Not the easiest game to really look at in great detail. Mainly because it was not very good and not very much happened. Arsenal were flatter than an ironed down sheet of paper. After their last week it looked as though the Gunners may have built some momentum; and after Aston Villa’s last, they looked as though they desperately needed to pick some up. The game was not heavily advertised or built up, and it completely fulfilled the low expectations placed upon it.
Thomas Vermaelen being placed on the bench shows him he is not untouchable. Quite a few people had reservations when he was given the captaincy, given his inconsistency and the fact that there are two arguably better centre backs in the squad in Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny. Vermaelen is a capable and talented defender, but his aggressive style often sees him desert the back line and leave mounds of space behind him. Perhaps a reminder of his fallibility could be the proverbial kick he needs to restore him to better form. Considering the strong performances of the aforementioned pair, it will be interesting to see if he is reinstated for the game against Everton.
A brief word on Mertesacker: I’ve written before about his rise since joining but it bears repeating what an excellent and important player he has become – the embodiment of calm.
The return of Kieran Gibbs was something that many hoped would see – Arsenal become more dynamic going forward when the young full-back is in the starting XI. He originally came through as a left winger and it shows in his touchline-hugging style. The width he provided before his injury allowed Lukas Podolski to operate more centrally and allowed Santi Cazorla to drift wider and it has been lacking since his going off injured at Upton Park. Though for some reason – most probably concerns over his match fitness and recovery – he did not commit forward as he did before and on the rare points when he did (almost all in the first half), he stayed closer to the halfway line and seemed to make more narrow runs. The reasons for his more reserved style are not known but what is, is that Arsenal need his attacking instincts back as soon as possible.
Wojciech Szczęsny’s own comeback from injury has, in just two games, gone some way to reminding people why he is such a highly-rated goalkeeper. As last season ended it was very en vogue to criticise the Pole’s performances – some of that being warranted but a lot of it over the top. Part of his lapse could have been explained with his playing the last five weeks with an injury, but in comparison to his fantastic first five months of the season, the second five were poor. Now, after a few months of Vito Mannone in goal, Szczęsny’s virtues are more evident and more appreciated. Most notably, his organising of the defenders at set pieces is of huge importance. The stats on this say it all: in 11/12 Arsenal conceded just two goals from corners and delivered set pieces all year in the league (he played all 38 league games). This year, in Mannone’s nine league games, they have conceded five from set pieces, including Juan Mata’s goal against Chelsea.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain continued his terrible start to the season. He seems to have come down with a case of Gareth Bale Syndrome. Namely he has started to think he is the illegitimate child of Diego Maradona and wants to take on the whole team by himself. And he has also seems to have been attending the Alex Song School of Positional Discipline; just as against Montpellier, he was rarely located on the right hand side. His time in the deeper midfield positions may have polluted his mind somewhat. There is no doubting he is a player who fantastic potential but he has some way to go and needs to stick to the positions he is being asked to play.
With almost every game Walcott has played of late, the calls for him to get a new contract have grown. With almost every game he has not, they have grown even louder. There is little more to add on the Walcott situation, but without replacing him with someone better – which, should he go, is probably (very) unlikely – losing him would be disastrous.
Arsenal’s midfield lacked shape and drive. Aaron Ramsey is a good player, contrary to what many say, but he does not carry the ball particularly well, and so the midfield can become somewhat flat without that presence there. There are two men in their squad who can play that position to great effect: the only problem is that one has no ankles and the other has just had new ones put in. Abou Diaby and Jack Wilshere are the two physical midfield dribblers that Arsenal so missed at Villa Park. With that they are also players who break into the box on attacks, which Arsenal desperately lacked. Although they are both extremely talented players, relying on them with their respective injury histories is several levels of insane. This is not to say Ramsey could not become that player, but at this point is just is not it. A signing in this position in January is even more important than one up front.
The late substitute of Francis Coquelin for Olivier Giroud was divisive but rational, to a degree. There was clear logic behind it: Giroud was not having a great game, something needed changing, so he moved to the tactic of playing Gervinho up front and Coquelin’s presence would allow Mikel Arteta and Cazorla to push forward more. Understandable but it was implemented too late to have any real effect. There is also the issue of Wilshere being available on the bench. Arsène Wenger has said that he did not wish to play the injury-susceptible Wilshere on the extremely slippery surface, but then there is another question as to why he was on the bench in the first place, given that the pitch would have been soaked when the bench was decided.
Arsenal’s main problem was their lack of attacking movement. Whenever a player had the ball, no player seemed to want to make a run and aid the man on the ball out. They became lost in a tunnel of sideways passes. It was not aided by said lack of a strong midfielder but the deficiency could have been accounted for had the other forward players worked a little harder. Perhaps this was down to their tiredness after playing in mid-week, but this is little excuse for just how static they were.
Some credit must go to Aston Villa. They were fantastic defensively, working tirelessly the whole game, pressing Arsenal all over the pitch and putting up a strong defensive wall, despite losing Ron Vlaar to injury in the second half. Paul Lambert – although banned from the touchline – is a very impressive manager, working with a very young squad. Relegation was never a realistic fear for them with him in charge, but he will definitely go some way to solidifying them as a mid-table team again in the next few years.