When you’re working on the weekend, there’s nothing more depressing than catching a rerun a couple of days later, knowing your team lost. On Saturday, the Gunners were facing the worst Manchester United defense in years but still lost 2-1 at the Emirates stadium. With only 17 points from 12 Premier League games, this is Arsenal’s poorest start in the Wenger era. The previous lowest total was 19 points two years ago. In every other season under Wenger, Arsenal managed to rack up at least 20 points from the first 12 matches.
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There are simply two reasons for that disaster: defensive naivety and a lack of efficiency in the final third. The Gunners dominated the first 30 minutes but failed to find the net because of some poor decision-making, final ball or finishing. Welbeck had an angled shot blocked by McNair in the fifth minute, a long-range effort that lacked power to beat De Gea in the 14th and a backheel flick back to goal that sailed wide in the 43rd. You can’t really blame him for those three plays.
On the other hand, I thought Welbeck should have caught the frame from nine yards while heading a cross from Oxlade-Chamberlain in the ninth minute. And his decision-making was poor in the 43rd when he chased a long ball from Chambo. Welbeck attempted to beat De Gea, one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League, from a very tight angle while two teammates were waiting inside the area for a pass.
Wilshere definitely had Arsenal’s best chance in the first half. Under pressure from Sanchez, De Gea made a poor clearance in the 14th. The ball fell to Chambo, who found Welbeck. The England forward then played Wilshere in. Clean through on goal, Wilshere had his poke from eight yards saved by De Gea. With Blackett rushing back, Wilshere didn’t have enough time to open up his body for a chip. He took three touches on that play. I think his second touch was his better option for a shot because he had more space to beat De Gea. With a third touch, maybe he should have tried a shot with the outside of his boot. But the best option was a pass to an unmarked Sanchez with his first touch.
Wilshere also wasted a good counterattack in the 51st. He had Ramsey and Welbeck to his right, but overhit his final ball. McNair injured Wilshere on that play with a late tackle and should have received a yellow card. But the referee failed to spot the foul. Wilshere is now nursing an ankle sprain and will miss several games, which is a pity because he seemed to hit his stride after struggling for form at the start of the season.
Trying too hard
Ramsey also performed poorly in the final third. He curled a shot over the bar in the 36th while a pass to an unmarked Gibbs was the better option. He then attempted a speculative drive in the 65th that was blocked, forcing Cazorla to make a cynical foul on Young to kill a dangerous counterattack. Ramsey said in a press conference on Tuesday that he’s going back to basics but Saturday’s game showed that he’s still trying too hard to score.
De Gea made a couple of outstanding saves, but he really showed his class in the 22nd when Sanchez slipped a through ball to Chambo. De Gea came so quickly off his line that Chambo had no room for a shot. With Blackett protecting the net, Chambo attempted to round De Gea before firing an angled strike that the Spanish goalie blocked with his leg. There’s not much else that Chambo could have done. He had no decent passing option since Welbeck was 10 yards behind him.
Patience needed with youth
The youth of our attacking players can help explain the team’s lack of efficiency in the final third. Welbeck has a poor record for a striker with only two goals in nine Premier League games, but he’s just 23 and adjusting to a new position. Ramsey and Wilshere are 23 and 22 respectively and have missed an entire season because of bad injuries. Chambo is only 21 but he has proved our best player this month with Sanchez.
Saturday’s game was a reminder that this team is still a project and not the finished product yet. Most players really become consistent around the age of 23-24. Let’s remember, for instance, that Inter Milan lacked patience with a 22-year-old Pirlo and made the mistake of selling him to AC Milan. As most of you know, Pirlo then led AC Milan to the Champions League title twice and guided Italy to World Cup glory in 2006.
Our most senior players didn’t create much. Sanchez had just a tame low drive in the 34th and headed a cross from Chambo straight at De Gea in the 63rd. I guess he’s in the same situation as Ramsey last season. He has already played 19 matches for the club and traveled to South America for international games with Chile. Sanchez clearly showed signs of exhaustion in the second half by stretching a couple of times. I guess the manager will soon need to rest Sanchez otherwise he could break down.
Cazorla came off the bench in the 55th to replace an injured Wilshere. In the 68th, Monreal sent a long ball toward Welbeck, who knocked the ball down for Cazorla. Unfortunately, the Spaniard fired his half-volley straight at De Gea. It has been a strange season for Cazorla, who’s clearly playing below the level of his past two seasons at the club. The only positive from Saturday’s loss was Giroud’s return from a foot injury. The Frenchman replaced Ramsey in the 77th and chased a ball over the top from Arteta in stoppage time to smash a half-volley into the top corner.
