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.

Arsenal 1-2 Southampton: Alexis is a maverick, Podolski is a misfit

clynearsenal

Whatever you think of the League Cup…

…it’s never good to go out of any competition. It amazes me that some can greet a cup exit with a shrug. A few fans even expressed relief. It seems they forget that in each season there are only four potential prizes, and that’s one gone.

Had we beaten Southampton we’d be just four games away from another Wembley final. Any Arsenal fan who experienced the elation of May 17th — or indeed the despair of the Birmingham game in 2011 — will know what an occasion those matches can be. Yes, it’s “only the League Cup”. For a long time it was “only the FA Cup too”, and yet I didn’t see too many muted celebrations at the end of last season. We haven’t yet looked like convincing contenders for either the Premier League or Champions League. Beggars can’t afford to be choosers, and Gooners can’t afford to be snobbish about trophies.

That’s not to say I don’t understand the decision to rotate the side. Arsenal have a hectic schedule, and the point of assembling a big squad is that it enables you to mix it up on a game-by-game basis.

The team Arsenal put out was good enough to win the game, even against a strong and slick Southampton XI. I can’t fault Arsene Wenger there. The front six was packed with players of international calibre, but too many of them underperformed.

The League Cup is an opportunity not just to lift a trophy, but to give squad players a chance to put pressure on regular first-teamers. Last night, Arsenal failed on both counts.

The senior players let down the kids…

The likes of Lukas Podolski and Tomas Rosicky might have hoped that impressive showings against the Saints could force them in to contention for a Premier League place. Unfortunately, both were dire. Rosicky at least compensated for his errors with effort. Podolski, on the other hand…

However, the bright spot was undoubtedly the work done by a very young back four. Arsene Wenger was forced to pick three 19-year-olds and a left-back, and they did not let him down. Calum Chambers grew in to the game alongside the impressive Isaac Hayden, while Francis Coquelin did a superb job at left-back. I made him Arsenal’s best player on the night.

Don’t get your hopes up over Abou Diaby…

The Frenchman got an hour under his belt as a holding midfielder, with Arsene Wenger admitting after the game that he hopes to “transform” him in to a deep-lying anchor man.

After the match, I had a flurry of tweets from fans asking if I think Diaby could be ready to replace Mikel Arteta in the first XI. In a word, “No”. For starters, deploying our most injury-prone player in the most combative area of the pitch is begging for trouble.

This appearance felt more like a testimonial for Diaby’s services than a testament to his abilities. There were moments where you saw flashes of the player Diaby might have been, but it’s difficult to imagine he’ll ever fulfill his potential at Arsenal now.

Don’t pin your hopes on him — and that’s aimed at fans and manager alike.

Alexis Sanchez is a gifted soloist…

Alexis opened the scoring with a stunning free-kick and generally hared about the pitch with his customary vigour. It’s rare to see such a gifted player show that kind of desire. Sanchez is a South American striker in the mould of Luis Suarez and Carlos Tevez. There’s guile, but there’s guts and graft too.

His game isn’t perfect. His passing is erratic and he can be guilty of holding on to the ball too long. It’s partly why he never quite settled in Barcelona’s system. I’m not sure it’s a massive problem for us, though. He’s not a continuity player, he’s a maverick. He’s not a playmaker, he’s a game-breaker.

Every team can afford one maverick, one matador. At times Arsenal can be too guilty of conforming to their intricate passing game. Alexis brings contrast and some welcome chaos to proceedings.

Lukas Podolski is on borrowed time…

It is becoming increasingly difficult to envisage a role for Podolski in the Arsenal team. I’m a self-confessed fan of the player: he is generally efficient in the final third, and remains the best finisher in the squad.

However, he just doesn’t seem to fit. As Wenger seeks to reconstruct his attack around the pace and vibrancy of Welbeck, Walcott and Sanchez, Podolski looks wildly out of place.

On several occasions last night, Alexis could be seen cajoling his team-mates, urging them to offer more movement off the ball and press higher up the pitch. If he continues to play alongside Podolski, Sanchez will have to learn the English (or German) for “move yourself” pretty quickly.

He’s rusty, certainly. He might also be lacking a little confidence, having effectively been told he was surplus to requirements in the summer before Olivier Giroud’s injury scuppered a move.

