Thursday, February 26, 2015

Arsenal reacquaint themselves with the self-destruct button

While Arsenal have made mistakes in recent years in the round of 16 in the Champions League, the calibre of the opposition has offered some perspective and comfort to those exits from the tournament. This year, there is no comfort.
The Gunners aren’t out yet, but the likelihood of turning around a 3-1 defecit away to Monaco is low, especially given the defensive record of the Ligue 1 team.
To say the game on Wednesday night was frustrating is a huge understatement, as while it was on the face of it was a completely calamitous performance from Arsenal, if the finishing had been better, Arsene Wenger’s team surely wouldn’t have left themselves so open at the back. Despite being dreadful, and most players being some way off their best, Arsenal still created clear chances. That does offer a crumb of comfort for the second leg as, if Arsenal can play to their full potential, I definitely believe they can score three goals. But it’s the sort of crumb you’d find down the back of the sofa from a biscuit you’re allergic to, so it isn’t actually much comfort at all.
It feels slightly futile to pick out certain players, because no Arsenal player comes out of the game with any credit, but there were a few performances that stuck out particularly badly. Olivier Giroud, having enjoyed his best spell of form as an Arsenal player, completely melted down. It was painful to watch a striker have all the confidence drain out of him with almost every touch of the ball. Nothing came off for him, with the miss from eight yards with the goal at his mercy horribly summing up his evening. He’s been vital for the Gunners in recent weeks, so hopefully it won’t take him a long time to recover from that performance. I fear it will though.
David Ospina, after a slightly shaky performance at times against Crystal Palace, should be very disappointed with the first and third goals. While Kondogbia’s long range shot did take a deflection off Per Mertesacker, I can’t work out why Ospina resigned himself to not being able to save the ball. It ended up going in just past his head, so it was bizarre to see him not make an attempt to save it. He also seemed slow to dive for the third goal, and while that might seem harsh, it was a shot that a top goalkeeper should save. I said after Palace that a mistake could see Szczesny reinstated, so I would not be surprised if the Pole is back in goal against Everton on Sunday.
I’ve read a lot of criticism of Per Mertesacker after the game, and he was horribly exposed on the counter-attack with his lack of pace. But I don’t think he was helped by those around him. In particular, I thought Hector Bellerin looked like an inexperienced 19 year-old, and too often in the second half went missing. He’s been excellent since coming into the team, but Wednesday was a reminder of how he still has a lot to learn, especially defensively.
It was almost as if Arsenal had forgotten how to play against a team that was only interested in defending. The recent good run of form has generally been against teams that have looked to attack Arsenal. Even sides like Leicester and Aston Villa have had a good amount of possession. In those cases, Arsenal had been comfortable to not have as much of the ball, have a good system defensively, and then release the quick attacking players into space. Monaco had no interest in keeping the ball, so suddenly all the emphasis was on Arsenal to force the issue, and having gone 1-0 down, Arsenal forced it too much and got punished. Even having got the score back to 2-1 with an excellent Oxlade-Chamberlain goal, Arsenal were too gung-ho again.
Apart from possibly playing Nacho Monreal at left-back, the starting XI was exactly the one I’d have picked, it had players in form and seemingly had enough attacking talent to unlock the stubborn defence. But every player to a man seemed to panic after going behind. They weren’t patient, they forced things too much and all contributed to a humbling self-destruction. In hindsight, Arsene Wenger should have shown a bit more restraint in the team selection, and looked to have an extra central midfielder to properly sit alongside Coquelin. It might have made for a slightly boring game, but it wouldn’t have resulted in a 3-1 home defeat. With his experience, and the experiences Arsenal have had in recent seasons, Arsene Wenger and the team shouldn’t have been so naive.
While it is the same problems every season, nine times out of 10 I think Arsenal would have won that game as Giroud would have finished and Welbeck wouldn’t have managed to hit Theo Walcott with with goalkeeper on the ground, but every mistake was a major one and got brutally punished. After such a defeat, I’m expecting a freshening up of the starting line-up on Sunday, and a fairly ugly game as, once again, a team with so much talent has to rebuilt its fragile confidence. Until that fragility goes and hasty pressing of self-destruct button stops, it’s difficult to see Arsenal making a mark in Europe’s top competition.