How embarrassing. At least when we were hit for six by Man City we were up against a scintillating side in top form and looked good going forward. But today the only positive was that Liverpool were wasteful in front of goal and we didn’t suffer the ‘Old Trafford style’ annihilation our performance deserved.
There are slow starts and there are slow starts, but this was something on another level. Had Sturridge not dinked a one-on-one wide and Toure missed an open goal following Suarez’ incredible volley against the post, we could realistically have been 6-0 down after 20 minutes. Consider that for a moment — 6-0 after 20 minutes. And it would have been thoroughly merited too. That’s how abysmal we were in all areas of the pitch.
Even a thick plank like Michael Owen knew that Liverpool would start like a house on fire — so did most people watching. After all, it’s exactly what they did to Everton a couple of weeks ago so surely we would be prepared for the onslaught, right? Apparently not.
Instead we started the match in pedestrian mode, ambling about, making five yard sideways passes on the rare occasions we had possession and seemingly surprised to be closed down at such pace by a hungry, fired-up red army.
But then a casual start to the game is nothing new for this Arsenal side. We have seen it repeatedly in previous weeks, but our second-half improvements have got us out of trouble. Last week we were 0-0 at home to Crystal Palace after a sterile first half only to step up a gear after the break. Ditto at home to Fulham recently — 0-0 at the break only for Cazorla to rescue us with a second half double. How about the Cardiff game at the Emirates? 0-0 until Bendtner saved the day on 89 minutes to rescue another mediocre performance. And not forgetting how fortunate we were to only be one down at the break against Southampton, who battered us for 45 lacklustre minutes. All of these examples have come since the turn of the year.
I have said it so many times, but why don’t we just start games like we start second halves? Why is our approach so casual from the first whistle? Where is the passion that Liverpool showed? A fast, determined start can win the game for you and that is exactly what happened to us today.
Mourinho said last week that his masseur gave an impassioned team talk prior to their impressive victory at the Etihad. Well, maybe Wenger should put in a bid for him because pre-match motivation is an area we’re severely lacking in.
It was far too easy for Liverpool today
What really annoyed me today was the lack of fight once we’d gone a goal down. You’d think losing a first minute goal to a soft set piece would sharpen the minds and appetite of the players, but there was no evidence of that. The fourth goal in particular summed it up — Ozil was brushed aside on halfway and went down far too easily looking for a free kick. When it didn’t come he sat on his haunches before casually dragging himself to his feet as Liverpool broke away to hammer home the killer goal. Where was the desire to get up quickly and try to put a tackle in?
With the exception of the second half against Southampton, Ozil has recently looked like a little boy being made to play with the adults. I have no doubt he will adapt to the intensity of the English game just as Bergkamp and Pires did before him, but it won’t be this year. Hopefully we will get more of a contribution from him next season, but in the meantime his lack of creativity and work rate is hindering the team.
As 1-0 became two, then three and four, there was nothing from the bench. No tactical reshuffle, no attempt to quell the waves of attack we were being subjected to. We started off trying to play possession football at a slow tempo in a 4-2-3-1 and we ended the game trying to play possession football at a slow tempo in a 4-2-3-1.
Where is the plan B? Where is the variation in tactics and formation depending on our opponents?
The short answer is that we don’t have one. Wenger plays the same way throughout the match, in the same formation, no matter the score or opposition. Had he been able to think on his feet and assess where we were losing the battle today he might have been able to halt the red juggernaut, but he carried on regardless.
On Monday night Mourinho altered his formation and personnel significantly as he outwitted Pellegrini, fielding three defensive midfielders in Luiz, Matic and Ramires and sitting back while relying on Hazard, Willian and Etoo to run riot on the counter. Today he played two defensive midfielders and brought back Oscar in a more attacking line up because they were at home to off-form Newcastle who were there for the taking.
Chelsea are able to play in more than one formation and more than one style — Arsenal are not.
A few months ago at Stamford Bridge, a poor Chelsea were 1-0 down against Southampton. At halftime Mourinho bought Ba on and went two up top, playing route one football for the entire second half. They battered their way through the Saints’ defence three times and ran out 3-1 winners.
Mourinho is not afraid to alter formation or style mid-match — Wenger is.
I am criticising Wenger’s tactical nous because I cannot believe how awful we were for 90 minutes with no attempt made to change anything. Rosicky, Gibbs and Podolski came on but they were all like for like swaps and Liverpool should’ve scored another couple as we continually left ourselves exposed on the counter.
Speaking of which, Arteta is an ineffective shield against a decent side because he is a former attacking midfielder playing out of position. He can get away with it against teams who try to contain Arsenal (which is everyone bar the top five) but against class outfits like Liverpool his defensive shortcomings are exposed. We badly miss Flamini and I hope Wenger brings the Frenchman back for Wednesday’s match against Man Utd.
Indeed, that game has just taken on extra significance thanks to today’s disaster (yes, it was a disaster because we were beaten so convincingly that it will undoubtedly knock our confidence ahead of a testing run of fixtures). If we lose on Wednesday too we could soon be swapping a title race for a top-four race and that would be a huge shame given how well we’ve performed on the whole this season.
Yet it is this which gives me hope that today may not be the turning point it seems. For all the anger I feel right now, I am conscious that we are way ahead of where most people (including me) thought we would be at the start of the season. One atrocious performance and result doesn’t take away the fact that our defending has been much improved this season, both from the defenders and as a team. Our more cautious, mature approach once we take the lead has also seen us pick up more wins whereas last season we often threw away leads by being too gung-ho. The individual improvement of Szczesny, Mertesacker, Ramsey, Walcott and Giroud should not be forgotten either and it’s important not to lose sight of these plus points no matter how atrocious we were today.
We are quite fortunate that we have such a high-profile game coming up so soon. Wenger has said he thinks we will answer the questions raised by today’s debacle on Wednesday, but unfortunately our record against the top teams is not too clever and we go into the match with our confidence badly shaken.
But let’s give the boys the opportunity they deserve to rectify today and get our season back on track. Wednesday night will show us the true character of this team — hopefully we’ll take a leaf out of Liverpool’s book and start the game with much more purpose than we showed today because it has now become a pivotal match in our season.
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