Can the Spirit of Bayern See Us Through?Posted: March 26, 2013
This was written for and first featured on WeAreTheNorthBank.com (link) before the Swansea game.
No one lets you down quite like Arsenal. Before the match I had hoped for nothing more than to come away with some pride, and such is the Arsenal way, I got exactly that – and far greater than expected – but still felt deflated when the final whistle came around.
There were similarities with the two legs against AC Milan last year: we spent the first leg both being outdone and outdoing ourselves, but conceded one goal too many and could not overcome the semi-self-inflicted deficit. When the time came to really push in the second leg, both Milan and Bayern played the less literal game – and the referee – a lot better than we did. Although that did not lose us the tie, it did not help with trying to get back into it.
It’s tough to come to any great conclusions off the strength of some games but the match itself did not tell us anything that we didn’t already know; if anything all it did is remind us of things we may have forgotten, or go some way to confirming certain suspicions that have been held for some time.
First, there are the goalkeepers: Wojciech Szczesny’s dip has not exactly been a short term phenomena. He had a few good games but has struggled greatly with consistency since around January 2012. He is clearly exceptionally talented and inconsistency is to be expected from a 22-year-old, but he has progressed worryingly little over the last year or so, and has given many an error over that time. Arsène Wenger has said in the past that Lukasz Fabianski is the most talented keeper at the club, but he is not as mentally strong as his compatriot.
Trusting him to the extent of giving him a start away against Europe’s second best side should be very good for his confidence, as should his strong display – and public support from vice captain, Mikel Arteta. There is no reason to drop Fabianski for Swansea, and less reason to reinstate Szczesny. Should Fabianski keep his place, it will be his first run of games in the side since September-December in 2010, in which the short of memory appear to have forgotten he was excellent. He will have to impress greatly to present himself as any sort of long-term solution, but if he does well enough to reclaim his place, the club will have an interesting call to make as to whether to renew his contract.
It was one of Arsenal’s best, if not the best, defensive performance of the season, battling the away game against Manchester City for the title. The identical personnel in the backline for the two games is no coincidence. Carl Jenkinson was another who performed well, and has done in the majority of games he has played, the red card at Sunderland excepted. It would seem Bacary Sagna will be on his way this summer and whoever comes in will have good competition for a place with Jenkinson behind them, just as the two left backs do.
It was Kieran Gibbs’ first game back in six weeks and with that in mind he did very well, although did leave space behind him at points and allowed Philipp Lahm and Thomas Müller space infield to create. He highly understandably looked a little rusty, as is to be expected, and with no concerns over Nacho Monreal, Wenger is right not to rush Gibbs back this weekend.
Both Per Mertesacker and especially Laurent Koscielny, were excellent. The Frenchman has had a patchy year, but is deserving of a place in the side, both on this performance and on Thomas Vermaelen’s poor form. Had the Belgian not been named club captain, he might have been easier to drop earlier on, but now he has been and the two who took his place did so well. Like Szczesny, there is no reason to give Vermaelen his place back.
In the absence of Jack Wilshere, the midfield looked more stable and balanced, but we struggled to create clear chances all game. This can be attributed more to Tomáš Rosický’s relatively poor performance in just his fourth start of the season and Santi Cazorla being crowded out so effectively for most of it.
It does not need saying what an excellent player Wilshere is but he still has a lot to learn, and at this point he does not have a position: in the deeper midfield role, he pushes too high up and leaves too much space behind him, which leaves the defensive midfielder open to being attacked – and Arteta was never the best at covering ground. His end product is still lacking and in more closed-off games he has struggled to have any great influence on proceedings when being further away from the play. But at the same time he is far too good to drop, so until he develops further as a creator, Arsenal and he are stuck. His injury could go its way to seeing us become more solid defensively, but we may miss the influence he has in attacks.
The game did confirm that this side certainly does have the ability and spirit to climb back to the Champions League places, even if Bayern were below-par and without their best player. Some credit must go to the manager for the more than welcome return of his ruthlessness with the underperformers, as well as how well we were set-up as a unit. Concerns, however, do remain as to the minimal – yet easily accounted for – creativity and chances made.
It should act as a lift for the team after the results that have been. Now what was left of the perennial Champions League dream has died, the focus must unfortunately be turned to getting a way back into it. Five points from Chelsea and seven from Sp*rs (on whom we have a game in hand) with 10 games remaining are certainly possible to overcome and both will drop at least that many points in the games ahead, and it will be on Arsenal to take advantage. Then again, we have never been ones to make life easy for ourselves…