Evening all. We all foresaw Arsene Wenger rotating his squad for last night’s game against Dinamo Zagreb, what with Hector Bellerin and Aaron Ramsey being left in London, but few would have envisaged us losing our opening group stage game in this season’s Champions League.
Yet that’s exactly what transpired after a wretched first-half display saw us concede a goal, have a man sent off and play with all the coherence of a concussed piss-head. Before the game yesterday, I wrote the following:
… when you make changes to a winning team, as we will tonight, there is always an increased possibility of the side not functioning at it’s best, so the players who come in, will need to be at their best to ensure we don’t look disjointed and play like a pack of complete strangers. It’s happened before, although with the overall quality of our squad vastly improved from seasons past, it’s less of a worry these days. For instance, Hector Bellerin has not made the trip and we can call upon an experienced French international like Mathieu Debuchy to cover for him.
So I was half right. We were a side far from functioning at its best and did look disjointed, going forward at least, particularly in the first half. But I was wrong in suggesting this squad has the requisite depth to deal with rotation, because in one key position, an area of the pitch a lot of people have highlighted for a while as needing bolstering, and I have repeatedly moaned about myself all summer – defensive midfield – was, I felt, a major problem last night.
In short, Mikel Arteta, brought in to deputise for the rested Francis Coquelin, showed he isn’t capable of being an adequate back-up for the Frenchman and frankly, this scares me sh*tless, with a long season ahead and a good few months until the earliest opportunity to address the problem arises.
Many observers have pointed out that most of our starting eleven struggled to find form last night but I’m not sure I agree with that analysis. I think we missed Coquelin’s energy against pacy opponents who broke efficiently in attack and although I personally lay the blame for their opening goal at the feet of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (not so much for deflecting the ball into his own net, but for not tracking their player’s run properly in the first instance, with Mathieu Debuchy shifted infield), I thought Arteta’s attempts to defend the area in front of our defence were pitiful.
He was sluggish in his movement, and clumsy in the challenge and sometimes it takes just one player to not play his role well enough to severely impact the whole team as a unit. I think that was the case last night. When Coquelin was eventually introduced in place of the Spaniard in a triple substitution around the hour mark, we began looking like a team for the first time in the match.
Kieran Gibbs and Debuchy have taken a lot of flak, along with the rest of the team but alongside Arteta, I felt the Ox and Olivier Giroud were the biggest culprits in our defeat. Giroud for his petulant posturing with the referee which led to an early red card for two bookings, and the Ox for playing just as poorly as he did at Newcastle.
Even if you can understand, if not accept, Giroud’s lack of focus right now because of his booing on international duty with France and his struggles in front of goal, the Ox’s lacklustre performances of late leave me wondering what the hell happened to the player who produced such scintillating showings in pre-season and scored a stunner to win us the Community Shield at the start of last month.
At St James’ Park and again last night, he looked as though he couldn’t be arsed. Either he’s struggling with some kind of nagging injury or he’s got off-field issues affecting his focus because otherwise, somebody needs to show him a few clips of what he’s capable of producing on a pitch as he’s clearly forgotten how to play football.
If I look for positives from the game, Theo Walcott’s finish, Gabriel’s continuing growth into a gritty, accomplished central defender and the team’s second-half display with ten men would be the picks. Yet with a double header against Bayern Munich as well as a trip to Greece still to come in this group, we’ve made a dreadful start to the competition.
That said, if we can get back to winning ways at Stamford Bridge on Saturday with those rested returning to reinvigorate our side to success, perhaps we’ll all feel the rotation was worth the opening-night Champions League heartache in the end.