Arsenal 3-4 Liverpool: A lesson in cause and effect

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Aug 152016
 

Hindsight is crystal clear. How often do we see people looking back on events and saying ‘saw that coming‘ as if they were some mystical soothsayer who only refuses to buy lottery tickets because it ‘wouldn’t be fair‘ on the other punters? A quick glance in their history usually shows an unwillingness to stick their head above the parapet beforehand, but a speedy and antagonising willingness to lavish us all with ‘I told you so‘ afterwards. And so we bring ourselves neatly to our opening day disaster….

….which wasn’t like that at all.

We all saw that coming, to some extent. Going into the opening day of the season with none of last season’s senior centre halves was a recipe for disaster, and while injuries are unfortunate (although seriously, how are we not planning for them by now?), some came so long ago that we cannot claim to have been caught out at the eleventh hour. Koscielny was known to be unavailable six weeks ago due to France’s progression in the Euros, and Per’s injury was even further back. Gabriel is the only recent victim, but we’ve had enough ripple effects from a spate of injuries in one area to know that this can happen. Less players available = more minutes for each of the remaining legs = higher chance of injury. We’ve been here before.

So we went into a tough opener with Chambers and Holding as our raw pairing, and I don’t attach any blame to either. Both need seniority around them to reach their clear potential, but days like this are painful lessons that can seriously damage their progress. It is all very well saying that they need to be mentally strong and overcome such obstacles, but I think that oversimplifies things, especially when Wenger had a rare post-match slip and labelled them too inexperienced to cope. I’m sure he intended it as an excuse for them but it was clumsily put, and only served to rile those who were already irritated by what they had seen.

It could have been so much better. We did, after all, score three times against a Liverpool side that are on the rise. Part of our success was due to their defence being almost as weak as ours (hello, Moreno), but that just adds to the frustration – they were there for the taking but we blew it. We weren’t great in the 90 minutes, but it is hard to counter the argument that we shot ourselves in the foot before we even set foot on the field.

All this ratchets up the pressure on Wenger for the rest of the month. Next up is a trip to champions Leicester, who will be looking to bounce back from their own opening day defeat, but they, like Liverpool, have the players to open us up, so we have to improve else we’ll be looking up as the rest race away. Chances are that we won’t have anyone back by then – perhaps a couple of the Euro contingent could be on the bench – and any new signing (stop laughing at the back) would have to be bedded in, so it is an awkward situation all round. With such a tough start to the season, we could not afford our usual summer inertia and we’re seeing the results of it already.

By the end of the month, the squad is likely to be in better shape – Ozil, Koscielny and Giroud will make a huge difference, as will a sharpening of those who started yesterday. And if the desperately needed additions arrive, all the better.

Trouble is, the season has already started.

Dec 152013
 

The script was written by every pundit that was waiting for us to fall. We can’t beat the big sides, our defence won’t stand up to their threat, we don’t have the firepower up front to challenge the toughest of defences and our lack of squad depth means our legs will go. That was the message.

Well, those ‘analysts’ will be smiling today. Our worst display of the season (coming a few days after our previous worst) against a team that you cannot afford to gift wrap goals to led to a pasting that will sting the squad to the core. Yes, we scored three, and yes, we could have scored more were it not for some quite appalling offside decisions (and a denied penalty), but ultimately we went up to Manchester and presented them with a string of freebies that you can’t recover from. Every time we scored and raised hope again, they went up the other end and snuffed us out. They could have scored more.

When you play the top sides, particularly away from home, you cannot afford to play that carelessly, plain and simple. We worked our socks off and kept fighting from two goals down, desperate to get back into the game, and the players should be praised for that after a tough week, physically and mentally. But equally, it was a big occasion and they pressed the self destruct button again.

Having said all of that, and this will come as no surprise to people who have read my views before and know that I’m someone who tends to see the sunny side of things where possible, I do strongly disagree with the simplistic conclusions that are being drawn from the game. Let’s break them down.

City put down a marker and will now start to steamroller the league, smashing us and everyone else out of their way

City have been doing this to teams all season at the Etihad. They hammered United, put six past Spurs, and seven past Norwich. They’ve won all eight league fixtures they’ve played there. To put it another way, this isn’t the first ‘marker’ they’ve put down.