The problem is that, given the options at Wenger’s disposal, Podolski is never likely to get the run of games he patently needs. At the moment he’s stuck in some strange limbo, being brought on as a centre-forward despite the manager having publicly stated that he can’t really play in that position.

It’s a situation that I expect to reach a head during the January transfer window. Podolski’s time in London looks to be approaching an end.

Ps. Now that the spam filters have been reinforced, comments are back. Do use them please, as I’ve greatly missed the interaction on here. Thanks for reading.

Audioblog: Immediate reaction to the Southampton defeat – Podolski, Rosicky & more

So there we have it: Arsenal are out of the League Cup.

There are only four competitions we can win this season. That’s one down.

Listen to the audioboom above for my immediate thoughts as I walked away from the ground. I’ll have something more considered for you tomorrow.

Chelsea 6-0 Arsenal: Bridge of Sighs

This was a dreadful day…
The scoreline equals the 8-2 at Old Trafford as Arsenal’s worst ever Premier League defeat under Arsene Wenger. Speaking personally, I found that match more painful, due to my deep-seated hatred of all things Manchester United.

However, on that occasion there were mitigating circumstances. Arsenal were in the midst of a difficult transfer window and a defensive injury crisis. The team we fielded included Jenkinson, Djourou, Traore and Coquelin. The bench found room for Miquel, Lansbury, Ozyakup, Chamakh and Sunu.

Arsenal have injury problems, but the XI we fielded against Chelsea was still made up of experienced internationals. Our first-choice back four and goalkeeper were all available to play. And yet this game looked more like a mismatched cup tie against a League Two side than an elite clash between two Champions League teams.

It was sickening but not surprising. Arsenal have collapsed in each of their three games away to Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea, conceding a remarkable 17 goals along the way. We’ve only conceded 34 goals this season, meaning half that tally has come in our three most important games.

Each of those games was seen as vital in our bid for the title. Each of those games took place at 12.45 on a Saturday. And each of those games saw us effectively surrender in the first quarter. Across the fixtures, we conspired to concede seven goals in the opening 20 minutes.

It can’t be just coincidence. Something is deeply wrong.

We haven’t looked like champions for a while…
Arsenal have now won just three of their last eight games. Three times this season we’ve faced a supposed “Death Run”, and it’s difficult to argue we’ve come out of any of those periods well.

The team selection was wrong…
Sticking with the same XI who played at Spurs was a strange decision given our awkward performance at White Hart Lane. After the first meeting between Arsenal and Chelsea in the league, Jose Mourinho boasted that he had stifled Arsenal by suffocating Mikel Arteta. He did exactly the same thing at Stamford Bridge. Perhaps the inclusion of Mathieu Flamini alongside Arteta would have helped the Spaniard cope with Chelsea’s marauding midfield.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain produced one of their worst performances in memory…
He was absolutely atrocious. Wenger is famously reluctant to make early changes – the fact he was withdrawn at half-time speaks volumes. Given his recent form, I must confess I did not see this coming.

Arsene was as frustrated with Giroud as the fans…
Friends at the game tell me he frequently showed his displeasure with the striker’s performance. His frustration mirrored that experienced by the fans at home. Many of our players looked as if they were running through treacle — Giroud looked as if he was running through cement.

However, the fact remains that it was Arsene who put his faith in Giroud, and Arsene who neglected to bring in another striker. Giroud’s flaws have been evident for some time. He certainly isn’t going to become quicker anytime soon.

What next for Arsene?
The manager neglected to turn up for his post-match press conference. Presumably, he didn’t know what to say. When asked by BT Sport if he could have anticipated such a catastrophic result, he said it was “unfortunately unpredictable”.

Arsenal’s capitulations at the Etihad and Anfield suggests he’s wrong about that. Distressingly, every time Arsenal head in to a big match away from home, this kind of humiliation is on the cards. The floodgates opened in August 2011 and Wenger can’t seem to find a way to close them.

It’s not entirely his fault. The players have to take responsibility for their abject performance. However, Arsene is in charge of selecting and preparing them. He is struggling to break the cycle which sees this kind of display occur again and again.

Today will have hurt him. His contempt for Jose Mourinho is clear, and the Portugese’s barbed comments about Wenger’s many “bad moments” prior to the game will have stung. That pain will be amplified by the prophetic nature of Mourinho’s words – this game will surely rank among Wenger’s worst moments as Arsenal manager.

