Everton 1-1 Arsenal: Grappling With ContextPosted: November 29, 2012
This piece first featured on SabotageTimes.com.
Arsenal went to Goodison Park in a somewhat melancholic and overall rather pessimistic mood, yet still maintaining an air of expectancy. Such is life as an Arsenal fan; all game’s are expected to be both won and lost – note: with this, Twitter is an amusing place to be when Arsenal have not won a game, (provided you yourself are not annoyed about the draw/loss). But, I digress. Arsenal have been going through their traditional November slump, having won just one of their last four league games. Coming directly off a shockingly dull 0-0 draw with Aston Villa, three points were not quite of the essence, but really quite needed.
Although they were not obtained this was far from the disaster it could have been, with West Bromwich Albion’s and Liverpool’s losses and Chelsea’s draw (although Spurs did win, which is almost never a good thing). The performance was better than the one at Villa, but that really is not saying very much. Captain Thomas Vermaelen was reinstated at left back, Theo Walcott returned after a shoulder injury and Aaron Ramsey took the place of the ill Lukas Podolski on the left hand side.
Since Wojciech Szczęsny’s return, Arsenal have seen instant defensive improvements. Namely that they are able to defend set pieces again and the defence seem more content to push a bit further up the pitch with someone they have more trust in behind them. However, the Pole is not without his weaknesses. His distribution remains poor and he is extremely susceptible from long shots: so much so that he has conceded 11 goals from outside the box since the start of last season (via @orbinho). These two fairly large – but ultimately repairable – flaws are holding him back from becoming a top level goalkeeper.
While Szczęsny must take some share of the blame for the goal, the brunt of the blame must lie with the usually so reliable Bacary Sagna. It was the first time since his return that he has looked really suspect, although he has noticeably been operating far below his capabilities. Under little pressure, he sent the marked Mikel Arteta a poor pass, which the Spaniard did well to send back to him, only for Sagna himself to now be being pressed. Quite what he tried to do I am still unsure, but he smacked the ball right across the defence straight into Marouane Fellaini. The big Belgian’s left footed effort curled very nicely around Vermaelen (who could have done more to press him) and past Szczęsny. Sagna was given a nasty evening by Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar and owes Per Mertesacker greatly, for covering his right hand side when they got behind him. There is not an awful lot to read into the right back’s game: he is not usually one for an error-filled performance and Arsenal can hopefully remain that anomalies like this remain just that.
Although Vermaelen started at left back and Laurent Koscielny at centre back, Koscielny’s injury after just three minutes saw Kieran Gibbs come on and Vermaelen moved into his natural position. It was arguably his best game of the season, which is no mean feat given he started strongly. It was the kind of performance Arsenal have come to expect, but see too little, from their captain. He was disciplined on the whole and his game was better for it. His increased concentration at the back allowed him to showcase his good reading of the game, making 4 interceptions and put his aggressive style to better use than flying into tackles. It has been very en vogue to single him out for criticism of late, his performance at Goodison will serve as a reminder to many that he is actually a pretty good defender. When he actually defends.
Another target for criticism has been the unfortunate Aaron Ramsey. Anyone with a fraction of intelligence can see he is a talented player and some of the straight up abuse he gets is mind-boggling. He was placed out on the left wing; a move which means Arsenal look to focus their play more centrally and be more defensively compact. It serves as a way of him adapting his game, too, teaching him to operate in more confined space than he would playing in midfield and hence making him into a stronger dribbler. He provided the assist for Theo Walcott’s goal with a nice reverse pass and overall had a good game. He is not perfect but short of the world class you will not find consistent high level performances from a 21 year old, especially one who spent almost a year out with a broken leg. Encouraging stuff from the Welshman. With Santi Cazorla’s recent struggles on the physical side, it may be worth giving him another run as a number 10.
On Cazorla, he does look extremely jaded. It is understandable: he was in the squad that made it to the final of EURO 2012, then he did not get a pre-season and was thrown straight into the action in a far more physically intense league than the one from whence he came. On top of that, he did just complete a 10,000+ miles round trip to Panama with the Spanish national team. Admittedly he turned in a fantastic performance in the North London Derby, but little more than three days rest since then is bound to have an effect sooner rather than later. He is so central to Arsenal’s play that without him firing, the whole team seems toothless. Tomas Rosicky’s return to the bench is a very encouraging omen than the Spaniard may soon be given a rest .
If Theo Walcott’s demands really are monetary and are also short of the ridiculous, just give them to him. With 4 goals and 4 assists in just 11 appearances (4 starts, 7 from the bench) in the league he is Arsenal’s most productive player. He is becoming an excellent player and to lose him now would be, as stated for around the 432357th time by me, a disaster. However he cannot play as a central striker in Arsenal’s system because his back to goal work is not good enough. Observing Olivier Giroud and his importance is telling. Arsenal do not have the wingers and the all-round creativity to play to a striker who does not aid their possession-based build-up play. Until then, Walcott as a centre forward for Arsenal just will not work.
The greatest investment Arsenal could make in January is to buy Abou Diaby a new right ankle. His presence would go its way to solving quite a few of the problems that they are currently experiencing. As a physical, creative and ball-carrying midfielder, he is everything they need. But he is also made of some sort of sponge cake. He is good enough that he is worth keeping if he can manage one game a week, but investment in that area is vital.
Arsenal are still a team coming together. Interestingly, of the team that beat Everton 2-1 in this fixture two seasons ago (2010/11), only two who started that day started yesterday: Sagna and Jack Wilshere. The staggering rate of player turnover means they are still not wholly comfortable as a unit. This accounts somewhat for the near-total absence of attacking movement at times and the general flatness of many of their attacks, as well as their inability of late to deal with teams who press them high up the pitch. They are still learning to play with eachother so cannot move the ball quickly in more typical Arsenal fashion. It should come together, and soon, but it is worrying that it is the cause of numerous dropped points.
Goodison Park is by no means an easy place to go. In fact, it is bloody difficult. Better teams than Arsenal have struggled to greater degrees (see Manchester United’s loss as a case in point) and in itself, a point there is a decent result with which to come away. But it looks significantly less decent when placed next to draws with Aston Villa, Sunderland and Fulham, a stupid loss to Norwich and a thoroughly avoidable one against Chelsea. Up next Arsenal have Swansea, West Brom, Reading and Wigan (home, home, away, away) – they have to take 12 points from those 4 games and set themselves on a good run before the tough fixtures they have after Christmas.