Empty Cannons

Allowing this rookie to score a brace was not the brightest idea…

A week ago, everything was in their hands. They’d concede a stupid goal from a dubious penalty call but they kept chasing the result anyway, went on to dominate the game against the leaders and were eventually rewarded in the last kick of the match. A week ago, Arsenal could feel like the kings of the league. They had 72% possession against Leicester and came up with 24 shots to visitors’ seven – but it wasn’t just about the statistics. In the league table, the gap was closing to just two points, the team was buzzing with euphoria of a hard-fought win and the manager was talking about ‘a pivotal moment of the season’. That was just seven days ago – but in football, seven days is a really long time…

Today, we woke up in the world where Gunners can ship three goals at Old Trafford, of which two came in the blink of an eye. Today, we woke up in the world where a 18-years old débutante scored twice playing against Laurent Koscielny and Petr Čech. The world where a forward who wouldn’t even be anywhere near the team sheet if it wasn’t for his teammates’ injuries pounced on Arsenal’s calamities with ease. And, what’s worst of it all: we woke up in the reality, in which Arsène Wenger’s team has, once again, spoiled the fruits of their labour immediately after earning them. Normally, it happened in December; this time, it happened in the last week of February. Still: who cares about the exact date if it continues to occur?

It’s bitter not just because of the two-month delay in the usual implosion. No, this time around, the story has been all set up for Arsenal to succeed. Chelsea fell apart in the first months of the season, leaving the competition without a proper title defender. Manchester City started brilliantly but later lost Vincent Kompany and Sergio Agüero to injuries, after which their performance on the both ends of the pitch suffered immensely. United, who just picked up three points against Gunners, spent half of the season unable to score a goal, let alone three – and they’ve also received a 3-0 beat down at Emirates in October. The only teams who were able to keep up with AFC were Spurs and Foxes – two sides whose consistently terrible record against Arsenal gave Özil & Co. a lot of confidence in a direct race for the title.

Compared to all those problems, it’s plain to see that Wenger’s lads are enjoying rather comfortable campaign. After an embarrassing start against West Ham, they quickly recovered and were in the top 5 by the end of the August. In the middle of the October, they’d already enjoy the #1 spot, which they’d occupy for six gameweeks in total. The FIFA virus didn’t bother them that much: while stars like Agüero, Kolarov, Ivanović and Matić all picked up various problems, Arsenal came out unharmed even from Alexis Sanchez’s long voyages to a relatively brutal competition in South American World Cup Qualifiers. Once he finally got injured – and has been quickly joint by Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin on the sidelines – the team has actually managed to overcome those losses and pull off very good runs in both December and January.

It would’ve been a case of smooth sailing if it wasn’t for the random, annoying stupid defeats they suffered along the way. 0-2 to West Ham following rare Petr Čech’s blunder; 0-2 to Chelsea marked by two red card and an infamous Costa-Gabriel clash; 1-2 through set pieces at West Bromwich despite 70%+ ball retention; shocking 0-4 crash at St Mary’s courtesy of Southampton’s third-choice right-back and second-choice striker; another loss to Chelsea and another red card that ruined Wenger’s gameplan… If we extend the list with Champions League horrors like 1-2 to Dinamo, 2-3 to Olympiacos and 1-5 to Bayern – the timeline of 2015/16 campaign will be full of upsets. Interestingly enough, almost every single one of those contained a solid comical value and might’ve never happened had AFC players were a little wiser, as opposed to being just plainly bold.

Yesterday, they’ve started like a team with intent again, playing the first pass down the right wing an setting up Danny Welbeck for a badly mishit volley – but from then on, it was all downhill. Effectively set up for a 4-1-4-1 formation, Manchester United have put a lot of pressure on the visitors, impeding the course of play right away every time van Gaal’s boys would lose the ball. Ander Herrera was a pivotal player for that strategy, finally being able to perform in his favourite role: not the #10, not a standard central midfielder but rather, a ball-winning machine placed further forward to create immediate danger once he completes his main task. The Basque has won five tackles, one dribble and one aerial duel alongside with one, rather wonderful (though deflected) goal scored from the outside of the box after Rashford’s layoff. That alone was enough to nullify the overwhelming (60%) possession advantage of Arsenal.

Still, Herrera’s heroic antics wouldn’t have mattered anyway had Nacho Monreal been clinical enough to win a one-on-one with David de Gea just seven minutes into the game. The pass he received from Özil was nothing short of world class: over the top, on point, right where the left-back went. However, Monreal didn’t dare to strike it on the first touch and, on the second one, he was already to close to the goalkeeper to make it work.

