Friday, January 2, 2015

Christmas comes a week late for Southampton

Even though it was a week after Christmas Day, Arsenal seemed in a particularly generous mood on New Years’ Day as they gifted three points to Southampton at St Mary’s. Both goals Arsenal conceded in the 2-0 defeat came from brainless defending and individual errors, compounding the frustration that’s building this season.
With Arsenal having a measure of control on the game in the first half, things weren’t looking too bad when a pass down the line sent Sadio Mane towards the by-line. Laurent Koscielny was running with the winger but backed off as Wojciech Szczesny needless careered out of goal. The Pole then backtracked, giving Mane a free opportunity to curl the ball into the empty net. Between Szczesny and Koscielny, they made a complete mess of attempting to defend the situation.
Szczesny then grabbed an assist for Southampton’s second goal as he poked the ball straight to Dusan Tadic in the box, who was able to fire home. That rubbish clearance came after some bizarre dithering from Mathieu Debuchy when the ball was played across the Arsenal box. There were also numerous moments in the build-up when Arsenal could, and should, have put more pressure on the Southampton player with the ball. All in all, it was a complete shambles.
Given Arsene Wenger was able to field the back four and goalkeeper widely regarded as the first choice with Szczesny behind Debuchy, Mertesacker, Koscielny and Gibbs, it wasn’t unreasonable to expect better from the defence. Even though it was the first time they’d played together as a complete five, some of the errors made were schoolboy. As a unit, I think the performance was just a blip.
The back four will be given time, but Wojciech Szczesny has to fear for his place in the team. At centre-back, and to a certain degree at right-back, Arsene Wenger doesn’t have any fantastic options to bring in, but he can change the goalkeeper quite easily. David Ospina should get a chance to start against Hull City in the FA Cup third round on Sunday after a (typically-Arsenal) injury plagued start to his Arsenal career. He was highly regarded in France and played well in the World Cup for Colombia, so a good performance from Ospina against the Tigers would give Szczesny a real problem. As Jens Lehmann, Manuel Almunia and Szczesny himself can testify, Arsene Wenger isn’t usually afraid to change his number one.
A solid defence would have helped out an inexperienced midfield, yet the errors were putting more pressure on the deeper midfield pair of Francis Coquelin and Calum Chambers. While neither of them had a particularly bad game, Coquelin’s strong tackling stood out, it’s a ridiculous situation to go into a game against a team level on points with Arsenal and only have those two available to play as the deep midfielders. I have some sympathy for Arsene Wenger because central midfield is an area of the pitch where Arsenal are well stocked in the squad, and it’s unfortunate to have Arteta, Flamini, Wilshere, Ramsey, Diaby and Ozil all out, but as has been suggested by others, a lot of the injury problems suffered by those players have been from some questionable management.
Going forward, Arsenal had some good players in the starting XI with Oxlade-Chamberlain, Cazorla and Rosicky in behind Alexis Sanchez, but the Gunners’ were crying out for a main centre forward to occupy the Southampton centre-backs, hold the ball up and provide a different option. Alexis is a sensational player, and in certain situations can play well as a central striker, but he was regularly coming deep to get the ball and be more involved in the play. Without a Ramsey or a Wilshere in midfield to drive forward from deep, there was rarely a threat going beyond the Chilean when he dropped towards midfield to receive the ball.
The game only reinforced the sheer stupidity of Olivier Giroud’s red card against Queens Park Rangers on Boxing Day. With Welbeck injured, Arsene Wenger would undoubtedly have started Giroud. Instead, Arsenal’s attacking was too predictable as Southampton knew they could flood the centre of the pitch defensively as the chances of Arsenal scoring from a cross into the box were incredibly low. I hope Giroud has been watching the games he’s missed from suspension and realising what a costly head butt that was and how idiotic a thing it was to do. With no guarantees on Welbeck’s fitness, Giroud still suspended and Alexis in need of a breather, there’ll surely be a slightly random look to Arsenal’s front line on Sunday against Hull.
Gifting Southampton the goals was daft as Arsenal could, and should have got at least a draw from the game. Even with the patchwork midfield, they were controlling possession and did create some openings despite not having the big central striker. Yet this team continues to have the ridiculous ability to shoot itself in the foot. The individual errors are causing big problems, and I can only think that it’s a concentration thing that is holding them back. All of them are good players, yet just do stupid things, often without any warning. Almost more than changing the organisation of the team or the personnel involved, Arsene Wenger has to find a way of making sure the players stay switched on for the whole game. It sounds like a horribly simple thing to say as a professional player should be able to concentrate properly for 90+ minutes, but that doesn’t seem to be the case at Arsenal at the moment.
Finally, having been in the away end at St Mary’s on Thursday, it was interesting to see which players acknowledged the away fans after such a disappointing performance. Most did make their way over to applaud the fans, but it was interesting that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came right in front of the supporters and held his hands up in apology, even though he was one of the only players to come out of the game with any credit for the way he at least tried to make things happen. If others in the squad took on the same attitude every game as the Ox, Arsenal would surely be higher up the table than they are currently.