Arsenal win another big game: Is it getting better?

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For a long time now we’ve collectively lamented Arsenal’s failure to cope with the big occasion. After the stirring win at Old Trafford, the question begs: are things finally improving?

For me, United is the definitive big game. Perhaps it’s because I grew up amid the red-hot rivalry of the late 90s. United were so dominant in that era, and those clashes were always infused with tension, drama and spite. Even taking in to account neighbours Tottenham and Chelsea, there isn’t a game in the fixture-list that inspires more nerves or animosity. Old habits die hard, and old hatreds endure.

I saw someone compare Monday night’s game to Ali vs. Frazier in 1975: two former greats, evenly matched but now hurting each other all too easily. It’s a nice line, but one that doesn’t reflect the trajectory of the two sides. While United do appear to be a team in decline, there are some signs that Arsenal might be on the way up.

There are indications that Arsene Wenger’s men are beginning to conquer their crippling stage-fright. After all, Monday night’s win comes just a couple of months after another landmark victory at the Etihad.

It’s not been a complete reversal of fortunes. Defeats against Tottenham and Monaco show there is still plenty of room for improvement. However, it’s undoubtedly progress: last season, Arsenal would probably have lost all four of those games.

In the wake of such a significant win, there’s a tendency to assume that our problems are now permanently behind us. “That’s it”, we think. “Now we’ll win every big game and be title contenders once again”.

I’m not sure it’s that simple. We’re turning the corner, but it’ll take more than a single step. It’s generally agreed that our problems are psychological as well as strategic. Improvements in the latter are soothing the former: each big win has tactical and therapeutic benefits. For the first time in a long time, it feels as if we might be learning something.

We’re not yet where we need to be. As the Monaco game showed, Arsenal are far from over the big-game jitters. However, we are certainly making positive progress.

On Danny Welbeck…

From the minute the possibility of Danny Welbeck moving to Arsenal was mooted, I fantasised about his scoring the winner at Old Trafford. He must have done so too, and that probably goes some way to explaining his joyous celebration on Monday night. He certainly had a point to prove to the manager who jettisoned him after a matter of months in Manchester.

As Welbeck’s shot hit the net, Louis Van Gaal’s flat face glowed red with embarrassment, leaving him looking like a cartoon thumb throbbing after being hit with a mallet.

Even if Welbeck never does anything hugely significant in an Arsenal shirt again, he’ll be remembered for this night. This, if you like, was his ‘Arshavin moment’.

However, I’m hopeful that there’s a lot more to come from the Englishman. That goal effectively closed one chapter in his career, but should mark the true beginning of a bright new one.

ps. If you haven’t yet, do check out the Arsecast Extra for more luxurious basking.

Post-Everton thoughts on Ospina, Gabriel, Walcott and more

Give David Ospina his dues…
Would I pick him over Wojciech Szczesny? No. Am I convinced he’ll be Arsenal’s long-term number one? Not even nearly. However, credit where credit is due: he was excellent against Everton.

As anticipated, Arsene Wenger dropped Per Mertesacker for Gabriel. However, what was arguably more intriguing about his team selection was the players who retained his trust. Ospina and Olivier Giroud, both disappointing in midweek, kept their spots.

In Giroud’s case, that wasn’t a huge surprise. Arsene has a longstanding admiration for the striker, who has established himself as the club’s undisputed first-choice centre-forward at the club.

Ospina is a different case. Although he has been a regular in the team since January, Arsene has never publicly declared him the new “No. 1”. There has been a lingering suspicion that the manager was simply waiting for Ospina’s first substandard display to reintroduce Szczesny.

The Monaco debacle made this an easy time to justify a change, yet Wenger stuck with the Colombian. That’s a significant show of faith. It begs the question: if the boss didn’t see fit to change after Monaco, does that suggest Ospina is likely to retain his place until May? And if so, what does that mean for Szczesny’s future?

Gabriel had a decent game…
I think there’s a danger that assessment of his performance falls victim to hyperbole. He made a couple of outstanding tackles, but those eye-catching contributions were balanced out by some glaring errors.

