Sunday, December 7, 2014

Three steps forward, three steps back

With three wins in a row, all with clean sheets, it did feel like Arsenal were making some tangible process after the debacle against Manchester United. Yet we should never underestimate this Arsenal team’s ability to self-destruct. After the three steps forward with the wins, a hapless 45 minutes at the Britannia took Arsenal right back to where they were a few weeks ago.
Even though they threatened a comeback in the second half, there was no way Arsenal deserved to win the game against Stoke City, and had it not been for an extremely borderline offside call, it could, and should, have been worse than a 3-2 defeat.
The main issue, once again, was the defence. The lack of depth at the back has been mentioned all season, and it is costing the club points. Injuries are unfortunate, but it’s one of the reasons for having a squad. To have such a lop-sided one without enough defenders was extremely naive management, and probably one of the worst decisions Arsene Wenger has made as the manager of the club. He should be doing everything possible to make sure another defender, or two, are signed as early as possible in January. There’s no time for bargaining as we’re woefully short.
In the mean time, that lack of depth could, and probably will, continue to cost points during the busiest part of the season. Going to Stoke with a back four featuring two teenagers, a centre back being shifted across from his normal position, and a left back who clearly wasn’t fully fit was a recipe for disaster. All three first half goals were eminently avoidable, and frankly embarrassing to see scored against a team that had improved a lot in the previous three games defensively.
It’s easy to say the team showed good mental strength and responded well to being behind, which in the second half is true as Arsenal, even with ten men, had Stoke pinned back in their half and created chances. But if a team really had good mental strength, they wouldn’t have crumbled in the first half and conceded three goals from crosses. The last few games have been ok because Arsenal haven’t conceded, but when they do let a goal in, everyone seems to press the panic button and players go into their shells. It happened against Anderlecht, it happened against Manchester United and it happened again against Stoke.
What adds to the frustration of the game is that this Stoke team aren’t as resilient as previous ones that have caused Arsenal problems. As soon as they were under pressure, they panicked. Arsenal always looked a threat when they got the ball forward but just couldn’t pick the right pass or finish. Despite Arsenal being so dreadful, on another day Olivier Giroud would score the back-post header in the first half and Alexis Sanchez wouldn’t hit the post after his mesmerising run in the second half, and the game would have been a different story. Although the defence has been the main issue, Arsenal’s lack of clinical finishing has also not aided the indifferent form.
When you go to Stoke, you know you’re going to get a fight, and Arsenal weren’t up for it on Saturday. All football clubs have some moronic supporters, but Stoke do seem to have more than most with the booing of Aaron Ramsey, but Arsenal have to meet the challenge faced at the Britannia. For Stoke, they’ve made the visit of Arsenal one of their most important games of the season, and whether the Gunners like it or not, they have to be ready for it. The fact they weren’t on Saturday is unacceptable.
As well as having a strong team when away at Stoke, you need a strong referee, and unfortunately Anthony Taylor just isn’t one. Calum Chambers made two extremely minor fouls in the game and got sent off, while Peter Crouch elbowed the centre-backs in the face twice and only got booked for one of them. We all know Charlie Adam is a hideous player anyway, but when someone can get sent off for raising their arms near a player, I’ll never understand how it’s not a red card to get player in a head lock, effectively trying to strangle them.
A stronger referee would have helped, but it’s not his fault Arsenal failed to clear crosses and didn’t sign another centre-back. If anything, the officials harshly disallowing Bojan’s second goal did give Arsenal some much needed momentum in the game. Considering what also happened between Manchester City and Everton with Mangala and Fernando committing ludicrously high karate kicks on players and not being sent off, it just needs pointing out that the lack of consistency in the top flight officials is a bit embarrassing for the Football Association.
As with the team, it feels like we’re back to where we were a few weeks ago with the manager. Calls for Arsene Wenger to be sacked are understandable, but there’s no way the board would do that. Besides, even though he might organise a make-shift defence better, a new manager still wouldn’t be able to sign a defender before the busy period of festive fixtures.
I always have been, and probably always will be, someone that doesn’t want to see Wenger sacked, but the manager has to be adaptable. At the moment, Arsene Wenger simply isn’t, and it’s costing the club points in the league. There doesn’t seem to be a right or wrong answer at the moment for fans at the moment, and until Wenger shows he can be flexible in setting up a team to be solid and not do stupid things against some frankly poor opposition teams, this fractious tension among supporters will remain, and that isn’t good for the health of the club.