A family event at a nearby city took me out of town for the last couple of days and is the cause for the lateness of this post. It really was unavoidable but I don’t want to trouble you with the details.
The result of the game, more so the manner in which the goals were conceded, was quite upsetting but after having a day to think it over I find there were a lot of talking points from the game.
The sight of Benayoun in the starting line-up wasn’t a complete surprise due to the rumours circulating on the previous day but I wasn’t quite sure what his role was, and given his performance it would seem he wasn’t either.
Arsenal started brightly and pressed the hosts high up the pitch in the opening few minutes. That led to a number of errors and Swansea couldn’t establish any rhythm to their game. The Gunners were off the mark much quicker and took the lead as early as the 5th minute after a delightful move. It started with an interception by Benayoun on the left just inside the Swansea half. He played it wide to Miquel who routed it back towards Koscielny. The centre-back found Ramsey who’d dropped deep. The Welshman looked up to see Arshavin directing him to pass forward towards Song, who just angled the pass into the path of the Russian who was free between the lines. His weighted ball was perfect for Van Persie who delayed his shot and probably caught everyone, including Vorm in goal, by surprise.
At that early stage Arsenal were in complete control but the goal probably worked against the Gunners. Swansea love to pass the ball around but Arsenal’s pressing was troubling them. After scoring, the Gunners eased off and that allowed the hosts back into the game. Having nothing to lose they pushed men forward and established control over possession.
Since last season Wenger seems to have instructed his side to drop back to the halfway line when possession is lost. That tactic worked wonderfully in the away games last season and some of the big ones like Barcelona but it has been a massive flop this time around as the defence has been exposed far too easily by all and sundry.
I think a major part of the problem is that Arsenal have lost two players who were excellent at holding the ball under pressure. While Arteta does compensate for that to a large extent it isn’t always enough. And with the Spaniard missing the Gunners just didn’t have enough players who played the possession game well. Thus the Gunners found it hard to hold on to the ball and had to deal with sustained spells of pressure.
Arshavin, Benayoun, and Walcott are all very direct players who don’t offer the kind of work rate needed to move the ball around to absorb pressure and create passing angles for moving the ball forward in a controlled manner. In this game Arsenal were rushing forward when under pressure. Swansea’s pressing and lack of passing options meant the Gunners lost the ball far too often (either hoofed forward, or given away with a misplaced pass, or a player was caught in possession as he searched for passing options, and so on) and were then forced to track back without really getting a chance to get into a solid defensive shape.
Despite that, it must be noted that Arsenal were not really threatened in the first half. Swansea scored from a dubious penalty that looked like a foul on Ramsey upon closer inspection, although it’s hard to blame the ref given his angle. One does wonder why the Assistant Ref didn’t spot Dyer’s foot landing on Ramsey’s leg. Apart from the goal the hosts only managed one shot on target in the first half that was a Dyer effort that went straight at Szczesny.
Arsenal had much better chances in the first half. For instance, soon after conceding the goal Ramsey went close from a tight angle. Around the half hour mark Van Persie was through on goal but his effort was saved by the keeper.
Swansea did manage to put a lot of balls into the Arsenal box but they weren’t really offering a creative threat. Arsenal could have won this game if they’d set up deep to let the hosts play in front of them.
Both sides created a lot more in the second half but Arsenal’s structural issues – too many players sucked back without the right shape, players rushing forward after winning possession/defending without providing the angles for out-balls, Miquel in particular went forward at times in an ill-advised manner – and too many individual mistakes proved costly as was the profligacy in front of goal.
For instance, the second goal came when Ramsey was caught in possession. But it’s far to easy to blame the Welshman for that goal. Looking at the sequence of events one would have to say Arshavin delayed his pass to Ramsey which allowed the opponent to close him down. Song was between the goal and Dyer when the ball was lost but was caught ball-watching when the goalscorer got behind him. Song only chased hard once he saw the ball being played towards the winger. This is a fundamental problem with Arsenal and one that can be seen with many players among whom Song is supposed to be one of the better defensive ones. Once he saw Miquel rushing forward after intercepting the ball initially – which in itself was a debatable move – Song should have been more alert to the danger posed by the Winger. But a lot of Arsenal’s defending is very, very reactive and that opens them up to such mistakes more often.
Of course Ramsey deserves his share of criticism as well. When Arshavin played the ball to him the youngster didn’t really have a pass on the right and his body shape was such that coming inside wasn’t an option. He tried to take the opponent on when the smarter option would probably have been to knock it wider for a foot chase.
Errors committed in central areas are a lot more likely to lead to goal as it open the play up for opponents. When in trouble the wise option is to take it wide. Ramsey should also have the technical ability to shield the ball from an opponent so that one of his teammates can get into a better position to receive a pass. He also needs to show more caution and patience in such a situation. But in his rush to move forward he committed a fatal mistake. These are the kind of mistakes that highlight issues with tactical awareness and to me the Gunners are severely lacking in defensive tactical thinking when compared to other top sides.
Even for the third goal, Henry’s flick that went straight to Sigurdsson was extraordinarily clumsy for a man of his experience but not one that would surprise those who have followed his career. Koscielny dropped a fraction deeper when he anticipated the through-ball. Szczesny was all over the place. It was just too easy for Swansea.
The hosts’ defensive performance at the other end wasn’t very good. Their backline was often a shambles as Arsenal got in behind regularly, none more telling than the second goal. They also conceded a lot more chances. Mertesacker showed he had no attacking instincts in the box when he spurned a gilt-edged opportunity. Ramsey, Rosicky, and Koscielny all forced decent saves from the Keeper. But Swansea didn’t lose their shape that often, a lot of the chances were a result of Arsenal’s quality. If the Gunners can learn to get into a defensive shape when under pressure they will collect a lot more points but for that there have to be additions to the coaching staff.
