The Worst Kind of Defeat

Yesterday was the first defeat suffered by Arsenal since I started That Sums It All Up, and therefore since arriving here in Sydney.  As a result, and due to the nature of the defeat, this is probably going to be my most negative ramble to date, but I’ll try to stay constructive.  Let’s see how miserably I fail.

The week was a positive one.  From an Arsenal perspective we beat Coventry City 6-1 in the League Cup and will face Reading away in the next round on Tuesday 30th October.  I can’t comment on the game in great detail as I only saw the goals via Arsenal Player, but what I will say is that it was good Giroud got his first goal, that Theo and Arshavin chipped in with goals, and that Chamberlain’s goal was an absolute beauty.  From a personal perspective I got some time on the beach, some time by the pool, and found an apartment to live in.  So as I said the week was a positive one.

And then we came to yesterday.  Usually the word that best describes a defeat is disappointed, but yesterday that wasn’t the case, at least not for me.  Frustrated and angry are the words I chose to describe it.  Chelsea didn’t win that game of football, Arsenal lost it, and for me that’s the worst kind of defeat.  At some stage of the season you will lose a football game, in fact you’ll lose more than just the one.  It happens.  But what you try to take comfort in is that your team did their best, that the effort and application was there, and that if someone asks what went wrong you can blame an official or simply hold your hands up and acknowledge the other team were better on the day, or that they scored a wonder goal from out of nowhere.  But again, none of that is the case.

Yesterday was a defeat of our own making and that’s what hurts most about it.  Things seemed to start ok, but never really more than that.  Just ok.  That said losing Diaby to injury was a blow (Arsene say’s he’ll be out for at least three weeks) and then we conceded against the run of play.  From start to finish it was a poor goal to conceded.  It started with Vermaelen giving away a cheap and needless free kick; I hate to quote Ray Wilkins, but how about you try staying on your feet Thomas?  But as people always tell me the issue is not the giving away of the free kick, but the failure to defend it properly, and we were guilty on that front too.  If you were wearing a very rose-tinted pair of glasses you might argue that we could have had a free kick.  Torres was only played onside as a result of pushing Koscielny into the area, where he continued to try to swap shirts with him.  The more honest assessment, i.e. the one without the rose-tinted glasses, is to say that you’d expect your centre half to be much stronger and to come out on top of the duel, or failing that to perhaps be more modern in his approach and go to ground, win a free kick.  To be naive enough to get caught up in it all, to not be watching the ball, and to present Torres with the chance to stick out a leg and score past a helpless Mannone, as Koscielny did, is unforgivable.

Parity was restored just before half time, however.  Some good build up play saw the ball eventually spread out wide to Chamberlain (on for the injured Diaby), who cut his cross back into the feet of Gervinho (one of the few times we placed a cross to a teammate, as opposed to aimlessly hitting and hoping).  The Ivorian took a neat first touch, and on the turn, smashed it home for 1-1.  A very tidy finish from a player who has started the season very well and looks to be full of confidence; one of the few positives to take from the game (the performances of Gibbs and Jenkinson being the others).

Coming out for the second half I felt a sense of confidence.  My logic was that we’d fought back to level terms, that Arsene could give them a few stern words, and that our second half performance could only be better.  Sadly it wasn’t.  The half was only eight minutes old when we went behind for the second time.  We had a free kick on the edge of the attacking third, which Vermaelen went up for.  This I have no objection to.  What I do object to is Vermaelen’s reaction to what happened next.  Arteta and Cazorla decided to play a short free kick, and between them (and I think Ramsey) passed the ball about.  At this stage Vermaelen should have got back in position, instead he stood up front watching and waiting for a cross that was never coming, especially when we then gave the ball away.  At this point you’re definitely expecting Vermaelen to bust a gut to get back in position, but he didn’t; he simply ambled back until he saw the ball played forward to Torres.  It’s at this point he finally realised the danger, but again his response was poor.  In my mind Koscielny was coming across to Torres to cover for his absent captain, so Vermaelen would have been better served noticing this and in return cover Laurent’s side of defence, fill in the gap created.  Instead Vermaelen decided to sprint back to his own half of defence, and in an attempt to recover the situation, stupidly bundled into the back of Torres to give away another needless and cheap free kick.  Mata stepped up and whipped in one of those horrible crosses, which is hard for the defence to clear (especially as their running towards and facing their own goal) and which leaves the keeper stranded as he waits to see whether or not there will be a touch.  There wasn’t, and as is so often the case, the ball worked its way into the bottom corner.  The only possible touch was off Koscielny’s shin, but even if it did it didn’t appear to affect the flight of the ball too much so the outcome would have been the same.