On Friday, Wenger spoke with confidence about the prospect of signing a new deal at Arsenal. One wonders if a result like this might give him cause for reconsideration. On the biggest stages, his team continue to freeze. The spate of new contracts suggest a full recast is unlikely. To continue the theatrical analogy, the simplest thing might be to change the director.

Wenger is intelligent and self-aware. If we can see his problems, the chances are he can too. His last eight years at Arsenal have been characterised by his selfless sense of duty. Perhaps his final selfless act will be to recognise a new man may be required to fix some of the underlying problems in this team.

I don’t know if it’s that simple, in truth. I’m certainly not wishing Wenger in to a hasty retirement. I’m merely articulating my concern at seeing the same issues reoccur again and again. There’s been much to admire about this season, but when you break it down the problems — defeat at Stoke, frailty against the big boys, a failure to invest in the crucial midseason period — remain worryingly familiar.

Given this teams propensity to self-destruct, the FA Cup semi-final currently engenders feelings of anxiety rather than comfort.

Much to ponder — and I’d be fibbing if I said I had the answers. Unfortunately, I’m not confident that Arsene has them either.

Stoke 1-0 Arsenal: Gunners fall to familiar foe

In truth, Arsenal couldn’t really afford to draw this game, let alone lose…
In isolation, a draw at Stoke is a decent result. However, this game was not played in isolation. It was played in the context of a title race, and all our other results. A draw would not have been good enough, and a defeat is a disaster.

There were only so many times we could afford to drop points between now and the end of the season. Given that we face the most difficult fixture list of any of the four title-challengers, this was a game we probably had to win.

I know Stoke’s not an easy place to go. However, when we dropped points at home to United, it effectively narrowed the margin for potential error. Some hailed that as a good result “in isolation”. I wonder if they still think so now.

We have now won just two of our last six Premier League games.

Do I think Chelsea could slip up? Maybe. Do I think that Chelsea, City and Liverpool will pick up less points than us in the run-in, given our respective fixture lists? Probably not.

I know some will consider this an unnecessarily grim assessment. After all, we might go and beat Tottenham, Everton, Chelsea and City in succession. However, given the evidence of our performances against our biggest rivals thus far this season, such a run seems improbable at best.

Our title challenge has been mounted upon our capacity to put away the lesser teams. Today, we failed to do that. It looks costly.

Saying all that, the penalty award was incredibly harsh…
I’m not sure how the referee can possibly give that as a deliberate handball. Still, it seems that The Curse of Laurent Koscielny has struck again. That was the sixth Premier League penalty he’s given away in his time at Arsenal (h/t @OptaJoe). However well he’s playing, he can’t seem to escape those big controversial moments.

You could question the line-up…
I can understand leaving out Mesut Ozil. Tomas Rosicky was outstanding against Sunderland and didn’t really deserve to be dropped.

However, was Jack Wilshere really better equipped than Mathieu Flamini to cope with the tumult of the Britannia’s midfield battle? I’m not sure. This was one of those games in which Wilshere seemed to spend more time on the floor than his feet.

I’m also surprised that Wenger didn’t see the need to start with The Ox. Against Liverpool, he showed that his penetrative running is invaluable to a side desperately missing Theo Walcott. A rest against Sunderland made sense, but there was no reason for him to be left out today.

That late Yaya Sanogo miss felt telling…
When we desperately needed something to rescue the game, we turned to an unproved 21 year-old without a Premier League goal to his name. I’m by no means holding young Sanogo accountable, but he way he scooped that late chance over the bar reminded me of our inexplicable failure to recruit a new attacker.

The priority in January was to find a striker who was better than Bendtner and Sanogo. I refuse to accept that was an impossible task.

The FA Cup feels massive now…
Arsenal are still just three wins away from winning a trophy. I pray that we don’t witness any rotation against Everton. Our league hopes hang by a thread, but the FA Cup remains a very real possibility.

To end on a positive…
Congratulations to @bentayloruk for winning the Bergkamp print – I’ll be in touch shortly about your prize. If you missed out, you can use the discount code ‘GUNNERBLOG’ to get 10% off any Arsenal canvas print.