First of all, I would like to wish Peter Hill Wood a speedy and complete recovery. Secondly, well done Swansea City, they fully deserved the three points on Saturday. Their football is fluent; they defend in numbers, and press the ball really well and high up the pitch. In fact they remind me of a more utilitarian version of our last quality side, the 2007 – 2008 team. Furthermore, their supporters were excellent, good natured in the pubs before the game and very vocal during the game. Both the team and their followers are a credit to each other; I wish the same could be said for Arsenal.
After an encouraging away game at Everton on Wednesday night, I was looking forward to Swansea, we showed some real fight and cohesion at Goodison Park and I got the feeling that there was a turn for the better. It was a cold day in N5, I took two of my cousins to the game, it was the first time either had visited the Emirates, but I’d be surprised if they’ll be badgering me to go again. Lots of bloggers have criticised the atmosphere at Arsenal since 2006 (and before), they’re right, groups of vocal supporters are pocketed all over the stadium and although occasionally there is a valiant attempt to “get things going”, chants seem to peter out very quickly. We’re not alone here, Anfield, Old Trafford etc… are hardly cauldrons of noise either.
But you can’t blame the supporters for what’s happening on the pitch. Arsenal were a rabble on Saturday, there is so much negative to comment on, it’s simpler to list the positives. Here goes: the keeper, Jack Wilshere, Cazorla (to a degree – he’s slipping backwards) and Giroud when he came on – that’s it. Everything else was sub-standard, there were spaces all over the pitch, marking was poor, players made the wrong decisions most of the time and when we were got near the Swansea goal, chances were spurned as the ball either went out wide or the player in possession ran across the front of the goal area rather than into it.
I’m reading Phillipe Auclair’s excellent biography of Thierry Henry “Lonely at the Top” currently. He relates the story of a 22 year old joining Arsenal and being immediately impressed by the spirit of the club and its maintenance and adherence to certain principles and standards. These were handed down, like family heirlooms by senior professionals, Tony Adams, Lee Dixon, and Ray Parlour in Henry’s case, who told the new arrival, (and recent World Cup winner), exactly what was expected of you when you wear “the cannon crested jersey”. This doesn’t happen at Arsenal anymore, lads like Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere have been brought up by, and at the club, but they can hardly be expected to lecture the likes of Lukas Podolski (106 German caps) about the importance of Ted Drake and Eddie Hapgood and why we have flowers in the director’s lounge on match day in the opposition’s colours.
Another point raised by Auclair is more telling however. We all know that the last trophy won by the club was the FA Cup in 2005. This was the first time Mr Wenger had elected to pick a 4-5-1 formation. Injuries to Henry and to a lesser degree Sol Campbell, led to Dennis Bergkamp playing as a lone striker. We were comprehensively battered in that game and as we know, scabbed it on penalties. The manager swore that he wouldn’t betray his principles again and the next year Arsenal made it to the final of the Champion’s League. He was vindicated at the time and went on to build the last “great” Arsenal side of 2007-2008, probably the finest footballing team of the Wenger era. Herein lies the rub. 2005 was a victory of pragmatism over ideology, Mr Wenger knew we were going to be outplayed and marshalled his resources accordingly, it was the right thing to do, we were battered but the shape and the players held out.
This is exactly the decision that is required now. Put simply, Arsenal are trying to play like Invincibles with a team of too easily defeatables. It’s time to realise this and either buy the players to change this (unlikely), or accept what’s smacking the rest of us in the face – we’re not good enough and have to change the shape of the 11 to reflect this.
I am not suggesting a return to “defensive” football, but it’s important to remember that in the days when George Graham was managing the club and winning league titles, Arsenal were scoring 25 goals a season more than the prolific attacking teams fielded by Manchester United. In season 90-91, we conceded 18 goals all season, we could defend and we set up to make sure that the whole team could and would defend. Mr Wenger is at a crossroads, if he continues with his stubborn attachment to the style of football that leads Arsenal to over-playing in and around the area, not taking the responsibility to shoot when you can pass to a team-mate in a non-threatening position and then leaking two soft goals in five minutes, eventually he will get sacked. He did the same thing at Monaco, bought some great established players, won things but then decided to pursue a vain, egocentric policy of buying cheap and developing young players, to prove all others wrong – and got the sack.
The current board idolise Mr Wenger in the way we used to, but for different reasons, he’s one of them, he understands the importance of business models. But he’s not bullet proof, he needs to consider the balance of his team (and principally his midfield) as a matter of urgency. Our last exceptional midfield was Fabregas, Flamini and Hleb, we should have won the title with that lot and almost did. It’s the Flamini component we are missing at the moment, and I’ve mentioned this before, I would look to play Koscielny alongside Arteta and Wilshere, with Cazorla playing behind a front two of either Podolski and Walcott or Giroud. Something needs to change, but all isn’t lost, if changes are made quickly, we can still turn the season around, we have lots of good players, just necessarily in the right positions.
I’m reminded of the famous Eric Morecambe quote: “I’m playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order”.
By Ian Byrne