They are likely to end the season as top scorers (their tally of 47 is already 13 more than anyone else’s total), but their problem is at the other end. Even after yesterday, we have a better defensive record than them, and despite having only a knackered striker up front, we scored three and should have had more. That weakness tends to get exposed away from home, and they haven’t found it easy to follow up their ‘markers’ with wins on the road. After putting seven past Norwich, they lost at Chelsea. After hammering United, they drew at Stoke. After trouncing Spurs, they lost at Sunderland.

Like I said in a previous post, winning the big games means little if you follow up those wins by dropping points against the lesser lights. After beating us, United picked up two points from their next four games and disappeared off the radar. Of course it helps to win these big ones, but consistency is more important. So far, City have lacked that.

I had to laugh at one pundit’s assertion that if City replicate their home form away from Manchester, they will win the league. Well, duh. That’s like saying ‘if team X wins all the games they aren’t currently winning, they’ll do well’. These people are paid for that kind of stunning analysis.

Arsenal will now lose to Chelsea and collapse

What I am about to say is not with the benefit of hindsight, because it is something I and many others were saying before yesterday’s game. We were always more likely to get a result from Chelsea than from City. We’re at home, Chelsea are not as good as City (I know Chelsea are ahead in the league, but they won’t be by the end of the season), but more importantly than either of those, we’ll be rested. If the pundits are right about one thing, it is that in certain areas (either end of the pitch), we’re short on numbers, which means we can’t play Everton, Napoli and City in six days without it having a tangible effect. Yesterday, it felt like our defensive aberrations were borne of mental tiredness in particular, and given our excellent prior record at the back, there is reason to believe it was an anomaly.

As for the predicted tailspin, it is worth noting that this Arsenal side is not as prone to wallowing in a bad result as they have previously. We haven’t lost back to back domestic games in nearly two years – you have to go all the way back to January 2012, and defeats to Swansea and Man United for the last time it happened. It is a commonly peddled (and outdated) myth that this team collapses after losing and loses again. Sorry to back my argument up with facts, pundits, but it hasn’t happened in a long time.

As for our domestic defeats this season, we’ve come back hard each time. After losing to Villa, we went on a seven match winning streak. Defeat to Chelsea in the Capital One Cup was followed with a neutering of Suarez and Lewandowski as we beat Liverpool and then Dortmund. Defeat to United was followed with four victories on the spin, all clean sheets. This team is made of sterner stuff than many think.

——

I’m not going to deny that yesterday was painful. Of course it was. We defended poorly, and saw our lead eroded such that a loss to Chelsea will see us slip off the top spot for Christmas. After everything we’ve achieved already this season, that would hurt. But if Liverpool are being talked up as title candidates because they are ‘up there’, then we have to be taken seriously too.

Bring on Chelsea. We’ll be ready.

Sep 022013
 

This isn’t quite going to the script, is it?

There was a moment yesterday that left me open-mouthed. Listening to the game on Five Live (a preferable option to most Sky commentators), with around ten minutes to go, our 1-0 lead over Spurs was being described as the ‘surprise of the season’, as if we were some plucky club leading a Premiership giant in the cup, hanging on by the tips of our fingernails. If that doesn’t speak of a narrative, I’m not sure what does.

Reality does not always sit in line with the populist story. In this case, Spurs were supposedly going to rampage through the league with their battery of new signings, putting in a serious title challenge while leaving Arsenal in their wake (stop me when you’ve heard this before). At the same time, a club that has finished above them for 16 successive years despite many such tales and premonitions, and put ten goals past them in the preceding two equivalent fixtures, had absolutely no chance of winning a home game.

The script was pre-written, just as it was against Fenerbahce, a tie some were almost willing us to lose so that they could fill their boots with juicy attacks and conclusions of dire failure and incompetence. This time, it was all about the fabled power shift, and how the transfer tactics of the two clubs (opposites as they have been so far this summer) fell completely and utterly in the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ bracket. In fairness, Wenger did set himself up for a fall a little in his press conference on Friday, when he spoke of how only the actions on the pitch really mattered. Had we lost the game, those words may have come back to haunt him.

But we did not lose the game, nor did we deserve to. The final moments may have been gritty, determined and tight, but the first seventy saw us in complete control. The game could have been over by half time and 1-0 flattered Spurs at the break, Giroud’s neat finish after a fine team move showing the value of having players on the same wavelength, with an understanding that only continuity can bring. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not using the game as evidence that signings should not have been made by now, but as Wenger himself said, throwing a collection of fresh signings straight into a team does not always make for a cohesive display.

