Field of Nightmares

Younes Kaboul is no David Luiz – but still…

The closeups of Shkodran Mustafi’s concerned, disappointed face. The shots of Aaron Ramsey questioning the arbiter’s decisions instead of concentrating on the game. The little smirks of disbelief at Arsenal’s performance on Andre Marriner’s face, as he kept rightfully rewarding Watford with the free-kicks. The modest, black crowd of Hornet’s supporters not entirely buzzing after taking a two-goal lead because at least half of them could not imagine such thing ever happening at the Emirates. Etienne Capoue not even really forced to make any sort of dribbling trickery – just running straight at the right shoulders of Coquelin and Mustafi to set up the unthinkable result. The big sigh of relief from all Gunners across the world, as the man at fault of two goals had to be substituted off after 20 minutes… This is the nightmarish reality at 75 Drayton Park, N5 right now. Arsenal 1, Watford 2. Things couldn’t get worse.

Except that… they could. Because these thirty minutes between Troy Deeney’s goal and the half-time whistle were an actual footballing agony. I don’t quite remember Arsenal playing this poorly in months. At home, against Watford, they continued pointless long balls as if they were a Tony Pulis’ team, circa 2014 – because at the moment, even Tony Pulis’ West Bromwich can do better. M’Baye Niang, the AC Milan outcast who’s just arrived at Vicarage Road and played his debut Premier League game, had such a comfortable time against Gabriel down the left wing, drawing fouls and playing one-touch passes with ease. The hosts put zero faith in bring the ball forward through the middle, so they played off the flanks and in their own half – all while being closed down to death by hard-working likes of Capoue, Janmaat and Cleverley. It literally looked as if the two teams swapped shirts to mess with their fans!

It was not an accident, though. Just few days ago, Gunners have hammered a very solid Southampton side 5-0, thanks to the spectacular displays from Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck. Tuesday came along and both weekend heroes were benched, watching the feeble efforts of Oliver Giroud (0 shots, 0 key passes, 1 header won, 4 times dispossessed, only 4 passes completed) and Mesut Özil (only 2 goals and 3 assists in eleven Premier League games since November 2016). To be fair, the German got his act together in the second half and helped his team to improve their play a little. But still: against Watford, the attacking play before the break was centred around passing to Alexis and Alexis only. As usual this season, the Chilean was supposed to do everything alone: make a dribble, cross the ball to himself and score a header. At times, he’s good enough to pull it off. On Tuesday, he wasn’t.

One could only imagine how many lengthy, detailed, tactical instructions Arsène Wenger has given on a half-time call to his assistant Steve Bould. Everything needed to be fixed in the span of just 15 minutes. Theo Walcott entered the fray for Giroud, whose 45-minute nightmare will probably be punished by another, lengthy spell on the bench. The full-backs have both been pushed further forward, but the main positive detail was a growing cooperation between Sánchez and young Alex Iwobi. At least twice, the young Nigerian came painfully close to setting up his famous teammate for a goal; and when the goal happened, it was him, who benefited from Alexis’ dribbling prowess. The two continued to switch their flank positions and ask for the ball, finally causing big trouble to Janmaat and Britos. And even without Bellerín, the hosts finally looked powerful out wide.

It was undoubtedly the centre that has let them down. A year ago, during the attempted title push, Gunners were putting faith in Santiago Cazorla and Francis Coquelin as their main midfield partnership. The Spanish playmaker had a decent start to the new season before his Achilles tendon got swollen and painful during the the October Champions League match against Ludogorets. Then followed an ankle surgery and a minimum three-month break that will potentially see him returning to the pitch by the end of this month. The numbers are merciless: with Santi on the pitch, Gunners’ win ratio oscillates around 65%; without him, it drops to slightly above 40%. His main skill, which the ability to escape high-pressing and open spaces either for the runs or for passes – that was exactly what’s been missing from the Watford game. At the moment, no other AFC player comes close to copying that.

