A two-week international break always feels longer off the back of a defeat. You want to play the next game as soon as possible, to see a response. The misery was compounded by two key injuries, with Özil and Koscielny expected to be out for months rather than weeks, and our return to Premier League action resulting in two more dropped points, with an injury time equaliser needed to scrape a 2-2 draw at home to Hull City.
It all started so brightly, with a very promising opening 15 minutes capped off with a lovely strike from Alexis Sanchez to put us a goal to the good. From there I was looking for us to kick on; this was the first game in a run of ‘winnable’ fixtures and it was time for a performance and to send out a statement.
But unfortunately the lead didn’t last for long, only four minutes in fact. You could credit Diame for a powerful run and delicate chipped finish. Or you could argue that Flamini was weak and could have snuffed out the danger. But fundamentally it’s an assist for the referee. Quite how Roger East did not give a free kick for Diame pulling Flamini back by the neck and head I’ll never know.
And things got worse just 31 seconds into the second half when a complete lack of focus saw Huddlestone allowed too much time and space to waddle up the wing and cross an inch perfect ball for Hernandez to head home, after Mertesacker was caught flat-footed and ball watching.
Once more the crowd urged for a response, but clear-cut chances failed to materialise until injury time when we finally snatched a point. More great work from Alexis saw him beat three defenders and play a wonderful reverse ball to Welbeck, whose cool and tidy finish took his Arsenal tally to 5 goals in 7 games. A huge sigh of relief, but not nearly enough; two more points dropped at home, leaving us 11 points behind Chelsea. It may only be October, but it feels like the end of our title credentials already.
Eight league games in and we’ve only won two, and those two came via an injury time winner against a then managerless Palace and away to Villa who were losing liquids from both ends at a rate of knots. It’s just not good enough. And once again we’re dropping too many points at home; all the focus last season was on the big away defeats, but in reality it was the points dropped at home that punished us. We won 44 points at home last season compared to City’s 52, Liverpool’s 49, and Chelsea’s 48. That’s the title and automatic qualification for the Champions League right there.
In addition, for all the talk of lacking creativity, the out of form (and now injured) Özil, et cetera et cetera, the real issue so far has been our defence. For one reason or another we haven’t had a stable back four all season and it shows. We’re conceding far too many goals, many of them are so soft too, and it’s just not realistic to keep conceding a goal or two every game and expecting to win.
In our last three league games we’ve conceded 5 goals from just 11 shots on target, creating an average of a goal conceded every 5.5 shots which compares poorly to Chelsea and City who currently concede a goal in every 10. And this despite the fact that on average we only allow 7 shots per game, which is down 36% on last season – the problem is that they’re now clear-cut chances and we’re being punished (stats via @PWaino).
It’s another troubling indication of how our style has been altered this season. Our victory away to Bayern Munich in March 2013 started a run of games that saw a more conservative approach. We were compact, sat deeper to deny space, and looked to quickly punish the opposition when the chances came our way. It served us well for the remainder of that season and well into last season’s campaign too.
Whilst we allowed significantly more shots very few were on target, as the majority were speculative efforts from distance as the opposition grew frustrated with our resolve. This style also meant that teams came at us a little more and were playing a little higher up the pitch, offering more space in behind. We didn’t always exploit that space as often as we’d like, with frightening pace not being one of Giroud’s strengths.
But I know a few men for whom pace is an asset and will terrify defenders – Alexis, Welbeck, Chamberlain, and the returning Walcott. It’s time for Arsene to revert to that more cautious approach and let our speed demons destroy teams on the counter attack – if Suarez, Sturridge, and Sterling could do it so effectively for Liverpool last season then I’m sure our front line can too.
It’s a timely reminder of how effective this approach can be too. This weekend was the tenth anniversary of The Invincibles reaching game 49 in their unbeaten run, and so I watched the DVD ’49: The Complete Unbeaten Record’. It never ceases to amaze me how many of our goals started from opposition corners before breaking away with devastating effect; we were fast and incisive, so clinical. It’s time for more of the same, starting in Anderlecht on Wednesday. Come on you Gunners!