October 25, 2012
Okay. Before we all start losing our minds this morning can we at least first of all agree that Schalke are a very good side. This defeat may have come only a few days after our humiliation at Carrow Road, and may well have had all the hallmarks of that toothless display but this was hardly the same thing. Schalke are a top three side in the Bundesliga. They beat Dortmund at the weekend and last night they pressed us vehemently all over the pitch, they were neat in possession and had quality going forward. Norwich they ain’t.
Agreed? Okay. Now let’s start losing our minds.
We were pretty bad last night. It’s not often you watch an Arsenal side that can only muster a single shot on target and that in the 94th minute from a plucky substitute when the match was dead and buried anyway.
It certainly wasn’t the ideal night to be suffering what most clubs would describe as a massive injury crisis (and what we generally consider to be a return to business as usual). The lack of Theo and the Ox meant that effectively we played with a winger at centre forward but no winger where we could have used one – on the wings. Lukas Podolski is a great player, one of the best finishers I’ve seen at the club, but I’m still yet to be convinced that left wing is his position. He generally does a good, scrappy job there and there’s always the hope he’ll drift inside and lend his goalscoring touch inside the penalty box. But he’s not going to skin three defenders and cut one back from the byline. That’s just not his game.
If we are going to play him there you’d hope it would be to add balance when on the other side we have just such a dynamic, flying winger but last night, for understandable reasons (largely how hopeless Gervinho was there on Saturday), we stuck Aaron Ramsey out there. In tough games it’s worked to add a bit more steel and manpower to our midfield but again, he’s not going to add a great deal of penetration to our attacking play. And with so little penetration it’s no surprise that we struggled to break down the belligerent Schalke defence.
For the most part we were effectively a 4-5-1 with Gervinho as the lone frontman and any suggestion after his early season goalscoring form that he was this season’s Thierry Henry would have been put to bed fairly sharpish on last night’s display. If there was any advantage to having Arsene Wenger sat in the stands as he completed the last game of his latest ludicrous touchline ban it would be that he had a decent view of how badly we need to sign a striker in January. We need someone with pace, power, presence, smart movement and a natural finish. Gervinho I’m afraid is not that man.
I’m not dismissing him as a player by any means. There were enough mopey Gooners sat around me doing that already last night. But clearly his best position is left wing where on his day he can trick his way past the best fullbacks and cut the ball back across the box. Anything else is a waste of his talents.
Defensively all critical eyes will be on Andre Santos this morning. And fair enough. I took some time from our plodding passing game last night to watch his movement off the ball and even in the first half he looked like he was struggling. I don’t know if it was his fitness or just lack of awareness but he was continually a step behind the other defenders’ movements and that proved costly on their first goal particularly as he played Huntelaar onside.
In defence of his defence Santos was left continually exposed throughout the match with Podolski often looking to come inside and an apparent confusion between Coquelin and Arteta over who should be covering. It was forgivable the first couple of times but for no one on the team or the coaching staff to spot what was evident to 60,000 fans and put it right was not. Santos was targeted as our weak link and regardless of his own deficiencies we should have done more as a team to guard against it.
There’s no doubt that injuries are taking their toll and with one or two regulars starting to show signs of fatigue – Mikel Arteta has looked especially below his usual high standards in the last couple of games – we just don’t have enough match-winners in reserve to carry us through tricky ties like this. While Manchester United have Van Persie, Rooney and Welbeck to choose from up front, it was Javier Hernandez who rescued them with two goals on Tuesday. At the moment our first choice centre forward is not even a centre forward and we’re still making room in the squad for Marouane Chamakh.
This isn’t a crisis. Yes, we badly need to beat QPR on Saturday but with the prospect of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott, Gibbs and, deep breath, Jack Wilshere all hopefully vying for a return the side could look an entirely different prospect in the not too distant future. But the timing couldn’t be worse for the directors at the AGM today. Stan Kroenke is in town with his St Louis Rams and even to his untrained eye he must have seen how lacking we were in the firepower department last night.
I’d like to think tough questions – on the wisdom of failing to spend our transfer budget when there are improvements that need making to the squad, on the sluggish performance of our commercials team as wages at the club continue to spiral – would be met with honest and illuminating answers. But I’ve been to a few AGMs in my time and if there’s one thing this board is excellent at it’s obfuscation and dodging the tough questions.
Maybe if nothing else the last two results will force them to be more candid.
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