So that’s three games in, five points dropped and we’re yet to register a goal at home this season. It could be worse I suppose, given our defensive ‘display’ in the first half against Liverpool last night, but Arsene Wenger solemnly summed up our faltering start to the season in his post match press conference when he said:
We have started very averagely, I must concede, because we have four points after two home games.
But statistics aside, what’s far more worrying than our déjà vu-inducing, early-season points deficit for me, is the fact we’re simply not playing very well, both individually and hence, collectively. As a team, we look a little weary which is ridiculous really, considering the campaign’s as young as it is.
We should be fresh and focused and firing on all cylinders after a perfect pre-season and the capture of Petr Cech, but instead, we seem completely devoid of any spark. Our passing, bar a spell at Selhurst Park, has been woeful by our standards so far this campaign.
And Alexis Sanchez just isn’t fit. I think it’s safe to suggest Arsene will privately be regretting his decision to reintroduce the Chilean back into the fold so soon after his delayed summer break following the Copa America.
The fact that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, arguably our best performer in the opening day defeat to West Ham, enjoyed such a stellar pre-season, culminating in him scoring a stunning winner in the Community Shield against Chelsea, has been dropped to make way for an off-the-pace Sanchez, makes the boss’ selections look even more misguided.
Anyway, for all our issues going forward, the clear worry when the teams were announced yesterday was the centre of our defence, where both Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker were absent through injury and illness respectively.
That meant a first competitive combination of Calum Chambers and Gabriel at the heart of our defence and the former endured an absolute nightmare first 45, repeatedly giving the ball away and being caught out of position time and again. One close up shot of the ex-Southampton man’s face by the Sky cameras perfectly captured his dismay as he struggled to put a foot right.
At half-time, I wondered if leaving Chambers on would do more harm to his confidence than taking him off and tweeted that perhaps we should consider replacing him with Mathieu Debuchy, or move Nacho Monreal to the middle and bring on Gibbs at left back, because both of those players played centrally with success at stages last season. And afterwards Arsene revealed he’d considered a change at the break, but was pleased with the Englishman’s improved display in the second half:
He responded well. It was important for him. You sit there and you wonder how far he can go without losing competitive confidence. In the second half he did well. He’s a good footballer and he will come out of that stronger, with the belief that when he had difficult moments he can come out of it stronger.
Yet despite Liverpool being on top for most of the first half, we did manage to score a perfectly legitimate goal through Aaron Ramsey, only to see it ruled out by a flag for offside. Sanchez also placed a header over the bar when he seemed certain to score in the opening period, which admittedly, had begun with Philippe Coutinho rattling the woodwork for the visitors.
The second half was a very different affair, as we dominated the ball and Liverpool sat back to contain and counter. But for all our possession, we struggled to find the net despite creating chances. Most notably, Oxlade-Chamberlain produced a great cross from the right towards a well-positioned Theo Walcott in the middle, only to see Martin Skrtel stretch out a leg and divert the ball narrowly wide of his own net.
And I emphasise ‘well positioned’, because although Theo doesn’t offer anything in the way of hold-up play, he does have intelligent movement in the box, something the man he replaced last night, Olivier Giroud, sorely lacks the vast majority of the time. The Frenchman has many good attributes to his game and I’m a fan but generally speaking, he’s a step or two behind his team-mates in his thinking, and that means more often than not, he’s in the wrong place at the right time to capitalize on service.
That said, I’d have kept him on through the middle and replaced Sanchez with Walcott and brought on the Ox for Cazorla, who despite playing the pass of the game for Ramsey’s disallowed goal, struggled to find his form. In contrast, I thought Ramsey worked well in both directions from our right flank and could have moved in alongside Coquelin.
And it was telling I felt, that their left-back Joe Gomez had such a good night down that side because Ramsey rarely stayed out wide when attacking. The Ox would have kept Gomez far more occupied and neutered the fullback’s attacking forays.
But I suppose that’s hindsight for you and we now need to focus on what’s in front of us, which is St James’ Park and Newcastle at lunchtime on Saturday. Who we pick to start in the front six will be interesting as always, because I think we may just need a freshening up from last night’s lineup.
Yet I don’t think we as fans, or more importantly Arsene as manager, truly know what our first choice selection looks like, because we have various players who can play multiple roles in our formation. It’s all a bit confused but the manager will have to work out the right mix to get us going, and quick, or we’ll find ourselves out of this title race sooner than we were the last.