After yesterdays humiliating “defeat” to Wigan, I noticed that the Arsenalsphere has established the following dominant narratives: the penalty was a good call, the defense collapsed, Arsenal didn’t try hard enough, and Wenger is to blame for selecting a “weakened” team. Most of these positions were supported by Arsene Wenger’s post-match interview on the dot com but in my typically unconventional way, I disagree with some, only agree partially with others, and have some other thoughts that I haven’t heard expressed yet.
To the first, if Charles N’Zogbia had been an Arsenal player and dived to win that penalty at Celtic, the press would be breaking out the champagne and torches right about now. I don’t know what Arsene saw to make him think it was a good penalty (which is what he said) but I’ve seen it over and over and I can’t see any contact at all. In fact, it looks like a worse dive than Wayne Rooney’s spectacular collapse that ended Arsenal’s 49 game unbeaten run. Watch N’Zogbia again and try, just try to tell me that’s not a stonewall dive:
Wenger seemed reluctant to criticize Probert at all after the match and this could be down to the fact that Probert has been a relatively good referee for Arsenal. His most memorable match before yesterday was the Carling Cup match against Tottenham where he awarded two penalties to Arsenal. So, perhaps Arsene felt like cutting him a break but for me he had a nightmare game yesterday and should be called on it.
The handball that Probert refused to call was also a cavalcade of errors. The wall was possibly five yards away, maybe four and a half, the player who handled the ball had a run toward Nasri before he kicked the ball, then he jumped in the air and for my money, intentionally handled the ball:
It was such a blatant handball that Cesc even felt compelled to complain via his twitter.
In the end I don’t know why Arsene gave a pass to Probert, he was a disappointment all night, allowing Wigan to kick Arsenal off the pitch for 74 minutes before Gary Caldwell finally got a yellow card. Not only that, but it looks to me like the linesman made all the tough calls. Go back and watch again. For the penalty, you see the linesman is the one who calls for a foul. Then it’s the linesman who saw N’Zogbia’s headbutt on Wilshere and it was only after a conference that Probert sent him off. From the first minute, where Hugo Rodellega punched Koscielny in the face, to the last minute, where Probert called full time with the ball still in the air, Lee Probert had a nightmare game.
In fact, he had such a bad game that I actually applaud the Arsenal players for their resilience last night. They played through diving, a penalty, Hendry Thomas and Charles N’Zogbia going through the back of the midfielders on every play, and played on a pitch that looked like a rugby match had been held on it the night before, and still managed to score two goals and take the lead. They deserve praise for that because, with one exception, I thought everyone worked their asses off for the cause.
And what about that pitch? No one is complaining about the pitch but something fishy is going on when the Wigan Warriors (the rugby team that shares the stadium) doesn’t have even a pre-season match until February, Wigan Athletic last played on that pitch December 4th, and yet somehow there are chunks of sod lying about like a cow pasture.
If anything, though, the pitch hurt Wigan more than Arsenal in terms of passing. Their players were clearly struggling for touch while Arsenal managed 650 attempted passes, their second highest rate of the season. Maybe Arsene didn’t complain about the pitch because it didn’t really matter.
It was the type of game that we’ve come to expect the full Wenger blast at the referees, the pitch, or the rotational fouling but instead Arsene chose to single out his own defense. A sentiment that a lot of us share.
I think the reason for this is that there were some glaring problems in defense. I’ve read a lot of people complaining about Eboue’s performance at left back and interestingly, the complaints are very similar to the ones leveled at Clichy. But the problem in defense was not in Eboue but in Arshavin, which is now beyond a pattern and has become a routine.
I don’t care that he’s leading the League in assists, that he scored a goal of the highest quality yesterday, or that he creates more chances than any other Arsenal player. I also don’t care if he feels like he’s being played out of position because I don’t know of any positions on the pitch who have zero defensive responsibilities. And further, I don’t give two fucks what his salary is or how much he cost us in transfer fees. I am sick to death of watching his abject defensive displays and I wouldn’t be at all sad to see him sold in January.
The worst part, though, is that I’ve seen him play defense, he even played a little defense yesterday. That means he can play defense and is choosing not to. That leads me to the conclusion that he just doesn’t care and that is unacceptable.