Ludogorets: one of the last Cazorla’s photo before it all went tits up.

As of Coquelin: he certainly is not the kind of player who could play the leading role in a midfield two devoid of a more skilled teammate. This season, he’s mostly proven himself as a midfielder suited for games against small opposition – hence his good performances against Leicester, Sunderland, Stoke and West Bromwich. With slumping Watford around the corner, the Frenchman seemed like a natural fit for Arsenal starting eleven. Unfortunately: whatever worked out well in those past four games, worked out largely because there were Xhaka (twice), Cazorla or Elneny playing alongside Coq and taking care of the passing game. With the Swiss lad still suspended for the red card and the Egyptian playing in AFCON, that burden fell on Aaron Ramsey’s shoulders – shoulders of a lad, who’s been nothing but a filler in Arsenal’s roster these days, wandering from position to position. No wonder he’s failed.

The random luck didn’t help Ramsey either. After all, Younes Kaboul’s free-kick wouldn’t go past Petr Čech at all if it wasn’t for an unfortunate deflection off the Wales international. But the real question is: are Gunners being punished as much by the random chance as they were last season? The answer is: no. This time last year, a fan-made Premier League table that discounted all offside goals and included goals that should’ve stood, was pointing at Arsenal as the champions of England. Today, Wenger’s team already has a story of being saved by Mark Clattenburg at Leicester and by Craig Pawson at Burnley. Even the last controversy, which was Wenger’s verbal abuse towards the fourth official, was ruled leniently: the boss got only sent to the stands, while earlier this season, José Mourinho received a full stadium ban for merely kicking the water bottle. So – no: the Gods don’t hate Gunners at all.

Their fans however… Minutes after the game, Arsenal TV has published the angry rants of two, visibly livid AFC supporters, raising the same questions all over again: what’s the point of not awarding the in-form players with the second consecutive game? Indeed: with Danny Welbeck in Giroud’s position and Walcott providing more mobility in the final third, things could’ve been different. Maybe the only way to go was to actually drop Mesut Özil deeper and use him as a deep-lying playmaker? Of course that is not his best position and it could’ve backfired due to his notorious defensive shortcomings – but, all things considered, he could not have done much worse job than Ramsey during his 20-minute cameo. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s presence wouldn’t hurt either: it’s no accident that his early inclusion has made the first half a little easier for the entire team.

But there are more big ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’. For example: why there’s so little aggression in that side? They are conceding on average 10.3 fouls per game. Comparing that to Manchester United (13.4), Tottenham (12.4), or… Watford (14.5, the most in the league) – Gunners come off as a soft pack of players. Which is perfectly okay when the going is good; but when it’s the opposition, who has the upper hand, the teams need more physical, dirty play to hamper the other lot’s momentum. The only time it materialised on Tuesday was when Gabriel made a reckless, late challenge on Niang and got away with a yellow. But that’s not how it’s done; those should be more intricate, more perfidious challenges, not the blatantly stupid ones. And especially: not from the player that is getting hopelessly outplayed and uses breaching the rules as an absolute last resort.

The life goes on – and Arsenal are in a desperate need of recovery. With Tottenham hosting Middlesbrough and Liverpool travelling to Hull, Wenger’s lads cannot afford to drop any more points this weekend. Unfortunately, for them: they are going to Stamford Bridge, to face the 2016/17 Premier League champions, Chelsea. Antonio Conte’s team just had a rather poor game at Anfield, but they still came out with a comfortable draw and they continue to enjoy an insurmountable 9-point lead. They’ve also been unbeaten at home by Gunners since October 2011 – in fact, the last time they’ve conceded a home goal to Wenger’s side, Frank Lampard and Fernando Torres were both playing in the blue shirt. For them, this will be just another match on the way to glory; for Arsenal, it will be about winning back some dignity. And if the visitors fall? The 5th place finish and Europa League football could be their future…

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