Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Complacent Gunners punished for a shambolic first half

Unless you’re Arsenal in 2003-04, defeats are part of football. Sometimes you can play well and they just happen. A bit of bad luck or a bad call can just sway things against you. In those circumstances, while it is still painful, you can at least take it in the knowledge that your team gave everything and still put in a positive performance.
Tuesday night’s defeat to Watford wasn’t one of those occasions. What is unacceptable is when a team of talented players don’t put the effort in, don’t look like they want it and don’t turn up with the right attitude.
The first half from Arsenal was an embarrassment. Watford were well enough organised, but were hardly playing incisive, free-flowing football. Yet they deservedly led 2-0 at the break because they just fed off Arsenal’s lackadaisical approach to the game and some ridiculous individual errors. The Gunners have put in some poor first half performances since the turn of the year, notably at Bournemouth and Preston, but this half topped the lot for incompetence. In those games, Arsenal did enough to get out of jail, but as a team, they can’t just rely on being able to score late goals all the time. It’s brilliant that they have the mental fortitude and fitness to go late into games to win/draw them if necessary, but it would be good if against distinctly average opposition, which is what Watford were, they could actually turn up for the first half.
There is no good excuse as to why everyone out there in red and white played so poorly in the first 45. Almost all of them hadn’t played for a week and a half so should have been fresh, and with the clinical demolition of Southampton executed by the rest of the squad on Saturday, those starting against the Hornets should have played weary that others want their position in the team. Even though there is a big game to come this weekend at Chelsea, it was only ever going to be a chance to really close the gap if Arsenal could set it up with a win, so all the focus of the players should have been on Watford.
Amidst the general choas of the first half, there were a few things that really stood out. Even though he has done a decent enough job filling in at right-back, Gabriel really shouldn’t be used there unless there is an injury crisis in that position. Hector Bellerin has been working his way back to fitness, so it was understandable that Arsene Wenger picked the Brazilian centre-back on the flank again, but hopefully we won’t have to see Gabriel in that position for a while. His dreadful throw-in began the catalogue of errors that led to Watford’s second goal and positionally he was caught out too often.
But it’s in attack where Arsenal lose out dramatically with Gabriel playing as a full-back. There were numerous occasions in the second half where Theo Walcott had no support from Gabriel behind him, when usually Bellerin would be making an overlapping run and giving Arsenal an extra element of dynamism to the attack. There were a lack of understanding on Arsenal’s right flank for the whole game, and unfortunately it stemmed from the full-back. Had Arsene Wenger not had to make an enforced change due to Aaron Ramsey’s injury, I’m sure he would have subbed Gabriel in the second half. Bellerin was on the bench last night, so will be straight back in for Chelsea on Saturday.
Without Granit Xhaka, the midfield looked vulnerable. Francis Coquelin is a very good player and has had some great games for Arsenal, but for some reason, he and Aaron Ramsey can’t seem to click as a partnership. The Gunners had no early control on the game in the early exchanges and didn’t set the pace of the game, allowing Watford to score the early goals. For the second, following Gabriel’s rubbish throw-in, Ramsey and Coquelin could have prevented Capoue from walking through towards goal in the way he did. Although Xhaka is a card-magnet, I’d like to think he’d have done the sensible thing and fouled Capoue before he made it to the box to shoot.
It’s often true that the absence of someone can enhance a player’s reputation because you imagine how things would be improved if they’d been there, but there’s a strong case that Arsenal missed the Swiss international badly on Tuesday. Forget the bad press he got for a harsh red card against Burnley, he’s been playing well recently and would surely have offered more control in the midfield on Tuesday night.
Even though he has had some heroic moments for Arsenal this season, Olivier Giroud has to be back on the bench for the game with Chelsea this weekend. He got subbed at half-time on Tuesday night, and while he wasn’t the main problem with the performance as he had barely any service to feed off, the Gunners were sparked into life with Alexis down the middle in the second half. As the game went on, it would then have been ideal to be able to bring Giroud on for the last 15 minutes with the balls into the box becoming more direct.
Regular podcast listeners will know that I have a lot of time for Olivier Giroud and think he is a fantastic player to have in the squad, but there is no doubting that Arsenal have looked at their most dangerous this season with three more mobile players in the front three. It was clear on Saturday as Welbeck, Lucas and Walcott ran Southampton ragged, and was clear when Alexis and Iwobi were able to link up when one was down the middle and the other on the left on Tuesday. Away from home at Stamford Bridge, Arsenal are likely to have to play more on the counter-attack, so the pacey front-line has to be reverted to from the start.
Arsene Wenger was right this week to praise the quality of attacking options in his squad earlier in the week, but the pressure is on him to get the balance right for each game. On Tuesday, he didn’t get it right in the first half, but then to correct it he was left without the different option of Giroud later in the game. Whereas in the past the pressure has been on the manager to improve the squad, the pressure is now to perform with a big and good-quality squad. Excuses will start to run thin if Arsenal don’t cut out these ridiculous defeats when the squad is in the best shape it has probably ever been since the move to Emirates Stadium.
With others dropping points, Tuesday night was a massive missed opportunity. Arsenal need to almost forget the title race and just think of Saturday’s game with Chelsea as a one-off. It is a must win to have any hopes of even attempting to catch them, but if Arsenal put too much pressure on themselves, they could crumble again, so looking at it in isolation is surely the best way to approach it.
The key will be to not start like they did on Tuesday. If Arsenal play like they did early on against Watford, the defeat to Chelsea could potentially be even worse than it was three years ago when Arsenal lost 6-0.