1 – 0 Mane (34)
2 – 0 Tadic (56)
Arsène called it self-inflicted. I don’t think you can argue with that assessment at all. He is entitled to his view that Arsenal were in control for half an hour; I would say that is generous but such is the nature of his job that any favourable bias is to be expected.
Indeed Fraser Forster made confident, strong saves at vital moments; the contrast with his opposite number could not have been more stark. Wojciech Szczesny had his poorest game in an Arsenal shirt off the back of one of his most assured. It’s hard to know whether his nervousness fed the same in the back four or fed by a lack of confidence on their part.
And the root cause is important, vital to progress being made from the mire of mediocrity that is the hallmark of this season. The return of Laurent Koscielny signalled the opportunity for Wenger to field his first choice back five for the first time this season. Can we go back to makeshift, they seemed more assured?
As vaunted as his return is, it comes with a price. Laurent Koscielny is always vulnerable early in his season as red cards and own goals have previously proven. This season was going to be different; he was to restore Per Mertesacker’s confidence. To make a difference.
Defending as a team is about coordination and understandings; both were woefully absent in the first goal. Southampton travelled the breadth and length of the pitch without a challenge of note and when decisive action came, it was the wrong choice.
Szczesny made Mane’s mind up, the finish reminiscent of Kanu on an October afternoon at Stamford Bridge. But the Southampton forward should have been shepherded to safety by Koscielny. Instead Szczesny emulated the madness which pockmarked Fabianski’s Arsenal career. It’s either a Polish trait or one that the goalkeeping coaches fail to coach out of the players.
Szczesny’s decision was the deciding factor in the goal but questions remain over the defenders. Mertesacker was slow to react to the situation, being on the line would have given him a better opportunity to stop the ball as well as making Mane look for a pass. Koscielny meanwhile, stayed in the same no-man’s land as Szczesny, neither defending a shot or marking any supporting Southampton players.
To my mind, there is little differentiation between goalkeeper and defenders in culpability, especially in the second goal. Szczesny’s panic led directly to Tadic scoring but neither Mertesacker or Debuchy was concentrating hard enough to realise that the goalkeeper could not pick the ball up otherwise it would have been a free kick. Nor did they possess the decisiveness to put the ball to touch.
The Keystone Cops are back in town.
Wenger rotated, making the curious decision to pair Coquelin and Chambers in the defensive midfield role. If he was concerned about the impact of the holiday period games on Flamini, QPR at home, at The Emirates, is the time to experiment not when you are facing a direct rival for fourth place.
It’s harsh on Coquelin as well. He has done reasonably well at short notice but to be honest, he isn’t the long-term solution. Maybe he is a good squad player and all clubs need that sort of player. Despite this, his career most likely remains away from Arsenal.
Olivier Giroud’s absence was missed, the cost of his lunacy apparent. Sanchez’s industry failed to spark any reward and Wenger’s decision to give Akpom ten minutes to breach a well-organised home defence was baffling. How could the youngster be expected to score twice in such a short space of time? The time for decisive changes came when Tadic scored.
To cap off a miserable afternoon, Gardos remained on the pitch when he scythed down Sanchez as he headed toward goal. Was it a genuine goalscoring opportunity? Of course, Alexis is Arsenal’s most productive player this season. Could another defender have caught him? Debatable, Gardos’ desperation stemmed from the fact that he felt he was the last chance of preventing a goal.
Yellow card? You can’t shake the feeling that were it at the other end, Arsenal’s performance was such that the defender would have seen red. And probably improved the defence in the process.
It’s all so hugely frustrating. Just when you think the apex of the bend is approaching, Arsenal contrive to skid and lose control. It’s a season where excuses will be made if fourth place is claimed and at the moment, that feels like a tall order.
Afterwards, Wenger spoke of the defence,
It’s difficult to find an obvious reason straight after the game. There was a misunderstanding and maybe the few games on the trot – we faded a lot at West Ham and we were not fresh enough today.
I have no qualms that he cannot provide the answers immediately but he needs to understand why the preferred back four performed so badly. An element of it comes down to understandings needing to be rebuilt, the cost of injuries.
Mertesacker’s form has been far below expectations this year and those doubts are not going to be immediately eradicated with Koscielny’s return. Indeed such are his own self-doubts that the mistakes by others which led to the first goal probably feed them.
Fundamentally, there was no leadership yesterday and some of that stems from the manager’s lack of belief in a captain. His view is well-known that he wants each player to be a leader but not every player is. Some look to a player for order, for resuscitation when their form drops momentarily on the pitch. The worst thing possible is that they look in the face of a man devoid of confidence.
A transfer window can change things. It has to. We’re having these conversations too often, too frequently for there not to be problems that can go unnoticed within the club. Whatever the popular theory is, surely Arsène can see the issues afflicting the squad?
I am sure he can, it comes down to whether those are the problems undermining the season in his opinion or whether he genuinely believes that the ill-fortune suffered is solely the fault of the World Cup and injuries. There are wider issues than one centre back or a defensive midfielder.
The club will circle the wagons. The board, the owner, they will support the manager in the transfer market but they won’t ask the questions of him if he decides not to spend because the deal isn’t right. Admirable as that principle is, there are times when the validity of the deal is not financial but on the pitch. Sometimes, a little more spent on a player than the valuation brings tangible returns.
That’s not to say they should blow the bank on a journeyman but pay more than they want? It has to happens sometimes. Now seems to be such a moment.