Whilst their league form has been a little patchy this season, Barcelona remain the greatest club side in Europe at this moment, as they have been for the last 4 or 5 years. Few can keep pace with their relentless pressing of the ball high up the pitch and tiki-taka passing; on the occasions they have been defeated, it has usually been due to the metaphorical parking of the bus, and no small amount of good fortune. In these last few years, the only team that has “out-Barcelona’d” Barcelona (or at least gone toe-to-toe with them) over 90 minutes is Arsenal, in the first leg of the Champions League first knockout round in February last year.
Almost 12 months later, Arsenal have been left reeling after 3 straight defeats, the most recent being a 2-1 home reverse against Man Utd. Now, losing at home to the champions, even for a so-called “big” team like Arsenal should not be a cause for great concern, but they have been the masters of their own downfall in many respects.
They have shown they have the capability to beat the best team in Europe (a year ago, admittedly), and yet in the first half of Sunday’s game, played with a truly baffling lack of urgency. The passing was woeful, pressure on the ball non-existent, and they gave the United wingers players such a wide berth, it was a miracle there was only a one goal difference at the break. Valencia’s well taken goal was a blessing in disguise for Wenger, whose team did not deserve parity after such a dismal first-half performance.
One of the few decisions Wenger got right today was the substitution of Djorou at half time, who was playing out of position at right-back and was all at sea.His replacement, the youngster Yennaris, may not be a world-beater, but was a good deal steadier. Arsenal were a lot more fluent in the second half. Oxlade-Chamberlain was the key man, his driving runs down the left started to create opportunities, none more clear cut than van Persie’s horrendous miss from 8 yards. It was the same two who combined for Arsenal’s equaliser, which they just about deserved after being on top for most of the second half up to that point.
Then came Wenger’s incredible decision to substitute Oxlade-Chamberlain for Andrei Arshavin, which effectively cost them the match. Arsenal were in the ascendency, had clawed their way back into the match, and subsequently removed their most dangerous player. And replaced him with someone who, at the moment, is a complete non-threat and shouldn’t be anywhere near the team.
Despite not being a left sided player, O-C was crucial to Arsenal getting back in the match, as he was willing to take on the defender, to go round the outside and get in behind the United back four, which created the space for van Persie to shoot. He was able to expose the slightly narrow banks of four that United had set out; in contrast, Arshavin would only dribble infield, was unable to have any positive influence on the game, and played right into the hands of the Man Utd game plan. Against the gunners, Ferguson always makes the centre of the pitch very compact and over populated as he knows Arsenal will forever try and play through the middle.
Theo Walcott looks less and less like a footballer with every game. It has been said that he lacks the final ball, but it’s difficult to quantify exactly what he was lacking today as he was so poor in all departments. His passing was terrible, crossing was bad, shooting was wayward, decision-making poor; the chorus of boos that rang out as Wenger chose to replace O-C instead of Walcott was fully deserved. It was an abysmal decision, completely lacking in courage, and in the end, produced a result deserving of such a gutless choice. Walcott should have been taken off after half an hour; instead he played 90 minutes. Mystifying, and maddening for Arsenal fans, I’m sure.
Wenger can have no complaints about the result, although he usually comes up with an excuse. But today he was the architect of his own demise, shooting himself in the foot with negative tactics and negative substitutions. If Arsenal are to once again finish in the top 4, he needs to swallow his pride, learn from his mistakes, and learn to be braver and more ruthless with under-performing players. How long would Fergie have persisted with such an ineffective spare part like Walcott in his team? He would have been sold to Sunderland years ago.
Le Prof obviously feels loyal to his players but there comes a time when you have to admit that certain things, certain players, just aren’t performing as they should and need to be shipped out so that the team can start growing again. At the moment, Arsenal are stagnating and Wenger needs to make some tough choices. Or wait until Mikel Arteta is fit and they start winning again…