16 September 2015

Well, that's it, then. The fat lady has sung. Season's over.

I don't exaggerate in the slightest when I say that Arsenal's entire 2015-16 campaign is officially over. After just six matches, we might as well put up the tent-stakes, quit while we're ahead, cut our losses, and abandon ship. These are the only logical, rational conclusions to be drawn from losing 2-1 to Dinamo Zagreb in the first of six group-stage fixtures. With absolutely no trace of hyperbole, I can safely say that this is the worst squad to have ever donned an Arsenal kit. To a man, they were so humiliatingly horrific that they should each retire post-haste. We are, apparently, the only English club to lose 2-1. Oh. We're not? The sky isn't falling? Pass the smelling salts.

This tackle by Ademi, though harsher than either of Giroud's
yellow-cards, went uncalled. Just sayin'.
Let's be clear before continuing. This was a terrible result, but it was one driven by individual moments of madness rather than systemic problems. For Dinamo's first goal, we can look to the fact that Debuchy, playing for just the second time this season (and first-ever alongside Gabriel), was out of position while Oxlade-Chamberlain swtiched off as Zagreb's Josip Pivaric burst forward. His shot bounced off of Ospina then pinballed off Ox and into the net. Was Pivaric offside? Perhaps. No more or less so than Özil would be adjudged later on. More clearly, Debuchy had drifted too far towards the center of the pitch and Ox failed to track back. What followed was the flip-side of the all-too-fortunate good luck we've had so far. Live by the own-goal, die by the own-goal.

That goal, a sucker-punch, came completely against the run of play and after a fair-few chances of our own. But for a few unlucky bounces, we'd have been up 0-1 instead of down 1-0. Fast forward not too much further, and the man who had come so close to delivering that 0-1 lead—forcing a fantastic save and hitting the woodwork—was sent off for his own immaturity or stupidity. For the first yellow, he remonstrated needlessly with Hategan and, for the second, did the same. Say what you will about Arsène's inability to sign a striker over the summer (there were factors beyond his control...); his real failing was in leaving Giroud in even after it became clear that Hategan was having a mare (or trying to prove his bona fides).  

From there, it was really about damage-control. Down to ten men, with a referee who seemed out of his depth or in Mamić's pocket, it would have been the stuff of legend for us to find and equaliser. Sadly, with Arteta and Cazorla pairing in the defensive midfield, we didn't have enough tooth to disrupt Dinamo's attack or launch attacks of our own. To end up down 2-0 then came as little surprise. It was only after the introduction of Walcott and Coquelin that we rediscovered the verve of the first 15-20 minutes. Indeed, as he did against Stoke, Coquelin launched a counterattack, this time heading forward to Alexis, who lofted his pass ahead to Walcott to slot home. Sadly, that would be about it.

It's one result. We'll fight back. More worrying than the result is the template that Dinamo seemed to have used, one that others have used to similar effect: absorb Arsenal's pressure for the first 20-25 minutes, and hit hard on a counter or two to see what happens. Chelsea does it. AS Monaco did it, and did Dortmund. Hell, even Bayern Munich did it. More than signing a striker or DM, more than where Ramsey or Walcott's going to play, this is a bigger-picture issue. We have to figure out how to destroy that template. Almost by definition, then, we flatter ourselves when we talk of how much we dominated those first twenty minutes. After all, that dominance might simply be built into our opponents' plans. It might be better for us to learn from our moments of brilliance in these last two matches, when we invited our opponents forward and then released Walcott in behind their high defensive line. Food for thought, that.

Back to a bigger picture: this was one bad result. One. If anything, the knock-on effect has got to be positive, as players chagrined by the result will want to tear into whoever the next opponent may be: Chelsea. By contrast with our stumbles, Chelsea enjoyed a fatuous romp over Maccabi Tel-Aviv. Rather than wringing my hands over that contrast, I welcome. Let Chelsea believe that their woes are magically healed. Something in me believes that our respective results will work to our advantage in the long run. I'm not predicting a win at Stamford Bridge, but I wouldn't be surprised. We have a habit, for better or worse, of rebounding from results such as this one. I look forward to our response. whether it comes on Saturday at Stamford Bridge or next Wednesday at White Hart Lane.