Apologies for the crap, obvious headline. Frankly, I had far too many Magners last Saturday to decipher my match notes and have been too ecstatic over the birth of my daughter from Saturday night onward to really digest the state of disarray that our club is currently in. The seeds of this post have been germinating in my sleep-adled head all week. Let's put fingers to keyboard and thought to screen to see if any of this makes sense.
A common criticism leveled against the Arsenal by supporter, opposition, and neutral alike is that the club need to buy big name players if we have any hopes of competing for any sliver of silverware anytime soon, to FINALLY end this trophy drought that has stretched on for literally scores of months (a touch of sarcasm). If you look at the starting XI and named substitutes for Bayern Munich (perhaps here?) in our Champions League match this week, you'd be forgiven for thinking this is true. Arjen Robben and Mario Gomez on the bench?! We should be so lucky. Bayern are one of the top sides in the world for the moment and anyone who expected us to come out of that tie with full points in our current state is probably a bit daft.
Take a second to examine the team sheets for Bradford City in our last league cup match of the season and Blackburn in our last FA cup match of the season, though. A passing glance reveals that, with all apologies and credit to those players, you won't find a bunch of high-powered high-paid superstars. What you will find are teams of players who through a combination of tactics, graft, and luck managed to beat our side. Neither Bradford nor Blackburn spunked 40 million on Cavani in the transfer window, yet they still managed to win against supposedly superior opposition.
If you cannot tell, I'm not a tremendous fan of the theory that we should be spending money for spending's sake to help right this ship. Clearly, big name players don't necessary guarantee big name results (though they certainly wouldn't hurt). Even Barcelona loses (just ask them about this week's trip to the San
Siro, where they were felled by two former Portsmouth players). Where should we be looking to improve, then? Where have we gone wrong?
Chances Earned, Chances Missed
Against Bradford, we managed 63% possession, with 11 shots on goal from 23 attempts and 12 corners won. Bradford's keeper was forced to make 8 saves. We only managed to turn that possession and shot count into a single goal in regulation, from Vermaelen in the 88th minute. Bradford scored 1 in the 16th from 4 attempts total with 2 on target.
Versus Blackburn: 54% possession, 12 shots on from 26 attempts, and 16 corners. Blackburn's keeper made 9 saves and the Rovers scored their lone goal in the 72nd minutes - 2 shots on target from 5 overall attempts.
Noticing any patterns? The first one that springs to my mind is that every last goalkeeper who faces Arsenal has the game of their lives.
Either that, or our finishing is absolute crap and our defense is made of holograms like Tupac at Coachella. Bayern Munich had 17 attempts against us with 6 on goal and converted 3. How did we put 11 and 12 shots respectively on goal and only convert once and none respectively? Likewise, how did we earn 12 and 16 corners respectively and fail to capitalize from any of them? (TV5's goal was from a cross after Santi's corner was semi-cleared; perhaps you can call it a semi-conversion). Our opponents have no such shyness from set pieces, as we all know.
We earn plenty of chances but cannot find the wherewithal to make them count. Part of the reason for that is:
We've Been Found Out
Anyone who was in the pub with me for the Blackburn match, and for most matches recently, will know the criticism leveled in this section surrounds the way many of our opponents have chosen to play against us during this campaign. Copying a page from Chelsea's Champions League-winning run of last term, they PARK THE BUS. Not exactly world-class insight, I know. 10 men behind the ball, let us pass around impotently along the perimeter of the box and take pot shots, and counter-attack when our defensive discipline has failed. When we were offered the chance to counter-attack in kind, we chose lethargy (as we have so many times before in similar situations) and men were allowed to get back behind the ball. Blackburn spent the entire match soaking up pressure and chose the moment when our saviors were subbed on to quickly take advantage and stick the knife in.
As this strategy bears dividends for the opposition one wonders why we have not done a better job at finding that mythical Plan B? In the meantime, we are tactically and strategically adrift, content to play tika-taka-crossa-to-nobody-or-passa-backa-to-defense, take our lumps, and crash out of another competition. We play good players out of position, loan or sell players we cannot afford to be without, and therefore don't have the depth of squad to support the style of football we wish to play.
Which brings me to my point - let's change our style. We have good players. We have dedicated players. Currently, do we have the right system for the players? Do we have the right shape? There have been times this season when we've stroked the ball around like Barca, but they seem sparse. Let's find a way to play to the strengths of the squad we have instead of trying to force them into the mold we expect. Let's keep our opposition guessing and not allow them to plan against the style they know we will play. Let's take a lesson from our cup opponents and remember that sometimes spending helps but it's not the only solution.