I wrote last week, ahead of Arsenal’s trip to Old Trafford, that there was ‘little cause for optimism amongst us Gooners’; and for all but two minutes of the game that prediction was irritatingly bang on the money. Once again Arsenal failed to turn up at Old Trafford; and put in yet another lacklustre performance against their newly-combined nemeses of Manchester United and Jose Mourinho. After the game Gary Neville on Sky Sports explained the performance (or lack thereof!) as being an issue of mentality, and it is hard to raise any argument to the contrary. Once again Wenger’s team seemed to freeze, to not know what to do or how to impose themselves and their type of football on a United team that was far from being as formidable a challenge as once they were. Often criticised for prioritising possession over penetration, this time Arsenal struggled to string simple passes together and needlessly conceded possession on a number of occasions early in the piece.
It was only through the inarguable ability of Peter Cech that Arsenal didn’t find themselves trailing at half-time to a United team that had not exactly been full of attacking verve themselves. In the second half, instead of redoubling their efforts to put pressure on their opponents, the Gunners seemingly settled for a draw, a ploy that has never proven especially effective, given the team’s approach and system. Inevitably Mata gave the hosts the lead after finding himself in acres of space through a lack of concentration and application in marking from a throw in.
The only surprise to come out of the game was that somehow Arsenal managed to equalize late on when Giroud rose high above the defence to power home Oxlade-Chamberlain’s cross, the only effort on target they managed for the full match.
While rescuing a point from the jaws of defeat will always make a team feel elated, the overall performance pointed to a greater malaise; a feeling that was only enhanced by the performance against PSG in the Champions League four days later, where a penalty and own goal put Arsenal into a lead that in truth they didn’t deserve, before conceding the almost inevitable equalizer through characteristic sloppy defending from a set piece.
Arsenal remain unbeaten through their usual ‘Nightmare November’, but the signs are not good; where the performances against Chelsea and others in September had this particular blogger waxing lyrical about the fluidity and pace of their attacking play; the consecutive draws against Tottenham, United and PSG have seen a blunting of this previously exciting attack, replaced by an all-too-familiar sterile possession game that offers slower tempo, sideways passing and little in the way of penetration.
In addition to losing the creative spark from midfield with the injury to Cazorla; against Tottenham and United, Alexis Sanchez dropped way too deep, following his natural instincts and going in search of the ball but thereby negating the key desired impact of allowing other players to make runs beyond him. Equally, Walcott’s and Iwobi’s drops in form have exacerbated this problem further.
Against PSG Wenger reverted to Plan B and Giroud returned as the central striker with Alexis going back to his position on the right; while the French striker will always provide an outlet and reference point he will never pose a threat through running in behind due to a simple lack of pace, thus Arsenal have to play a different way with the Frenchman up top. With 3 of the 4 goals scored in November so far coming from 2 own goals and a penalty, it would seem that questions still remain about the best way for Arsenal to deploy their attacking players.
Arsenal’s North London neighbours went out of the Champions League on Tuesday night, while this may in part be explained by the decision to play their home games at Wembley and subsequently losing to both Monaco and Leverkusen; it probably doesn’t tell the whole story. As impressive as Tottenham were, for the most part, last season, they were largely untouched by injury and could field a consistent starting eleven, with rotation confined in general to the full-backs. This season injuries have had a much greater impact and have really started to test the squad depth; it has to be said that summer signings designed to bolster this have hardly hit the ground running.
Spurs have the chance to bounce back in the big game of the weekend on Saturday evening when they travel to Stamford Bridge to face Antonio Conte’s revitalised Chelsea side. While memories will be fresh of their last visit to the Bridge, when a disappointing draw sparked scenes of raucous celebration in Jamie Vardy’s kitchen as Leicester were confirmed as champions; it feels that this game is much more about current form than any thoughts of a title challenge. Tottenham remain unbeaten but have not been hugely impressive in recent games, whereas Chelsea, unhindered by European distractions seem to be gathering momentum with each passing victory. Chelsea are on a six-match winning streak since being dismantled by Arsenal and it would be a brave option to bet against them; however in the Premier League you just never know, whatever happens it should be fascinating viewing.