Arsecast Extra 45: Stoke, Wenger and the screams of Joel Campbell

Thanks to @MattGCorbett for the image.

Hello all – just a quick note to urge you to have a listen to the latest Arsecast Extra, in which Arseblogger and I dissect the weekend’s events. This Arsecast Extra is brought to you by Audible.com – turns out you can get a free audio book download and a 30 day free trial. Click the banner below to sign up or go to audibletrial.com/arsecast.

You can subscribe to the Arsecast Extra on iTunes by clicking here. Or if you want to subscribe directly to the feed URL you can do that too. To download this week’s Arsecast Extra directly – click here – 40mb MP3. Thanks to Arseblog as ever for the mighty hosting power.

The Arsecast Extra is also available on our SoundCloud channel, where you can leave comments and such, as well as via the SoundCloud app for iPhone and Android. Alternatively, you can find it on the Stitcher podcasting app for iOS and Android.

Once you’re done with that, why not have a read of my new column for SportsLobster: 5 questions raised by Arsenal’s defeat at Stoke. Cheers all.

Stoke 3-2 Arsenal: Own up, Arsene

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Stoke City v Arsenal - Britannia Stadium

Believe it or not, I was actually considerably cheerier at half-time than at full-time. When the whistle went for the break with the score 3-0 to Stoke, I was actually able to laugh at our risible performance. By full-time, any sadomasochistic smiles had faded.

Perhaps it’s because there’s something purgative about an unadulterated thumping. There’s no need for caveats or contemplation. You can just let loose and get it out of your system. In a funny sort of way, our incomplete comeback robbed me of that catharsis.

It also means you have to sit through tired platitudes from the manager about the team’s “great spirit” and admirable “mental response”.  What tosh. Real mental strength is about focusing for the full 90 minutes, not mounting a response once the game is already lost.

I wonder if Arsene ever considers stepping in front of the press and saying:

“Fair enough, guys: this is one’s on me. I didn’t buy enough defenders and I didn’t organise the ones we do have sufficiently. It’s not good enough and, given that we have the January window ahead of us, I can assure you that we’re doing all we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

While it would cost his ego, it might make win some favour among an increasingly disaffected fanbase.

Most managers don’t admit guilt in press conferences because they’re afraid of giving their board an excuse to dismiss them. Wenger has no such worries, so it wouldn’t hurt him to take responsibility sometimes — I actually think it could even help to relieve the pressure. There’s a fine line between single-mindedness and myopia, and from his public comments it’s not always clear which side Wenger sits on. At least owning up would prevent people from saying he can’t see the problems.

And let’s be honest, the reason we lost is clear as day. Arsenal’s defending – and defenders — simply weren’t up to the task.

From the minute the team-sheets came in, Arsenal’s inexperienced back five looked like trouble. Within a minute of kick-off, those panicky predictions proved correct. This was actually one of the worst defensive displays I can remember seeing from an Arsenal side. People will compare it to last season’s drubbings, but at least those tended to be against decent teams. This weekend, we made an average side look good: Arsenal applied lipstick to the pig that is Stoke City.

In truth, Wenger didn’t have much choice about his selection. Ludicrously, those were the only defenders available. Wojciech Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny might have been on the bench, but one suspects they were merely making up the numbers.

One area where Wenger retained a degree of flexibility was in the deployment of those defenders he still had at his disposal. I don’t know why he insists on playing Calum Chambers on the right-hand side of the centre-backs, thus displacing Mertesacker to the left. Mertesacker spent the entire match seemingly unaware of his surroundings, but perhaps that’s no surprise when he is playing in an unfamiliar zone. Every angle must be adapted, every body position altered.

Maybe Wenger feels Chambers is more comfortable on the right of centre, but he has not played enough games at centre-back to be settled in either role. The reality is that, after the Spaniard’s recent run in the team, Chambers has probably played less games as a centre-half than Nacho Monreal. His inexperience makes him adaptable.

Lining Chambers and Mertesacker up like this has caused problems before: the pair were in chaos in the same arrangement at Goodison Park. Repeating that error is foolish. Keep the reliable defender where he’s happy, and let him guide the novice through the game.

There’s also the question of preparation. Wenger must have known there was a good chance we’d be tasked with facing Peter Crouch. Had we made any special plans to deal with his aerial threat? Not by the looks of it.

