18 October 2014

Arsenal are living on borrowed time after that execrable excuse

I'm too tired to be as angry as I supposed I should be. The match against Hull was supposed to provide us an opportunity to start building momentum, to start salting away points and climb the table. Instead, we barely escaped by the skin of our collective teeth thanks to a magical, magnificent effort from one player. We nicked a point. At home. Against Hull. In stoppage-time. The concerns and attendant excuses are growing too numerous too, er, enumarate, and it makes little sense to miss the forest for the trees. Aside from a ten-minute stretch against Aston Villa and a longer stretch against Galatasaray, we're looking feeble and toothless.

We are each of us old and slow. Please help us with our penalty-shout?
You might look at the match and say, "hey, if the referee would just call the mugging that Diame inflicted on Flamini, that first goal wouldn't count" or "if Per had closed down on that cross just a bit better, the second goal wouldn't have gone in." Sorry, but those are the proverbial trees. Focusing on them misses the forest: why is Flamini our defensive midfielder? He's been very good at times, and, yes, he's cartoonishly fiesty, but there is no way that he delivers the quality that a club with legitimate designs on silverware needs. Behind him, can we really say that a backline of Gibbs, Monreal, Mertesacker, and Bellerin can be counted on to deliver clean-sheets? Not if it concedes two to Hull.

We've now taken 11 points from 8 matches, a rate of return that would see us claim 52.3 on the season. All other things being equal, that would be good for ninth place. As it currently stands, we're in sixth place, which doesn't look too terribly bad until we see that we've taken half the points that undefeated Chelsea have, and that we are fortunate to benefit in no small part from comically bad starts from Everton, Man U, and Liverpool. Before you heave any sighs of relief, though, remember that the latter two play on Sunday and could very well end the weekend above us. We still have to account for the whereabouts of Tottenham who at least had the good taste to lose 4-1 to Man City; more urgently, perhaps, Southampton look like they mean business. With a fifth of the season gone, it's starting to feel a little late to call this early days.

Yes, we've been decimated by injuries. However, we can't use that as too much of a crutch (it only hurts when I laugh) when Man U's players have seen 78 games missed to injury. Yes, perhaps we miss Ramsey or Walcott more than they miss McNair or Lingard, but their squad as a whole at least shows signs of energy and ambition. Meanwhile, we wait with bated breath on the return of Walcott, who may or may not still have the pace to do what he does, but that promise is predicated on a whole other set of suppositions that fly in the face of current reality as practised at Arsenal.

We are a boring, predictable and therefore easy side to deny and exploit. The recipe is so stunningly simple that I'm astounded at our own inability to transcend it:
  1. concede possession.
  2. wait for Arsenal to build up the attack.
  3. defend in numbers.
  4. assume that someone will attempt a cutesy back-heel or deft flick.
  5. launch counter-attack.
  6. repeat steps 1-5.
There are variations on the theme, such as when we follow step #5 with a the terrible clearance, such as the pass across our own 18 or Szczesny rolling it out to someone who is marked or unready for the ball, but the outcomes are depressingly similar. Why then do we continue to fall for it? We tiki-tak around the edges of the box, hoping for another Norwichian goal in which there are 7-8 touches involving 5-6 players in a tight space. There's a reason that Wilshere's goal against Norwich was so stunning—it's the kind of goal that gets scored once a season (okay, twice: Rosický did score a similar goal). However, it's the kind of goal that can poison a team, luring it to try again and again to recapture that kind of glory.

Meanwhile, opponents pack eight or nine defenders into the box, daring us to reprise that pièce de resistance. Along the way, we squander the prodigious talents of some of our most dangerous players. Why bother sending on Alexis or Walcott or Welbeck with their blistering pace if there is no space in which to use it? Why worry about where on the pitch Özil is if there is no space into which he can send his passes? Maybe he is a waste of money—but that wouldn't be his fault. The fact that Alexis has delivered as well on his promise comes, perhaps ironically, because he's not playing to our current tactics. When he gets the ball, he attacks. He goes for the throat, and it's perhaps no coincidence that our goals and best chances against Hull came when he seized an advantage, usually on the quick counter-attacks that Arsenal used to deliver with such devastation.

Despite the gloom, doom, and depression of the moment, there's something in this. Even a manager as stubborn as Arsène has shown a glimmer of tactical flexibility, such as in the first 15-20 minutes against Chelsea when we defended deep and looked for run-outs. With the speed we have in this side, and with the passing ability we also have, why nibble around the edges of a parked-bus defense? Why not entice our opponents forward so as to obliterate them on the counter? With the returns of Ramsey, Walcott, and Gnabry, along with the continued development of Welbeck and Ox, not to mention the growing importance of Alexis, we'd be fools to continue along the same path we've plodded to this point.

There's hope yet. It depends in large part on Arsène's willingness to make adjustments. Scratch that: it depends on Arsène's ability to make the most of the squad he has assembled.