Vulnerable on the fast break
While it may be shocking that Arsenal could not crack a shaky Manchester United defense, I thought our defensive performance was terrible. As the old saying goes, if you can’t win a match, then don’t lose it. Optimists will say that the Gunners were unlucky to concede two goals with just two shots on target from the Red Devils: the first one was Rooney’s goal for a 2-0 lead and the second was a low drive from Fellaini in stoppage time.
However, Manchester United exposed Arsenal’s vulnerability on the fast break many times even though Wenger gave more protection to the back four by switching back to a 4-3-3 system. When Di Maria outpaced two Gunners in the 38th, it took a block from Chambers to thwart Rooney. I thought Mertesacker was our worst performer on Saturday. He has been our most reliable centerback in the past three seasons, but his performances since the World Cup have been questionable. The German defender missed an interception in the 61st, allowing Rooney to be clean through on goal. The Gunners were lucky that Rooney was flagged offside although both Mertesacker and Monreal played him onside.
Mertesacker’s wrong priorities
Wenger sometimes gets criticized for his team’s poor defensive performances, but I’m sure he never told Mertesacker to play like a midfielder in the second half. Mertesacker even charged down the right wing in the 63rd to overlap with Chambo. When Di Maria led a counterattack in the 80th, only Monreal, Chambers and Arteta stayed at the back while Mertesacker was stuck deep in the Red Devils’ territory. Mertesacker ignored the warning and let his team down again in the 85th. A tired Sanchez lost possession on the edge of the Manchester box and Fellaini fed Di Maria in midfield. Mertesacker was 70 yards from our goal while Monreal had to deal on his own with both Di Maria and Rooney. Di Maria slipped the ball to Rooney, who beat Martinez for a 2-0 lead.
Mertesacker is the slowest of our defenders, so he’s definitely the one who should be holding the fort. Some Arsenal fans are unhappy to see Monreal start in the heart of the defense because of his relative weakness in the air, but on Saturday the Spaniard was the one who played like a true centerback. When Arsenal threw everything at the Red Devils in stoppage time, there was no defender to protect Martinez, who was lucky to see Di Maria’s chip sail wide.
Still not clicking
The 8-2 loss at Old Trafford in 2011 was the match that exposed Arsenal’s inability to stop counterattacks. I find it ironic that the Gunners were so casual defensively against the same club. The opening goal in the 56th did not come from a fast break but still highlighted problems at the back. Szczesny punched a cross from Young into the path of Valencia, whose off-target volley was diverted home by Gibbs, lying on the pitch after colliding with Szczesny. Chambers failed to stop Young’s cross while Szczesny poorly communicated with Gibbs and came off his line late. Compare De Gea’s quick legs with Szczesny’s slow reaction and you get the difference between a very good goalie and a decent one.
We’re in November and the team hasn’t gelled yet. There’s an obvious lack of balance on the pitch with players struggling for form (Mertesacker, Cazorla, Ramsey) and players in great shape (Sanchez, Chambo). There’s also a lack of balance within the squad. We’re short at the back but have too many attacking options. In Wenger’s favored 4-3-3 system, you basically have Walcott, Chambo, Campbell and Gnabry competing for a starting spot on the right wing, and Sanchez, Podolski, Cazorla and Ozil fighting to play on the left wing.
The manager’s reluctance to rotate despite poor performances from Cazorla, Ramsey and Welbeck leads us to the issue of chemistry in the dressing room. To what extent players like Rosicky, Podolski and Campbell are unhappy because they are not given a chance?
When Didier Deschamps led Marseille to the French league title, he said that 60 percent of a coach’s job is done during the summer transfer market because he can upgrade the weak positions in his team. I’m pretty sure Wenger and his staff have identified centerback and holding midfielder as the two weak spots at Arsenal. The question is: Why did they not make a move in the summer? If money was the issue, then they could have let Jenkinson and Bellerin fight for the starting spot at rightback and use the cash for the Debuchy deal to sign a centerback or a defensive midfielder.
Or did Wenger set the bar too high? Do you save your cash for the next Vieira, knowing that it will hurt your team in the short term? There are seven Premier League games to play before the winter transfer window opens on Jan. 1. Until then, the manager will have to find a solution with his current squad.