With 37 minutes (plus any injury time) still to play the game was far from over, but the goal (again against the run of play following a bright start to the half) seemed to knock us out of our stride, and we never regained our balance.  The passing was sloppy and often misplaced, the crosses were hit and hope, and Cech had little of real note to do considering his team were defending a lead.  One good save from a Podolski header, one lucky save from a deflected Giroud strike, watching a header hit the post (that would have been wrongly ruled offside anyway), and then finally watching a glorious chance go to waste as Giroud drilled the ball high into the side netting, is all Cech had to do.  Of the last of those chances, the movement from Giroud was excellent, the rounding of the keeper nicely done, but once again his finish was off target.  That was the best and final chance of the game; it wasn’t taken and we suffer our first defeat of the season.  Afterwards an upset Arsene Wenger said:

I feel we played against a good team, but we gave the game away.  They had three shots on target and scored two goals, from soft set-pieces.  Defensively we were just not at the level you have to be in a game like that, which is where we were punished today.

You simply can’t argue with that.  We gave the game away.  Soft set-pieces.  Not at the right defensive level.  The last of those points had both fans and journalists asking why Mertesacker had been left on the bench, especially after a Man of the Match performance last weekend against City.  In response Arsene answered:

That is a decision which was based on the opposition we played.  You can say it was a wrong one maybe, but I believe [that statement] is a lowering the quality of the players who played, they are internationals.  If you do not play Koscielny or Vermaelen and cannot win the game, you will ask me the same question.

In theory he is right.  All three are excellent centre halves, all internationals, and all are good enough that a defeat may raise the question as to why the third wheel sitting on the bench wasn’t on the pitch.  In addition, the comment about the decision being based on the opposition (i.e. small, nippy attackers) is something I heard many people raise themselves before the game.  Personally I’m a fan of both Koscielny and Vermaelen (although my patience with Vermaelen is wearing very thin).  What I’m not a massive fan of is Koscielny and Vermaelen together.  Their styles are too similar and neither of them are massive talkers / organisers.  For me Mertesacker must always be present, to help keep our shape and to steer the ship.  For those who worry about his lack of pace, it is mitigated by his excellent positional sense and reading of the game; you only have to go back a week to see the already mentioned MotM performance against City where he made seven (crucial) interceptions…and correct me if I’m wrong, but Aguero, Tevez, and Silva are all pretty small and nippy attackers too.  Mertesacker will need a rest at some stage, I’m just not sure yesterday was the right day to do it.

To avoid defeat yesterday was really key for me, even if it meant we had to settle for another draw.  To be undefeated after Chelsea at home and Stoke, Liverpool, and City away would have been a good thing.  It would have been an excellent foundation.  And it may also have set Chelsea straight after their easy fixtures start to the season.  Instead we burst our own bubble and added to their confidence.  Our next four league fixtures are West Ham (A), Norwich (A), QPR (H), and Reading (A), and we simply must take all 12 points on offer to really kick-start our title challenge.  Despite our tricky start to the season and yesterday’s result we are still only three points behind the two Manchester clubs and only two behind 5pur2, so let’s try to get four wins from the next four to really start pushing on.

Right, that’s enough ranting for one Sunday, it’s time to enjoy NRL Grand Final day and the bank holiday Monday which follows it here in Sydney.  Until next time, where we’ll be hoping for a strong and positive response from The Arsenal, have a good one.

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