His decision to let the ball bounce in the first half, allowing Romelu Lukaku to steal in and run at David Ospina, was particularly bizarre. There was also a wildly misplaced pass and a couple of mistimed jumps for headers. Perhaps nerves were a factor for a guy making his first start in the Premier League.

There’s a lot to like about Gabriel, but he looks very much like a player still adapting to the demands of a new league. Koscielny suffered from plenty of teething problems; Mertesacker too. It may be next season before the begin to see the best of the Brazilian. His adaptation will certainly be accelerated if he retains his place ahead of the jaded German.

Theo Walcott must be worried…
If he can’t get off the bench in a game like this, when the manager has made a definitive decision to rotate his squad, he’s in trouble.

For weeks debate has raged about which of he or Danny Welbeck is more deserving of a first-team place. That dichotomy was a disservice to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who was one of few bright spots in the first half of the campaign.

It now feels as if both Welbeck and Chamberlain are more prominent in Wenger’s thoughts. Some have suggested a connection with Walcott’s contract situation — when he stalled on a new deal in the Autumn of 2012, Walcott was excluded from the XI until form and fitness forced Wenger’s hand.

However, I believe it’s more to do with Walcott’s lack of defensive contribution. Speaking before the Everton match, Wenger said:

Offensively we have lots of solutions. We have to find a team balance. It is more about team balance than any individual.

When you have the ball in the modern game you have to attack, when you don’t have the ball you have to defend. All the players who can’t do that, cannot play.”

Until Walcott’s all-round contribution improves, it seems he will be confined to the sidelines.

Arsenal 1-3 Monaco: On our never-ending naivety

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A despondent Arsene Wenger had finished giving his press conference, when a voice cried out from the back of the room to ask if he would mind answering one question in French.

Wenger stood at the head of the media lounge. He didn’t respond, but nor did he depart, so the voice went on. What, it asked, was the most disappointing aspect of Arsenal’s performance?

You didn’t have to be fluent to understand Wenger’s answer: “notre naïveté”.

Naive is a word that has become synonymous with Arsenal. As a bit of a test, I ran it through the search engine on my own blog. Here are the most recent uses:

“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.”

Then:

“However, neither of those can match the humiliation of losing 6-0 at Chelsea. The tactical naivety Arsenal showed in that game is what makes me a little concerned about the length of Arsene Wenger’s new deal.”

Then:

“Wenger was comprehensively outmanoeuvered by Roberto Martinez at Goodison Park. In a game in which a point would have been a good result for Arsenal, it’s tempting to call Wenger’s tactics naive. However, considering how long he’s been in the game, one has to revert to an altogether more damning adjective: negligent.”

I gave up at that point. Not even I am so morbid as to dig deeper in to the mire.

However, you might see what I’m getting at. Naivety ought to be a temporary thing. It’s a state of being characterised by a lack of experience or sophistication. That should get better. It should be fixable. And yet here we are, approaching the end of a decade of defensive guilelessness. We’re a team caught in arrested development.

Google “how to stop being naive” and it’ll tell you the process can be accelerated by having your heart broken. Well, that one doesn’t seem to have worked for us. The painful lessons keep on coming, and we keep on ignoring them.

What happened against Monaco approached the absurd. Going 2-0 down was bad enough, but to concede a third having dragged ourselves back in to the game was madness. The craziest part is that I wasn’t even surprised. How many times have we seen Arsenal carelessly chase goals, only to be sucker-punched?

This latest horror show arrives days after we came inches from surrendering a 2-0 lead in the final few minutes at Crystal Palace. The further away it gets, the more that Manchester City win feels like an anomalous result against an out-of-sorts side.

Arsenal will re-qualify for the Champions League, but last night was a reminder of why it’s unlikely to get significantly better than that any time soon. You can look at our annual top four finish as a remarkable piece of consistency. Alternatively, you can see it as a staggering lack of progression — evidence that the teams of the second half of Arsene’s reign have been chronically hampered by an unworldliness the manager seems powerless to fix. We’re good, but unless something changes we’ll never be good enough.

It’s all very well for Arsene to accuse his players of naivety, but he is the man charged with educating this squad. If naivety is the problem, better coaching is surely the cure.