View From The North Bank: Sunderland 2 Arsenal 0
Sometimes I feel like I could save myself a lot of time by just cutting and pasting pre-written blog posts and updating the minor details of the game. I’d only really need a couple of templates; one for victories which show our true potential and one for defeats which suggest we’re on an unstoppable downward spiral. Such is the life of an Arsenal supporter; it’s feast or famine.
Saturday would be a dead cert for the second category. After last week’s late victory we felt we’d shown some grit to get past a resolute Sunderland outfit, but this week – off the back of a dismal no-show in Milan – we lost to the same team without showing the same spirit that secured the win a week before.
Regardless of what had gone before, this was a disappointing performance in its own right. We started reasonably well, racking up possession but failing to carve out any decent chances. As the game wore on any remaining confidence seemed to ebb away and our chances of firing ourselves into the next round disappeared with it. It shouldn’t be too surprising that a team who’d played 180 minutes on what must be two of the worst pitches in Europe would flag a little.
That said, our lack of spark was worrying. For the vast majority of the 90 minutes we passed the ball around without ever looking like pulling the massed Sunderland ranks out of position. Again, a weary and mentally damaged unit are unlikely to play with the vim of 1970’s era Brazil but this is where the need to dig deep and work as a unit is required. Far too often we would get the ball in midfield and see no decent option.
The movement up front was poor with Gervinho and Oxlade-Chamberlain hugging the flanks even when Van Persie dropped off to create space for a forward runner. All over the pitch we looked to be sticking resolutely to our positions on the field with no one willing to try something different. We were all too predictable. This is an obvious by-product of our annihilated confidence: when things are tough it’s common for players to stick to the basics of their own jobs when what we really needed was someone to be brave enough to do something different and bring some invention to the team.
This is also a by-product of having no Plan B. And I’m not referring to the overrated music artist (Artist? He’s no Artist. Dennis was an Artist). The lack of a change in tactics is down to Wenger. Aside from throwing Per Mertesacker up top to lump some diagonals at him, we’ve seen little resembling a Plan B all season.
It’s not the first time this has been suggested but there is a need at times to change things up, to try a different formation or approach. Towards the end of the game we were coming deep to get the ball before carrying it forward with almost no enthusiasm at all. The routine was so well worn by the end that Alex Song almost looked bored as he carried the ball out of defence and towards the Red and White striped brick wall. I’m not sure what this alternative plan might be and obviously our options are limited, as when you’ve had to make three enforced subs you can’t look to the bench. It’s also not particularly inspiring to look to a bench which contains so few attacking options and even fewer that Wenger seems to believe in.
It’s hardly worth reiterating that we find ourselves in our current position off the back of a dire Summer. We know all too well that high profile departures dragged on and acquisitions, although not as desperate as some might have you believe, weren’t carried out with the sort of authority that was required. Regardless of his incredible record as Arsenal manager it is for this reason that Wenger must be retained in the summer come what may. There is a clear need to refine the squad, perhaps even overhaul it. Wenger, for whatever reason, wasn’t able to do that last summer so should be given the chance to rebuild properly in this close season.
It’s not going to be an easy job as we still have to find new homes for the well remunerated squad players who failed to make good on their promise. Along with that is that fact that available proven players are few and far between and generally only available to irresponsible or oil rich clubs (or both). Wenger is still an old hand at finding quality where others don’t. It wasn’t that long ago that he found Vermaelen, Koscielny and Sagna. His record with young players is still exemplary – Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wilshere, Szczesny and Coquelin the latest examples.
The summer is still a long way off and we are in the midst of another mini crisis and faced with the stark reality of another trophy-free season. As much as it hurts me, and as much as Wenger is mocked for saying it, finishing fourth is more important to us than winning the FA Cup. It’s sad but true that Robin Van Persie is far more likely to stay at a club who can offer Champions League Football than he is for a club who put together a decent cup run but finished outside of the elite league places. The same goes for new signings. Eden Hazard and Mario Götze won’t sign for clubs who aren’t playing Champions League Football. We can lament the importance of actually winning competitions as much as we like but this is the reality.
The only tiniest crumb of comfort is the old cliché that we can now ‘concentrate on the league’. In all honesty, we were never going to win the league this season nor were we real contenders for the Champions League. We all knew that. A cup run should have been achievable but there you go, we’re out, that’s Football. The teams around us in the league are as inconsistent as we are so the real challenge now is to regroup and find the consistency that we were able to muster after the Blackburn defeat. We are still fourth and while that’s not a trophy it is still a key objective. It’s still ours for the taking and a summer off the back of that will be far easier than one that carries the promise of Europa League Football. Or worse. But of course, it’s all down to the players and how they respond. Starting with them up the road on Sunday.
Keep The Faith.