There’s been a lot of talk about the referee, and with a degree of justification: Chambers didn’t deserve to have his dismal day capped by a red card. However, the officiating impacted on both teams. The decision to disallow Stoke’s fourth goal, for example, was clearly incorrect.

Our momentum has ground to a hurtful halt. If your glass is half full, you’ll be point out that many of our rivals for the Champions League places are also slipping up. If it’s half empty, you might argue that fact is disguising quite how bad a season we are having.

Chelsea’s defeat ought to be cause for some joy, but our own performance made that delicious delight short-lived. On the weekend the Invincibles’ immortality was assured, our modern mediocrity was painfully underlined.

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 2-2 Hull City: Fragile Arsenal Falter Again

welbeckhull

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.

Some thoughts on Chelsea and Mesut Ozil

Shad Forscythe

Another match away to a top team, another defeat. A few days have passed since events at Stamford Bridge but it doesn’t feel any better. I’m not exactly OptaJames, but I believe I’m right in saying we haven’t beaten a good team for more than a million years.

I’m not inclined to dwell on refereeing decisions. It seemed to me that the incompetence of this particular official extended to both teams. Gary Cahill should undoubtedly have been sent off, but so too should Danny Welbeck. Arsenal might well have had a penalty, but arguably Laurent Koscielny should have been dismissed for conceding the spot-kick that was given.

I’ll run through some thoughts now. To avoid repeating myself, I’ll link to a couple of a pieces I’ve published elsewhere too.

The primary difference was that their stars delivered…

Although we didn’t get any points, we did see some progress. Arsenal were more compact, more combative, and stayed in the game for much longer than last season. Admittedly, that’s not difficult. I don’t know about you, but I was watching the game in 5 minute increments, delighted as each segment passed without the concession of a goal. Mathieu Flamini was particularly good, hurling himself in to tackles and generally making a nuisance of himself.

Ultimately though, the game was decided by two moments of attacking brilliance. The first was that superb slalom from Eden Hazard. The second comprised of two pieces of play of outstanding quality: a lofted pass from Cesc Fabregas, and an emphatically efficient demonstration of control and finishing from Diego Costa.

Mesut Ozil, on the other hand…

…was desperately disappointing against Chelsea. As ever, many leapt to his defence, but I thought he was undeniably poor. During the latest episode of the Arsecast Extra, I described him as being a bit like modern art: people keep telling me I should see things there that I can’t quite make out.

Arsenal Player Ratings vs. Chelsea | ESPN

Mesut Ozil, 4 – It’s difficult to understand just how Ozil managed to avoid being substituted against Chelsea. Deployed on the right flank, he was woeful. Not only was his passing shockingly erratic, but he seemed to shrink in the face of Chelsea’s physical approach. He must toughen up if he is to influence these big games.

Anyhow, it seems his form is no longer of any great concern. As I sat down to finish off this piece, the news broke that Ozil could miss as many as three months with a ligament problem.

Many will tell you it’s a blessing in disguise. I think that’s a bit strong – you never want to lose your most talented players for a prolonged period. However, Arsene has struggled to find a way to fit Ozil, Wilshere, Cazorla and Alexis in to the same XI. Perhaps the German’s absence will simplify the task of arranging his midfield, at least until January.

In these big games, the first goal is so crucial…

Arsenal somehow need to find a way to get the first goal in big games on a more regular basis. Having taken the lead, Chelsea were able to execute their preferred game-plan to perfection, sitting deep before picking up on the break.

In Alexis and Welbeck, we have players who offer a real threat on the counter. Had Chelsea been forced to come out in search of a goal, we might have been able to exploit the space in behind. As it was, we found ourselves banging against a blue wall.

According to Orbinho, The last time Arsenal came from behind to beat a top four team was against Liverpool in March 2012. Since then, there have been 20 such fixtures played. In each of Arsenal’s three wins, the Gunners got the first goal. The big teams simply don’t let leads slip. You can’t afford to give them a headstart.

On Wenger vs. Mourinho | The Mirror

Time after time, Mourinho’s pragmatism has overcome Wenger’s purism. The Frenchman is gripped by footballing ideals that define his tactical philosophy. Mourinho does not seem burdened by the same romanticism.

Wenger is known as “The Professor”, but can’t shake his artistic tendencies. In reality, it is Mourinho who is the clinical scientist.

Fore an audio dissection of the match and Arsenal’s start to the season, check out the live edition of the Arsecast Extra.