Swansea City arrive at The Emirates tonight proving that a season is a long time in football. Gone is the next brightest thing in football management with Michael Laudrup replaced by the affable Gary Monk. The Welsh club have struggled this season and sit just four points outside the relegation places. I am sure it is not how they planned their campaign, looking forward to the Europa League and consolidating their top ten place. Now it is a case of hoping that none of the bottom five suddenly get their act together.
They might have looked at this fixture with some trepidation. Arsenal were showing signs of recovery following defeat at Stoke, their second in four games at that time. Everton had been disposed of in the FA Cup followed by victory in the North London Derby. Then for the third time this campaign, they capitulated when faced by a title rival and whilst Swansea fell to a narrow defeat at Everton, Arsenal suffered a crushing blow.
The players, manager and coaching staff have to react to Saturday. Mikel Arteta’s words might be well-intentioned but I am not interested in him telling us that they will react to the Chelsea defeat in a positive manner. It isn’t about reacting tonight, this is about the rest of the season as well. There are eight Premier League games remaining and Arsenal’s target is not just 24 points, it is to win convincingly. That is not just down to the scoreline. In 1997/98, Arsenal dropped two points between the end of January and April but didn’t concede a goal in eight games. Five of that run finished 1 – 0 to the Arsenal and a United supporting friend said it was the most soul-destroying time for him. He knew that Arsenal were playing so well that a goal for them meant victory. Arsenal dominated those games and were convincing in victory; it’s that level of performance which the players must strive for. It’s those performances which convince supporters that the squad can achieve something in the future.
More worrying for me are Arsène‘s words,
“An accident has happened, that doesn’t mean that you’re not a good driver.
It just means that we have played about 40 games this season and it’s not what happened on Saturday that reflects the quality of this team. We have 62 points that we earned hard with quality games and that’s what we want to focus on, to get back to that quality. We go back to basics.
Of course you need to analyse as well the fact that we were down to 10 men [at Chelsea] and the offensive quality of Chelsea on the counter-attack is very good.
You have to put that into perspective, we just came out of two convincing results at Bayern Munich and at Tottenham with a very solid defensive performance so you have to think that [Chelsea] was an accident. How do you deal with the accident? You repair them, you repair the damage and you go for the next one. The response has always been very strong and I’m convinced it will be again on Tuesday.“
There is so much with that which is at odds with reality. How can Chelsea be viewed as an accident? Manchester City 6 Arsenal 3; Liverpool 5 Arsenal 1; Chelsea 6 Arsenal 0. If the same accident happens three times in a season, sorry Arsène that means you are not a good driver; it hints at a reckless one who doesn’t learn from previous mistakes.
And what of the responses previously? Neither of the goalless draws after Eastlands or Anfield was a convincing performance. There was a nervousness in both with an unwillingness to press home any territorial advantage lest punishment be exacted by Chelsea or United. Arsenal need a stronger response, need a convincing performance and luckily for them, they face the sort of team who they have been able to produce those against; one from the lower reaches of the table. If we are to judge the Arsenal team this season, the assessment is that they are no better than the fourth-placed team in the country which is the same as last time around. You can introduce any sort of argument about United floundering but that is irrelevant; Arsenal are fourth on form.
So how is that better than last year when arguably the title race is more open this time around? Arsenal are a team which will beat anybody below them but are a long way short of genuinely challenging for the title. You’ll tell me that we’re challenging now, only defeat on Saturday has knocked us out of contention. Well, there are other dropped points which have that impact but the truth of the matter is that on 30th November Arsenal were seven points clear, we are now seven points behind. It’s a fourteen point swing that represents the fixtures played in between. Yes, they were harder, there were better teams in clusters of matches but realistically it shows we were flattering to deceive. But if Arsène genuinely thinks Saturday an accident and that view is unchallenged internally, we have a fundamental problem in the psyche of the club.
There will have to be changes to the starting line-up but they will be limited with essentially the same squad adding Hector Bellerin. Laurent Koscielny’s calf injury means he will be replaced by Thomas Vermaelen whilst reports yesterday morning suggested Wojciech Szczesny is set to be held to blame for Saturday. If that is the case, others will be nervous about their places. But let’s be honest, Bacary Sagna was the only player who came away from Stamford Bridge with his reputation intact.
Whilst Szczesny was not perfect, I did not think he played that badly, certainly not enough to be dropped. To my mind, that decision would smack of a knee-jerk reaction rather than any sense of ruthlessness. A need to be seen to be doing something, anything, the perception of action. Szczesny made saves at White Hart Lane which kept the points travelling back along the Seven Sisters toward civilisation and has, I think, overall been in decent form. I know some people don’t like his cockiness but that is his personality and having an ego is not a bad thing so long as it is channelled correctly and backed up with actions. Football memories are notoriously short and it was not so long ago that his improvement in form was being cited as a reason for the elevated league position then occupied.
Unless Nacho Monreal has recovered, Kieran Gibbs will continue at left back but in midfield, Mathieu Flamini will return. Whether it is at the expense of Oxlade-Chamberlain or Arteta remains to be seen. In fact, if you look at the bench from Saturday, what options does Wenger have? Gnabry certainly on the right but Kallstrom hasn’t played for months and isn’t match fit so that option is gone. Jenkinson? There won’t be many changes tonight no matter how much they are needed. The only one I would make is Podolski leading the line and Giroud rested but the lack of depth means that he will start on the left, Oxlade-Chamberlain the right and Sanogo up front:
Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs; Flamini, Rosicky; Gnabry, Cazorla, Podolski; Sanogo
Only Sanogo and Sagna did not play in the capitulation in the corresponding fixture last season. It isn’t just this season which needs a response. Tonight the players need to give it. MUST give it.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.