Last night’s away draw with FC Schalke can probably best be described as a mixed bag for Arsenal, both in terms of the performance and result. They were going into the game off the back of an extremely poor run of form and what felt like a new low point with the weekend’s defeat to Old Trafford, whilst also having suffered a 2-0 defeat in the reverse fixture two weeks ago. Remarkably, for an Arsenal side, they had also registered the least shots on target of any side in the Champions League this season. They would have probably taken two goals and an away draw before the game but having lost a two goal lead they will feel disappointed.
Starting with the positives, the team selected looked much stronger on paper than that which started against Manchester United and it showed with the performance. Indeed, this was the team that probably should been chosen for the trip to Manchester. Andre Santos was found out against United, as he was against QPR and Schalke previously, so he was dropped to the bench with Thomas Vermaelen shifting to left-back and Laurent Koscielny returning in the centre.
It is not Vermaelen’s strongest position by any means despite playing there several times in his career. You could argue he was at fault for the second goal, when Jefferson Farfan found himself in acres of space at the back post, but he had little choice in drifting across. There was a Schalke overload in the centre and he did what most natural defenders would do and attempted to cover the man who he thought was the immediate danger. To blame Vermaelen solely would be harsh and it was more of a defensive mistake as a unit than one individually.
What he did provide was an added solidity to the backline and with Laurent Koscielny having a good performance in the centre, Arsenal’s defence looked a lot less porous than it had done previously. I don’t want to make a scapegoat out of Andre Santos, since he has by no means been the only guilty party in recent weeks, but you’d have to be very blinkered not to realise that he is simply not good enough at this level. Considering Arsenal had to withstand a lot of heavy pressure, especially in the second half, the defence looked more solid than it has done recently, although Vito Mannone was still required to pull off a string of good saves.
Further forwards, Theo Walcott returned to the side in place of the injured Aaron Ramsey and brought the expected change. When players are missing, through injury or otherwise, their ability and importance often get exaggerated and with Walcott this is happening to an extent. He is not the finished article yet and has a lot of improvement still to make but he certainly brings something different to this side.
In the aftermath of the defeat at the weekend, I wrote that with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gervinho missing, this Arsenal attack seriously lacked pace. With Aaron Ramsey joining Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski the front three was so one-paced and predictable that a poor Manchester United defence was barely troubled all day. The need for Walcott to start was further highlighted and his performance last night only showed this.
You can also not argue with his output so far this season. With his hat-trick against Reading now official and last night’s opener, he has now scored eight goals in all competitions having only started four games (he reached eight goals in February last season). He brings an added dimension to the Arsenal attack and looked a constant threat in Gelsenkirchen. His goal was taken well, after Giroud had fluffed his lines, and he was always looking to get in behind the defence, almost nabbing the winner with the last kick of the game. The fact is, whether Arsène Wenger likes it or not, Walcott is currently Arsenal’s best attacking asset.
That thought brings us nicely to the negative analysis of Arsenal’s performance. The fact that Walcott is now the most dangerous attacking player only shows the decline over the past two to three seasons. Think back to when Arsenal could field an attacking quarter of Robin Van Persie, Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and (an in-form and fit) Andrei Arshavin or Walcott himself as an alternative. The young Englishman was the weakest link in the pack and it was only last season in the home game with Spurs when the frustrations of the fans towards him were really boiling over, yet now he is the most important.
Not one of the current attacking players within the squad would replace the aforementioned and therein lies the problem, these Arsenal players do not have quite enough to compete with the elite. Despite having a far superior midfield than Schalke, Arsenal were dominated last night because the ball would not stick with the front three. Furthermore, with none of the attacking three natural ball players the creative burden lies entirely on the midfield, which is asking too much. As the game went on, Arsenal dropped deeper and deeper, unable to retain possession high up the pitch and it looked at one point as though Schalke would win it.
An away draw at the home of the side sitting second in the Bundesliga is in theory a good result, however to look at it in that manner would only serve the purpose of masking the deficiencies within this squad.
It’s often suggested but now may be the time for a change in system for this Arsenal squad now. Initially developed to get the most out of Fabregas, it requires the front four to be technically superb and quick across the ground to create opportunities. Arsenal no longer have these types of players at their disposal and the inability to dominate games and create chances suggest it may be hampering them more than anything else. There is plenty to ponder for Monsieur Wenger.
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