Most of the big teams crash out of a competition like the League Cup, often against opponents from the lower divisions. It happens every year. However, few play a virtually full strength side against a team sitting three divisions below and still fail to progress.
In that regard, Arsene Wenger’s surprise selection made the result all the more disheartening, to put it mildly.
I have a feeling Wenger knows this is his weakest squad in years, not just in terms of individual quality, but also in terms of balance and understanding. The total output produced by the 11 players on the pitch is much, much lower than that of their predecessors. His decisions and comments over the season have shown that he isn’t quite sure what his best line-up is and Le Boss is still searching for the right combination in midfield and attack.
It seemed to me that Arsene went with a strong line-up because of two mains reasons – 1) he wanted to use the Cup as an insurance policy in case transfers don’t work out in January and/or the club fails to get into the Champions League spots at the end of the season; 2) He wanted to give some players more time to understand each other’s game and hopefully a boost to their confidence.
The decision bombed in every which way imaginable. Many key players have clocked up minutes which will have an impact by the time we reach the crunch period of March to May. The negative vibes will gain further strength while confidence of the players hits a new low. The only positive I can think of is that there will be fewer games to play in the coming weeks, which is really stretching it.
Coming to the game itself, I got the feeling Arsenal were a tad nervous at the beginning of the game. Bradford were able to chase the ball and put the Gunners under pressure which forced certain mistakes. Despite that the difference in the quality of the two teams was obvious.
The Gunners were well below their best but they were still creating chances. Vermaelen and Podolski couldn’t direct free-headers towards the target and there were some other promising moments that were squandered.
At the other end, the threat was always going to come from long balls and set-pieces. That’s just how the goal came. One long punt took the ball from their goalkeeper’s hands to deep inside the Arsenal defensive third.
Vermaelen’s inability to attack the ball earlier and the ease with which he was nutmegged exposed certain basic defensive weaknesses that many central defenders have shown while putting on a Arsenal shirt. The defending from the set-piece was woeful, it was again a case of a soft goal being gifted to the opposition.
Scoring goals is the hardest part of the game. It may be a cliché but is also the most fundamental tenet of the game. Once a team gifts goals to the opponents it makes its own task infinitely harder. Throw in the inability to produce decisive quality in the final third and you have the perfect recipe for a massive upset.
I don’t agree with people who claim there was no desire or spirit from the players. It’s a stunningly lazy argument that defies everything we saw on the pitch. I thought the players fought really hard, they just didn’t have the right quality in the right moments, and at times their lack of understanding or execution let them down badly.
From Arsenal’s point of view, there were two different phases in the game. In the first 70 minutes, the hosts had a relatively comfortable time. The Gunners got into plenty of threatening positions but the quality of delivery or the shot attempted was really poor. There were no shots on target in this period. If anything, Bradford’s basic long ball tactic created more threatening moments than all of Arsenal’s possession.
The game changed after Wenger’s three substitutions. Arsenal were a different team for the rest of the game and completely controlled the game. Duke was forced into many saves and for 50 minutes it was mostly a training exercise of attack against defence. To Bradford’s great credit they did enough to keep a misfiring Arsenal team at bay.
When Vermaelen equalized late in the game there was hope that Arsenal could turn things around. The players were visibly trying very hard, and that’s the reason I don’t doubt the desire or spirit of the individuals. However, they just didn’t have enough individual quality in the final third of the pitch to convert possession and territorial dominance into goals.
Bradford did not have a single shot on or off target in the second half and in extra time. That highlights the importance of not gifting goals better than anything. You have to be defensively strong in Cup ties, particularly when you’ve a misfiring attack.
I knew Bradford would be favourites once it went to penalties. Tweeted the following during extra-time.
It wasn’t just about their record of winning 8 successive penalty shootouts. The simple fact of the matter was that the game was now completely even. Any technical advantage that Arsenal had was nullified. The players with more confidence were going to go through and the Gunners were clearly second best. To me it wasn’t as much about desire at it was about belief and self-doubt. A single grain of doubt can be the difference between the ball hitting the post and bouncing out or just nestling inside the corner of the goal.
Szczesny: Can’t blame him for the shootout defeat but he was extremely indecisive for the goal. Came forward, went back, got into a mess. Didn’t have much to do otherwise! Still remains a young man with potential but everything to prove as well.
Sagna: Was he at fault for the goal as it was scored from behind him? Maybe he was but definitely not the primary culprit. Put in a good shift on the flank but he wasn’t able to make an impact with his crosses.
Mertesacker: Had a decent game on the whole but he didn’t really show the aerial dominance and organization skills that people keep telling me he has.
Vermaelen: Extremely poor, particularly in the first half of the game. Really struggled against the physical nature of the game and the long balls. To me he was primarily responsible for the goal. Atoned for his error partially by scoring the equalizer but failed in the shootout.
Gibbs: Another one who I thought had a decent game except for the quality of the ball in the final third, which has been a problem throughout the season.
The defending in the first half was relatively poor but they didn’t allow a shot on goal after that. Unfortunately, even that one goal was one too many.
Coquelin: Had some highlights worthy moments when he ventured forward like the time he hit the post or got in behind on the right side, but overall impact was marginal at best. Couldn’t help the defence as well as he should have in the first half. If he’d been able to take charge of the midfield, Arsenal would have pinned Bradford back in the manner they did towards the end.
Cazorla: Many shots from distance, no real return. Did get the assist for the goal. Poor penalty. This is the kind of game where he should have shown he’s a class apart but his style of play is such that he can’t really make others around him better than they are, which means the overall team play suffers. Have some thoughts on his game but need to find time to put them across in a balanced way.
Wilshere: Another one who had many highlights-worthy moments but also very little to show for it at the end of the game. He too has a lot to learn to make his individual qualities work for the team. Desperately needs to improve his right foot.
Ramsey: Very disappointing game. Work rate was again good but there were just too many mistakes. Couldn’t offer penetration on the right or any sort of clever technical combination play.
The midfield had players with individual qualities but it didn’t work as a unit for the first 70 minutes. To be fair, they were not helped by the quality of the attackers but the key point here is that we know the quality of the attackers. IMO the onus of making average players look good is on the great players. That isn’t happening for the Gunners.
Gervinho: I wrote these sentences when he was signed – 1) “I am not convinced about his passing or finishing abilities despite his fairly impressive stats for Lille.” 2) “Gervinho’s weakness seems to be his technique…” 3) “…don’t be surprised if he frustrates more often than he delights…” I haven’t spent the last two years repeating these points because it doesn’t add much value but it’s been clear from the time he signed that Gervinho remains a very average player.
Podolski: There are only certain patterns of play that suit his strengths. Outside of those he looks a very mediocre player. Arsenal haven’t been able to play to his strengths and he hasn’t shown the ability to improve/adapt.
Subs: Rosicky and Oxlade-Chamberlain brought drive and penetration to the side but they too lacked the final finish or supply. Chamakh had decent moments with his hold up play but he also lost possession far too often. Poor penalty as well.
Wenger: We know he focuses on the team more than the individuals. Unfortunately, this season the Gunners just haven’t clicked as a team. A few big wins have created false hopes but the disappointments have been too many to be ignored. The big challenge for him is to get his great players performing in a manner that lifts the average ones.Follow @goonerdesi