02 January 2015

Of all the stupid things Arsène did to lead to this failure...

What a debacle. We came into St. Mary's with an opportunity to finally overtake the Saints and close the gap on Man U, who had drawn away to Stoke. If felt like fourth place was in hand, and third was lurking in the bush. And then...and then, well, we dropped that steaming pile of fertilizer on the pitch. At times, we were outplayed so thoroughly that it felt like we were down a man. By the end of the day, we not only failed to overtake Southampton, but we'd dropped behind none other than Tottenham, and we now sit precariously in fifth place. The pitchfork-and-torch brigade is out for blood, and they're calling for Arsène's head. Let's take a look at how this all fell apart, then, shall we? Just what didArsène do to bring us to such dire straits?

Let's agree that the squad he named should have, on paper, done more than what it did. Even against a determined Southampton squad, we had our first-choice defense for the first time in ages, with Debuchy, Mertesacker, Koscielny, and Gibbs. Up top, we had Alexis and Cazorla ready to slice and dice, supported by Rosicky and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Even without key starters like Özil, Ramsey, Wilshere, or Giroud, we should have had enough firepower to at least test Forster if not punish him for his performance just under a month ago. Enough of the players, though, for this result was clearly the result of Arsène's incompetence.

After all, it was he who in a moment of madness head-butted QPR's Onuoha, earning a three-match ban in the process and depriving our offense of a vital focal point. Had Arsène kept his cool, we might have had a bit more structure on attack, not to mention someone who might actually latch on to one of the eighteen thousand crosses we went into the box, or at least—oh. It wasn't Arsène who saw red? Sorry. Wrong Frenchman. Surely, though, we can find fault with his approach elsewhere.

Aha. Coming off his line like a madman. Surely, that is his fault. After all, when Mané bullied his way past Koscielny, Arsène's charge off his line, all the way to the edge of the area, exposed him cruelly to Mané's brilliant chip while Koscielny trotted back in the general direction of the goal. In so doing, Arsène showed the same kind of reckless, shoot-first-and-ask-questions later kind of mentality we've long lambasted him for, and he's paid the price. Finally, there's incontrovertible proof of his arrogance and his incompetence and—what's that? I see. Turns out it was Sczezny who was guilty of poor positioning and Koscielny who was culpable of tepid defending. Go figure.

Surely, there is some to pin this defeat on Arsène. Southampton kept a clean sheet, so it must have been on offense that the blame lies. We kept 60% possession and put six shots on target but never really tested Forster. Arsène had to know that Forster had turned in a blinder when we last clashed, and he'd do his level-best to put any shots he had on-frame but away from Forster instead of putting them. Right. At. Forster. Every. Single. Time. Sure, there were one or two shots that asked Forster to stretch a bit to one side or the other, but it's litte short of a miracle that we didn't see another abomination of a meme along the lines of #ThingsForsterCouldSave. Ahem. As with the previous points offered, Arsène is guilty of nothing here. 

It was the players on the pitch who didn't rise to the occasion. Not only that, many if not most of them slinked away, tails tucked between their legs. We can fault Arsène for any number of failings, chief among them his reluctance, inability, or failure to strengthen the squad in the summer, but this is the same squad that went into Anfield and earned a draw and into the Boleyn Ground to scalp a win in recent weeks. Should he have entrusted Giroud to alone lead the line? The man did it without complaint a season ago. Should Arsène have asked our first-choice back-line to keep a clean-sheet? Almost certainly. More pertinently, should we and Arsène have expected a bit more production from the attack? Yes. Long story short, on this day, it was the players on the pitch who failed. Even with a few squad-players named—Coquelin, Rosický, and...and...oh. That's it. Still, even with a squad at less than full strength, we had a right, as did Arsène, to expect something more than what we witnessed.

At the macro-level, yes, we have much to complain about when it comes to Arsène. His long-time failure or refusal or inability to strengthen the squad seemed to be on full display against Southampton. However, on a micro-level, the players on the pitch failed, time and again, to deliver. Whether it was jaw-dropping failures or head-slapping miscues, the lads let us down. Almost to a man, they failed to show up, and that might be attributable to Arsène's pre-game preparations, but what professional worth his salt depends entirely on his manager's pep-talk to get fired up? None worth his salt, not for a match of this significance. We had a chance to seize fourth and reach for third, and instead, we sink to fifth.

At some other level, maybe this result is just the reality-check we need. It comes, of course, ahead of an FA Cup rematch against Hull, in which we'll need some kind of response. Perhaps more relevant to our long-term goals, it came on the eve of the opening of the January transfer-window. For someone who approaches the silly season much as anyone approaches an already-used tissue, the loss to Southampton might just motivate the man to explore and actually acquire a few targets. With rumours of Sanogo and Podolski going out on loan, will we see the signing of someone significant enough to bolster our chances? Will the nagging and recurring injuries to Wilshere and Ramsey, not to mention longer-standing questions about physicality, encourage Arsène to sign someone who can add some steel to the defense? We have a few weeks to ponder these and other questions as the rumour-mill winds up.

For the moment, let's admit to ourselves that we crashed up against the rocks of a very-good opponent, one that does have legimitate designs on a top-four finish, and we failed. It's not as if we went to the Hawthorns and came away empty-handed. We should have done better, without question, but to dub this a crisis might overstate things by just a bit. Sleep it off. We're not the only club to have dropped points this weekend.