Monday, November 28, 2011

A Game Like This Was Coming

Starting out the season struggling is not normal for Arsenal. Failing to control possession during matches is not normal for Arsenal. Hell, standing up to physical play is not normal for Arsenal. However, a sense of normality returned to this Arsenal season as the Gunners finally had one of those matches where everything seems to be going right... but then it doesn't. Hosting Fulham on Saturday, Arsenal had the majority of chances (9 to 2 shots on goal), the majority of possession (56% to 44%), and the majority of corner kicks (a staggering 13 to 4), but could do no better than to salvage a draw. This was just "one of those games" for Arsenal fans, a game that you knew was coming because things had just been going a bit too well lately. A win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge? Uh-oh. Five straight Premier League wins? Getting nervous. Locking up first place in their Champions League group with a match still to play? Yup, things are about to go bad. It's the soccer version of the characters deciding to split up during a horror movie, except you don't want to yell at the screen because things have been going so well. But the honeymoon can't last forever and eventually the rising Gunners had to fall back to earth a bit. Too many games, too little margin for error. It was in the cards. The question is, was it a bump in the road or was it a sign of things to come?

Arsenal had won 8 of their last 9, with the only oddity being a 0-0 draw to Marseille in a classic "this doesn't mean everything, let's rest some people" game. Keep in mind, this was a run that they needed due to their past problems. The Gunners started the year taking only 1 out of 9 possible points, dumped what should have been an easy win to Blackburn, and lost matches to Liverpool and Tottenham, two teams that will most likely be competing for a Champions League spot until the end of the season. Arsenal also were forced to beat Udinese in a home and away playoff to make it into this year's Champions League, all while trying to find a viable lineup with all of the injuries and suspensions they were facing. The hole had been dug deep and to Arsenal's credit, they managed to climb their way out. More than just the wins, the attacking flair and possession game had returned as well. They weren't just winning games, but adapting to situations and doing what they needed to do to achieve results. I have been bullish on the Gunners play in the last few weeks and don't regret any of what I said, though I do note that I have said that the reborn squad needs to face sterner tests before we can hand them a 2012-2013 Champions League spot. This stumble at home to Fulham has given fans cause for pause and reevaluation, but there are reasons to think it was a momentary hiccup.

1. Arsene Wenger seems to have found his lineup. As players became used to the system and used to playing with each other, a pattern emerged and now we generally know what to expect from night to night, save the player at right back due to the injury to Bacary Sanga. With that consistency has come comfort and you can see it on the field. Gervinho is combining well with Robin Van Persie. Aaron Ramsey is finding the quick pass rather than turning all the way back to midfield himself. Mikel Arteta is beginning to become more of an influence rather than simply the person who receives the ball from the back. In short, a team that was in flux early in the season is now one unit and that lends itself to better teamwork. That's not going to go away just because of one draw at home.

2. Fulham played very well defensively. So far I have just discussed the way Arsenal has behaved (surprise surprise, it's an Arsenal blog), but Fulham deserves credit for their organization and response. This was a "park the bus" type of gameplan and for the most part it worked. Arsenal had chances in the first half, but not so many quality chances that they were incredibly unlucky to remain goalless. In the second half, Fulham got the break they needed on Thomas Vermaelen's own goal and then soaked up most of the Arsenal pressure, though they did concede to Vermaelen on their own end as well. Credit to goaltender Mark Schwarzer for a phenomenal game as well. It was not an absolutely masterful job all around, but the visitors did a good job of keeping Arsenal at arm's length for most of the game. Still...

3. The bad luck. It comes in all forms really. Ramsey skying a tap-in somehow. Per Mertesacker's header glancing just wide. Vermaelen's own goal. And then the bad luck that isn't quite luck, but still creates that "nothing's going right" feeling. Schwarzer stoning Johan Djourou's header on the goalline. Van Persie shooting at an open net, but the Fulham defender covering the angle perfectly to clear off the line. Andrei Arshavin scoring a goal, but from the offside position. So many things had to happen for this scoreline to be what it is. If Arsenal scored first, Fulham has to come out of their shell and expose themselves to counterattacks. If Arsenal kept attacking at 0-0 and Fulham didn't put eleven men behind the ball, that goal was going to come. If Vermaelen doesn't put one in his own net, Fulham likely doesn't score because they were putting almost no pressure on Arsenal. If Arsenal doesn't blah blah blah. The point here is that so much went wrong it's hard to look at this match and start to worry because it would be incredibly difficult to replicate the issues.

However, there is one key issue in the minds of all Arsenal players, coaches, and fans that has them looking over their shoulder at the Arsenal collapse of this past spring: depth. I mentioned before that Wenger has found his optimal lineup, and this is undoubtedly a good thing. The only downside is that this lineup is the optimal one because there aren't very many other variations that could even be considered. Save Laurent Koscielny, I wouldn't feel comfortable with any other defenders seeing considerable playing time in either the Champions League or Premier League. Save Emmanuel Frimpong or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, there are no midfielders I would want to see in a starting lineup for multiple games. And worst of all, there is no one on this club that can fill even one of Van Persie's boots. Eventually, Sagna and Jack Wilshere will come back and there'll be more depth in each line. But that is a long way down the road. Until then, Arsenal is forced to play the same players week in and week out due to chasing teams in the Premier League and entering the knockout stage of Champions League. There are no games off. That will absolutely take its toll over time, and it should be Wenger's prime concern during the January transfer window. When their best lineup is in, Arsenal look like they can contend in every league they play in. But sooner or later, they will be unable to play their best lineup, and that's when we'll wonder just how far they can go.

Game Notes

-I was skeptical at the beginning of the season, but I do see the value in Andre Santos now. He is not the best at on-the-ball defending, this much is true. And he hasn't been put in a head-to-head match-up that has tested his ability to remain a force going forward while still playing defense (to steal a phrase from Men in Blazers, he hasn't proved that he can "Cherundolo"). But my god, he gets forward so well that I'm starting not to care. I should care, I know. He's too unproven to get fully behind and if Arsenal were truly putting a stellar team forward, he would be the backup to a more well-rounded back. But for the money spent in this summer's transfer market, Arsene Wenger has done quite well.

-After praising Wenger, I feel like I should question him. When are some of the younger players for Arsenal going to get the chance to step up and play? Oxlade-Chamberlain has proven that he can play on a big stage, so why not give him a home start and spell Gervinho or Walcott? Emmanuel Frimpong can be somewhat impetuous, but he's played well this year. Why not let him spell Alex Song? Francis Coquelin is already making noise about leaving Arsenal for more playing time and he's a quality player. Why not throw him out there and see if he can make an impression? Players will need to rest and while I see the benefit of being able to bring in Arshavin or Yossi Benayoun with their experience, these young players need to get run as well, and not just in Carling Cup matches. Arsenal can't roll out the same starting eleven game after game so why not give a shot to these players with upside rather than the veterans who have already maxed theirs out?

-Every now and then it seems that we get a glimpse of everything Theo Walcott could be and this match against Fulham was one of those times. Walcott was the main outlet for Arsenal on Saturday and he made the most of it. He played well down the wing and even whipped in a well struck cross or two, but he was most dangerous when cutting inside with the ball and threatening goal. He now seems to have developed that shooter's instinct that is so necessary and I continue to wonder why, with all of the experimenting Wenger has done this year, Walcott hasn't been paired with Van Persie up top for the classic "target man, speed man" striker duo? I'm not claiming that it will work for sure, but it's something that is worth trying out. Hopefully Arsene begins to see things my way. As Always, Go Gunners.

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