Once again, Giroud led the line magnificently, and the midfield were terrific, including Flamini, who hustled, harried and most importantly led once he came on for his second club debut. Wenger again referenced the fact that players are too often judged based solely on their price after the game, joking that he wished Flamini has cost £25m to satisfy some quarters.

A fair point indeed – Flamini may not have been the most inspiring signing at first glance, but a 29 year old player with a big heart in a position we needed more numbers in is a bit of a no brainer, particularly when you can capture him on a free. For me, the discontent was never really about Flamini in any case, but the fear that his signing meant that the chequebook was closed, and the squad gaps would be filled only with stopgap solutions. A welcome signing if it supports others, less so if it the only business conducted.

Today, of course, we will see what the summer leaves us with, as the transfer window finally closes. I’m not going to speculate on the action we may do, I don’t have any insider knowledge of any kind and doubt I would share it anyway if I did, but it is likely to be busy for a lot of clubs and worth keeping an eye on. Some staggering names have been mentioned but the nature of the beast means I’m not getting excited until official announcements are made. That is the plan, anyway.

But, as Wenger said, the most important thing is what happens on the pitch, and since the Villa aberration, the players have responded magnificently, with four impressive and deserved wins moving us into September in pretty good shape. Of course, it was always reasonable to think we would start the season well, despite what large sections of the press told us. This is, after all, the same crop of players that ended last season so strongly, and with no major departures in the summer, there was no reason to think we wouldn’t hit the ground running once again. The worry has always been what happens in November when we’re short of 5-6 players through injury, a concern that could still do with being alleviated today. We shall see.

But yesterday was not about transfers (except to laugh at the mediocrity of some of that shower’s recruits). It was about showing our neighbours that they can’t just expect to waltz past us because they’ve been flashing their knickers around Europe all summer like Jodie Marsh on holiday. Our belts might be tighter and our lips more sealed, but class will out.

North London is red. As always.

Feb 172013
 

It is difficult to know where to begin with a defeat like that. I’m going to avoid a blow by blow account of the game – by now you know and are probably sick of the details. We had a ton of possession, a stackload of corners, but came up against an excellent keeper, an organised defence, and got sucker punched at the other end.

None of those facts are rare in cup competition – they are the recipe for most upsets. But for a decade and a half, Wenger’s Arsenal have avoided defeat in such circumstances, always finding enough to earn at least of replay on those danger days, enabling us to chuckle at the Liverpools and Spurs of this world, regularly dumped out by lower league opposition. None of us are laughing tonight.

The post match reaction has been understandably hostile. I do feel that some of the anger is misplaced, particularly at the decision to rotate a few players. I’ve seen many comments that we were ‘prioritising Bayern over Blackburn‘ which isn’t something I buy into. The facts are simple – we are playing the Bundesliga giants three days after a Championship side, and if we were looking to win both matches (as we should be), we should logically play the strongest possible team against the Germans and rotate against Blackburn, in the knowledge that a team of eleven internationals should have it within them to defeat a side who until recently have been the laughing stock of football.

Today’s problem was not that we rotated – we still fielded a team that would be expected to win – but that the eleven that started the game did not do what was expected of them, did not perform at the level required of them. Football is a squad game and the notion that we should play our strongest eleven in every game is a foolish one. We won’t beat Bayern without Wilshere, Cazorla and Walcott – we can and should still defeat any Championship side at home in those circumstances. That isn’t complacency, that isn’t believing we just have to turn up to win, that is just the opinion that if the eleven that began the game had played to the standard we demand from them, and that they are capable of, we’d still be in the cup. They didn’t, and we aren’t.

A big problem with this Arsenal side is the inability to learn from past mistakes. I don’t believe that players don’t try, but performances vary too wildly in intensity, which has a similar visual effect. I’ve lost count of the number of times that players and staff have come out after games admitting that opponents had been underestimated, which is disappointing the first time and inexcusable on every subsequent occasion. I sincerely hope that the club has more sense than to allow such quotes to appear this week but you never know with our PR team. They did, after all, create a poll asking if fans would prefer fourth place or a trophy. Who are we, Spurs? Come on.

Where do we go from here? Well, to Bayern on Tuesday. I’m not saying for a moment we brush this under the carpet, but no players or staff will change before the summer, so any speculation on significant changes are moot at this point, and emotions are running too high to even have a rational discussion in those areas without getting lost in a sea of shouting. We must deal with what we have until then – a Champions League campaign that may or may not be short lived and a battle for fourth. Is that ideal? Not in the slightest – it is actually faintly depressing to type – but we are where we are and no amount of complaining will change it. The season needs rescuing in the meantime.

