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.

Spurs 2-1 Arsenal: Kaned and Unable

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I seem to bang on about ‘fine margins’ an awful lot at the moment. So much so that I’ve started using online thesauri to try and come up with some alternatives. The best I can find is ‘narrow gap’, which funnily enough is precisely what has opened up between Tottenham and Arsenal since our derby defeat.

That’s of little immediate concern: looking at the two sets of fixture lists, I still expect Arsenal to finish above Tottenham. The greater threat to our top four place comes from Southampton and Manchester United. Even the gloriously hubristic Hotspurs have been noticeably quiet about their one-point lead — surely they’ll never be so foolish as to warn us to mind a gap again.

That said, Spurs were undoubtedly the better side on Saturday. I think all football fans are sometimes guilty of only assessing their own team’s performance. If we score a goal it’s purely down to our own brilliance; if we concede one our incompetence is held equally responsible. Sometimes you do have to give credit to your opposition — much as it pains me to say it, they were excellent.

But what of those ‘fine margins’ I mentioned in the first paragraph as if they were going to be important?

I suppose what I mean is that the gap in perception between a ‘spirited rear-guard action’ and being ‘on the backfoot for 90 minutes’ is incredibly small. When you play as Arsenal did at Spurs, inviting pressure and looking to play on the break, the game is inevitably going to be on a knife-edge.

When you’re under sustained pressure, as Arsenal were, the smallest defensive mistake can be crucial. Yes, Aaron Ramsey might have done better to stay with Harry Kane at a corner, and Theo Walcott could have closed down Nabil Bentaleb a little sooner, but they’re not criminal errors. I struggle to find the energy to crucify those players for momentary lapses in concentration. If you set up to defend for 90 minutes, it’s draining.

Such a game-plan also demands you’re incredibly efficient in possession. Surprisingly, that’s where Arsenal most obviously fell short. Defensive errors are par for the course, but an inability to keep the ball comes as more of a shock. That’s the greatest disappointment to come out of Saturday’s game: with more finesse on the ball, we might have punished Tottenham sufficiently on the break to render our defensive errors inconsequential. Instead, we struggled to live with Tottenham’s high intensity pressing game, just as we did at Dortmund and Liverpool earlier this season.

This game followed a remarkably similar pattern to last year’s fixture. In both matches, Spurs recovered from going a goal behind to dominate — they actually had more possession in 2014. Sometimes you’ll get away with it, sometimes you won’t.

For more rambling discussion of this ilk, why no tune in to the latest Arsecast Extra, in which we take a closer look at the form of Aaron Ramsey.

Stoke 3-2 Arsenal: Own up, Arsene

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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