I hate it when the prediction by the heart beats the one by the mind because that means Arsenal have put in a logic defying performance or committed suicide with some horrible individual errors. In this case it was a bit of both.
Before going further let me just acknowledge that Birmingham thoroughly deserved this win for the effort they put in, for their keeper making some big saves, and for taking their chances. Credit also to Mike Dean who, in this game, did as good a job of being fair as any ref I’ve seen in England. If anything, Birmingham have genuine complaints for not getting a penalty in the second minute but that was down to the assistant ref. Whether it would have given them a bigger advantage or roused Arsenal up earlier will never be known.
I thought the Gunners were extremely nervous at the start and this allowed Birmingham to gain the early initiative. Clichy seems to have developed a bad habit of dropping a yard behind the defensive line. That allowed Bowyer to sneak in behind the defence and should have won a penalty when Szczesny brought him down with a clumsy attempt. I don’t think it would have been a red card as the player was going away from goal and there was a defender coming back but in such cases it’s difficult to say what the ref would have given.
The midfield with the exception of Wilshere was extremely poor in the first half. They hardly won any knock-downs and that allowed Birmingham to get out of their half easily and made it easy for them to sustain some pressure in attacking areas. At the other end Arsenal were creating some half chances but nothing more. Rosicky and Arshavin just didn’t do enough.
The first goal came from a corner after Koscielny headed a ball out. That ball was so far inside the six yard box when the defender headed it that one wonders why the goalkeeper didn’t take charge of it. It should have been Szczesny’s ball but ended up as a corner for the Blues. The ball was swung wide and a Birmingham defender won it 15 yards from goal. His header was directed back towards the middle of the goal and Zigic was able to use his height to guide it in past a woefully flapping Szczesny.
Arsenal’s response was good. Van Persie went close with a header after a good cross from Sagna. Birmingham then had a good spell for five minutes in which they could have scored again. A decent save from Szczesny denied Zigic was was again through.
The equalizer came from some good work by Wilshere who brought the ball forward for a quick break. When it came back to the youngster he rattle the bar with a thunderbolt. Arshavin controlled the loose ball and beat off the pressure from two players to deliver a wonderful cross. The finish from Van Persie was exquisite.
Arsenal dominated the rest of the first half with Nasri drawing a big save from Foster but the teams went in level at the break.
In the second half there was a distinct difference in the way Arsenal played. The midfield stayed much closer to the defence and the shape of the team was a lot more compact. Birmingham did get some joy down their right but didn’t really force Szczesny into making any great saves.
Even then there were some moments of confusion at the back as Djourou looked clueless and Song showed no composure at key moments. Fahey rattled the bar when he should have buried his chance.
At the other end Arsenal were sniffing around without testing Foster until Bendtner came on for RvP. After that Foster made four good saves from Nasri, Bendtner, Rosicky, and Nasri. Birmingham were on the back foot and the Gunners had all the momentum.
When it all looked positive Arsenal shot themselves in the foot. Djourou lost another aerial battle with Zigic off a long ball as both central defenders had done all day. It shouldn’t have mattered as the ball was going harmlessly towards Szczesny.
Koscielny was covering behind Djourou and was about to clear the ball when Szczesny called for it. I thought it was a very late decision from the Keeper and that confused the defender who pulled out of his clearance at the last moment. The ball did get a deflection of Koscienly but Szczesny should have kept his eye on it. The Keeper lost his bearings at the crucial moment and the ball just rolled towards Martins who’d not have scored an easier goal in his life.
People like to blame some individuals and big up the others. But this game showed there are some fundamental flaws with the way Arsenal defend and it’s not an individual problem. Of course, the players on the pitch will be the ones who get it wrong but the root of the problem is in the way this team sets up to defend the aerial balls. It cannot be solved without a change in the coaching staff.
I put this defeat down to three factors – poor defensive organization and intelligence leading to individual errors (coaching issue), experienced players underperforming, and limitations of the tactical system being exposed by aforementioned individual errors and poor off the ball movement. The last one is a complex issue and I’ll discuss that separately.
Of course, it was a close game and all this would have been forgotten if one of Nasri’s shots had gone through or Szczesny had done better. But it should never have been a close game against Birmingham and therein lays the real problem. My mind knows Arsenal could have done much better but the heart is surviving only because it was prepared for the worst.
Szczesny: Two horrible mistakes but just as I’ve defended Almunia and Fabianski when they’ve made such errors I will not put all the blame on the youngster.
Sagna: Very nervous start as he didn’t do well early on. Crossing was good. Much better in the second half but not enough.
Djourou: Very, very shaky all through the game. Struggled against the aerial ball. Did make some important clearances. Didn’t do enough with the ball in phases when Birmingham were sitting deep.
Koscielny: Couldn’t win the aerial battle with Zigic but that was expected. Better composure and distribution than Djourou. Should have cleared the ball despite the call by the Keeper late on.
Clichy: Struggled down the left as the midfield and Arshavin didn’t support him well enough. Was better in the second half as the team played a more compact game. Needs to make sure he doesn’t end up being deeper than all other defenders.
After some really convincing recent performances the back five was extremely poor in this game. I put it down to the nerves and the fact that the midfield just wasn’t reading the game defensively. Too many runs were not tracked and that put the defenders in awkward positions. Goalkeeper had a night to forget but one he probably will never do.
Song: Awful is the word that comes to mind for his first half performance. Was marginally better in the second half but nowhere near the level we’ve come to expect. Chased the ball like a madman but lacked intelligence in his positioning, movement, and passing.
Wilshere: One of the two players who can come out of this game without a negative. Handled the pressure well, used the ball intelligently, and contributed to attack and defence.
Rosicky: MIA for large periods of the game. Should have dropped deep a lot more and should have helped in moving the ball with simple passes and by being available to receive those passes. Exact opposite of Wilshere as Little Mozart was the least useful player on the pitch.
The midfield just didn’t do enough in the first half as they were often caught in a no man’s land. Song has had two consecutive poor games. I hope he can regain his form soon as he is a key player for the team. Arsene has to get more out of the likes of Rosicky whose poor display put extra burden on Wilshere and consequently on Clichy.
Nasri: Another one who can hold his head high. Worked hard, created chances, troubled the Keeper a lot. Can’t blame his for the performance of the result.
RvP: Good composure on the ball, good movement, excellent finish. Disappointing delivery on set plays and should have offered a bit more in attacking areas.
Arshavin: Excellent assist but pretty off colour otherwise.
I thought the attackers didn’t get enough chances the link between them and the defence wasn’t very good in the first half. The understanding between the three wasn’t that great either. The weakness of the tactical system meant that Arsenal could not utilize the spaces in behind even when Birmingham pushed forward.
Subs: Bendtner created one chance out of nothing but didn’t get on the ball in the box as often as I’d have liked. Chamakh too worked the channels a lot more and wasn’t in the box as often as I’d have liked. Once again it was the weakness of the system that couldn’t get more from either of the big strikers.
Wenger: Starting line-up wasn’t the best but it wasn’t too bad. The manager must have given the right instructions at half time as the team showed a better shape in the second half. I don’t know the reasons behind the substitutions but I’d have picked Eboue ahead of Chamakh as he can run at the defenders. The manager can’t do much when the players make such individual mistakes but his team doesn’t deal with these situations well enough and it’s not down to one player so Le Boss has to take the blame.
It’s back to square one now. How the players react will tell us a lot about this team and the chances for the future. I know how some fans will react but hopefully that won’t be so bad as to affect the atmosphere at the Emirates. There is a still a lot to play for.