Monday, 26 October 2009

Change? What Change. Arsenal implode at Upton Park. Match report.

Sunday marked 361 days since the 29th October 2008. Or in other words Arsenal 4 Sp*rs 4. So a year on from letting a two-goal lead slip in a London derby, we did it again.

Every year Wenger tells us how this team is improving. Yet, year-on-year we can see no change.

Partly, our failure to win was the referee's fault. Having watched the highlights on my return from Upton Park, what is unquestionable is that we should have had a penalty and the free-kick from which West Ham scored their first goal was never a free-kick. And the penalty looks dubious. But decisions always go against you.

What is far more galling, is that we can't shut down a game at 2-0 up. Players who usually take the brunt of criticism from fans are Diaby and Eboue. Yet it wasn't they who were the problems.

If I had to pick on four players it would be Mannone, Cesc, Arshavin and RVP.

Firstly, Mannone. Having been to watch the reserves several times last season, I could tell you he's not much good. He's always had a propensity to push the ball out and it was only a matter of time before he dropped a clanger. But Mannone is a third choice goalkeeper and shouldn't be in the team, particularly when BOTH Fabianski and Almunia are fit.

Perhaps more pertinently, in the warm-up yesterday Almunia was in goal - did his chest infection mysteriously re-appear suddenly?

Okay, Almunia isn't the greatest goalkeeper we have and he made a couple of gaffes. But this is clearly a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face. Almunia is whatever his failings are, the best goalkeeper at the club. And having warmed up in goal, it makes little sense to then play Mannone.

Admittedly, I only watched the last couple of minutes of the warm-up but the point stands. Almunia was in goal during the warm-up and nobody has contradicted me on this. It's all very odd.

Then to Fabregas and Arshavin: because whilst we drew the game because of slapdash defending, they are our playmakers. And once we're ahead they seem to take their foot off the gas. The team lacking impetus is down to them. Because it's they who drive our attacks. It's very easy to lay into the defence because we conceded two goals from set pieces but it should have been irrelevant.

More pertinently, Gallas, Vermaelen and Sagna were all good. Heck, I'd go as far as to say Sagna was very good - he should have ended up with two assists. Clichy himself wasn't bad, it's just that his inability to cross is extraordinarily annoying and couple with the fact that there was some suspect defending on our left, moments before the throw in which led to the penalty, Clichy has to take some blame.

But by and large, the defending was good. Indeed, conceding the dodgy nature of the set pieces which the goals came from, it is somewhat harsh to blame the team at all.

However, Cesc and Arshavin are supposed to be world-class players and they should come into their own when we're two up. Instead, they resorted to dilly-dallying. There was one example where Arshavin just dribbled it around aimlessly on the edge of their box without trying to drive through or play someone in: it was like he was just trying to draw a free-kick.

Its hard not to criticise Cesc and Arshavin when you look at how little we created yesterday: our first goal was a goalkeeping gaffe, our second came from a corner. In short, we created very few chances and I didn't see Cesc play enough people in or Arshavin display the trickery which merits his place in the team. Arshavin will only be involved for a few minutes every match but that's no problem as long as he does something productive. He didn't.

It is worth noting that Cesc - and to an extent the team - has looked considerably more lacklustre in the last two matches, which not coincidentally, we have been without Rosicky in.

But RVP has to provoke the most ire. Just before kick-off, the fans started chanting Van Persie's name. His response was a quick clap and then a raising arms motion as if we should raise our game.

Now fair enough, he took his goal well and he provided a good corner for Gallas. Considering he provided a goal and an assist, it seems churlish to criticise him. But criticise him I will. Because between putting the corner in for Gallas and having his header saved at the end, I can't remember RVP doing anything.

Partly, this isn't his fault. Considering his relatively bad temper, I expected Wenger to rest him in midweek. He didn't and to this observer, RVP looked tired in the middle of the second half. So my complaint about RVP not contributing much, is less his fault and more the manager's.

As regular readers will know, I've always been one of Arsene's biggest supporters. But my biggest (indeed only) gripe with Wenger is that he doesn't know how to make good substitutions.

That, was definitely the case with RVP. Van Persie has played every game this season bar one and he seems fatigued to me. At 2-0 up it was the perfect chance to give him a rest. Instead, Bendtner and Eduardo remained on the bench. Either the manager doesn't have faith in them - which he should do - or they weren't fit, in which case they shouldn't have been on the bench.

But what is clear - and it was shown more than every yesterday - is that Arsene Wenger's substitutions are reactive. He doesn't actively try and change the game generally. Tactically I feel he was left wanting - West Ham made changes to go far more attacking and we didn't adapt. Our team stayed exactly the same till West Ham equalised and then first we threw on one striker and then another.

It was the epitome of just hoping and the folly it was, was shown up: at the end, we had three strikers on the pitch who all got in each other's way going for the ball. There was no tactical briefing aside from 'get us a goal son'. Occasionally it will work; too often, it won't.

This match is the perfect exemplar of how a draw is two points dropped. Drawing in Alkmaar should have been unimportant but it looks like it's taken away all our momentum. Next, a resurgent Liverpool on Wednesday night. Whilst it's only the Carling Cup, we desperately need to get a result.

Having said all of this, it can all be simplified into what my friend said as the teams came out the tunnel - 'we never win in white'. It is one way of not getting too despondent.

Keep the faith,

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