There are 3420 regulation minutes in a 38 game season and yet us fans might remember just 15 or 20 of those minutes. Extraordinary people might remember 90 or even 180 minutes of that season – the equivalent of one single game’s worth of memories every year – but if they did there would be a lot of padding because the truth is that football turns on so precious few moments. A single season can be condensed into a simple YouTube video but the other 3400 minutes of the season matter just as much as the 20 that we remember. They are the minutes where your team’s consistency determines the place it will finish in the league table. In short, every minute counts but they count for different reasons. Arsenal hosted Chelsea yesterday and contrary to popular belief, the Gunners controlled the majority of the game but they ended up on the losing end becaause of two very small moments in which the Blues were just slightly more effecient.
I can’t say that Arsenal were poor overall yesterday. The Gunners generated 17 shots against Chelsea and many of those shots were big chances. Giroud’s spin around Cech and shot into the side netting was the most memorable, but that’s only because it was nearly the last kick of the game. Cazorla had four shots, three of which were gilt chances and all of which he blasted well off target. He averaged 10 shots per goal at Malaga and is now sitting on 23 shots and just 1 goal for Arsenal in the League. I have no problem with Cazorla taking shots, in fact I encourage it because Arsenal need a goal-scoring midfielder, but I’d like to see a few more on frame.
At this point in the season, Arsenal’s offensive performances seem largely dependent on how well Cazorla is doing. Cazorla not only took four shots, he also got his teammates four open looks, all of which they wasted. Di Matteo must have read this into Arsenal’s game and attempted to neutralize Cazorla by overloading the midfield. So, it’s a credit to him that 8 of Arsenal’s 17 shots came from his boots despite all XI Chelsea players trying to keep him off the ball.
Arsenal compensated for a clogged center of the pitch by bringing Jenkinson and Gibbs up in turns. Both fullbacks were 1st and 2nd on Arsenal in touches and 2nd and 4th in passes and the most common pass combination was between Chamberlain and Jenkinson. So, it’s no suprise that Arsenal’s only goal of the game came from an Ox cross on the right side of the pitch. I had a few drinks after the game yesterday and tweeted that Jenkinson has earned a starting spot over Sagna. That may have been a bit of premature pronunciation brought about by drink, but the fact is that Jenkinson has done very well in Sagna’s absence and made it hard to drop him.
Mannone on the other hand hasn’t made Wenger’s choice very difficult at all. Mannone hasn’t looked decisive or “commanding” in his area in any of the games he’s played in. And though that may be a bit harsh on the Italian as the second goal was deflected by Koz, the reality is that he was rooted to the spot and how he doesn’t claim that ball is a mystery. Was there miscommunication at the back? Did someone call the keeper off?
So while Arsenal were wasteful in front of goal, there was an even bigger problem in yesterday’s game, the problem that Arsene Wenger pinpointed after the match:
We played against a good team, but we gave the game away. They had three shots on goal and scored from two soft set-pieces. Defensively, we were just not at the level you need to be in a big game like that and that’s where we were punished.
This is, to me, a public indictment of Thomas Vermaelen’s performance yesterday. Many people will say that Per should have been in the game because he’s better at organizing the defense. But Thomas Vermaelen is Arsenal’s first choice center half and the captain of the team. Can’t he organize the defense? Can’t he tell people where they should stand?
It was pretty clear on every set piece that Di Matteo’s plan was to overload Arsenal’s zone at the far post and force them into either man marking or into a zonal defense that didn’t rigidly adhere to lining up on the six yard box. Vermaelen’s job as captain is to organize the defense. Saying that Per should have been there is a red herring: Vermaelen should have taken charge.
And not only that, but Veramalen can go forward all he likes, just so long as he doesn’t jog back like he did for the second goal. Jogging back and then kicking Mata to concede the set piece, then the jumbled and disorganized way the team dealt with the free kick is below standard for an Arsenal captain. Wenger is right to take him to task and hopefully Vermaelen will respond.
It’s a bit harsh, I know. We are only in the 6th game of the season and it takes time to install a new defensive system. A system which has only allowed a second best four goals this season. I’m sure Bould, Vermaelen, and Wenger will be working on all this in practice. Moreover, Chelsea were very lucky with Torres getting away with quite a bit of pushing and holding for the first goal and Mata’s second goal was deflected by Koz.
But I think Wenger’s criticism is fair and especially pointed with Olympiakos and West Ham coming up. Olympiakos are the West Ham of Greek football and will gladly concede 60 minutes of possession to Arsenal just so long as they can get a set piece in a dangerous area and lump it into the box. West Ham, meanwhile, will glady conceded 89 minutes of possession as long as they can get that one minute where the keeper hits the ball onto Andy Carroll’s head, then they can somehow scramble the ball over the line, and then Kevin Nolan can do his chicken dance.
There are 2880 minutes left in the Premier League season, it’s hardly over. Arsenal will need to continue to dominate the majority of those minutes, hoarding the ball and creating chances. But it’s just as important that they are wary of those few moments where the West Hams of the world will try to exploit any perceived or real weakness. That’s what Chelsea did yesterday only slightly more efficiently than Arsenal.