Despite what the league table shows right now, we aren’t the best side in the country. Man City ruthlessly exposed that fallacy and reaffirmed many people’s belief (including mine) that they will be crowned champions in May. We played our part in an extraordinarily open and entertaining game, but the gulf between ourselves and what is required to win the league was on show for all to see today.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. I don’t have the time or inclination to relive all nine goals and numerous other chances in a typical match report, so here are some thoughts now I’ve had time to digest the day’s events.
OUR SQUAD IS LOPSIDED
What may prove more costly than the loss of three points is the loss of Koscielny with a nasty laceration to his knee. I doubt we’ll see him until the New Year which is bad news considering this season’s new-found defensive solidity has been built on the Koscielny-Mertesacker axis. Vermaelen is a more than able deputy, but doesn’t seem to have the right chemistry when paired with either of our first choice centre halves. What’s even more worrying is should one of Vermaelen or Mertesacker pick up a knock/suspension, Sagna is actually our fourth choice centre back. Playing a right back out of position is not ideal and also has the knock-on effect of bringing the inexperienced Jenkinson into the team. I think Jenkinson has a chance to become a good defender in the future, but he lacks the quality right now and weakens our side considerably when he plays.
Bottom line — if your fourth choice centre back is going to be Sagna, you MUST have a better back up than Jenkinson.
We are also short at the other end of the pitch. Now I am a huge fan of Giroud — the guy works hard every game, puts himself about and has grown into the role of a lone centre forward very well. Playing up front on your own in this Arsenal side is trickier than doing so for Stoke for example, where physical strength and prowess in the air are the main requirements. For Arsenal, this must be allied to an excellent touch and the ability to exchange fast, intricate passes with our technically gifted midfielders. It’s a demanding role. In the past year Giroud has developed that part of his game and is an excellent Premier League striker. The trouble is, to win titles and Champions League trophies we need a world class striker up there. Giroud would be a brilliant back up to Suarez, for example, but the chances he missed today show that he doesn’t quite cut it.
To be fair to the guy he also badly needs a breather. He may be mentally as well as physically fatigued and hasn’t scored in his last five matches. It’s been said many times before, but we really should have a better trio of central strikers than Giroud, Bendtner and Sanogo (remember him?) at the club.
In contrast, we are overflowing with midfielders/wingers and Theo reminded us of the unique attributes he can offer us. His first goal was a tad lucky (surely Hart would’ve saved it?) but his second was pure class — Henry himself would’ve been proud of that finish. But it’s not just his goal threat we’ve been missing. For the first time in a long time we had a wide player playing off the shoulder of the defenders, looking to dart behind the backline and make forward runs beyond Giroud.
While Theo and the Ox have been injured, we’ve generally seen two of Cazorla, Wilshere, Ozil, Ramsey and Rosicky playing out wide. All five are central midfielders by trade. As a result they are rarely inclined to make runs beyond Giroud and get on the end of through balls. They prefer playing the killer passes than running onto them whereas Theo is the opposite — he adds an extra dimension to our attacking play and it’s great to have him back.
So in summation, not enough defenders or strikers and too many midfielders — Wenger needs to redress his squad balance in the summer if we are to sustain a season-long challenge for honours.
WENGER WENT FOR IT TODAY
Wenger sprung a surprise (to me at least) by playing Ramsey in the middle with Flamini instead of Arteta. By dispensing with our double defensive midfield pivot, he was going toe to toe with the best attacking side in the league on their own pitch. A fortress where they’d won all seven home matches, scoring an incredible 29 goals in the process (it’s now played eight, won eight, scored 35, conceded five — wow!)
It was brave, but I see why he did it. On Wednesday we went to Napoli with Arteta and Flamini in tandem and created virtually nothing. At Old Trafford it was the same story as we hardly put a decent move together in the whole match. We lost both games with a whimper. We have had our best performances with Ramsey playing from a central position next to Arteta or Flamini, giving our player of the season so far the chance to influence the play more. Wenger fancied we could expose their weakness at the back and he was right — we scored three and should’ve had six. Unfortunately, we aren’t yet good enough at the other end and conceded six which should have been ten.
To be honest I was more disappointed at the listless defeat to a poor Man Utd side than today’s loss. At least we had a go at Man City and scored some goals — if we’d put on that performance at Old Trafford we’d have beaten them. Unfortunately for us, City are very, very good on their own patch and punished every mistake we made (which there were far too many of — Koscielny ball-watching for the first goal and Ozil’s slack pass for their third spring to mind).
Where I take issue with Wenger is hauling Flamini off on 70 minutes for Gnabry, leaving us with neither Flamini or Arteta at a time when our exertions on Wednesday (and the runaround Everton gave us on Sunday) caught up with us. We pushed forward gamely but when City broke they did so unchallenged every single time until they reached our exposed back four. Our players looked like they were running in treacle during those last 20 minutes. I know we were chasing the game, but we were a boxer out on it’s feet who you feared could be seriously damaged as the contest wore on. Whether that’s the case remains to be seen, but hopefully we have more mental strength than in seasons past when we have often collapsed at the first big setback. Wenger should’ve known better than to expose us to that possibility.
WE CONCEDED SIX BUT WE WEREN’T THRASHED
I’m a bit annoyed at the amount of headlines that contain the word ‘thrashed’ in them. A three goal victory is convincing, but not a thrashing. Nobody is ever ‘thrashed’ 3-0 for example. This kind of negative thinking can seriously effect a team with a history of having a brittle mentality. This was a far different game to the 6-0 they beat Spurs by — now that was a thrashing, a match in which Spurs were never in with a shout of getting anything from the game. We were second best today, but nevertheless still creating chances and definitely in the game at 1-2, 2-3 and even 2-4 — right up until those last 20 minutes in fact. Man Utd conceded four at the Etihad, Spurs six and I wonder how many Jose ‘one clean sheet in eleven’ Mourinho’s team would get battered by. We won’t play a better attacking side all season unless we draw Bayern, Barcelona or Real Madrid on Monday and scoring three at the Etihad shouldn’t be glossed over either. There are plenty of positives when put into perspective despite the misleading ‘thrashed’ headlines.
I’M FASCINATED TO SEE HOW WE’LL REACT
We are lucky in some ways that we have an ideal opportunity to get back on track straightaway against another top side. Chelsea are leaking goals and we have nine days to regroup, prepare our tactics and rest some weary limbs. It’s a pivotal match, make no mistake about that — lose and we could slip to third. We were five points clear of 2nd this morning but all of a sudden we’re five points clear of 4th placed Liverpool, who have a game in hand.
It’s time to cross your fingers and hope that today was a temporary setback, not the start of our annual dogfight for fourth place. If we’re being honest with ourselves though, the league is surely beyond us this year. A more realistic target is a comfortable top four finish, a proper go at the FA Cup and a good summer acquiring the players we need to challenge next season. Considering where we were after the Villa defeat, I’d happily take that.
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