Olivers review of Saturdays debacle…
Sooner or later this was going to happen. That it happened in such an important fixture, one where a win would have put us top of the table, adds to the pain. But perhaps that is not even so important – folding a 2-0 hand at home against Spurs is,…..well… To paraphrase Andy Van Slyke, “They haven’t invented a word to describe this!” In summarizing last Sunday’s win at Goodison, I commented that a great result such as that will not count for very much if Spurs turn us over in the derby….Lo and behold…
We pretty comprehensively outplayed them in the first half, and probably should have been more than 2-0 up. Past history suggests there was a chance that the “Here we go again…” malaise could have set in with our opponents. No such luck this time – this Spurs squad (as painful as it is for me to acknowledge) – is much tougher, and far better than the feeble sides that we casually rolled during recent years.
They regrouped at the half, got a critical early goal – for me, that was the key moment of the game, as the effect it had on both sides was obvious – and pushed on from there. We had opportunities to score, didn’t take any, and were duly punished. Is it a coincidence that two of our three home losses have come against sides we thrashed away in the League Cup earlier this season? Probably not…
Regardless, Spurs played with more purpose and looked as though they believed they could go on and win. After they equalized from a sickening moment of “brain lock” from our Captain, I felt that they would win, and they would get the go-ahead goal from a set piece…And they did.
They showed the maturity and focus to retrieve a bad situation and go on to win. I am still waiting for Arsenal to show this consistently. As rotten as my day – weekend – has become, this moment is for Spurs and their fans. In my view, they were the better team on the day and won fair and square. As I said at the outset, we generally have had our way with them over the past several years, so sooner or later this result was going to come. Was it preventable? Most likely, yes…But Spurs did not give up after an awful first half, and showed grit and purpose to get the result – they deserve all the credit for that.
I am bracing for the onslaught of complaints about the refereeing job Phil Dowd did. If anyone thinks we lost because of him and not Spurs/ourselves, that is your opinion, but I could not disagree more. I did not think Dowd had a bad game – we can argue whether he made the correct call in a few instances, but show me a referee that gets every single call over ninety-plus minutes right. Is Dowd to blame for Cesc letting us down so badly with that absurd, blatant handball? Is he to blame for Robin allowing Kaboul to out jump him too easily for the winning goal? The free-kicks that led to both incidents can be debated, but our players did not do what was necessary to prevent the goals. If you blame Dowd, you give the real culprits a pass – and I refuse to do that. If we continue to harp on calls and referees, what is going to change?
Cesc got away with something similar at Anfield last season. I remember thinking “How did they not call that?”, and having a chuckle. Rest assured that I am not laughing this time. There is no way I can know what Cesc was thinking at that moment. I am, however, fairly confident he was not concentrating on what he was supposed to be doing – defending the free kick and getting the ball clear. This lack of focus (as well as urgency) is something we see time and time again, particularly when we are leading matches. To me, this is the root cause of so many of our other problems.
We started better and Gomes gifted us the opening goal when he failed to gather/clear a loose ball in his area and Nasri reacted quickest to put us 1-0. We created more chances, but squandered them until Arshavin set Chamakh up to slot through Gomes’ legs. That should have been the cue for more, but it wasn’t, not for a lack of chances. Chamakh had another chance that he dithered on, allowing Spurs to clear.
The second half was far, far different. Six minutes in van der Vaart set Bale up, who finished calmly, bringing Spurs back into it. Initially, we looked more likely to score a third than Spurs were to equalize – but once again, we wasted the opportunities, with Chamakh dithering in the area, and Nasri wasting a free kick. Sure enough, we were punished. Song appeared to win the ball from Modric, but Dowd blew for the free kick and Cesc handled – Chamakh also raised his arm simultaneously! There was no question this was a penalty, and van der Vaart duly sent Fabianski (who I thought could not be blamed for any of the goals) the wrong way.
Arsene brought Robin on for Chamakh, but other than a nice free kick, he did not do much. Koscielny headed over an open goal, we had a goal disallowed with both Cesc and Squillaci offside in the buildup, and Cesc forced Gomes to tip a nice, goalbound shot away.
