Arsene surprised and to an extent disappointed with the selection of Vermaelen and Santos in the starting eleven. In fairness though, the performance of the team showed it was a necessary evil because the manager’s tactical blindspots created a vulnerable mishmash of talented but inexperienced players and seasoned professionals lacking match sharpness/form.
To be honest, and I hate saying this, the first half was embarrassing. That Olympiacos came out with purpose and pressed the Gunners higher up the pitch, sometimes with as many as six players in the Arsenal half, was no surprise. The Gunners’ failure to counter that was a letdown.
As I have noted in the past, there are clear signs to observe when Arsenal are struggling. The midfield and defenders fail to beat the press. Consequently, the ball goes back to the Keeper who is forced to hoof under pressure regularly. This long ball invariably leads to a loss of possession and the ball comes back into the defensive third within moments as the Gunners struggle to control the flanks and inside channels. That was the story of the first half and some might say the two goal deficit flattered Arsenal!
The lack of a functional approach can put the side in trouble when the players don’t really have the kind of understanding or experience that a fluid, dominant style demands. In the first half, Coquelin and Frimpong struggled to get free and couldn’t really hold the ball under pressure. Benayoun didn’t drop deep often enough while Arshavin and Oxlade-Chamberlain offered little in terms of possession play. This put immense pressure on the back four and the Keeper who ended up looking like clowns time and time again.
Interestingly, both goals in the first half came when an Arsenal player lost possession under pressure just around the halfway line. Because the team was trying to play out from the back without really having a stable shape in front of the back four, it was really easy for Olympiacos to get in behind for the first goal. All the three midfielders were easily bypassed. The player attempting the through-ball was under no pressure and Djourou made the mistake of not tracking the run. This is a mistake Arsenal make far too often. Defenders attempt to play off-side when chasing the run and forcing the opponent to beat them would be the safer option. As things turned out, Squillaci and Djourou unwittingly played the ball into the path of Djebbour who rounded Fabianski to score with aplomb.
For the second goal, Frimpong was caught on the ball and the attempted tackle turned into a delightful lob over the Arsenal back four. Mannone rushed out of his line but his header was weak and towards the center when the better option would have been to go for as much power and angle as possible. The Italian also lost his bearings and tried to kick a weak attempt towards goal instead of catching it. I don’t know why Vermaelen hadn’t rushed back to the line to cover when he saw Mannone coming out.
Apart from the goals there were a number of opportunities for the hosts but they lacked individual quality in the final third.
Arsenal had very little to show at the other end. There was an occasion when a neat interchange of passes between Arshavin and Chamakh put the Russian one-v-one but the angle was tight. The only other noteworthy moment was a cross from the Ox that invited a shot but Benayoun took it off the foot of Arshavin and couldn’t direct it towards goal on the swivel.
The second half started in a similar vein but Arsenal showed some tactical flexibility. A number of balls were being played towards Chamakh and the wide players were coming narrow towards him. This approach brought the Gunners back into the game when the Moroccan did really well to control a long ball with his head and lay it back into the path of Benayoun. The Israeli captain spread it towards Miquel who swung a good cross in towards Chamakh. The striker again did well to chest it into space for Benayoun to finish it off with a classy volley. Arsenal used Chamakh’s strengths well in that move and it paid dividends. It’s a shame the manager couldn’t set his team up to use these strengths more frequently.
Just before the goal Santos had gone off injured. That could prove to be a bigger loss than the game was.
Around the hour mark Olympiacos eased off. They were always going to find it hard to sustain their intensity for the duration of the game. Rosicky came on with just over 20 minutes to go. Benayoun and Little Mozart created a couple of interesting combinations but couldn’t really find the finish. Nevertheless, the game was more even after the break.
At the other end, the hosts were always a threat on the break and scored the third with a minute of normal time remaining. The goal came from a free-kick conceded by the physical enthusiasm of Frimpong that works so well in English Cup ties. The youngster and Benayoun were also guilty of ambling up as they played Modesto onside. But one must also ask how Mellberg was able to head the ball when there were four Arsenal players around him. It seemed like a goal conceded out of tiredness.
