Bolton 0 Arsenal 0
Last night’s clash at the Reebok was a classic example of a football match not being an isolated occasion, and not judged as such, but rather an act in a bigger play, with interpretations not purely taken from the ninety minutes of action, but from the wider context of both clubs.
Taken in isolation, this was a creditable draw away to a Bolton side we have struggled with in the past, at a ground Liverpool got comfortably beaten at recently. We created plenty of chances, hit the frame of the goal twice, saw the opposing goalkeeper have an impressive match, and defensively kept our own clean sheet.
Viewed from that angle, nothing too bad – a match we would usually win, let down by poor finishing and poor luck. One of those days, if you will.
The trouble is, we have a lot of those days, and this wasn’t an isolated occasion. It came off the back of three consecutive defeats, and with Liverpool and Newcastle both winning we found ourselves sitting seventh, being cut further adrift from the Champions League places we so crave. Moreover, the slew of chances missed is a commonplace feature – we are yet to win a Premiership match this season where Van Persie hasn’t scored. He needs help, and when he fails to find the target, the others are not chipping in. Seeing gilt-edged chances go begging is every bit as regular as a defensive mishap. As for the clean sheet, that was partly down to luck too – Ngog missed a sitter and they probably should have had a penalty at the end. We could have lost.
It is extremely frustrating to watch. We have long bemoaned the lack of alternative striking options for Van Persie to rotate with and play off, but not only do we have a serious shortage, it is clear that Wenger himself retains no confidence in those we do have. With Chamakh still absent, Park sat on the bench, and despite our chase for a winning goal, stayed firmly put. Here is a striker in the peak of his career, but unable to get minutes in a team painfully short of numbers in his position. Imagine how painful this is for him.
The race for fourth is an open one – Chelsea, Liverpool and Newcastle are our rivals for the spot, and all of them are dropping points on a regular basis. If we could string any sort of run together, we’d snap the position out of their hands, and generally be a lot happier for it. But we can’t string any sort of run together, certainly not a winning one. Every step forward is followed by a stumble. Can we turn that around and get the five or six wins on the spin that would lift us back above them all? In theory, yes. In practice? It doesn’t look likely.
The weird thing is – I don’t blame the players. The team is pretty solid, all told, but the squad is thin. Our 25 man squad contains seven or eight players that, for one reason or another, Wenger doesn’t trust enough to rotate in and out. The result is that the first team players feature more often than they should, they get tired, and they get injured. Ramsey is the classic example – he is copping a lot of flak this season, but for me, his poorer performances have come when he has been visibly weary. If he were asked to play less often, I really think he would be shining more regularly.
So once again, we are looking forward, hoping that the next match will be the one in which we can gain ground on our rivals. And it should be – with Chelsea, United, Liverpool and Spurs all playing each this weekend, points will be dropped. Meanwhile, we have Blackburn at home. A confident Arsenal side would brush them away, but this is not a confident Arsenal side. Would it really surprise anyone if we struggled?
All season I have been absolutely convinced that we would recover, and go on the run we needed to claim fourth, overtaking sides who, frankly, aren’t that good. But now, I am finally beginning to waver.
Roll on Saturday.