The wonderful absurdity of football means that Manchester City’s implosion has taken Arsenal’s misdemeanants out of the public eye save for the usual hand-wringing which accompanies a poor week in the Champions League. Apparently it was the first week since 2009 when the four English teams failed to win their games. Which given the paucity of their collective records in the intervening years, highlights just how woeful the Group phase has become. Not that it was much good to begin with.
City’s expensively assembled squad scuppered their own ship as they sought to plot a course out of their Champions League group. Instead they lost the plot. Little wonder Manuel Pellegrini wholeheartedly supported UEFAs decision to rejig the seedings system for the group phase; it might be the only way that they can escape their impending European obscurity.
It offered light relief for Arsenal and their slightly less expensively assembled squad. The collective collapses at The Etihad and Emirates must be as baffling for the managers and players, as they are for supporters. Perhaps even more so given they are a lot closer to the event than we are. The trees may obscure the wood.
Our interpretation of events can only ever be superficial but that doesn’t mean that it is wrong or at least not heading in the right direction. Solutions always look straightforward and simple on paper but reality is rarely that clear-cut. Conceding three goals so cheaply and carelessly has cut to the core of some of the squad. It left us grateful for the fact that Anderlecht left it so late to tear asunder Arsenal’s flimsy plan of defensive coherence.
Per Mertesacker didn’t need to re-emphasize the manager’s words about the collective defending but drew attention to helter-skelter approach to attacking when a lead had been pegged back. The opprobrium of the masses met the playground football but if City’s enthusiastic pressing of the self-destruct button lightens your mood, Arsenal’s cavalier approach was no less concerning.
Whatever sense God gave to them, went out of the window in a collective hysteria to add a fourth. They wanted to kill off their opponents and restore a feelgood factor around the place. It backfired but Mertesacker believes the squad can cope with the setback. They have taken steps backwards before, you know they will do so again before any kind of form is discovered.
Aspirations of topping a winnable group have passed. Relying on Anderlecht to win in Dortmund is folly, we accept second place. Arsenal are in control of their destiny in the sense that their five point advantage means that as long as they don’t lose at home to Dortmund or that the other match that night ends all square, they go through. There are a lot of permutations but ruling any conclusion out entirely is as dangerous as believing a three-goal lead is secure enough for victory.
We know that Arsène advocates attacking football, it’s his way. I’m sure that has developed and expanded over the years as he sought to cover the defensive weaknesses. Fair enough and there have been any number of reasons why he has ventured so far down that path. The disturbing aspect of Tuesday’s collapse was the inability of the manager or senior players to grasp the XI on the pitch and lead.
It’s all very well shouting, jabbing fingers or generally gesticulating but if the message isn’t getting through, there’s a wider problem to deal with. The players weren’t listening to each other and not comprehending what was being said from the touchline. There were some experienced players on the pitch at the point the second goal was conceded. There was time for them to inspire colleagues. It didn’t happen and that was a concern. The reality is that confidence is still fragile and that isn’t going to change any time soon.
The air around the club has changed in the space of a few days. This morning sees well or ill-timed stories about Joel Campbell being unhappy. Whether they are good or bad depends on your view of the player or the end result of what they are designed to achieve. I can’t see them being a route into the starting line-up. The words are similar to those uttered before the transfer window by his agent and may indeed be a regurgitation of those, attributed to a different source.
Campbell was never going to be content with sitting on the bench and I questioned in the summer how he would react at being lower down the pecking order, particularly after the hype which surrounded his nation’s World Cup adventure. His appearances in the squad – let alone the pitch – are at best sporadic and if he can’t get into an XI which is misfiring as badly as Arsenal’s at the moment, he has no hope when the likes of Walcott return to full fitness. Giroud’s speedy recovery – this morning’s Mirror talks of him being included in the squad for the visit of United in just over a fortnight’s time – reinforce the notion that Campbell’s time at the club is short.
And nothing of what I have seen of the player suggests he is the answer to our current inconsistencies. That is a deeper issue to resolve with the problem spread throughout the squad. The lack of confidence in the centre of defence in midweek is understandable with Koscielny’s injury. Mertesacker and Monreal are building an understanding whilst the latter learns the job. That’s one side of the German; on the other, he has a young right back learning his job as well. Combined with a seemingly untamable attacking spirit, Mertesacker’s head must be spinning with these apprentices around him.
Whatever the problems are, the answers must come quickly. The opportunity is there to embed themselves firmly into the top four with those immediately below them having tricky fixtures between now and Christmas. Arsenal could (should) pick up a lot of points in that time but at the moment it is not a belief buoyed by total conviction.
There’s a lot of hard work to be done on the training ground to make that happen.