Well, not quite yet, but hopefully soon enough.
In the meantime, having been well schooled by perhaps the strongest team assembled in the history of the sport, Arsenal have to put their Champions League disappointments to one side and focus on their domestic fights. This Sunday they travel to Old Trafford where they haven’t won a league match in almost a decade. Next Wednesday they play relegation threatened Swansea back in London, a fixture they lost 1-nil last Spring. Then it’s the North London Derby at White Hart Lane (Lunchtime, next Saturday) in a match which could play a role in determining the destination of the Premier League Title. A year ago we lost that one too, by a scoreline of 2-1, after having scored the opening goal. It doesn’t end there, either. If we can win our replay at Hull City on Tuesday the 8th of March, we will host Watford in the quarterfinals the following weekend.
Sheesh, just listing the matches makes me tired. How will our squad cope? Santi’s not ready yet and we have also lost Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who suffered knee ligament damage in the Barca game.
We’ve got issues
While we played even with Barcelona for 70 minutes, ultimately, we were undone. Manager Arsene Wenger claims–just as he did after the same round of 16 home fixture vs AS Monaco a year ago–that his players were naive. I concur, although the suggestion that the manager might also take some responsibility seems valid. As the hunger in the stadium for a goal which might have given us a lead to take to the Nou Camp grew, so too did positional indiscipline. A year ago, Monaco punished us three times on the break, Tuesday Barca only did twice. Improvement? Hardly…
No, instead the lesson should be doubly hammered home. Goals are great, but, conceding, especially with the away-goals rule in effect, is devastating. Something is off. Going for the former should not entail exposure to the latter. This is the lesson to be taken from Barcelona: bend but do not break…That is, until you have the chance to really break, i.e., strike with lightning speed and punish your opponent with balls in their net. Just as they did to us.
What would Santi do?
In late November, in consecutive matches, we lost Francis Coquelin (and Mikel Arteta) and then Alexis Sanchez and Santi Cazorla. Many Gooners thought our season was over. Fortunately, the depth in the squad came to the fore and strong showings by guys like Joel Campbell, Mathieu Flamini and Calum Chambers, combined with a fairly gentle run of fixtures, staved off the worst fears of doom.
In the new year, as Alexis and Coquelin got close to returning to the squad, the results began slipping. League draws at Liverpool and Stoke followed by a very disappointing home loss to Chelsea took Arsenal down from the top of the table. We’ve righted the ship somewhat since and we appear a far deeper team with those two back in the fold. Still, home draws vs Southampton and Hull City and a last gasp home win vs 10 man Leicester City–not to mention Tuesday’s capitulation vs Barca–show that something isn’t quite clicking. Since the 3-3 draw at Anfield we’ve played eight matches in all competitions and only scored six goals. What gives?
Some of it could come down to luck, some to goalkeepers playing out of their skulls, and some to our scoring players being just not quite sharp enough. Mostly, however, I believe we’re not able to create enough meaningful pressure on teams–both with and without the ball–to control the critical areas of the pitch, create sufficient doubt and confusion in their minds and take real control of these matches. You would never suspect that smiling Santi, a guy who hadn’t scored a goal all season, could be the missing ingredient, but that is exactly my hypothesis.
In my opinion, the players we’re using are giving their all and should not be faulted in that regard. What we lack is the guile and deception, individually and in combination play, to take advantage of those big moments in a match–the turnover that can spring a counterattack, or when we’ve got the ball in or near the opponent’s penalty box, that little bit of subterfuge that turns possession into chances and chances into goals.
Power vs Trickery
The English game–again, in my opinion–is different from the Spanish game in this key element. Directness and power are prized and celebrated in England whereas those elements are used in Spain more to set up team play, i.e., passing, than as ends in themselves. These are generalizations, of course, but also real cultural differences. How else can a guy like little Santi, who no longer can (if he ever could) get off his own shot without being closed out by bigger, fully committed English defenders, be of value to a team like Arsenal whose aspirations are as high as any in the land?
Of course, I’ve also been told that Santi is (was?) the problem at Arsenal, that he’s been found out (as described above) and that, especially, relative to the losses of Alexis and Coquelin, he would hardly be missed. Our less than fully satisfying results, of course, prove nothing, and, even if they did, Santi–aiming for a return to action for the nearly hopeless trip to the Nou Camp–isn’t available to save the day for this critical run of matches.
I’m just stating my thoughts on the matter, and, I think, others will have to do what Santi might’ve done: use whatever skills and athleticism they possess but also play with a bit more intelligence and subtlety to help us keep the balance between attack and defending as it should be so that more balls go in the opponent’s net than in ours. It’s a simple game, after all. 😀
With the Ox also unavailable we will rely upon combinations of midfielders including Aaron Ramsey, Mohammed Elneny and Mathieu Flamini until Santi–and, touch wood, Jack Wilshere and maybe, touching even more wood, Mikel Arteta–are available to help out toward the rear of our midfield. We also need our more attack minded mids–and our most gifted players–Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, to help in Santi-style, dropping deeper, putting well timed toes in while we’re out of and, when we do get the ball, switching fields quickly with dribbles and passes to keep defenders out of their comfort zones. Get the ball to those guys in those instant moments of transition, and, I believe, good things will happen.
It’s not that different from what Barca did on our home pitch on Tuesday. Sergio Busquets anchors their midfield and rarely ventures forward (as we hope Coquelin or Flamini might). Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakatic (our Ozil and Ramsey?) are the next line and use their fine dribbling as a threat which forces defenders to choose between an attempt on the ball or backing off. The corollary effect is more space and time to choose a pass, always the easier way to move the ball. Add in the superior footballing skills (they’re not just goal scorers…) of Messi, Neymar and Suarez, and defenders are left chasing shadows.
Arsenal actually did well against that group, I thought, but Barca remained patient and ultimately turned the tide. In these 90 minute matches where we want the win, we won’t quite have that same luxury. Still, if we use the quality we’ve got, keep the pitch balanced and perhaps emphasize guile, deception and teamwork over individual heroics and too much bombing forward, we may have what it takes to get the results we need. We can–maybe–even save our energy in this tightly spaced group of matches by using our opponents’ English style aggression as a weapon against them.
Much as Tuesday’s first leg was probably the definitive blow for our Champions League chances, this stretch will likely determine our domestic fate; there’s clearly nowhere to hide at this crucial juncture. They must be taken with full commitment but also one at a time. As Santi might say: Venga (Come on), Vale (every other word down in Spain, but it translates to “it’s good,” or OK…), Vamos (let’s go)!!!
So, Venga, Vale, Vamos… Victoria Concordia Crescit… Or maybe, Go (the f**k) On!!!