Arsene then brought Theo and Rosicky on for Nasri (who should not have been subbed in my opinion) and Arshavin (who also had a good game, I thought). On 85 minutes, however, disaster struck, as another free kick was conceded and Kaboul beat Robin too easily to head the winner in. We had almost ten minutes (4 of regulation and 5 of stoppage time) to try and get a goal back, but by this point we did not seem to be playing as a team. In one instance, Robin took four or five touches – with his head down, looking at the ball and not for a teammate – in the penalty area and predictably did not get a shot away. There were a couple of occasions when we moved the ball ahead, and most of the team was still either on halfway line or in our half. There was little urgency, and it seemed only one or two players were trying to attack – reminiscent of the final few minutes versus West Brom, after Nasri had scored his second. Spurs took their time and played keep-ball effectively. When Rosicky shot directly at Gomes (through a crowd of players, it must be said), time was up…
So a third home league defeat of the season. Strange how we can show grit, character and determination to grind out wins away (Blackburn, Everton, Man City), yet show little of these qualities at home. Why? Is it the stadium? I don’t think so – I think it is just complacency and a lack of urgency, traits I have often cited. For a side that allegedly wants success, this Arsenal team is yet to show they can handle prosperity. Early home leads have often been followed by losses of focus and application – see the Bolton match. We were 1-1 at the half despite dominating – that was one of the rare instances where we were able to retrieve the three points. And then when we concede a goal and put ourselves in a tricky situation, we don’t seem to know how to dig ourselves out of it. How long are we going to continue to say this team is young and immature? What they really lack is leadership, focus, and an understanding of what it takes to win over the course of a season, not just individual matches. There is one person – and one person only – who I consider responsible for these flaws.
I suppose progress can be measured in that Arsene did not rant about Dowd over and over. And I suppose his water-bottle throwing strop on the bench shows he cares. But how long will he continue to tolerate the lack of focus, decision-making and casual effort that this side is quickly becoming famous for? How many times do we have to watch this side either start lethargically at home and fall behind to a preventable goal, or switch off after getting a lead? How many times will he continue to indulge and protect players that in my opinion no longer deserve coddling? Sadly, I think he will carry on as he is now, at the continued expense of sustained forward momentum and real progress.
I will leave the agenda-driven “Arsene out” blogs to call for his head; I will only say that the longer he sticks to his “principles”, makes only cosmetic changes, and shields his players from real criticism and accountability, the longer we will remain in this “flatter to deceive” existence we have been in over the past few years. We can debate tactics and formations until we are blue in the face. For me, it does not matter so much how we are set up to play. This side lacks leadership, winning experience, focus and mental strength. When we need to dig deep, we usually find that we have already reached the proverbial bottom. Without these traits, our side will struggle to make any formation work when it really counts. I don’t think we need to change the players, so much as change the culture. As I have said before, we have nobody who has led a side to a notable trophy/championship.
We did have those players, but many of them were moved on at the same time. In fact, as time ticked down towards the inevitable defeat, the TV cameras focused on the legend that is Thierry Henry, in overcoat and scarf – I wonder what he thought of what he saw? He was certainly not the greatest captain in our history – far from it – but he was a key part of a hugely successful side, and certainly knows the effort, mentality and sacrifice required to win championships. As Arsene’s model is to grow the winning side together, previous winning experience is de-emphasized – at a hugely detrimental cost, in my opinion. At the moment, we have “eleven captains”, but nobody who will take charge and drag the team along with him. Until we either win something – and that is why the League and FA Cups MUST be emphasized this season – or bring players in who may not exactly fit the playing style template, but have the experience, character and will to win, this side will struggle to take that final step. As the past couple of seasons have shown, we are great at getting some results and keeping in touch with the top of the table. Yet when we have the opportunity to move to the top, we usually waste it – as we did today. As I said after a loss a few weeks back, “We are what we are.” No better example of that than today.
Being what this Arsenal side is, we will probably respond with a big game at Braga. And that will be welcome, as we certainly to secure qualification for the CL knockout round. But will that be followed by a let-down? How many false dawns have we had during the past few seasons? We’ve had enough that, in my opinion, we should know better than to get euphoric or giddy over a few wins. I am gutted by this loss – as I am sure a great many of us are. I am very, very concerned, however, that many of our players will just shrug it off as another “bad day at the office”. Such is their apparent comfort level that perhaps we should expect this from them.
They say “seeing is believing”; after Saturday, I am struggling to see anything that makes me believe we have the attitude and fortitude to become champions.
Prove me wrong, guys – over to you…