This was Arsenal’s third match in a row against tough teams. This was Arsenal’s second match in a week after sending most of their players out on Nationalism duty. And as a result, for all but about 20 minutes in the second half, this was an insipid performance from the Arsenal.
My initial reaction was to declare the season over, to complain “same old Arsenal”, and to decry the month of November as Arsenal’s “mes peor”, but on further reflection I’m not quite ready to call this one.
Arsenal were never supposed to win the Champions League and we are looking at a team who have literally lost just one match all season. Yes, these two weeks have been poor but there are mitigating circumstances.
The first is that the team seems to be struggling physically. Alexis was poor yesterday. Horribly poor. Probably his worst ever Arsenal performance. His turnovers and atrocious passing knocked Arsenal’s teeth out. But watching him drop deep to collect and try to create for teammates while basically at a standstill is proof to me that he’s carrying a bigger injury than he’s letting on. Healthy Alexis drives at the opposition the moment he gets the ball; this injured Alexis collects the ball, stops, has a smoke, takes a stim pack, picks out a pass, and kicks the ball into low earth orbit.
But even an unhealthy Alexis is still Arsenal’s biggest threat. He made, I think, just one run behind for a ball. It was the ball that earned Arsenal a penalty. Özil drove at the defense and then made a beautiful drag-back pass into space for Alexis. I think healthy Alexis shoots with his first touch and scores. Unhealthy Alexis is half a step slow and has to drag back onto his weaker foot but luckily earns a penalty.
As an aside here, the penalty looked a lot like a dive. But the one thing that convinces me that it wasn’t as divey as it looked on live TV is the fact that Krychowiak doesn’t complain at all and when Alexis is confronted by the PSG players he tells them to ask Krychowiak if there was contact. Krychowiak was interviewed by le Parisien after the match and refused to call it a dive (he also equivocated on whether he fouled Alexis) and so if the PSG player concedes that it was probably a good call then that is all I need to say it wasn’t a dive.
My second mitigating factor is that Arsenal are struggling to figure out their best midfield combination in the absence of Cazorla. Wenger clearly prefers Coquelin as his number one starter in midfield. After that, he seems unsure of who to play next to him. Ramsey put in an all-action performance, playing both ends of the pitch to the best of his ability. But his ability is limited and he was clearly rusty.
Ramsey’s not a creative presence; he would much rather get on the end of a delicious pass than create one. In the last three seasons Ramsey has taken 138 shots but only created 86 shots for his teammates.
As for his rustiness: there was a moment late in the game where Arsenal were about to spring a counter attack and Jenkinson played ball to Ramsey. He was in acres of space and Alexis was making a run but Ramsey passed the ball to Mustafi. It was frustrating to say the least. But as I showed in my By the Numbers piece, Ramsey led Arsenal in a number of categories, including tackles and passes. He was the best player on an Arsenal team that put in one of the worst performances of the season.
In midfield what perplexes everyone is why Xhaka can’t get a start. Again, in the By the Numbers piece, I show that when Xhaka is on the pitch it doesn’t really matter who his partner is, Arsenal are better with him than they are with Elneny. So, why can’t he get a game? He can’t possibly be tired. Something about the way he plays or trains is bothering Wenger. Something I’m not seeing. He was Arsenal’s best player in the North London Derby and after that he gets dropped. It’s surreal.
There was a moment where Wenger yelled at him last night, after his bad pass forward to Alexis. Alexis applauded the idea but Wenger wanted him to play a different pass. If I were to guess, Wenger probably doesn’t like the fact that Xhaka plays big diagonal balls. Wenger prefers verticality, almost obsessively. The reaction from Xhaka was dismissive, literally waving Wenger off, and I wonder if there isn’t some professional tension between the two.
I worry about Xhaka. I don’t think he came to Arsenal to ride the pine. This was a player who captained his last team. His last manager built a team to take advantage of his strengths. He’s a strong personality and if he feels like he’s not being given a fair chance, he will demand a trade.
Given the fact that Arsenal are injured, that Wenger isn’t getting the best of his midfield duo, and that we just played two big teams and Tottenham bracketed by a group of National team matches, I don’t think we can write Arsenal off just yet.
The two things that are worrying me about Arsenal are the fact that we can’t keep possession and when we are out of possession our defense looks frightening.
Against United, Tottenham, and PSG, Arsenal struggled to keep possession and regain possession when those teams wanted to impose themselves on the game. This is another confounding fact about Arsenal. Two years ago, Wenger turned Arsenal into a pressing team against certain opposition. It worked so wonderfully that Arsenal eviscerated Liverpool causing all pundits to declare the 3-5-2 dead.
So, where has that gone? We saw it for a few minutes against PSG yesterday and it was refreshing. But against Spurs and Man U, we were so passive out of possession.
Mustafi and Koscielny go from game to game looking variably like a decent partnership and like one of the worst pairings I’ve seen in years. Mustafi seems to switch off for large portions of these big games. His positioning against Matuidi was horrible and led to the Cavani goal last night. And in the first match against PSG he was the one caught napping for Cavani’s run. A similar run happened last night and Mustafi wasn’t aware, Cavani* got a header off but it flashed just wide. If Cavani was at all a decent forward, he would have scored several goals over those two legs and many of them would have been the fault of both Mustafi and Koscielny.
But all of this can be sorted out. Wenger can give Alexis a day or two off, so that he can go mountain climbing or run a double marathon. Wenger can get Santi back healthy and find a way to maximize the potential of players like Ramsey, Xhaka, and Coquelin. Wenger can get Mustafi to be more consistent. This team has a lot of potential. There’s still time. They just need to start this Sunday against Bournemouth.
*Cavani is the most overrated forward in world football. He’s had 6 big chances against Arsenal in two matches and he’s only even gotten 3 of them on target. Cavani seems like a player who can only score by stealing a goal from a teammate. You know what I mean? Like a teammate shoots and the ball is going in, then suddenly Cavani pops up and redirects the ball into the net, claiming the goal for himself. He does make great runs and gets himself into great positions, but goodness his finishing is awful and has been for years, even when he was at Napoli.
Not only is Cavani overrated but he’s also a puke. When Arsenal won the penalty he tried to abscond with the ball and when Ramsey came over to take it back, he slugged Ramsey in the face. If Ramsey had collapsed on the ground and rolled around for a minute, which we know Cavani would do if the roles were reversed, I’m sure Cavani would be looking at a lengthy ban.
I heard that after the match Steven “I lost Liverpool the League with my error” Gerrard basically called Ramsey a pussy for his reaction to being punched in the face. I watched Cavani punch Ramsey on live television. This wasn’t some fakery, it was more like Ramsey was blown away by Cavani punching him in the face. He seemed shocked, not like he was faking it.
But I’m not sure what reaction Gerrard was looking for. Like, “don’t be surprised when some crazed Uruguayan punches you in the face”? Or how about “brush off your shoulder, turn your head and tap the other cheek in an invitation for Cavani to punch you again, like you’re in some kind of kung-fu film”? Steven “I couldn’t even make it in MLS because I was one of the most overrated midfielders of my generation” Gerrard was dipping into a deep bin to wretch up that level of stupidity.