The FallPosted: May 19, 2014
As Arsenal collapses over the years have gone, this one has not even been the most entertaining. Rather than being triggered by a bad result on a major occasion (see: 10/11), nor every good player getting injured in the same game and disaster immediately following (see: 09/10), nor even a brief blip whose effects were just too much to overcome at the season’s end (see: 07/08), it was instead the slowest of deaths. The only surprising thing about it was the extent of a few of the defeats; bar that, it’s just a diluted form of the film we’ve all already seen.
The first great blow came in the FA Cup tie against Spurs. Theo Walcott’s season-ending rupture to his anterior cruciate ligament left Arsenal without their most effective player for stretching opposition teams, making runs behind the opposition line and their main goalscorer. But however damaging it was, Arsenal had Walcott injured for most of the first half of the season and were sitting comfortably atop the table. This had been mostly because Aaron Ramsey had stepped up his goalscoring, and their efficient and effective, but primarily defensive system was more than comfortable to live without the ball and take attacking initiative in phases through games.
At this point, Ramsey had just been ruled out injured for three weeks. An inconvenience, but there were no teams of any great calibre to play until the second week of February, so Arsenal could make do without great issue. The performances would be less convincing and the goalscoring perhaps more scant, but with Mesut Özil and the strong defence, they would be able to get by.
‘Setback’ is a word that should probably come with a trigger warning for Arsenal fans. It’s worse than the end-of-season implosions for alerting the mind to previously buried traumas. There’s always at least one every year. Usually four or five, probably to the same player. This year was Ramsey’s turn. Three weeks became six, which became another three, which became another two. At this point I’m just relieved he’s still alive.
Most of the teams played in January were ones who were unable to exploit the problems Ramsey’s absence had created in deep midfield. Southampton managed to expose them to an impressive degree. As February arrived, Liverpool, of course, flattened them, while Manchester United went a slightly different route: in their bus-parking, they managed to bring to light the total absence of creativity in that area without Ramsey. With that area also being the supply line to the likes of Özil and Santi Cazorla, and with no hope of going for a more ragged and basic direct route without Walcott’s pace and runs, making it work would always be a major struggle against opposition that ranked anything above ‘competent’.
Contrary to popular belief (and a fair amount in the way of recent evidence, admittedly), this side does have far more mental fortitude than any Arsenal side has since Sol Campbell left. It tends to recover fairly swiftly from its losses (including the heavier ones), but a good mentality will only take a side so far. The loss of Özil in Munich was essentially the death knell for the side while it still lacked Ramsey and Walcott. It could still scrape a win or a draw here and there, but with the remaining options and that fixture list, it would have taken something gargantuan to take more than 5 points until their respective returns.
Meanwhile, Laurent Koscielny picked up an injury, meaning Thomas Vermaelen was brought out of the wilderness, though his positioning would suggest he’s still in a more literal wilderness. So four of Arsenal’s five most important and best players were now missing. Absences on that level would hurt any team, but it was especially bad for Arsenal because those players are the best enablers of their style and system and they, in turn, are extremely difficult to find cover for, even more so en masse.
Arsenal cannot turn defence into attack without Ramsey, Walcott and Özil. Özil is talented enough that he managed to keep things going while the oppositions were of that lower standard. Against better sides, he just couldn’t do it alone. Once he was isolated and picked off, they had a far easier task to overwhelm the defenders by breaking swiftly. The attacking players would be cut adrift by lack of supply and whenever the ball did get to them, they would be under mass pressure with no runners ahead of them. The worst affected is Olivier Giroud, who needs players close to him to mask his limitations. And with Vermaelen in place of Koscielny, the more isolated defenders are now all made worse at defending.
This is not to absolve Arsène Wenger entirely of blame at all. His setups in the Liverpool and Chelsea games were abysmal, and he has recently overused certain players, on whom the effects are evident. The most pertinent example of that would be Mikel Arteta, who is not helped by his surroundings at the moment, and even less by the fact that his legs look to have aged 10 years in the last month. Opportunities to rest him have not been particularly plentiful but they have been there, and Le Boss’ lack of assertiveness in those instances has been damaging for the team.
The overuse point can also be stretched to Giroud, especially while Yaya Sanogo has shown such encouraging signs in a few of his home starts. The recent underuse of Serge Gnabry has also stuck in the craw, which lives directly parallel to his overuse of Lukas Podolski – that’s not a fatigue point, it’s more a general one. Podolski offers nothing unless a team has lost their shape or are actively terrible. He shouldn’t start games, especially as his presence takes Cazorla away from the left hand side, where he is most effective.
It’s easy to dig at the depth in the side, given how a few injuries deterred it as much as they did. Though in terms of the replacements that came in, most are more than adequate for top sides (discounting a certain Belgian defender and the defensive midfielder who can’t track a runner but by God, he can point and shout), and as the excellent @_SocoAmaretto said:
Losing one was a struggle, two deeply damaging but all three a total disaster. More could have been done to prevent it going as badly as it has by the manager, but circumstances were more than trying – the lack of attacking prowess can be excused but the inability to find a balance between compensating for that and still maintaining any semblance of defensive solidity is his failing.
When looking at Everton’s fixture list compared to Arsenal’s, the players the latter have returning suggests Champions League football should still be forthcoming again, but with the semi final against Wigan next Saturday, the season can go from potential improvement to the greatest of all capitulations. Regardless of what does happen, there has been great and distinct progress from last season, the only problem being there’s a very real chance there will be nothing to show for that.
The summer needs to be a busy one. A replacement for the departing Łukasz Fabiański will be required and not the easiest find, an improvement on the presumably departing Vermaelen will not be as difficult to find but even more essential; some kind of high-energy defensive midfielder capable of playing the box-to-box role would be the most important addition (covered more in an article next week) and, of course, a striker capable of Giroud’s graft, only with far more ability in the finishing and running-at-any-kind-of-discernible-speed departments. A left winger would not go amiss either, even more so considering Podolski’s likely sale (or shooting from a cannon, broadcasted on Instagram, of course), nor a right back if Bacary Sagna does leave (please don’t go, Bac).
As for the manager, I remain staunchly in favour of a renewal. He has had his role in this season’s falling apart, but this team is not far off at all. This season may not even have been a bridge too far had there been better fortune with Walcott and better management of Özil and Ramsey, but there is no use in discussing either side of that. Even if he does leave, the problems are of the side far more than they of the manager. A new man would have the same things to change. While Arsenal’s trademark post-March title race dissolution happened again, the issues are eminently fixable. And Wenger’s apparent summer priorities of central midfielder and centre forward suggest he very much has a plan to fix them.