Arsenal 2 – 0 Cardiff: We have forgotten how to play without a target man

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Arsenal 2 – 0 Cardiff
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

The Emirates was a pretty gloomy place in the first-half…
…and not just because over the overcast sky that shrouded the ground in a wash of grey.
Arsenal’s first-half performance was poor. Both the crowd and the team were subdued. At its best, the relationship between those two entities is one of mutual provocation, each spurring the other on. On this occasion, neither side did much to elucidate a response from the other. The fans were probably hungover, and the players plain tired. I love the festive period but when you look at the number of muscular injuries being picked up across the league, fatigue is clearly a problem.

The one moment of levity in the gloomy first-half was provided by Bacary Sagna…
Arsenal were awarded a free-kick in a dangerous position just outside the penalty area, and Sagna was somehow given permission to take it. Unfortunately, his curled strike hit the wall.
On the serious side, one has to wonder how on Earth that came to pass in a team also containing Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta, Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott. I suppose one could make the argument that as a player who crosses regularly, Sagna is well practised at putting curl and dip on the ball.
However, Cazorla and Arteta were first-choice set-piece takers at Malaga and Everton respectively. Surely the Arsenal dead-ball jinx can not have struck them so severely that they have now been superseded by Sagna?

Jack Wilshere was a bright spark…
In the absence of Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey, Wilshere was handed the No. 10 role. He flourished. This performance was reminiscent of the all-action display he gave against Swansea in last season’s FA Cup. On that occasion, it was universally declared that Wilshere was “back”.

That turned out to be a little hasty, so I’ll refrain from such proclamations today.

This performance was simply another reminder of Wilshere’s undoubted talent. The assist for Walcott’s goal was, in particular, sublime. However, there have been plenty of such reminders this season. One immediately thinks of Wilshere’s glorious goal against Norwich, or his curled effort against Marseille.

His problem is not talent. His problem is consistency. One hopes that time and regular football will enable him to overcome that troublesome hurdle.

I don’t blame Podolski for his poor display…
I was one of those who was hopeful that Podolski could provide cover for Olivier Giroud at centre-forward. On the evidence of this game, that isn’t going to be the case.

Podolski and Giroud are very different types of striker. They require different types of service, and a different style of approach play. Podolski is an instinctive finisher who comes alive in and around the penalty area. Giroud is a tireless target man, who is prepared to run in to the channels and play with his back to goal.

For Podolski to thrive as a centre-forward, Arsenal would need to adapt their game. Judging by today’s performance, we’re in no hurry to do that.

It could be successful. Both Liverpool and Chelsea play without what you would call a traditional ‘target man’. Chelsea are a great example: like Arsenal, they play with three diminutive attack midfielders. However, they do not require a hulking great striker in order for those players to function. They regularly field the nippy Samuel Eto’o or the slight Fernando Torres. The player with the most obvious similarities to Giroud, Demba Ba, barely gets a look-in. The powerful Romelu Lukaku was sent out on loan.

However, Arsenal appear to have forgotten how to play without a traditional no. 9. It’s odd, especially when you consider that for so many years Arsene Wenger was criticised for his refusal to deploy a conventional striker.

The Invincibles team of 2003-04 arguably pioneered the whole “false nine” thing before anyone even knew what it was. With Thierry Henry drifting out to the left, and Dennis Bergkamp dropping in to midfield, Arsenal’s varied goal threat came with stealth and surprise. SKY lazily labelled it a 4-4-2 and we all bought it, but in truth there was no central pivotal striker.

In recent years, that has changed. Arsene Wenger, the man who signed Mark Hateley for Monaco, has renewed his love affair with the powerful centre-forward. Emmanuel Adebayor, Marouane Chamakh and most recently Giroud have heralded a return to playing with a more traditional type of striker.

And now, Arsenal have become dependent on it. We’ve been blessed to have Giroud fit and firing for most of this season and last, but it’s also made us strategically lazy. With Podolski starting up top, the rest of the team didn’t seem to know how to play it.

The Arsenal team have been fed a steady diet of Olivier Giroud for 18 months, and it appears to have significantly altered their palette. Give them Luis Suarez, and they’d probably he aiming balls at his head and chest, wondering why he couldn’t bring them down.

Giroud is not just integral to our attacking shape. He practically is the attacking shape.

Nicklas Bendtner’s introduction changed the game not because he is a better player than Lukas Podolski, but because he is a better impersonator of Olivier Giroud.

This all has implications for any proposed transfer activity this January…
With Bendtner now injured, Wenger may be a little more likely to dip in to the market. If he does, it must be for a striker with similar attributes to Giroud.  This current Arsenal team look unsuited to playing with any other kind of striker. Someone with a different style would require a period of adaptation, and given the intensity of this title race I’m not sure that’s something we can afford.

Diego Costa would be ideal, but the chances of him leaving Athletico Madrid in pre-season are slim.

Many will baulk at the suggestion, but Arsene Wenger needs to find another Emmanuel Adebayor.

In January (yes, January) of 2006, Arsene Wenger plucked the little-known Adebayor from the subs bench at Monaco. He went on to become a 30 goal, £25m striker. It’s time to ask Arsene to pull another such rabbit from his extraordinary hat.

When Emmanuel Adebayor was being left out of the Tottenham squad week-on-week by Andre Villas Boas, I privately wondered if Arsene Wenger would ever consider a short-term move for the former Arsenal man. Note: privately – I knew such a suggestion would invite ridicule and abuse if made public. It’s off the table now, and would probably have never happened: Adebayor simply carries too much baggage. However, there’s no doubt that physically and technically, he has all the attributes we require.

Arsenal need someone with size, strength, good close control, and ideally a bit of speed. Someone who can play the Giroud role, but perhaps with their own unique spin. An extra trick, or yard of pace.

Over to you, Arsene. Surprise me.

Arsene’s subs corrected his erroneous starting XI…
Introducing Rosicky and Bendtner was effectively an admission of the issues with the initial team. Fielding both Flamini and Arteta was unnnecessarily cautious, whilst Podolski’s problems have been covered above. As soon as the pair came on, Arsenal looked more effective.

In the second half, Theo Walcott was absolutely outstanding…
Walcott occasionally takes stick for shirking responsibility, but I thought he really took this game by the scruff of the neck. His crossing was quite superb, and Per Mertesacker probably ought to have scored from two of his most enticing balls. According to Squawka, he created six goalscoring opportunities against Cardiff – his highest tally in any game thus far.

He also has six goals this season, from just 10 starts.

Wingers, by their nature, are a bit infuriating to watch. They deal in fine margins – quite literally, given their proximity to the touchline. Considering that, Walcott’s efficiency and continued productivity is quite remarkable.

It’s almost impossible not to be pleased for Bendtner…
Everyone loves a redemptive hero, and there’s no doubt that his could be a hugely significant goal in our title bid. It’s unfortunate that he was injured in scoring, but I suspect his ego might have enjoyed the pseudo-martyrdom of sacrificing himself for the good of the team.
Rather enjoyably, he has now scored more goals from open play in this season’s Premier League than Tottenham’s £26m man Roberto Soldado.

All eyes on the FA Cup…
…and a mouth-watering game against Tim Sherwood’s Tottenham. With a tricky tie against Bayern in the Champions League, the FA Cup now represents our second-best chance of a trophy in 2013/14. Maybe the best. The season we’re having deserves silverware. We ought to give this competition absolute focus.

Gunnerblog is the brainchild of childbrained football writer James McNicholas. Aside from Gunnerblog, James currently contributes to Bleacher Report, The Mirror and ESPN.