To do good to one’s enemies is love’s labours lost. — Theognis of Megara
This game hurt. Given the context of coming off a week’s rest, of beating United with the same lineup, of playing at home, and of the youth team dismantling Wigan in such sparkling fashion that was perhaps the ugliest Arsenal game I have seen all season.
First, and perhaps most painful, is the fact that the team played without any passion. From the kickoff they looked nervous, uncertain, and very early on made key mistakes that led to yellow cards. Denilson picked up a yellow in the 10th minute and Fabregas in the 18th, this essentially de-fanged Arsenal’s midfield, true, but is there anyone who watched the match who thought that at any point that Arsenal team might come out and try to put a physical stamp on the match? Try to bully the win from Villa? No. Because this team lacks true passion. They can get geed up for a game, but when push comes to shove, when Agbonlahor knocks one of our players off the ball, no one is there to push back. Losing a game happens, but losing a game and letting the other team push you around because you didn’t give your best, because you caved in and let them push you around? That’s not Arsenal football.
Worse than that, though, is the fact that the Captain of the team is one of the people who can be pushed around. Gallas is more likely to have a hissy fit than to tackle a showboating Nani off the pitch like Flamini did last year. And that’s the second big problem; ok, so let’s all agree that Gallas isn’t captain material, who is? Cesc? ha! If he was captain material he would have shown it by now. In any organization if there is a leadership gap a natural leader will rise and fill that gap — unless there isn’t a natural leader. Who then, Adebayor? Nasri? Denilson? Diaby? Do I have to keep going? Each name is more comical than the next. Arsenal have no leader. Gallas is “leader” only because someone has to wear the captain’s armband.
The third big problem is tactical. I don’t quite think Wenger has lost the plot but he seems to be jumping around from chapter to chapter looking for a story line. It’s pretty clear that Arsenal’s tactic of 70% possession and 9 men in the opponent’s end of the pitch has been found out. Further, it’s clear that this team have no clue as to how to defend corners and set pieces: well, at least Almunia has no clue. Against teams that play open, attacking football, Arsenal are clearly superior. Against teams that invite them to attack, like footballing rope-a-dope, it’s clear that Arsenal are not superior. I’m not sure any team could put 9 men in the opponent’s half, pass the ball around, and expect their defenders to handle the inevitable counter. Sol Campbell couldn’t do it, Senderos couldn’t do it, Toure couldn’t do it, Gallas can’t do it, show me the 6’3″ defender who can clear every set piece, has the pace to catch Agbonlahor and the strength to knock him off the ball at the right moment. I’m not going to pretend that I have even a shred of the tactical genius that Wenger has but I think Arsene Wenger is asking a whole lot of his defenders. The overlapping play is nice and all but Arsenal seem to be sacrificing everything to go forward.
Which brings me to the last problem, the one that we didn’t see yesterday but the one that everyone talks about all the time — Wenger’s reluctance to buy someone. First off, it’s November 16th, in the EPL there are 7 games between now and January, so, unless Arsene buys a free agent (the best of which is Stephen Appiah) the season will be over before he can bring anyone in. Up until last week, I was of the mind that we should let Arsene do whatever he wants to do; Arsene Knows Best and all that. I even said, “well more than any other season this one is an up and down season.”
But I’ve changed my mind — watching Man U, Chelsea, and Liverpool destroy their opposition week in and week out will do that to you. Chelsea have allowed a stingy 4 goals this season, their goal differential is an insane 28 while Arsenal have allowed a whopping 15 (10 of which were at home). Far from the idea that there has been a contraction in talent this season, rather, more than any other season Arsenal are the ones who look ordinary.
For me, this plainness in the squad comes down to the one position: Fabregas’ water carrier. I have watched Denilson and he is not good enough — Barry showed the gulf in class in that position yesterday. I don’t care what Wenger says, Denilson cannot cope with the most crucial position on this Arsenal team. He’s a good kid and all, he means well, but he’s not able to do it. I have to wonder if Wenger doesn’t already know — all you have to do is look at the fact that Wenger is playing 5 men in the midfield at home games to see that he doesn’t think Denilson can do it.
Put someone in there with Cesc who has fire in his belly, someone who will help control the tempo, someone strong, commanding, and someone who can provide some leadership and this is a very different Arsenal team. Basically, it would be the Arsenal team of last year minus the pointless dribbling of Hleb and plus the goalscoring of Nasri.
So, if I was Wenger, I would sign someone like Appiah, now. Then, I might also change my game plan a bit and play a little less open. Have the defenders not get so far forward. Maybe ask the keeper to come and claim some balls off set pieces. Reign in the radical experiment just a little, because what they are doing right now, just isn’t working. Every team in the EPL has to look at what Hull, Fulham, Sunderland, Stoke, and now Aston Villa has done and be excited to play Arsenal — that has to be seen as love’s labour lost.