Swansea vs. Arsenal: Time to fix defensive flaws before season turns ugly

Nothing can be worse for a manager than failing to act or not finding the solution after spotting his team’s deficiencies. The Gunners threw away the lead in the last 20 minutes to lose 2-1 to Swansea on Sunday. In the post-match press conference, Wenger said he knew what went wrong but he also showed some rigid thinking: “We were struggling a bit on the right side, but I have no experienced players on the bench. It was unfortunate and I didn’t think there was a need to change.”

Swansea vs. Arsenal

Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Swansea winger Montero had Chambers in his pocket on Sunday but Wenger still felt Arsenal could survive that bad matchup. In the 78th minute, Montero proved the French manager wrong by rounding Chambers to cross for Gomis, who outjumped Monreal to head in the winning goal.

There were three moments in the first half when Wenger could clearly see the threat was coming from Montero. The Ecuador winger outpaced Chambers in the 21st to fire an angled strike that was parried by Szczesny. Four minutes later, Taylor overlapped with Montero and skipped past Chambers to cut the ball back for Rangel whose low effort was blocked. Then a slip from Chambers in the 36th allowed Montero to steal the ball and feed Bony, who played Emnes in, but Szczesny saved the low attempt from the Swansea forward. Montero also got the better of Chambers in the 65th to cut the ball back for an unmarked Bony, who fluffed his shot wide.

Slow to turn

Wenger did not make any tactical adjustment at halftime although he had two options. Option 1: Double-team Montero by asking Oxlade-Chamberlain to give a hand. The obvious downside would be a decline in Chambo’s offensive contribution. Don’t get me wrong though: Chambo did track back to prevent Montero from overlapping. Option 2: Replace Chambers with the faster Bellerin. Here, the downside would be Bellerin’s inexperience.

The manager ruled out the second option because of Bellerin’s youth. On paper, that makes sense since defense is the main area where experience makes a big difference. Chambers played as a fullback last season for Southampton, but there’s not a huge gap between Bellerin and Chambers, who are both 19.

I’d give the nod to Bellerin because he’s quicker than Chambers and had a good game against Borussia Dortmund. In the long run, Bellerin will be a better rightback than Chambers. Montero may be an underrated player, but there are quite a few wingers in the Premier League who are just as good as him and who will expose Chambers’ main weakness again. Chambers is really slow to turn. That’s a flaw I noticed when he struggled against Buckley at Sunderland. Wenger must be aware of that, otherwise why would he see Chambers’ future at centerback or in midfield?

Building for the future and the present?

Swansea’s second goal also showed Monreal’s weakness in the air. The Spaniard read the game well and intercepted many passes for Bony. He also killed a Swansea counterattack in the 49th by slowing down Montero and buying time for his teammates to rush back. His decision-making is sound but his aerial abilities are too limited for a centerback in the Premier League.

Chambers would be a better fit in that position. But there’s a big difference in terms of experience between Monreal and Chambers. The England international has only one Premier League season under his belt while Monreal has played for seven seasons in the Spanish league before joining Arsenal in January 2013.

Should the manager take the risk of building for the future knowing that Chambers’ inexperience could cost us goals? Sunday’s back four had one inexperienced player, Chambers, and two players not at their best positions, Chambers and Monreal. With Bellerin and Gibbs at fullback, and Chambers and Mertesacker at centerback, we would have two inexperienced players but everybody at his best position.

Soft midfield

Swansea leveled in the 75th with a curling free kick from Sigurdsson into the top corner. You can’t really blame Szczesny for that goal. On the other hand, I thought the play that led to the set piece spoke volumes about our soft midfield. Ramsey lost the ball in Swansea’s half and neither he nor Flamini could stop the counterattack. Swansea had a favorable situation in the final third with Barrow and Bony facing just Monreal and Mertesacker, but Gibbs killed the play with a late challenge on Barrow.

Ramsey and Flamini should have stopped Barrow in midfield but both had already been booked. Ramsey made a cynical foul on Taylor in the 45th while Flamini tackled Montero with too much commitment in the 62nd. Obviously, they wouldn’t have received yellow cards if Arsenal had the game under control.

Ramsey is still struggling for form. He broke forward a few times but could only hit a volley wide on the stroke of halftime. The Wales midfielder did his best to stop crosses and win tackles but even his defensive stats are not as good as last season. I guess we’ll have to be patient and not expect too much from Ramsey after a stellar breakthrough season.

Exhaustion and lack of rotation

The result is disappointing because clean sheets against Sunderland and Burnley gave the illusion that the team had finally hit its stride. But the spectacular self-destruction in the 3-3 draw with Anderlecht last Tuesday reminded the fans that the Gunners still lack consistency. They showed complacency for the first time this season by throwing away a three-goal lead against Anderlecht. On Sunday, they failed again to protect the lead, raising questions about their mental toughness.

Fatigue was definitely a factor in Arsenal’s average performance. The Gunners played at a slow tempo in the first half before raising their game after the break. Injuries and the manager’s lack of trust in some players help explain the lack of rotation and the subsequent exhaustion affecting the team. However, Arsenal’s inability to fight back after Swansea’s equalizer is worrying.

Wenger shifted to a 4-2-4 system in the 79th by sending on Walcott and Wilshere for Ramsey and Flamini. In the closing minutes, the manager threw everything at Swansea by replacing Chambers with Sanogo and relying on a makeshift 3-4-3 formation. Despite those tactical moves, the Gunners could only create a half-chance with a long ball from Sanchez in the 88th that Walcott failed to control. You kind of wonder why Wenger preferred Walcott and Sanogo to a fully fit Podolski. Sanogo was making his return from a hamstring injury while Walcott still lacked match sharpness.

Outstanding but not the finished product yet

The only positive from Sunday’s game was Chambo’s outstanding performance. His directness created a lot of problems for the Swansea defense. Taylor, Ki and Carroll earned yellow cards for late challenges on Chambo. The England midfielder initiated the counterattack that led to the opening goal in the 63rd by connecting with Cazorla in midfield. The Spaniard released Welbeck down the right flank and Sanchez converted Welbeck’s low cross from 10 yards.

Chambo’s close control and ability to either cut inside or hug the touchline made him quite unpredictable. Welbeck played a one-two with him but had his shot parried by Fabianski in the 44th. Chambo has improved his decision-making and cut his turnover rate, but he’s not the finished product yet. He still needs to work on his final ball and his finishing. His through ball for Welbeck in the 20th was intercepted and his cut back for his England teammate in the 59th was poor. When Sanchez played him in shortly after the break, Chambo held off a defender but shot straight at Fabianski with his weaker left foot.

Cazorla is having a poor start to the season with zero goal in the Premier League. He has less influence on the team’s passing game and his impact in the final third has been almost insignificant. His corner kick was headed wide by Mertesacker in the 45th and Fabianski easily stopped his long-range strike in the 61st. The Spaniard was lucky to finish the match with no injury as Williams stamped on him in the 31st and kicked him in the shin in the 48th. After watching those reckless challenges, it’s hard to believe that some pundits saw Williams as a possible Arsenal target.

Chasing the Saints

Sanchez scored his eighth goal in 10 Premier League games but he wasn’t as sharp as usual. I guess the manager will have to rest him at some stage despite the team’s increasing dependence on him. The Gunners have slipped to sixth place in the standings, four points behind Manchester City and eight behind Southampton. The Saints have a good chance to finish in the top four because they don’t play in any European competition. I believe it would a failure for our club to finish outside the top three this season because Manchester United, Tottenham and Liverpool are all struggling badly.