On the whole this was a very disappointing game with a number of deep-rooted issues coming to the fore. Injuries are definitely a part of the problem but they cannot be used as an excuse. Why did Arteta play against Leeds, just to take one example?
Szczesny: Didn’t look assured or confidence-inspiring at all. Positioning for the second goal was questionable, for the third was poor. Distribution wasn’t good either. Needs to focus on his game rather than gimmicks like singing with the fans and kissing the boots of the striker. He has a lot to prove.
Djourou: Swansea didn’t create too many chances from his end but the Swiss defender also curbed his attacking instincts to a large extent. Was fairly involved in the passing and had a respectable success rate. Also picked up a very good assist.
Mertesacker: Wasn’t as involved in the passing as he usually is, probably as a result of being pushed back. Made the most number of successful clearances. Should have done much better when the ball fell at his feet. It was as if he was on his heels and just not expecting the ball to come to him at that height.
Koscielny: A fighting display from the Frenchman. Made a fair number of passes and clearances, 4 interceptions, and also had an acrobatic strike on goal.
Miquel: The youngster had a very influential game in a positive and negative sense. He had the most touches and the most passes of any Arsenal player, which is commendable for one his age, especially in a game of such intensity and pressure. He also won the ball back most often in the defensive and middle thirds including his five interceptions. It would be harsh to blame him for the second or third goal even if he was caught up-field.
I thought the defenders did reasonably well under pressure and considering the injuries to regular full-backs. Graham’s movement was intelligent and Dyer’s pace and skill were tricky. Sinclair too was a handful. Their passing wasn’t at the usual level but many of the errors were forced by the opponents’ pressing and Arsenal’s tactical issues.
It would be worth knowing if Miquel’s forward bursts were based on instructions from the manager or just a result of his own exuberant initiative. He did make a big contribution on the left flank in terms of passing and possession, which also facilitated Arshavin’s inward movement but would Benayoun have been more effective if Miquel had stayed back more often?
Song: Worked extremely hard but also made a number of mistakes. Received and made a fair number of passes. Had the second highest number of ground duels – 13 – but won only 5 of those. Joint highest on the Possession Won in Midfield stat. Wasn’t able to contribute in attack. Should have done much better to track Dyer for the second goal.
Ramsey: He was the easy villain for many and it’s not hard to see why. Conceded possession for the second goal and was the highest on the Total Loss of Possession stat. Some will also blame him for the penalty even though it wasn’t his fault. But he was also the player who worked hardest on the pitch. He made the most interceptions and had the joint highest Possession Won in Midfield figure. He also was the second highest in terms of passes and touches. He got into attacking areas and created three chances and hit two good shots on target. At the same time the Welshman was also putting in a strong defensive shift with a team high 19 ground duels. All-in-all the youngster was everywhere and tried really hard. Some of his mistakes were forced as the weaknesses of the side were exposed. That’s not to say he had a great game, just that he put in the best effort among the players Arsene sent out on the pitch.
Benayoun: He probably didn’t look bad to the casual observer. Made four interceptions, two of which led to good chances, and didn’t lose the ball cheaply. But given the current system Arsenal need a lot more from the third midfielder and Benayoun failed because of what he didn’t do rather than what he did. He was at least a yard off pace on many instances and wasn’t really helpful in attack or defence. Also tended to drift to the left far too often. He only received 18 passes and attempted only 25. That shows he wasn’t really getting into positions where his teammates could find him. The fact that Rosicky made 23 passes in less than half the time showed just how little Benayoun offered on the pitch. He also attempted only 4 ground duels compared to 13 and 19 from his midfield partners.
The midfield failed. Song and Ramsey had to do the job of three players as they were stretched in attack and defence. Benayoun was out of sync and off pace. Ultimately all of them made mistakes; some obvious, others not so evident without a closer inspection. But it’s hard to think Arsenal would have lost this game with Arteta in the side. It’s not an excuse but an indication of what was missing. Benayoun might improve to an extent but I don’t see him having a meaningful career or even a memorable season at Arsenal.
Walcott: His limitations were exposed as the possession game failed. Made far too many early runs and wasn’t really helpful as an outlet for an out-ball. For instance, if he had been on the right touchline, Ramsey would probably not have attempted a take-on. Did score a good goal and put in dangerous crosses late in the game. Kind of a mixed game for the Englishman.
RvP: Goal was deft. As always work rate was exceptional and there was a moment when he brought the ball out after beating three of four players in the Arsenal half. Put in an excellent cross for Henry and created the maximum number of chances, 4. Should probably have done better with his second chance which went straight at the Keeper.
Arshavin: Another player whose weaknesses were highlighted by the game. Can’t really fault his effort as he was chasing the ball but he doesn’t have the ability to contribute to a pressure-absorbing possession game that can help the side control the tempo. Received only 21 passes and made only 20. The assist did show his quality but it wasn’t enough.
The wide players weren’t able to contribute meaningfully in attack or defence despite picking up a goal and an assist between them. I don’t blame them completely as the manager has to find a tactical system that can use their skills better while masking their weaknesses. The reverse usually happens when the current possession game fails and Arsenal don’t seem to have a good alternative.
Subs: Rosicky was lively and made a much bigger impact on the game than Benayoun as he received 21 passes, completed 22/23, and had 3 shots on goal. Henry’s movement in the box was interesting but he didn’t get enough balls. He did show the ability to receive and hold the ball. Partly at fault for the third goal as he gifted possession in a dangerous area with an ill-advised flick. AOC was energetic but couldn’t make an impact.
Wenger: The manager is handicapped by the injuries and his side certainly deserved more from this game. But a lot of the issues discussed here are long-standing ones and it’s up to Arsene to find the solutions.Follow @goonerdesi