the unleashing of barbarian hordes, I think we can all agree that that’s a game that we have to win.  A draw away against Southampton is not the end of the world; failing to beat Palace at home might well suggest a deeper problem.