A common failing of this Arsenal squad, and the ones of the preceding two seasons, according to those whose opinion’s count (in their own minds at least) is that that they do not know how to close out a game when having a lead. It is not entirely correct but does have some merit in its argument with leads gained at Blackburn, Sevilla, Newcastle, Birmingham (home and away) but the results ended with points being dropped in respective competitions.
The reason for it? Well, Sevilla was team selection. The rest? Individual errors. Against Birmingham at The Emirates, poor marking allowed the equaliser, at St. Andrews it was an aberration by Clichy; I still cannot fathom out why we tried to play our way out of trouble at St James Park whilst, well, Jens has paid a heavy price for his costly lack of concentration at Ewood Park. The thread that is running through all of this is that there is not a collective problem with the team as such, more of individual lapses in concentration.
For Arsene, the problem is acute. It is not the same individual who is making the mistakes and therefore, it is not a problem with an easily identifiable solution. This issue has been compounded by the team being badly affected by the events at St Andrews yet they dug themselves out of this mindset to raise their game to an exceptional level at the San Siro. In many respects, that was similar to the rut that they were in when they went to the Bernabeu two seasons ago and won. The league form was poor by their standards, the title long gone then. Indeed, there is no doubt that the big games are not that much of an issue but it is the smaller teams who provide the stumbling blocks.
You might argue that it is experience which causes this. However, that argument falls down when comparing results since the ‘Invincibles’ won the title. The season immediately after was not one filled with inexperienced players, it was marred by injury. As was last season to key players. Both were wrecked title challenges before they began. This time, the squad have compensated until now. This brings us to the issue of confidence.
And that is where the problem resides. The good start to the season carried them a long way, covering for long term absences in the case of van Persie and so far shorter ones involving Rosicky. Kolo Toure’s departure to the African Cup of Nations was exacerbated by returning with an injury but Senderos deputised capably. However, it is in goalscoring where the body blows have been felt. The midfield is simply not chipping in with enough. Having sold Henry, the squad knew that they had to score collectively and they started well enough but the consistency has been lost.
The squad is full of creators but the hole left by Eduardo’s injury has put the pressure then transfers to the shoulders of Adebayor. With his regular quotient of goals having temporarily dried up, the blame is being pushed onto him but that ignores two salient facts. Firstly, no striker scores in every game. It simply does not happen; it did not when Henry was here, it did not before he arrived so why is there an expectation placed on Adebayor to improve on that? Secondly, he is still learning the trade. It is his first full season as a striker leading the line and you have to be extremely churlish to say that he has done anything other than excellently at the role.
Criticism of him being caught offside all of the time reeks of someone having an idea in their mind that cannot be changed and is devoid of an understanding of the issues of the game. All strikers push onto the last defender and generally run offside and then back on. Officiating cannot observe a ball being passed and the position of a player at the same time unless it is condensed into a small area of the pitch because as the Assistant is running they cannot look along a line of defenders and behind them at the same time. Unless they have Marty Feldman eyes. Instead the guess. They approximate and sometimes they get it right, others they get wrong. But to allege that Adebayor is offside more than other strikers is just plain wrong.
Back to the confidence. Before the season started, the midfield was known to be shot shy. Well, accurate shot shy. They have not been so this season, just goal shy. There have been plenty of accurate shots but conversion rates have not been as impressive. Goals started to come in the opening months but hit a dry spell. We lack goals from the flanks at the moment but it has been the case since Pires and Ljungberg were in their heydays. Calls for signing players who can score from those positions omit one point; the unbalancing nature to the squad.
It is a difficult balance to strike for the manager. He wants to build a squad that will last and by signing players, the message sent out is one that you are not quite ready yet so someone will come into cover for this. But what happens when those players are due for their moments in the sun and there is no space for them. Arsene’s philosophy has been to create rather than to sign, stars. It has been successful so far but based on a strong squad to begin with a decade or so ago. This time it is almost from scratch. What is needed is patience and it seems that it is in short supply now that things are going awry.
Let’s be honest, the team have over-performed this season. I thought we could finish second before the season started but expected that to be decided long before now. With eight games to go, the team are still fighting for the title. They could still do it. No team has dominated the top spot for more than a couple of weeks at a time. United have not suddenly ‘come good’, it is quite the opposite. They have been ploughing their furrow consistently since their blip that allowed us to go five points clear. If the title goes to Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge, they would argue they have deserved it. Possibly but I would argue that it has more to do with four consecutive Premier League draws by Arsenal.
Favourable results for Arsenal this weekend will see the race thrown wide open. Now is the time for the belief on and off the pitch to shine through.