17 September 2014

Determined Dortmund annihilate Arsenal, turning cracks into chasms

We deserved that. We've been flirting with such a result since the season started, playing up or down to the level of our competition. To this point, more or less, we've eked out positive results. Only the draw to Leicester stood out as a black mark to this point. We've limped, staggered, and lurched from fixture to fixture, each time doing just enough to assuage most of the fears and doubts we've harboured about this squad since the end of last season. The new signings have been welcome, to be sure, but through little fault of their own have not had the impact we would need to keep up with our rivals. And now, more than two weeks too late, we've received the comeuppance that last season seemed to force Arsène to act. On one hand, losing away to Dortmund is not a crisis akin to losing at home to Villa. On the other, the cracks and fissures that are starting to show threaten to yawn out into gaping chasms.

We looked absolutely blitzed after Saturday's clash with Man City, and why not? If it hadn't been for Debuchy's injury in the 81st minute, we might not have seen any rotation at all. Meanwhile, City rested a number of key players and used all three subs by the 77th minute, including one at halftime. They play today at Bayern. Why then did we, on one day less rest, not rotate much and only then in response to injury? We knew we would be facing two high-energy, pressing squads, and even with the squad-thinning injuries we've suffered, some kind of rotation would be better than none.

Of course, who's available is another sore spot. Knowing all summer that we had pressing needs at right-back, striker, a keeper, and defensive-midfield, and then centre-back as well, we got a striker, a right-back who might play at defensive-midfield or centre-back, a winger who might be a striker, an actual right-back, and a keeper. Alexis has impressed, it's true, but Welbeck is still trying to find himself. Chambers looks like he'll be a very good player, but he can't cover all three of those positions at the same time. With Debuchy out for two to three (to four) months, he's our right-back. Bellerin looked a bit out of his depth against Dortmund. If something happens to Per or Kos, who's our centre-back? Monreal? Then, if Gibbs also gets hurt (he's just back from injury), does Flamini slot over? Oh. Wait. Flamini seems to have picked up a bit of a knock himself (as has Wilshere...and Ramsey...)

What we're left with in the back four is worrisome. Only Per and Kos seem hale and hearty, but Kos now has to look over his shoulder after every tackle and challenge, it not second-guessing himself beforehand. Can he risk playing assertively, knowing that he's one injury or red-card away from leaving us with a backline of Monreal-Chambers-Per-Bellerin? There were times against Dortmund when it looked as if Kos did pull up rather than dive in. Even if discretion is the better part of valour, it blunts a large part of what has made the Kos-Per partnership so strong.

If Kos's role is undermined by such concerns, Per's is exposed. Never fast, he's going to face ever more pressure. Playing alongside a more conservative Kos, and shielded by only one DM (Arteta or Flamini), his lack of pace has no place to hide. Rather than forming a de facto box of four defenders with Kos and Ramsey playing more fluidly while Per and Arteta (or Flamini) play more conservatively, we now have a more-static triangle that offers Per less cover and forces him to cover more ground, something he's just not quick enough to do. The same is true of Arteta and Flamini, for that matter.

With this abomination of a formation, we are clustering too many players forward—all four midfielders on attack, leaving Arteta alone to try to break up counterattacks until a few of those midfielders decides to drop back. I love Ramsey, Wilshere, Alexis, and Özil, but let's face it, none of them have the defensive commitment needed to make this formation work. In a 4-2-3-1, that second "defensive midfielder" at least has a notion that part of his role is to drop down to defend. In this 4-1-4-1, there's more ambiguity around it, all the more so if the idea is for the four of them to interchange. If we assume that Wilshere or Ramsey are still to fill some kind of box-to-box role, what happens when one or both exchange with Özil or Alexis and find themselves on the wing, along the edge of the area, in the corner? Are they going to charge back while Özil trots along, "ghosting" so that defenders forget where he is?

A lot's been said of Özil on the wing already, but I'm of a mind to think that, regardless of where he starts on the pitch, he should be having more of an impact. His appearance barely even registers, and no longer can we credit him for doing that as a strategy to dupe defenders. He seems completely shorn of confidence, unwilling or unable to attempt anything with the ball at his feet, dumping it off as if he's playing hot-potato instead of football. By the time he was subbed off in the 62nd minute, I muttered a few spiteful oaths, directed first at him and then, more accurately, at Arsène.

What is he doing? What are we doing? Early in the season, I wondered if it might be good to lose to Crystal Palace because, like the loss to Villa, it might force him into more-dramatic action. We have now suffered the ignominious defeat, albeit too late to do anything about it. No, losing away to Dortmund is not a crisis—but that scoreline flattered us as they could very well have scored two or three more but for some vitals saves from Szczesny. With the injuries mounting, player-confidence teetering, and a commitment to a formation that seems to undermine some players' skills and expose others' weaknesses,

However, I don't want to fill you with gloom and doom. Even with Dortmund's own injury-crisis, we had to know that this would be a tough, tough match. Yes, it puts a number of flaws under a microscope, one into which I hope Arsène is at least glancing, if not peering. It might be too late to bring in any new players, except of an out-of-contract geriatric or two, but a return to the more-familiar 4-2-3-1 might at least restore some of the verve and stability we've shown over the last season and a half.

We have a few days to lick these wounds before traveling to Villa Park on Saturday to face high-flying and undefeated Aston Villa, fresh off of a confidence-boosting 0-1 win at Anfield. Hm. No rest for the weary, it seems...