This situation was pretty much exemplary for the entire Arsenal’s season. The German #10 running the show all across the field and his teammates being wasteful with the graft their main man has put into the matches. It was business as usual for Mesut who, apart from scoring a consolation goal, has managed to reach Cesc Fàbregas’ 18 assist landmark with three months to spare. At Old Trafford, he’s also carved out six goalscoring chances, bringing his tally in this department to 111 – in just 25 games. For one thing: that is more opportunities than all four key, attacking Manchester United players (Mata, Depay, Lingard and Rooney) have put in during the current campaign combined. For another: as we speak, Özil’s creative contributions stand for roughly 33% of his teams’ ability to stir up some trouble in the final third – meaning that Gunners have become a bit of a one-man team.

We’ve seen this before in the Premier League. Gareth Bale’s Tottenham was a one-man team. Luis Suárez’s Liverpool was a one-man team. Even at the peak of Manchester United’s glory, during the 2002-03 season, we had a one-man endeavour with a bit forgotten, a bit under-appreciated Ruud van Nistelrooy ruling the run of play. However: two of those three stories were heartbreaking tales of outstanding individuals who didn’t have a good enough team around them to win the trophy. And one more thing: Bale, Suárez and van Nistelrooy were all much more of goalscorers than Özil was, is or will ever be. Their goals changed games, turning them around in favour of their teams. What Özil does is pretty much just setting up the goals – and even though he possesses an uncanny talent for it, there’s always someone out there who cannot convert the German’s efforts to save his life.

‘Whatever I’m doing out there, those chumps keep wasting it.” – Özil’s secret thought.

So in the end, it boils down to an issue Arsenal fans were frustrated about last summer. The striker. Not just a striker, not just another Yaya Sanogo, Danny Welbeck or some other ‘bold experiment’, some other ‘might be a decent goalscorer in the next 5 years’ type of a lad. No. The club needs a player ready to step up and bag twenty goals in one campaign. Last one to match – and actually, surpass – those expectations was Robin van Persie – but that was five years ago. From the day he went out the door heading for… Manchester United – the strikers’ crown has been worn by Walcott (14 league goals); Giroud (16); Alexis Sánchez (16) and now, Giroud again (12 goals at the moment). In a world where Jamie Vardy is on nineteen goals already, those aren’t the numbers a worthy Premier League champion should be producing.

For the lack of better alternatives, Arsène Wenger has been switching between Giroud and Walcott upfront. It’s been an interesting experiment of rotating the polar opposites. After all, the ex-Montpellier forward is a tall, strong, static type of frontman who excels at winning headers and shielding the ball with his back to the goal. On the other hand, Walcott, a former child prodigy and unofficial record-holder for the fastest 100m sprint amongst all footballers, loves the quick breaks and passes in-behind the defenders (as the games against Dinamo and MU in September demonstrated). However, both those lads are having serious problems when it comes to putting the ball in the net. At the moment, Giroud took 78 shots with a 15.3% conversion rate; Walcott and his 42 shots give him only 9.5% efficiency. All this while a relegation-material striker, 33-years old Jermain Defoe boasts a 21.7% return…

Of course having a poor record upfront doesn’t absolve the kind of defending against crosses from the right flank they’ve displayed in the first half. An awful clearance by Gabriel, combined with half-hearted tracking back and lackluster awareness by Bellerín costed Gunners the first goal; Marcus Rashford waiting for a ball unchallenged in-between two centre-backs costed them them the second. If Gunners were unable to take simple, quick and decisive actions like clearing the ball West-Ham-style, they should’ve been at least stopping United’s progress further away from Čech’s goal to not even allow the horrors in their own penalty area. They did neither and that was the result – a defeat in a game which, otherwise, they had well under control.

But one away game to a strong opponent was only a tip of the iceberg for the fans.

What pains Gunners the most these days is that 4 miles north to their ground, Tottenham, that poor mockery of a competitive club Tottenham has shaped up to be a force superior to the one assembled at Emirates. After completing a comeback against Swansea, Spurs have a three-point lead over their local rivals. Not only that: both their offensive and defensive records are simply better than Arsenal’s (by six and five goals, respectively). They’ve just won seven Premier League games in a row, confidently advanced to the Europa League’s Round of 16 and if it wasn’t for a 0-1 FA Cup defeat to Crystal Palace, they’d still be chasing three accolades this year. All that accomplished without a clear leader like Özil; what matters is that the combined powers of Dele Alli (7 goals, 5 assists) and Christian Eriksen (5 goals, 8 assists) are matching the absolute, individually untouchable excellence from the ex-Real Madrid playmaker.

With a total renaissance of form and skill going on at White Hart Lane, this is not just an ordinary title race anymore. It’s been twenty one years since Tottenham have managed to finish above Arsenal in BPL and that, almost traditional accomplishment has always been one of the half-legitimate excuses for Arsène Wenger’s failures and their impact on his future in the club. If that streak of local supremacy ends, if it coincides with yet another Champions League Ro16 exit (home 0-2 to Barcelona strongly indicates that); if, finally, the league title ends up going to Spurs – the legendary French boss will be as exposed as José Mourinho was at one point of this season. And if he, somehow, retains his managerial post despite all that potential misery – he will still have Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte to beat next year…

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