It wasn’t a pleasurable game to watch but I am glad this happened. If nothing else, it should show the youngsters just how much they need to improve. A player like Frimpong can end up at the level of Muamba or Wilson Palacios (good players in their own right but not quite top class) or he could develop into an Essien or Song. It’s up to him to understand his weaknesses and work on them diligently. Similarly, Oxlade-Chamberlain could turn into a Shaun Wright-Phillips (who has his mercurial moments) or he could develop like Nani or other such attackers who deliver for big teams on a consistent basis. At this age one must not be harsh on the young players as they have a lot to learn. But only they can do the work day in, day out. It’s important to see the desire and willingness to improve.
Fabianski: I don’t blame him for the first goal. If he’d stayed on his line it would have given Djebbour a good angle to hit, coming off gave the attacker a chance to go around. Keepers can’t do much in such cases.
Mannone: Should have done better with the header. Could have caught the strike. Made a number of other mistakes. But again, as I have said in the past, Keepers will make mistakes when the players in front of them are so disjointed. More so if the guy in goal rarely gets to play.
Djourou: Should have tracked the run for the first goal. Ended up chasing back far too often and should have gotten into and stayed in better defensive positions but that is more of a coaching issue.
Squillaci: Made a number of mistakes but was overworked. That moment when he left the ball for Mannone (which led to a header that went wide) brought back memories of defenders not taking enough responsibility.
Vermaelen: Even he looked nervous at times as was seen with a back pass that sold Fabianski short. But his work rate was superb and even went forward whenever possible.
Santos : Very strong in individual battles. Made one very good forward run that led to a shot from Arshavin.
The defence had that old headless chicken feel to it and the goalkeepers didn’t look convincing. But the keywords there are feel and look. I thought the real problem was in front of the back five as the ball kept coming back at them. They didn’t have enough options when they tried to play it out from the back and the ball came back within seconds whenever it was hoofed forward. No defence can handle such incessant pressure unless the players in front are set up to support the back four.
Oxlade-Chamberlain: Very impressive when he got a chance to run with the ball. Very little off it. It might be harsh but I am not sure he got any worthwhile tactical education at his previous club. Doesn’t really get into good defensive positions and doesn’t know the runs he should be making. This was most evident at a moment when Rosicky had to point to the space and ask him to run which allowed the defender to come across and cover.
Coquelin: Struggled to receive and pass the ball. Movement and positioning wasn’t great either.
Frimpong: Very strong and energetic but lacked awareness of players around him. Physical abilities are very important but an understanding of space and defensive positioning is critical. A loan spell at the right team seems essential for his development.
Benayoun: Looked like he played on the left in a 4-4-1-1. This meant he didn’t always get the chance to drop deep in central positions but even on the left the Israeli wasn’t offering an outlet for receiving the ball. Looked much better in the second half when he came in more frequently and was able to combine with Rosicky.
For large parts, the midfielders struggled in attack and defence as they kept getting caught in a ‘No man’s land’. That affected the shape of the team and left the back five exposed. The right side was particularly weak defensively with Djourou getting little support from Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Arshavin: Very disappointing to say the least. Was anonymous for large parts. Lacked confidence/form when he did get into dangerous positions. Also struggled due to a lack of understanding with teammates as some very interesting passes were just not read by them.
Chamakh: Had some good moments when he held the ball up of brought others into play like the goal or the chance for Arshavin. But those were few and far between. Arsenal failed to use his abilities to get the ball out and he lacked striking instincts on half-chances.
Subs: Miquel was very impressive on the ball and played a part in the goal. Was caught up the pitch regularly but that might have been due to tactical instructions to push up. Rosicky looked classy at times but was also erratic with his passing.
Wenger: There are a number of tactical issues that one can raise. For his part the manager might say it is important for the younger players to experience the game in this way. If he set it up in a manner that the team sat back and defended the youngsters might not have discovered just how much they need to develop. But there are structural problems with the way Arsenal defend that come to the fore every time the possession game fails. These need to be addressed and I can’t see the current coaching staff doing that. His team selection is also questionable.I dread to think what the result might have been if the first-choice defensive duo had been on the bench but one could say even a right battering would have been better than having Santos injured.
It’s not necessary to dwell on this game as it was largely inconsequential but now Arsenal have 5 League games in 22 days, 4 in 14, with all four full-backs injured and the centre-backs being stretched across the back four. Given that a spot in the top four is the only realistic target for this season, this is going to be a nervy and vital period.