The morning after the night after the day after the day before. It should seem better than this and as we demand the team move on from the Anfield debacle, that advice seems proper for supporters this morning but life does not seem any better. The hurt from Saturday’s drubbing has not lessened in twenty-four hours as questions swirl around like grains caught in sandstorm, the maelstrom’s devastation does not reveal any answers in the calm afterwards.
To be contrary for one moment – and I’ll beg your indulgence for this – does losing 1 – 5 or 3 – 6 actually matter? Take it as read that it does, obviously but is the scoreline relevant in the long-term? Defeat has cost Arsenal three points and the manner of defeat, a fair amount of dignity. It is the latter which concerns me more; not the dignity in itself but the lasting impact of the XI’s confidence, what is the impact of the impotence and incompetence in defence?
Some argue that the opening goal was offside – it was – and that it threw the players. If they are pushed out of kilter by a relatively minor aspect of conceding a goal, the suggestion of any improvement this season hangs by a thread. This is a team, we were told, that is full of character; this is the team which dropped just two points out of eighteen following their drubbing at Eastlands to recover to be top of the table at the end of January. That was character although it could be argued that sixteen points was expected given the opposition played; it’s a fair observation that suggests achieving what was expected of them which is not necessarily the same as showing character.
The players are rightly bearing the brunt of disquiet, as did the manager who stood up to be counted when accepting his portion of the blame. His fundamental problem on Saturday was not of his own making; he could only use three substitutes rather than the eleven he probably wanted to make following the opening twenty minutes. Of course, he picked the starting XI and the vicious circle is completed. Some of the criticism of his choices is accurate; Gibbs is quicker than Monreal on the left but the Spaniard was not the reason for the defeat. Despite this, it will not have been lost on opposing managers how vacant Arsenal’s left hand side can be. It wasn’t the first time Monreal was hung out to dry in a big game by team-mates; it happened at Eastlands as well and it will happen again, there is an air of inevitability about it.
But Arsenal must be doing something right in the big matches as the below summary shows. Home games have in these fixtures have generally gone well; undefeated in the Premier League encounters at The Emirates but away? That still has all the hallmarks of the deficiencies of previous seasons.
Actually, I don’t know if it is better but if feels that way. Of course it’s better, we’ve beaten Liverpool at home, Tottenham twice. Yet away from home, the question remains: why are Arsenal so ruthlessly exposed on their travels? A regular excuse is the frequency of matches but that does not stand scrutiny this season; Arsène’s recent assertion regarding recovery times between fixtures might stand true in the long-term but was gleefully undermined by the media for this campaign. Is it simply a case of fates conspiring or just bad luck? Personally, I rule them out. Indeed, whilst the eleven goals in two outings might be considered freakish, recent years have seen Arsenal pre-disposed to conceding readily in matches against top four rivals. We have been adept at letting Chelsea score three or four, United and City have enjoyed themselves regularly at our expense whilst Tottenham and Liverpool have both put four and five past Arsenal in the last half-decade. Perhaps this isn’t as unusual an experience as we might like to think.
Whatever the case, Arsenal need to respond and responses to defeat have tended to be good this season. Twelve unbeaten after Villa, five after United, ten after City hint at recuperative powers. We’ll ignore the inconvenience of the consecutive defeats against Napoli and City, as well as United being the third defeat in six games. In truth, the run of fixtures upon which Arsenal have embarked are more likely to have that staccato pattern of results given the level of opposition than a barnstorming set of victories. The impact of the former is where the manager and his staff earn their corn. A step forward, a knock back; it is key for the players not to dwell on the latter and draw from the former which is easier said than done but that it the characteristic which defines successful sides. Not steamrollering teams occupying lower league placings, they need to be able to do that and in fairness, Arsenal have done so better this season than in many since moving to The Emirates. There has been less of a propensity to drop silly points; plenty of time left for that to creep in but in that respect, so far, so good.
Arsène has some serious thinking ahead of the United game. It would be easy to be sucked into looking at the paucity of their results this season, of how it all fell away for them on the wave of optimism which engulfed their win over Arsenal in November. The points gap at the final whistle was just five; now it is fourteen points following a run of just six victories in the last fourteen games. Their point at White Hart Lane is the only one that United have taken on their top six travels. It is an Arsenal-esque record in that respect.
Arsène cannot worry about them, he has his own problems. Whilst defensive work has to take precedence, what will he do with the midfield that ceded ground too readily in the first half and disappeared under tough tackling. United will do the same and there is no point in bleating about the lack of protection from referees; it is an excuse, the problem is nothing new. Does Wenger keep faith with the Arteta / Wilshere axis or look to counter United by bringing in Vermaelen for example, adding a defender to the mix. The balance in his mind has to settle between protecting the back four and diminishing the attacking array. There is no guarantee that change would work either. Is moving Wilshere centrally and inserting Rosicky into the equation offers a fluidity of movement which can reinvigorate the attack, the solution or just reactionary change. Indeed, is leaving the XI unchanged, allowing a quick opportunity at redemption the way forward.
The manager’s thoughts will have been deeper than superficial questions thrown out at 7am and he is handsomely rewarded to find the answers. So Arsène, it’s over to you.