Arsenal today completed a week to forget by losing 3-2 against a Manchester United side largely made up of reserves and academy players in what was for me, the most disappointing result of the season so far.
Our title hopes suffered a massive setback, when instead they were widely expected to be raised, and both our players and manager will now rightly come under increased scrutiny as we enter the final straight of a season of which so much was expected, but is increasingly looking like concluding with all-too-familiar failings.
Yes we’ve lost to Sheffield Wednesday this term, been routed by Bayern Munich and Southampton, had the double done over us by a half-arsed Chelsea, lost at home to West Ham, thrown leads away late on in games, but today’s defeat is by far the hardest to swallow for me, for a few reasons.
First and foremost, a quick glance at the United team-sheet prior to kickoff will have had even the most in-the-know anoraks Googling their match-day squad. They were missing their first-choice right-back, left-back, centre-half, striker and captain, and most expensive-ever buy, not to mention a host of other household names.
They were fielding an inexperienced 22-year-old right-back, an 18 year-old striker making his Premier League debut and just his second-ever start in professional football, a veteran midfielder – the Per-paced Michael Carrick – out of position at centre-half, and two wingers who probably wouldn’t start with everyone available.
We on the other hand, were missing just Santi Cazorla from being able to put out what would be a first-choice eleven. And yet we still went two nil down in the first half, produced a pitiful collective performance for a team with title-winning pretensions, and eventually lost 3-2 with oles ringing around Old Trafford as the hosts comfortably saw out what for them was a rare home win this season.
Opinion drives football debate and here’s mine – we’re not functioning as a team and we have a couple of options. We either approach every game between now and the end of the season as we did against Barcelona, that’s to say sit back, cede possession, defend in numbers and play as directly as we can on the counter, whether we’re playing Swansea at home, Hull away in the Cup, or Barcelona at the Nou Camp, or, we find somebody who can distribute the ball from the middle of the park to give our team it’s tempo back. We lack cohesion – that buzzword from early season – and in my mind it’s because one vital cog is missing in front of our defence, adversely affecting our whole style of play.
The only player who has shown signs that he has the speed of thought, weight of pass and all-round ability to cover the absence of Santi Cazorla and, to a lesser extent, Jack Wilshere, is Mohamed Elneny. But what we can’t do, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, is persist with Aaron Ramsey in there. Play him on the right. Or drop him to the bench. It’s not that important a role in our set-up, relatively speaking.
But the primary distributor from the middle of the park is crucial. He needs vision and to be able to pass but Ramsey, for all his strengths, such as stamina, and a knack for popping up with goals, is not that man, even if his stats suggest the Welshman’s better than Pirlo, Alonso and Cesc combined. You could have Neymar, Messi, Suarez or Superman himself up front, if you replace Busquets or Rakitic or Iniesta with Ramsey, it’d disrupt even Barcelona’s rhythm big-style. He’s laborious, clumsy and erratic bless him, and those traits have no place at the heart of our team, or at the heart of any team trying to build from the back.
The lack of control and reliability in midfield effects the shape of the side, players roam from their positions with greater frequency in search of the ball to make things happen spontaneously, fluency is lost altogether, and even our defending is afflicted by the chaos ahead of it.
You may read this and think, ‘boll*cks’, and that’s fine. You might point to games lost with Cazorla playing in the middle and that’s a fair point, but since the Cazorla-Coquelin partnership emerged just over a year ago, we’ve been winning consistently when it’s been used, controlling games and showing title-winning form far more often than not. In my mind, that partnership has been the bed-rock on which we built our brilliant form over the calendar year of 2015 and though there were the odd hiccups, we nearly always looked like a well-functioning side.
These last few months, when we’ve been deprived of that midfield platform, we’ve flattered to deceive when winning, or just gone to pieces like we did this afternoon, against what on paper, was the weakest United team in decades.
I realise I haven’t touched on other talking points from today’s game; like Gabriel’s defending, Walcott’s whereabouts, Sanchez’s struggles, Arsene’s choices, the impact of sunlight, the fearlessness of youth, Louis van Gaal’s, admittedly brilliant, touchline amateur dramatics on a day the Oscars are handed out, but I wanted instead to talk about what I feel is the main issue behind our poor form at the moment.
Ramsey’s had a rough ride from me this week so I’ll reiterate that I do like him as a player and don’t mean to sound overly critical. He can be an effective footballer, but he’s poorly positioned at the moment and like a lot of our squad, horribly out of form. I’d like to see him back playing from the right, where his energy is an asset rather than a liability, he can drift without the unsuitable task of running the game for us, and can time runs into the box and get on the end of things.