Swansea City 2 – 1 Arsenal
0 – 1 Sanchez (64)
1 – 1 Sigurdsson (75)
2 – 1 Gomis (78)
One criticism that cannot be levelled at the club is that they do not tutor the players and manager well in the sphere of talking to the media. The message gets out there and in the manner everyone expects; The Arsenal Way.
But talking is one thing, doing is proving to be another. Dropping a three-goal lead in the last half an hour on Tuesday appeared to have a chastening effect yesterday in The Liberty Stadium. Arsenal were cautious, unadventurous, barely springing to life until close to the interval. It was a way of closing the door, locking it and then going back to make sure you had done so properly several times. It wasn’t without scares and Calum Chambers was given an unwelcome wake-up call on the right side of defence but we survived, goal intact. Job done.
A brighter start in the second period culminating in the one moment of genuine quality which led to Alexis Sanchez’s opening goal. The Chilean is proving to be a purchase of genuine quality, indefatigable in his efforts as he appears to be single-handedly dragging the confidence back into the side. But once again, Arsenal were architects of their own downfall and as rare as it is for me to view it as such, the international break is a most welcome interlude at this point in the season.
Another lead dropped and this time the penalty proved costly. Instead of cementing their place in the top four, Arsenal slipped to sixth and into the pack chasing the last Champions League spot. We console ourselves with the likelihood that Southampton and West Ham will drop away but there is precious little evidence that Arsenal will be in any shape to take advantage of that. They are, according to the BBC, the team that has dropped most points from winning positions in the top flight this season. There might be an error in their calculations but it does seem plausible. Worryingly, confidence is so low that you cannot see that changing any time soon.
Arsène was realistic after the final whistle; the title was gone, an early admission of failure in his primary target for every season. It’s too soon for the towel to be thrown in on a top four finish but heavens, if United and Liverpool are mediocre, how bad are Arsenal performing at the moment to be within touching distance of those we mock. At least United have the excuse of still being hungover from Ferguson’s departure; Arsenal are in a pickle with the long-standing manager still in situ.
Despite this, I still believe things will improve this season. This is a good set of players with potential to do so much better but getting them to realise that and believe it themselves, is going to be a lot of hard work for a manager who seems increasingly baffled by it all. Not the cause, he can see what is wrong but getting the squad to implement the solutions is proving entirely tougher. Years ago, team meetings took place, away from the eyes and ears of the club. Now? Now, I don’t see – from the outside – a strong enough leader to ‘manage’ that situation. A free-for-all where the problems are laid bare and the answers agreed on.
Many are railing against the manager and disillusionment at the moment is reminiscent of thirty or so years ago. It’s not as entrenched as the end of Neill, Howe or Graham and I suspect that a string of good results will bring something of a positive bounce to the club but for the board, for the manager, this is not how the final years of his era were supposed to be. A cup final victory was going to lead to title challenges – that’s all you can ask for – and the club, with its enhanced financial powers, was going to charge into a new era; Wenger would leave on a high. That seems unlikely to happen; at the moment, it’s 3am, we’re drunk as skunks and we’ve just fallen through the doorway. We know trouble is coming and the mother of all hangovers has already begun.
The next fortnight offers a chance to think. United approach, the players are in different surroundings, away from the spiral they have entered. It’s amazing how different the world seems after 120 minutes; at three-up, whilst not entirely convincing, the Anderlecht game seemed to be setting us for a good run before Christmas. The same errors, cheaply ceding possession and not tracking back, have left us appearing to the world to be a shambolic mess.
Problematically, Arsène has few defensive options. Calum Chambers rise has been meteoric but he was given a lesson in wing play yesterday, culminating in Montero providing the cross for Gomis to outjump Monreal for the winning goal. Makeshift right back beaten for pace, makeshift centre back beaten in the air. Would it have been different with Chambers in the middle or Bellerin on the right? I don’t know but the folly of not strengthening sufficiently in the summer is being laid bare in the cruellest of manners. I feel sorry for both; Monreal is playing as well as you can expect a full back in a central role whilst Chambers is going great guns in learning his trade but they are both learning in public in the most unforgiving of environments. Both are being horribly let down by a midfield playing with inexcusable naïvety and lacking defensive discipline for ninety minutes.
And there are no other options for the manager. He spoke afterwards of us being solid defensively, he was watching a different game. Swansea’s ardour was quelled but not suppressed. They had a decent shout for a penalty turned down and one or two openings. In doing so, Arsenal subdued themselves; that was, and despite his public denials Arsène will know it as well, a side-effect from Anderlecht. We have the capability to mix the two sides of the game but mental barriers exist that will stop it happening.
Injuries have impacted and the absence of Mikel Arteta is proving to be crucial. The side, it’s philosophy, needs a calm head such as the one the Spaniard possesses; Flamini, for all his experience, still runs around like his is fifteen years younger and with others alongside him in the centre, left the back four hopelessly exposed for the foul that led to the first goal. Kieran Gibbs took one for the team but the finish from Sigurdsson was exquisite. In conceding the goal, no finger can be pointed. In the lead up to the foul, there are heads banging against brick walls at the failure to learn lessons.
Once Swansea were level, a sense of foreboding took hold. Arsenal had to ride out the remainder of the game but tails up, The Swans took a gander at their opponents and decided they were on the ropes, instinctively attacking the weakest areas until the knockout punch game. I disagree with Arsène’s assessment we were in control of the game until we conceded but it was certainly not a lucky lead. Having edged ahead though, there has to be a reasonable expectation of hitting an opponent pushing forward, on the break. We didn’t succeed which with the numbers we commit to attack is disconcerting.
I do agree with the manager in not singling players out. This is collective, it isn’t a case of replacing this one or that one to solve the problem. In their heads, the players lack belief in each other and that is core. No one individual is more culpable than the other – scapegoats are a convenient target – this is down to the squad, the manager and coaching staff. The solutions are throughout the team and whilst returning players will help, they will take weeks to get back to anywhere near their best. On the evidence of the last couple of hours, this might get a bit worse before it gets better.