Let’s talk about three things: lineups, penalties, and Walcott.
The lineup Arsene Wenger sent out there against Nottingham Forest is causing many pundits and fans consternation. But it was similar to the lineup that beat West Ham 1-0 in the Carabao Cup with just a few notable differences. Reiss Nelson started on the left and Welbeck started in the nominal striker role that Giroud probably would have occupied.
I had no problem with the starting XI here. Wenger had to rotate here because there is a huge game on Wednesday against Chelsea in the League Cup and injuries limited team selection. I might have played Coquelin instead of Willock but Willock wasn’t awful and certainly wasn’t the reason why Forest won the match.
Wenger didn’t disrespect the cup. He fielded a team with a lot of experience in defense, two older players in the attack, and one midfielder who has played literally hundreds of professional matches.
What’s fascinating here is that Forest also started a makeshift lineup, with caretaker manager Gary Brazil keeping one eye on what the Nottingham Post calls “a tough game against Aston Villa” in midweek. Forest started an experienced defense, some older players in midfield, and a fresh-faced front four with very little playing experience at all. Their center forward Ben Brereton has just over 2100 total minutes of professional playing time in his career.
What lost Arsenal this match wasn’t the lineup but literally three fouls. Three fouls by Mathieu Debuchy, Rob Holding, and Ainsley Maitland-Niles.
Maitland-Niles’ foul just conceded a free kick. That should never have resulted in a goal but Arsenal’s set play defense was miraculously poor, with the wall set up in such a way to play Eric Lichaj onside with no one marking him. Forest are not a good set play team. They are second worst in the League Championship. Whoever is in charge of Arsenal’s defense – which allowed a goal off a set play to an awful set play team – should get a paddlin.
The other two fouls were almost comical. Let’s deal with the easy one: Debuchy. That’s a penalty all day. He tackles from behind, he takes the legs from Traore, and yes he wins the ball but he goes through the man to win the ball. That’s a penalty.
And Rob Holding’s foul was also funny, but only because the player was obviously diving before the contact and there was minimal contact. But just like Bellerin’s kick, it’s a foul. It’s a penalty.
The problem isn’t the referees. The problem is Wenger’s coaching. The problem is that Wenger’s teams have been like this for a long time: they love to try these weird kicks inside their own penalty box. It’s almost a feature now. Campbell did it for Rooney’s dive, Clichy did it for the penalty in the Eduardo match, and Arsenal have now done it four times in the last three matches!
I suspect where this behaviour comes from is that Arsenal’s lack of defensive structure instills panic in the team. Not only that but Wenger publicly blames the individuals in his broken system and Wenger punishes his defenders when they make mistakes: he’s dropped Mertesacker and Vermaelen after high profile mistakes against Chelsea and Tottenham, and he’s sold pretty much everyone who has played defense for him. It’s telling that Mustafi was with Arsenal for just one year before asking for a transfer. He knew that his football career and his national team role were in danger if he stayed at Arsenal.
Panic and fear, that’s what leads to players making these kinds of mistakes. There is very little trust in Wenger’s defense: the team (all XI) don’t work together as a unit to defend except in one-off circumstances, the back four rarely communicate except by yelling at each other, and they are sloppy all across the back line no matter who is in those positions. And it’s going to continue to happen because Wenger sacrifices his defenders at the altar of his attackers.
Which brings me to Theo Walcott. Theo Walcott put on a display of garbage football last night. And what made it worse was that he was berating his teammates for not passing him the ball in exactly the right way. I have said many times that Walcott could be a 20 goal a season striker on a counter-attacking team but I’m starting to question my own belief.
Walcott could have been a 20 goal a season striker on a counter-attacking team – 5 years ago. I’m not so sure now. He’s lost all his steps and speed was almost his only asset. But look over at Sterling at Man City and compare him to Theo Walcott. Where Sterling is developing into a great forward, Walcott still doesn’t seem to understand how to angle his body to receive passes and maximize the danger. His runs are still nonsensical at times. His touch is abyssal. His crosses are awful. He can barely take set pieces. And he doesn’t have anything like a predatory goal-scoring attitude.
Theo Walcott is 29 years old and he’s been managed by Arsene Wenger his entire career. He went from being the hottest prospect of his generation to a mediocre backup – a player who has barely developed any skills in 10 years. I think Walcott is the poster child for Wenger’s failure to develop players. And I have to think that Oxlade-Chamberlain made the right call to leave Arsenal. Ox probably had one look at Theo Walcott’s career and said to himself “GET OUT… GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT!”
I’ve said all year that I think Wenger leaves this summer – and it can’t be soon enough. Wenger is tarnishing his legacy with every match now. But whether he leaves because the club fire him (unlikely) or because Wenger finally realizes he’s about three years past due remains to be seen. I’m hopeful that he leaves by “mutual agreement” and Arsenal get on to the massive project of rebuilding this team, this club.