Arsenal played the first game of the year to a 1-1 draw against Southampton. They were outfought and did not deserve the rather fortunate draw. A very hungry and determined Southampton side pressed Arsenal for the majority of the game and we looked more likely to concede rather than score. The team did show effort and put up a fight but were unable to match Southampton’s stronger, faster and more direct approach to the game. It wasn’t exactly Norwich all over but somewhat close to that.
Arsenal’s poor first half performances continued with this game. Similar to the Newcastle game, we were dominated for long periods of time by a more energetic and inventive Southampton side. For the first 10 minutes, Arsenal started strongly pushing the Saints back and creating good chances. After that, the reverse was true. With Southampton pushing up hard and pressuring our players in our own half, we couldn’t get into rhythm and passes started going astray. Forward passes were over hit or well hit but runs not made.
If there was a question of individual mistakes costing Arsenal to concede, this was a collective defensive failure.
Back in defence the pressure started to tell as players began to make individual mistakes – chief of whom was Sagna. Southampton’s lead came from a comedy of panicky errors. Podolski got triple-teamed in our own half (an indication on how hard Southampton was pressing). Under pressure he decided to pass the ball back to our penalty box where our CBs were outnumbered. Panic buttons went off as TV5 and Kosc scrambled. The ball bounced in the area before being sent to the right where Sagna intercepted and for some reason sent a perfect cross back into the our box. Another scramble followed and the ball was fired in from the edge of the box. If there was a question of individual mistakes costing Arsenal to concede, this was a collective defensive failure.
With the Saints in the lead, they continued pressure but a foul in their third saw a Walcott free kick being sent dangerously into their box. In almost a reverse of Newcastle’s first equalizer, Southampton turned the ball into their own net under relatively no pressure. The half ended 1-1 and it was unfortunate for the more industrious and hard working Saints.
Things did not get better and Southampton relentlessly plugged away creating better chances and pushing men forward. Wenger felt the need for change and brought Giroud on for Podolski as early as the 59th minute. It’s funny how the moment we send Giroud on, all our crosses go haywire. We did put in a few good ones in the first half but Theo had as good as zilch chance of getting on them. With Giroud on, the very first cross sent allegedly to him missed even the first few rows of the supporters’ stands.
In every part of the field, Southampton fought harder and ran their guts out. The fact that we were numerically outnumbered in both their half and ours showed you a great difference in the desire and hunger to win this match. It wasn’t as bad as the Norwich performance but pretty close to that. Every time we had the ball, Southampton would swarm on it. The game ended 1-1 and to be fair, it was a point gained not lost. The performance was just not good enough.
It was a point gained not two lost. The performance was just not good enough.
Rubbish Long Passes
A clear pattern has emerged over the course of this season. The moment we have teams that press high up and don’t commit silly high line errors like Newcastle did, we’re in deep trouble. This is down to one thing. We are terrible at firing accurate long passes which is the answer against such tactics. Both in the air and on the ground, our long passes felt like shots. Passes that missed our own players by 7-12 yards going at full speeds. I had first mistaken those as clearances but as the game wore on, it was clear we were shooting at our players not passing. Is it down to the lack of composure? Inability to react under physical pressure? Probably a bit of everything.
The days when stopping Arsenal with a resolute defense is gone. It’s now pressure them to making mistakes. The Arsenal of a 4-5 seasons ago would have flourished under such tactics. We were known for our accurate, ground passes that opened defences and being able to win games on the counter. Today, we failed at both controlling and counter attacking throughout the game. Southampton did leave massive gaps at the back but the inaccuracy of our passes meant they had time to recover and that they did effectively in numbers.
I have not seen a game where Sagna played so badly it was shocking. He lost the ball one on one a couple of times, played completely poor passes even when given time and space and more or less assisted Southampton’s lead. Sagna came under some criticsm in the Newcastle match but this was telling. He wasn’t able to link up well with both the Ox and Theo. He played off position, coming in too central and then getting caught when Southampton poured forward. Sagna is the last person I would have thought would fall flat at this magnitude. In the past two seasons, I’ve only seen him play poorly once and that was against Wigan’s Moses. This was many times worst than that and you’d be wondering if his contract situation is affecting his game.
When we played with Theo upfront, we didn’t give him the type of service he needed. When we put Giroud up front, we stopped playing the flanks and providing crosses. It is maddening how we seem to purposefully not play to the strengths of our front men. When Giroud came on, Theo had the play on the right and yet he preferred to drift into the middle leaving Sagna on his own. If this is not tactical ill discipline I don’t know what is. This striker thing is playing too much in Theo’s mind, he is greedy for goals which is good but it’s costing the team when he balloons crosses and chooses to shoot from range rather than cross to unmarked team mates in the box.
Wenger has to set the tone of the team quickly. We’re playing all sorts of 4-3-3s. Sometimes with a Gervinho false 9, sometimes with Theo in a rigid 4-3-3, and sometimes with a physical CF in Giroud. The team is not allowed to settle and our kind of play requires team mates to firstly know each other inside out. This is not happening yet and it is showing.
Tough Road Ahead
If you would like to take one positive out of this – Wenger is aware the 4 game winning streak prior to this draw is not an excuse for not reinforcing the squad in January. The problem is, January reinforcements aren’t usually a long term positive thing.
The more pressing issue is for Wenger to make it clear to the team how we should tactically approach different situations. Get the team on the same page and let them figure out a flexible play style after they know the exact system. This is a brand new team and they have not settled because the attacking shape changes twice every game. Wrong deliveries and services are telling signs.
Second, Wenger needs to inject some physicality and work rate into the team. Podolski works hard but lasts about 70 mins usually. Giroud is not a hard worker. Santi’s work rate has fallen. Arteta and Wilshere pushes hard for 90 mins but are not physical players. Wenger has to find a solution and that solution cannot be the ‘three-weeks-away’ Diaby or the ‘he’ll-come-good’ Coquelin.
2013 will start off tough for Arsenal. City, Chelsea and Liverpool await us in the league as the remaining fixtures in January. With such inconsistency and no proper game plan, you don’t really know what to expect. The Arsenal roulette rolls right on.