The morning after the night before, and I cannot help but feel a bit melancholy. The head says the boys gave their all and we were beaten by a stronger team, but the Gooner heart is bleeding nevertheless. For seventy minutes we played well, as in we were disciplined and stuck to the un-Arsenal-like game plan. And then we became ourselves again, wanting to play the sort of football that our opponents do and which is so ingrained in our on-field philosophy. Self-denial can only last so long.
I cannot really blame the crowd and the players to forget themselves – or should that be ‘become themselves again’? – after seventy minutes of holding back our instincts, only then to get cruelly punished for it by the three-headed strikers’ dragon (at a vulgar street value of say £250m!).
We all knew that Barcelona getting the vital ‘away goal’ – an archaic rule that should be scrapped immediately – was a hammer blow we were unlikely to recover from. To get caught on the break like that, after seventy minutes of disciplined defending and careful attacking, is just nasty. It is easy to blame somebody for it, but it looked like the whole defence and midfield cocked up badly. I wish Koz had taken one for the team when he was dealing with Suarez early on of that counter-attack, but it is easy to say this in hindsight. Not long after that, Flamini, not even on the pitch for a minute, conceded a penalty after being short-changed by the until then immaculate, omni-present in the box, BFG, which Messi did not mess with.
0-2 with only little time to get back into the game, and, in fact, it could have got worse for us as our opponents were pushing hard for a third goal. A harsh and hard reality check for the Gunners and Gooners, but, on the plus side, we got a good demonstration of what we are still missing to make it to the very, very top of world football – and with us the other 99.9% of football teams in the world.
It could all have been different if we had taken our big chance when the ball fell to the Ox just three yards from the goal line and enough time to take a touch and focus on a clinical finish. Unfortunately, he did not make a good contact and played the ball meekly into Verstegen’s grateful arms. It seems typical of games like these that the best chances fall to the least strong attackers – remember Flamini’s recent chances against the Chavs?
It should have gone in but it did not, and when we play opponents like last night’s it always feels like a double miss when this happens – remember Ozil’s missed penalty against Bayern at home? I don’t want to blame the Ox too much for this as he is still at an age when these sort of opportunities often get wasted. I don’t think Wenger should have combined Ox and Bellerin, two promising youngsters, on the right wing, though. Against this sort of opponent experience and confidence is key, and one youngster on that wing was risky enough; two was asking for trouble imho.
That right mid-wing position is clearly still an issue at Arsenal. If Wenger feels that neither Campbell, Theo or Danny should start ahead of the Ox in a game like this one, we have some shopping to do in the summer.
On the left wing, we had Nacho and Alexis and I expected more from this duo. Nacho did very well defensively and tried to help out Alexis whenever he could. The Chilean firecracker really struggled to get a grip on this game and produce the sort of magic we know he is capable of (but we have seldom seen in 2016). That was one of the biggest disappointments of the night for me.
I thought Giroud did okay and worked hard to make things happen for the team, but it is fair to say that he also did not excel on the night. In our system, Giroud is not meant to be the lethal CF but a good CF and an excellent link-up attacker, who creates and scores in equal measure. In last night’s game we needed something special from our strike-force, and Alexis, Giroud, The Ox and Theo (who replaced the Ox early on in the second half) all played below par to make that happen.
There were plenty of positives though. Rambo played phenomenally well, showing us all what a great b2b he is and what an engine he possesses. The combo of Coq and Rambo were very disciplined and really were effective in stopping Barca play for 70 minutes or so; and how many teams can do that? Ozil was lively and always looking for attacking opportunities but was let down by the ball control and (lack of effective) off the ball running of many of his fellow attackers. Belerin had a fabulous game and so did Cech and Monreal. The BFG-Koz CB combo held out well for a long period of the game but suffered badly once the team discipline went out of the window – for which they are to blame as well.
In summary, we are still a little short of the very, very top level of football. There should be no shame in this: we are building a top, top team and this needs to take time, and our opponent are on a crest of long-term success, doped by continuous quality purchases that we cannot afford and/or attract as much as they do. In order to reach the European/World top level, we need to build further on the good basis of this team and we can do that by spending our money carefully in the summer. First we need to win the league and then establish a platform of squad quality and depth, confidence/belief and experience to beat the likes of Bayernlona, Barca or Madrid.
I don’t think it will be easy to achieve this but it is not impossible either – and we should not underestimate how much the German and Spanish Giants are ahead of the rest of Europe right now. We are lucky that we have the football ground – how fantastic were those aerial helicopter shots of THOF last night? – the financial structure and income, and a very decent, relatively young and still developing squad to make the leap forward.
But it also requires vision, guts and investment by the BOD, and, if last night’s game made anything clear, then it is where Wenger needs to strengthen the squad in the summer: a right winger/midwinger of Alexis’ caliber, possibly another CF (depending on the system Wenger wants to play), better DM cover/challenge for Le Coq and a quality CB to gradually take over from the BFG. On top of that, we need more leadership so we can last ninety rather than seventy minutes. Some will come from within and some will have to be bought.
But we don’t have to play one of the European super top-three teams every day and against Manure I expect us to bounce back to do the shirt proud. 🙂
“This is no time for ease and comfort. It is time to dare and endure” W. Churchill.
Bring on the Mancs!