This was a matchday full of surprises in the Champions League, if we can call the defeats of the so-called big teams at the hands, or is it feet, of their high-quality, but supposedly underdog, opponents that.
With those results in mind, and the undoubtedly quality that Schalke showed, one might be tempted to take Arsenal’s first loss at home to a non-English side in 46 Champions League matches as little more than a minor hiccup. But if we look at the quality of Arsenal’s performance – the only shot on target came in injury time from a 17 year old substitute, add in a similarly dour game against Norwich last weekend, and indeed the entire Premier League campaign thus far, and we can see genuine cause for concern.
After the Norwich game, Arsene Wenger was uncharacteristically forthcoming about the disappointing nature of the performance. In this instance stand-in manager Steve Bould had something similar to say, “A 0-0 would have delighted us I think.” That tells me Arsenal were just not at the races.
There were a couple of other comments from the assistant manager that showed the deeper and more complex nature of the problem.
We haven’t played anything like we can, I think that’s the big disappointment. We haven’t performed today. We lack a bit of confidence, for whatever reason…
We looked jaded, I don’t know why that is.
Arsenal have been unconvincing in attack in majority of the games. The Gunners have won only 3 out of their 8 Premiership games scoring 13 goals. 6 of those came in one outlier against Southampton, so they’ve basically won 2 out of 7 while scoring 7 goals in those games.
In that regard, I commend Bould for saying things as he sees it. Clearly, the coaches are not sure about the exact nature of the problem, which is not a surprise given the complex nature of a fluid attacking game. Blaming the quality of players and asking for new ones is the most obvious lazy approach but those actually in charge do not have the luxury of being so frivolous.
There aren’t many new observations to make about the lack of understanding and consequently the attacking impotence that Arsenal displayed against Schalke. There was some hope that the visitors’ relatively high line will provide more opportunities, and it did lead to some occasions when the Gunners got in behind, but they just didn’t have the ability to find the final ball or the finish.
Again, it wasn’t down to one player or one specific reason. At times, the players got too close to each other and killed the space that they needed, on other occasions the passing was too slow giving the defence time to recover, then there were instances of a player lacking strength at a vital moment in the attack to hold off the defender, and so on. None of these are new issues but finding the answers is proving tough.
To an extent this is understandable as the Gunners have lost last season’s three main weapons (RvP, Song, and Walcott) in the final third for various reasons. Integrating the newcomers is proving to be a challenge that is costing results. The transfer business can be faulted but I believe that debate is out of the scope of this article.
More than the attack though, the serious concerns are with the defence. It seems, after a relatively well-structured and solid start to the season, the defence is relapsing into the kind of mistakes that troubled the squad last season.
Santos obviously had a tough time as the overwhelming majority of Schalke’s attacks came down his flank. At times he was outnumbered but on many occasions his positioning, decision making, and ability to track was suspect at best.
It’s difficult to say whether many of the problems in defence resulted from positional issues borne out of the players attempts to move around in search of penetration in attack, or were down to a basic lack of discipline and awareness at the back. The answer is likely to be a combination of both. For instance, the space down Arsenal’s left side was often resulting from attempts of Podolski and Cazorla to work something in the attacking half, which didn’t leave them in a position to track the attacker once possession was lost. But there is no real excuse for the full-backs to stay deeper than the central defenders, in a virtual carbon copy of the mistake that was made against Norwich, to take an example of awareness and discipline issues.
The net result was that Schalke were able to counter-attack almost at will and the Gunners were somewhat lucky to concede only two. It’s also worth noting that the Germans got into numerous ‘promising positions’ in the build-up of their attacks but didn’t really click in the final third. It once again clearly illustrates the fact that finding the final ball or the finish is the hardest part of the game and even quality players like Huntelaar and Afellay can’t score with ease despite the acres of space afforded to them. By extension, it’s harder for the Gunners when the opponents are well-organized in defence and deny them space and time on the ball.
The central observation from the game was that it was relatively easy for Schalke to defend and attack whereas the Gunners struggled at both ends of the pitch. The visitors were tactically astute and defended in a composed manner that gave them the opportunity to build attacks almost every time they won the ball back. Arsenal, on the other hand, were struggling to contain the Germans and had to hoof the ball away or needed a desperate lunge on a regular basis. This also meant that they were rarely in a position/shape to break forward at speed. In short, Schalke won the tactical battle and mastered the spaces on the pitch to their advantage.
There’s another theory – Arsenal players take it easy, especially when they don’t rate the opponents highly – that I don’t buy at all. It’s unimaginable that all the players will switch on and off so many times during the season and on a yearly basis. To me the problem is in the tactical system, and that affects the output that the side can generate even when the players are visibly trying very hard. At the moment the Arsenal team is performing below the sum of its individual parts. Ideally they should be doing better than the sum or, at the very least, equal the total of their abilities.
This game has once again highlighted the issues that Arsene and his coaches have to solve, and they don’t have too much time on their hands. The title race might well be over even if many fans don’t wish to accept it. The race for the Champions League spots could also slip away unless the right solutions are found and implemented soon.
The efforts of certain players, the timing of the substitutions, and some other specifics of the game will probably receive their share of flak, but I feel it’s best to ignore those and focus on the broader issues so the individual performances section has been left out.Follow @goonerdesi