Arsenal 1-2 Man United: Why the players have to take blame too

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It’s never just one thing.

The culture of football analysis is such that, at full-time in any given game, there is an immediate and intense desire to attribute the result to one particular factor. Journalists hunt for a line with all the fervour of coke-addled addicts, and fans fight to make their post-game punditry concise enough to squeeze in to a 140 character tweet. A game’s hero and villain are invariably declared within minutes of the full-time whistle. Consensus is quick and often condemnatory.

The truth is that a result is rarely determined by one singular thing. It’s almost never entirely due to the brilliance of one player, or indeed the error of another. Football is a game composed of thousands of interconnected moments. The margins are so fine that such acute analysis is impossible.

Louis van Gaal summed up the precarious nature of the game quite well in his post-match press conference. Reflecting on his side’s victory, he remarked that had Arsenal won the match, he would have been interrogated on his decision to play with three central defenders. As it happened, they scored the first goal and went on to win comfortably. As Van Gaal put it, “I can laugh now”.

No-one’s laughing at Arsenal, as the multiplicity of our problems becomes ever clearer. Up until now, the prevailing narrative has been one of Arsenal’s poor defending. However, after failing to capitalise on such dominance over Manchester United, scrutiny is now focusing on our misfiring attack. We’re almost in to December, yet we’re still not establishing reliable patterns of play. There’s a lot of running, but no structural rigour. We can’t pretend that the back four is our only problem – the entire team lacks balance.

The coaching will be questioned again. I understand that entirely. Arsene Wenger’s stock has rarely, if ever, been lower. However, it’s once again important to consider the complexity of apportioning blame. After all, Arsene Wenger didn’t miss that first-half sitter — Jack Wilshere did.

A manager’s limitations do not entirely absolve his players of responsibility. The boss’ proclivity towards attacking football has been balanced out in the past. When you have players who assume leadership, it’s not such a problem — see the Invincibles. A team’s fortunes are not solely down to the manager. Let’s not forget, a Chelsea side overcame the significant handicap of being coached by Avram Grant to reach a Champions League Final.

We all know that Arsene Wenger isn’t going anywhere until 2017. With that in mind, we have no choice but to demand more from the players. They can’t hide behind his diminishing reputation. They might not like it, but this is their mess too.  It’s never just one thing, and Wenger’s tactical naivety does not fully excuse theirs.

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Video: On the Whistle Reaction

Arsenal 3-0 Burnley: Arsene Goes Back to the Future with 4-4-2

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This might have been Arsenal’s best 90 minutes of the season…

There were dazzling 20 minute spells against Manchester City and Hull, but neither of those was sustained for an entire match. The wins against Aston Villa and Galatasaray might have been more eye-catching, but there were mitigating circumstances which took the shine off both those victories: Villa were afflicted with illness, while Gala were suffering from a severe case of Felipe Melo. For different reasons, both their defences spent most of the game shitting themselves.

Burnley might be the weakest team in the Premier League, but they couldn’t blame bad health or errant Brazilians for this defeat. Arsenal were simply superior. Even when the half-time whistle sounded with the score at 0-0, I wasn’t concerned. The team looked confident, patient, and in control.

Finally, 4-4-2 is back…

I honestly didn’t think I’d see the day.

When the line-ups were first released, the selection of both Mathieu Flamini and Mikel Arteta was met with some consternation. However, the thought process behind the decision soon became clear, as Arsenal lined up in an old-fashioned 4-4-2 with Alexis playing up top alongside Danny Welbeck.

Having relied upon the solidity of a midfield three for the best part of a decade, Arsene was clearly feeling a little insecure about reverting to a two, so opted for the conservative choice of Arteta and Flamini.

That shouldn’t come as any enormous surprise. Think of the great Wenger sides of the first half of his reign: he consistently favoured two deep-lying central midfielders who could break up with the play, with roaming wingers and two strikers ahead. Arteta and Flamini aren’t exactly Emmanuel Petit, Patrick Vieira or Gilberto Silva, but they’re the closest thing we’ve got.

The results have been good, too. Since fielding both our defensive midfielders in tandem, we’ve kept two consecutive clean sheets — and that’s with Nacho Monreal at centre-half.

An Arsenal side struggling for balance has found equilibrium by reintroducing the formation that brought Wenger the majority of his success. It’ll be fascinating to see how frequently we see this new 4-4-2 deployed. With Ramsey, Wilshere, Ozil and Walcott all to return to the starting XI, it’s difficult to see it becoming the default system.

The two Chambo’s are linking up well…

Along with all the praise for the team’s obvious star on Saturday, the performances of the two players on Arsenal’s right side also deserve a mention. Calum Chambers had a stormer from full-back, getting his first senior goal and another assist. Ahead of him, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain looked to be regaining confidence and composure on the wing.

It’s clear these two share a great understanding. It seems Chambers has not only replaced Carl Jenkinson as the team’s back-up right-back, but also as the Ox’s best mate.

Alexis is a leader…

Leadership comes in many different forms. Alexis doesn’t have the physical stature of a Patrick Vieira. He doesn’t even speak the language, so can’t command or cajole his team-mates with words.