But it wasn’t Arshavin that Arsene singled out for criticism yesterday, I think his observation that the defense doesn’t talk and lacks organization on the pitch is a criticism of Squillaci. I also wouldn’t be surprised if he’s not criticizing himself there as well. Wenger takes full responsibility for team performances and as such that statement is as much a condemnation of Squillaci as Arsenal’s most experienced defender and of himself as coach and failing to instill that leadership at the back. I wouldn’t be surprised if Arsene ditches the zonal marking on set pieces that has pretty much proven to be an utter disaster.
Which leads me to the complaints about Wenger rotating. First off, Fabregas was suspended so he couldn’t be selected. Rosicky always comes in for Fabregas in this current system and besides which, Thomas Rosicky is one of Arsenal’s most experienced players so there shouldn’t be any controversy there. Second, Arsenal have a lot of players who are returning from long term injury most of which had played just 48 hours prior. It would hardly be prudent to risk Robin van Persie and Johan Djourou picking up a calf strain, as you saw with Diaby, so Bendtner and Squillaci are obvious choices there. It’s not like Squillaci is a some Carling Cup player either, he’s a 30 year old international player with Champions League experience. Third, Eboue at left back has to be because Gibbs is still not recovered and besides which, I blame Arshavin for Eboue’s poor performance. I bet if Gibbs had been available Arsene would have rotated Sagna out and put Eboue at right back anyway.
The one place where I think most of us agree is that Denilson cannot play the holding midfield role and that Arsene is making a big mistake not bringing someone in there. Denilson’s not a holding midfielder; he’s more of that Xavi type player who keeps the game ticking over. That’s why many of us have called for Wenger to buy an experienced holding midfielder like Mahmadou Diarra who would have fit in perfectly just for this type of game. Because while playing Song three times in six days is suicidal it seems even dumber that somehow we’re relying on Denilson to play his backup role. In fact, playing Diarra there would free Denilson to do his tiki-taka thing and you would be getting the best out of both players.
Perhaps Diaby was supposed to providing power in midfield yesterday, he certainly has the height, tackling, and aerial ability that Denilson lacks. But we’ll never know because he left after 27 minutes with a calf strain. When Wilshere came on for him, Arsenal suddenly lost a lot of height in midfield and you have to wonder what role that played in conceding from the set play. After all, it was Song who cleared away a ton of Chelsea’s set pieces and surely Diaby would have been at least another tall body in there.
So I completely disagree with the idea that Wenger got something wrong with his rotation because I don’t think he had much choice. But where you can point fingers is in the fact that’s a bed that he’s made for himself because he’s gotten something wrong with team balance. That might seem like a fine distinction to some, but it’s a difference that matters.
So, of the game yesterday I think that Lee Probert’s nightmare refereeing basically robbed Arsenal of three points. Once Wigan had the lead off a terrible decision, it took all of Arsenal’s energy to claw back into the game because Wigan were able to sit back and kick Arsenal off the pitch for 50 minutes. This fight back, plus the terrible condition of the pitch, caused players to get fatigued at the end of the game and Wigan were able to exploit that on a set play. At the death, Probert had an opportunity to rectify his earlier error and yet chose not to.
I’m not a Wenger apologist, I don’t think he’s infallible as I’ve shown with my criticism of his team balance and defensive assignments above. But I’m also not going to sit here and bash this team just because I feel badly about yesterday’s “loss.” Wenger’s rotation was correct, the team (with the exception of Arshavin) played their asses off, and Arsenal dropped a bit at the end which is to be expected when you have to come from behind and are playing 12 v. 11 for 75 minutes. But for Lee Probert’s terrible refereeing, Arsenal would surely have gotten all three points.
But we didn’t and it’s not the end of the world. I have, in fact, gone outside to check and the sky is not falling. After we beat Chelsea I felt elated like the rest of you but I didn’t think we were the best team in the world — I showed that in yesterday’s article. The same problems on defense were still there and will be there for a while, I suspect. I also think this team has a lot of heart and leaves everything on the field. They have to know they are close to achieving something and won’t want to throw that away now.
But in the end, an away draw is nothing to get hysterical about. Yes, we conceded at the last minute and that’s frustrating, but we’ve also earned four points between Chelsea and Wigan in a 48 hour span ahead of a match that is just 48 hours away as well. And that’s a deal I think any of us would have taken.