Monday, 3 October 2011

Arsenal ‘hand’ Spurs victory

On Sunday night Lee Dixon was again forced to sit on the MOTD2 sofa and highlight Arsenal’s inept defending. Understandably reluctant to go over the same familiar lapses in positioning and organization, he nevertheless resignedly pointed out a succession of schoolboy errors committed throughout the 90 minutes against Tottenham. The man who played 458 league games for the Gunners could do little but shake his head at our current state, and today said that far from looking to get back into touch with the top four, Arsenal should be worried about finishing the season in the top six, or even the top eight.

You have to say that, on current form, Dixon is right. Seven points from seven games leaves us 15th in the table, with two wins (both at home, against Bolton and Swansea), one draw (goalless at St James’ on the first day of the season) and four defeats already (including the Gunners’ worst result for 115 years). It’s going to be a long season. The last time we finished behind Tottenham in the league was back in 1994-95 (one to forget for Lee), but how much longer that always-comforting fact will remain the case is questionable – potentially, one of the most painful aspects of this increasingly blighted 125th year.

Arsène’s post-match comments were frustrating. His recent tendency to lapse into cliché emerged again; this time he wasn’t even original. ‘I felt we played a little but with the handbrake on … We lack a little bit of confidence at the moment, and we just need to protect a result when we have one’. Well, leaving aside this handbrake we seem to have developed, the pressing question is, what exactly were we protecting? Since when is a 1-1 draw in a North London derby considered a ‘result’? These soundbites from the manager are getting increasingly difficult to listen to – after the game he was almost as inarticulate as ‘Arry. This from a man who was once nicknamed ‘le Professeur’.

But to be fair to Wenger, we did play a bit. Ramsey’s goal was well-worked and that should have really put us into the lead rather than simply being the equaliser – Gervinho had already spurned a gilt-edged chance after RvP teed him up midway through the first half. But Gervinho’s wayward finish was at least two feet wide of Friedel’s post, and that sort of carelessness ultimately cost us – not just up front but at the back too.

For Spurs’ opening goal, Sagna and Mertesacker allowed Van der Vaart far too much time to ‘collect’ (i.e. handball) Adebayor's pass before shooting across Szczesny into the bottom corner. For the second, Arteta did a great job of pointing out the danger as he waved a finger at Kyle Walker waltzing into Arsenal territory, but unfortunately neither he nor anyone else picked up the young right-back before he unleashed a moving, dipping shot that evaded Szczesny’s hand.

It is perhaps unsurprising that Arsenal struggled again defensively. The teamsheet indicated that it would be a tough outing, Song again deputizing in the absence of a fit centre-half to partner Per Mertesacker. Song did ok at the back, but whereas he can get away with occasionally overplaying further up the field, there is no room at the back for him to chase and win the ball back, and that nearly cost us early on. Fortunately Szczesny managed to parry Scott Parker's close-range effort.

Having a fit defence and therefore the luxury of Song’s dynamism in the midfield would have made us far more secure and probably more dangerous offensively too, particularly against a pretty light Spurs presence in the middle of the park. Indeed, initially Ramsey, Arteta and Coquelin made the most of this, using the extra man over Parker and Modric to good effect. Unfortunately they were unable to make the greater possession count significantly, and neither Walcott nor Gervinho carried consistent attacking threat down the flanks – certainly not enough to get either Assou-Ekotto or Walker unduly worried. Van Persie was also quiet, admittedly isolated but far less effective than usual. Neither of the substitutes, Benayoun or Arshavin, were able to do any better as the match ebbed away, and Wenger’s earlier forced change, Jenkinson for an injured Sagna in the 68th minute, simply heaped pressure on the back four just as we should have been trying to do the same to Spurs’ defence. Instead, Bale made the most of the young right-back’s inexperience and caused more tense moments.

We haven’t actually won at White Hart Lane in the League since September 2007, a worrying statistic in itself, and this was another bad day. Referee Mike Dean didn’t do us any favours, and should have disallowed Spurs’ first goal and sent Van der Vaart off for handling (second yellow), but we can hardly say we were robbed. Arsenal just weren’t good enough. Struggling for any positives, then. Minor pluses (really grasping at straws) are perhaps that 1) up to Tottenham’s winner Szsczesny had been absolutely superb, 2) we didn’t concede from a set piece, 3) our defence still did enough to stop Adebayor really rubbing our noses in it and 4) at least we avoided another Man United-esque mauling. But the negatives far outweigh the positives, the biggest of which must be the news that Bacary Sagna has fractured his fibula and will be out until January. Why so many Arsenal players are injured already in 2011/12 is another question to add to the many that are now being asked of Wenger.

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