Instead, Alexis leads by example. He leads by being brave enough to constantly demand the ball. He thrives on responsibility. Nor is he scared to attempt the improbable, as with his 6’10” leap to put the Gunners ahead. When the going gets tough, Alexis gets going.

Much has been made of Arsene Wenger’s decision to hand Alexis a spot in the middle. However, the truth is that he’s influential wherever he plays. He was always going be a central figure. Alexis’ place at the heart of this team is contingent on his personality, not his position.

Sunderland 0-2 Arsenal: Alexis makes his own luck

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Alexis Sanchez continues to amaze…

It’s only October and I’m already running out of superlatives for this magnificent man. To be honest, saying you’re running out of superlatives is in itself a cliche. I’m running out of ways to say I’m running out of superlatives.

I was one of those banging a particularly loud drum about the potential signing of Alexis as early as March, but even I could not have expected him to have such an immediate impact in English football.

The key to his success is that he shares Luis Suarez’s capacity to combin technique, imagination and relentless running. His quality is underpinned by huge desire. He was the beneficiary of big mistakes against Sunderland, but he also generated his own luck through sheer hard work. He’s an example to the rest of the players.

Alexis played in the No. 10 role…

I don’t think there’s any great need to pin Alexis down to one position. Wherever he plays, he is capable of creating problems for the opposition. In a recent interview with SkySports, he expressed a slight preference for starting on the left as it enables him to cut in on to his right foot. However, with Ozil out, he might be most useful to us through the middle.

The way we’ve exploited Alexis’ versatility is somewhat telling, though. Already this season he’s played in four different positions. It suggests a lack of clarity in our team-building, especially in contrast to someone like Chelsea. They brought in Fabregas and Costa as missing parts in a nigh-complete puzzle. They were components with a clear function in a grander plan. We seem to be making it up on the fly. If you asked Arsene to name his best XI now, I don’t think he could tell you.

The return of Mikel Arteta was important…

Although he can be steamrollered by more physical opposition, he remains the team’s primary playmaker at the base of the midfield. When he is absent, Mathieu Flamini struggles to replicate the captain’s range of passing. With Arteta back in the fold, we were able to control possession far better. His ability to dictate the game from the middle is partly what enabled us to keep a rare clean sheet.

Santi Cazorla’s misses caught the eye…

…largely because we’re not as used to seeing chances missed this season. In the past, it has been the hallmark of Arsenal teams to dominate the game but be profligate in front of goal. This season, we’ve created so little that we’ve been forced to be quite efficient with the few chances we forge. It’s rare to see such presentable opportunities passed up.

The positive reading of Santi’s shockers? At least we’re creating the opportunities.

The ‘Podolski Problem’ was illustrated perfectly…

Lukas Podolski was the hero in midweek, coming off the substitutes bench to score a late winner. The following weekend, he didn’t even get off the bench. For all his quality, it’s very hard to see him remaining at the club beyond January.

Arsenal 2-2 Hull City: Fragile Arsenal Falter Again

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This was one of those draws that seemed like a defeat…
There were only a few minutes between Arsenal’s equaliser and the final whistle, but it was enough time for the air of relief to sublimate in to regret. This match fell somewhere between a ‘should-win’ and a ‘must-win’. By the time the fans trudged out of the Emirates Stadium, Danny Welbeck’s goal felt like a mere consolation.

We lacked a little bit mental strength…
In fact, we lacked a lot mental strength. Arsenal started the match well, but seemed completely thrown by Hull’s controversial equaliser. The referee should have blown, but that doesn’t excuse the way in which we allowed it to affect us. That kind of adversity used to galvanise Wenger’s teams. Against Hull, it saw the handbrake yanked and the performance ground to a horrible halt.

After the game, Arsene Wenger was fulsome in his praise of his players’ effort. However, in the same breath he admitted that Hull’s second goal was down to a lack of focus. If they can’t concentrate, praising their commitment seems perverse. I’m loathe to celebrate a fight-back necessitated by sloppiness.

Being a superhero is hard…
The comic books and films tell us as much. Spiderman is always stressing, Batman is invariably grumpy — the less said about the Hulk the better. With all that power comes a good deal of responsibility. It’s surely not long before Arsenal’s own superhero, Alexis Sanchez, starts feeling the strain.

Without Alexis, Arsenal probably don’t get anything out of this game. He created both goals out of nothing, and his effort levels were nothing short of supernatural. At times, he seems confused that his team-mates can’t match his relentless running. He’s like a young Superman on school sports day, wondering why everyone else is so far behind in the sack race.

Things could get nasty…
Remember winning the FA Cup? Gauging the atmosphere out there in the wild web, it seems that not many do. It’s amazing how quickly that fuzzy, fluffy feeling comfort of a trophy win can evaporate.

I understand the frustration. We’re visibly regressing at a time when we should be kicking on. For the manager, excuses are running thin. We’re spending big money again. Expectation is higher than ever. Last season has not sated the fans’ appetite for success.

Rather than buying Arsene time, winning a trophy has simply removed another potential defence: the hurdle should be cleared, the dam should be bursting. Instead, we’re backsliding. The same old barriers and blocks appear to be in place.

The next few weeks are vital. Arsenal need to pick up points to stop this season’s uphill struggle from becoming too steep.