One of my biggest fears is that when he finally leaves, Wenger’s reign as Arsenal boss will be remembered for days like this, rather than the glorious and unprecedented success he has also brought. I hope it never gets that bad. For some, it already has. I doubt I could ever get to that stage – there have been too many good times.

Some more fun times wouldn’t hurt. Tuesday would be a good place to start.

Nov 192012
 

The moment when Walcott scored the fifth and final goal in a 5-2 come-from-behind thumping of our nearest neighbours, who would finish the game with ten men having claimed beforehand that they had ‘closed the gap’, elicited a strange feeling – a repetitious one, an echo of a previous experience. Strangely familiar, if you will.

Of course, some experiences are worth repeating, which is why we all watched the game, and followed it up by chuckling in front of the highlights, particularly at the Spurs fans who cheered so joyously when they took an early lead, in the belief that the pre-game bravado was going to be followed up by a victory to wipe out the memory of the humiliation they received back in February. Instead, they suffered a replica caning, and left long before the end once more, with the taunts of the brilliant home crowd ringing in their ears.

Arsenal fans have a reputation for being a little bipolar, both for swinging between raucous support and despair on matchday and for the contrast in volume between the home and away fans. I’ve always found that to be a baffling accusation, particularly given that a lot of the home and away fans are in fact the same people, and I find it highly unlikely that they sing their hearts out at Carrow Road and then sit rigidly in their seats at the Grove. There is a difference in atmosphere, but I think that is borne more from the corporate feel of our stunning amphitheatre rather than the actions of the individuals within. Still, when the place is rocking, it is something to behold, and yesterday’s game was played out to the backdrop of a united fanbase driving the team on with inspirational force. It was a beautiful thing to see and hear.

The game itself turned on another moment of madness from the man who rarely endears himself to his existing employers, let alone his former ones, and when Adebayor recklessly planted his studs into Cazorla’s ankle, despite the Spaniard being a long way off the ground, there was only going to be one outcome. Howard Webb, who actually had an excellent game (something that isn’t said enough when a referee performs well) produced the red, and the excellent start made by the visitors evaporated. Mertesacker powered a header home, his first for the club, to level the scores, before Podolski and Giroud all but ended the game by the break, the latter after excellent work from Cazorla, fortunately unhurt by the earlier act.

At half time, my only wish for us was to push onwards. Never at our best when sitting back, it was clear that our best option was to keep attacking, and perhaps make this a humiliation that Spurs’ season would not recover from – they have plenty of recent history in that regard. Apart from a wobbly opening to the second half, and a few worried moments after Bale reduced the deficit, that was exactly what we got. We never settled for what we had, we kept trying to drive another nail in the beliefs of all of those that thought this would be The Season Spurs Finish Above Arsenal, a phenomenon many young fans have never seen.

Picking out individuals seems churlish after such a focused and impressive team performance, but the triumvirate of new signings were all excellent – Giroud, Cazorla and Podolski threatened throughout – and Walcott answered yet more critics with a barnstorming display down the right, capped off with a goal after he moved to the centre. But despite all our excellent attacking verve, one man at the back deserves special mention, and that is Laurent Koscielny, who covered superbly on at least three occasions in the first twenty minutes when Vermaelen found himself in the wrong position. The captain started in wobbly fashion, but to his credit grew after those early moments and was superb from there on, but without Koscielny’s alertness we could have been in big trouble in those opening moments.

Ultimately, North London superiority was re-established (or just re-emphasised, if you believe it was never really lost), and while there are those who still cling to the claim that Spurs have the better team or squad (the sight of Huddlestone lining up in midfield against Wilshere, Arteta and Cazorla was entertaining on that particular front), I don’t believe they will be a challenger for a top four berth this season. Say what you like about Harry Redknapp (and after his embarrassing performance on Match of the Day last night, you or I are unlikely to say anything positive), but Spurs looked a better team under him than they do now, and I stick to my pre-match prediction that Everton will finish above them. I also fully expect St Totteringham’s Day to arrive in the customary months of March and April, rather than being delayed to the final day.

But all that is for another time. For now, we bask in the glow of another thumping victory over those who seek to overturn us. Monday morning looks brighter for all that face those on the other side of the fence, and a much needed feelgood factor is back.

I might go and watch those highlights again.