I usually fall into the footballing cliché category of taking one game at a time, but this month is testing my resolve and I’m failing miserably in my efforts to not look beyond Man City tomorrow. Without doubt I am looking towards January 31st because the next three weeks are crucial.
Last time out was Swansea away in the FA Cup Third Round. For some unknown reason I felt reasonably confident going into it, but thought the first goal would be important. When Michu got it for Swansea, against the run of play, my confidence went. But credit to the team, they responded well, deservedly taking a 2-1 lead with not too long to hang on. Sadly more comical defending was to follow, resulting in a 2-2 draw and a replay we could really do without. The replay is this Wednesday, with the winners facing an away trip to Brighton & Hove Albion in the Fourth Round.
The only consistency with Arsenal remains our inconsistency. Or as Theo put it last season, we’re consistent in patches. One of our biggest flaws is individual errors and it seems that every time we make one we get punished. However, individual errors are only part of the problem; the real issue for me remains our imbalance.
First and foremost we need a ‘new Vieira’. A central midfielder who is big, strong and can dominate midfield from box-to-box. For me it’s no coincidence that our best defensive displays, both as a back four and a team unit, came at the start of the season when Diaby was present. Diaby was the link between Arteta and Cazorla, and when defending (especially against counter attacks) provided a defensive midfield base of two alongside Arteta. Our full backs spend large parts of the game in the final third, leaving only our centre halves ‘at home’. In the absence of Diaby, Arteta has been left isolated. When he goes right, to cover for Sagna, the opposition can simply switch the play left and exploit a pushed forward Gibbs, and vice versa. At the start of the season, however, that wasn’t possible as Diaby was in support, covering the other side of the pitch.
Since the injury to Diaby, and the return of Wilshere, we’ve lost this balance. Jack is an excellent player, his drive and determination noticeably stands out amongst his often sheepish team mates. But he’s a forward thinking midfielder and plays a higher line than Diaby, his battles more often than not taking place in the final third as he presses and harries the opposition. And so Arteta, and the spaces our attacking full backs leave behind them, get exploited more easily.
Of course the question we all have is why did Arsene rely on Diaby staying fit? We all knew he was going to get injured, and what makes it worse is that we made it all the more likely. We knew Wilshere wouldn’t be back until late October at best and yet we bought nobody to rotate Diaby with, leaving the fragile Frenchman over used. And as a result of his inevitable injury we’re now doing the same to Wilshere, after his return from a very long absence. With Diaby close to a return we can only hope Wenger is able to rotate them over the coming weeks and months, keeping them both fit and fresh.
The other imbalance of late is our right hand side. At first it was Oxlade-Chamberlain causing the problems, then it was Walcott against Swansea. My concern with The Ox is that whilst he works hard in tracking back he then switches off. I’ve lost count of the number of times he’s let his man run off of him, leaving Sagna exposed and dealing with an overlap. Walcott is even worse. He rarely tracks back to provide defensive cover and is constantly in the middle when we have the ball, meaning Sagna is outnumbered in defence and has no forward passing option in attack. It’s therefore no coincidence that Sagna’s worst run of form in an Arsenal shirt has coincided with these issues. They also led to the Jenkinson error and second Swansea goal in our league meeting.
One element of the team I am happy with is our left hand side, with Gibbs and Poldolski having developed an excellent understanding. Kieran’s rampaging forward runs and overall dynamic play produced a man of the match performance and quite spectacular goal versus Swansea, but more importantly play a massive role in allowing Podolski to drift in field and contribute more centrally and to very good effect. The German has 10 goals and 7 assists in 26 appearances this season (via the official match day programme for the Man City game). That’s a goal contribution every 2.6 games, not bad for someone in their inaugural Premier League campaign.
So what comes next? The biggest three weeks of our season. As mentioned at the start I usually like to focus on one game at a time, but it’s hard to ignore the rest of January:
- Man City (H)
- Swansea (H)
- Chelsea (A)
- West Ham (H)
- Potential FA Cup Fourth Round
- Liverpool (H)
With or without the potential FA Cup Fourth Round tie that is a very difficult and very pivotal run of fixtures. I’m not usually one for hyperbole, but the outcome of these games will shape and define the remainder of our season. Anything less than 7 points (from a possible 12) and a place in the FA Cup Fifth Round come February and things will be looking very ominous.
And it’s not just on the pitch that concerns me between now and the start of February. An already thin squad is now two men lighter following the loan deals of Djourou to Hannover 96 and Chamakh to West Ham, even if they weren’t being utilised. Some space in the squad has been freed up; let’s fill it with some quality that we will utilise. Once again Wenger has spoken of looking for super quality, but surely there must be some attainable targets out there who can reduce our over reliance on Arteta, Wilshere, and Cazorla (whilst enhancing the midfield balance), who can bolster our lightweight attack, and who can provide serious competition and back up for Szczesny? If such targets are not acquired I really do fear the worst.
It’s a big three weeks coming up. It’s make or break time. Over to you Arsene.