No Surprise: Defeat by Arsenal
Considering the game in isolation, a defeat away at Arsenal (any defeat by Arsenal) is nothing unusual. It is what happens most of the time when we play them. In the context of the season, however, five Premier League reverses on the bounce and a growing realisation that we are feasible relegation candidates, another three points surrendered is a major concern. At one point it looked like the night could turn out a whole lot worse as Hull, Palace, Bournemouth and Swansea all took the lead. In fact we should give thanks to our friends from White Hart Lane for their late, late come-back in South Wales (hopefully denting Swansea’s confidence for the weekend) that our plight is not even more desperate.
Banking on a Clean Sheet?
Plan A at the Emirates, as far as it went, was to choke all life out of the game by defending in numbers and having Antonio and Ayew protecting the full-backs. There seemed little pretence that we would do anything with the ball when we got it; those very moments that Slaven had described as being when Arsenal were at their most vulnerable. In terms of its limited aspirations the first half worked reasonably well but it was all change after the interval when Antonio was withdrawn due to injury and replaced with Snodgrass. Arsenal raised the tempo after the break but still did not look convincing until the gift of a goal relieved the pressure, from whence onwards it was men against boys. The opening goal was a sloppy all-round effort by West Ham; Fonte failing to clear and Randolph allowing the feeblest of attempts by Ozil to elude him and nestle in the back of the net. Complaints about offside merely intended to hide the embarrassment of another Randolph blooper.
Anyone Got a Plan B?
The tactical switch after the goal was to replace Carroll with Sakho, exchanging one man receiving no service with another, but with no discernible variation to shape or formation. It was pretty much ‘shit or bust’ after the Arsenal goal went in and so was probably worth 30 minutes or so of Carroll and Sakho together to see how it worked. From the opening of the second half had begun it seemed that the wide players had given up on tracking back and, for the most part, the ball was given away quickly and cheaply those few times we won possession. The goal galvanised the Gunners and it became a case of how many they would score; and with a different referee they could have added a few penalties to the haul of three scored from open play. We did manage two shots on target in the closing stages; decent strikes from Lanzini and Fernandes but both comfortably saved by an otherwise redundant Martinez.
Slow and Static Doesn’t Win The Race
When you look through a team-sheet that includes players such as Fonte, Collins, Noble, Snodgrass and (probably) Ayew you will find some of the slowest players currently operating in the Premier League. I’ve not yet decided whether Ayew is simply slow or merely lazy! Who thought it a good idea to fill a side with players so lacking in pace (and movement it has to be said)? Occasionally a player of sublime skill can overcome a lack of pace but, in the modern athleticism of Premier League, pace has become a prerequisite for almost any player. How can you play a game relying on breakaways when the team is so collectively slow? Why are other teams always on the move, creating space and anticipating the pass while our players remain static until they receive the ball? Despite significant expenditure on the squad we are largely back to a position where a major overhaul is required, not just the odd tweak. We are nowhere near one or two players away from a great team and the notion of signing players close to or over 30 is horrendously short-sighted.
We now have two defining fixtures, home to Swansea and away at Sunderland, where a minimum of four points are required, preferably six. We are on our worst run since Avram Grant took us to the next level in 2011. Can we do it? Difficult to say based on the evidence of the manager’s poor decision making and selections of the past and the questionable pace and fitness of the players. We do have enough potential to see off both Swansea and Sunderland, subject to Antonio’s fitness. Antonio and Lanzini are our best hopes for survival and more game time for Fernandes would make sense. I am hoping that Swansea’s failure to beat Middlesbrough and their late capitulation to Tottenham will work to our advantage. I will spend the next few days looking for other straws worth clutching at.