Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Meaningless defeat might prove costly as Santos suffers injury blow

A disappointing result against Olympiacos last night; admittedly in a dead rubber match, but one that seemed to highlight the lack of strength in depth of this squad – a worry compounded by the injuries to Fabianski and Santos, the latter of whom now looks likely to be unavailable for the Everton match and possibly even longer. This could prove to be costly, as it essentially leaves us without a recognised left-back.

In the game itself Arsenal started fairly positively, but even early on a couple of prominent mistakes were made. These unfortunately heralded the start of an awkward and uncomfortable night. Squillaci and Djourou were both beaten by Olympiacos players in the opening ten minutes, while Fabianski's kicking also looked nervy.

The Gunners were unable to consolidate possession in a fast-paced opening period, but despite that, initially this looked to be a fairly even if rather open match. Olympiacos did threaten regularly though, and with deafening home support behind them they were clearly encouraged to go on the offensive.

Their first goal was a prime example of the sort of mistake that Arsenal had hitherto seemed to be slowly eradicating from their recent displays. It came on the quarter-hour mark as Djebbour took advantage of sloppy play from Arshavin and then a poor defensive mix-up from Squillaci and Djourou to round Fabianski and slot the ball into the net from an acute angle.

Defensive vulnerability was apparent, then, and even Vermaelen's usually calming influence seemed unable to hold together the back-four. Moreover, Fabianski was caught napping after he was played a simple square pass on the edge of the area; a couple of minutes later things got worse as his evening ended prematurely. A knee injury saw Vito Mannone introduced, but despite being handed an unexpected chance to impress the Italian would prove to be just as shaky as his predecessor.

After conceding the Gunners looked rattled. The onus was on the attacking players to provide the impetus, but both Chamberlain and Arshavin were deprived of the ball for long periods, skulking along the touchlines and rarely getting involved. The Russian's touch had seemingly deserted him, and he looked to be getting wholly disenchanted after a mere 20 minutes of play. Even Yossi Benayoun, probably the most experienced player in the starting eleven, was guilty of some uncharacteristically casual passing, although he would at least redeem himself with a fine consolation goal later on.

Frimpong and Coquelin both worked hard, but neither exercised the same influence as they had against Manchester City in the Carling Cup. Admittedly Olympiacos were playing to the referee, going down at the slightest of challenges, but nevertheless the young duo looked a little fazed by the occasion. The frequent stoppages interrupted the rhythm of the game, and the stop-start play did Arsenal no favours. Despite that, whenever they did manage to get into Olympiacos' half the Greeks tended to panic, and you can't help thinking that even at one goal down, if the Gunners had simply organised themselves and showed a bit of application they could still have turned things around and come away with some credit, and even a victory.

Alas, ten minutes before half-time, David Fuster doubled Olympiacos' lead. Again the goal came as a result of an Arsenal error, nay a calamity, this time from Mannone, whose positioning and awareness was sorely lacking as he raced off his line to head a ball away from this edge of his area, but then completely missed the speculative return, electing to scissor-kick his way out of trouble when he should have simply caught the ball. The defence, meanwhile, stared on dumbstruck, apparently rooted and offering little in the way of support for the hapless 'keeper.

Not a good opening 45 minutes, and as the players trooped off you hoped that Arsene would have strong words in the dressing room. If he did, they had little effect. Things only got worse in the second half, as Andre Santos – playing in this game because he was the only fit left-back – went down injured and had to be replaced by Miquel.

Admittedly Arsenal did pull one goal back in the 57th minute after Miquel played a looping ball into the Olympiacos box from the left-hand side, which Chamakh managed to chest into Benayoun's path for the Israeli to unleash a blistering shot.

This was about the only good thing the Moroccan did all night, although even then I'm not sure how intentional his touch was (he went down immediately afterwards and it seemed as though he might have been looking rather half-heartedly for a penalty). Clearly Chamakh can't play as van Persie does; neither is he ideally suited as a lone frontman, but when called upon to spearhead the Arsenal attack, you're looking for him to win balls in the air and hold up the play to bring in supporting players – that is, Arshavin, Chamberlain and Benayoun, to take last night's trio. However he struggled to compete in the air and saw very little of the ball at all. Admittedly he was isolated for much of the game and the role was a difficult one; but it was a dispiriting display – we can only hope that when he goes off to the African Nations in January he might rediscover some of the attributes of a striker, all of which seem to have abandoned him at present.

Meanwhile, pandemonium continued to reign in the Arsenal penalty area. Mannone clearly didn't have confidence in the players in front of him as took the opportunity to hoof it upfield at every opportunity; whereupon more often than not Chamakh simply stared at it dolefully as it looped over his gel-spiked head.

Wenger used his remaining substitution to bring on Rosicky for Coquelin. The Czech's introduction offered a faint hope of redemption, but this proved to be largely unfounded – all the more disappointing given that after some stinging criticism of his dedication to the Arsenal cause a couple of months ago, his recent displays had been much more positive. He did create probably the best Arsenal move of the half, before running purposefully into the box to pick up the return ball after a neat lay-off, but it was the only contribution of note, and he was unable to finish the move, only succeeding in touching the ball into the keeper's grateful hands.

For the most part, Arsenal just seemed a little disjointed. The forward players were only involved intermittently, and on a few occasions initially promising moves broke down too quickly, as players seemed to lack understanding and anticipation. Worse still, as the game wore on, the Gunners began to get careless, and conceded a couple of cheap free kicks including one near the corner-flag from which Olympiacos were ultimately able to scramble in an untidy third goal a couple of minutes before time.

Not a game to remember, but fortunately not one that mattered either. The fact that this was essentially a meaningless fixture is some mitigation for the poor showing, but it still emphasises the fact that shorn of regular first-team players the Gunners start to look like a very average side. That in itself is understandable but it does raise a few questions about the squad's strength in depth – and if we were to suffer injuries to RvP or Szczesny, for example, then judging from the performances of their understudies last night we might as well write off the season.

The worst result of last night, however, was not the score – it was the fact that Santos picked up what Wenger has called 'a bad ankle injury' that will now keep him out for at least a couple of weeks. With injuries to Gibbs, Sagna and Jenkinson, that leaves us with basically no full-backs and so looking ahead to the Everton game it seems likely that we'll be sending out a back four full of centre-halves – far from ideal. The manager has suggested that Vermaelen will play at left-back, which leaves a pairing of Mertesacker-Koscielny in the middle and, in all likelihood, the unconvincing Djourou our only option at right-back. The Swiss is not a bad player, he put in some fine performances when called upon last season, but he is still relatively inexperienced as a central defender – a position that cruelly exposes errors of any sort – and furthermore he is quite patently not a right-back.

Still, on the bright side, in Europe at least the fact remains that Arsenal are one of only two English sides to have progressed after Didier Drogba managed to turn things around for Chelsea last night. After this evening's Champions League matches, however, neither City nor United will be participating further – it's strictly Thursday nights only for them in terms of European competition for the reminder of the season, where they'll have to compete on Channel Five with the powerhouses of Europa League football that are Spurs and Stoke (not to mention Fulham). Although that clearly makes Arsenal's top four infiltration mission in the domestic league even harder, given our capitulation to both of the Manchester sides already this season, I still find their early exits quite satisfying. It also makes a good rejoinder for gloating "yeah? we're top of the league" City fans and those United fans still keen to oh-so-wittily remind us that they'd '8-2' be Gooners.

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