This game was not a “perfect storm”. Storms blow in acutely whereas what’s happened at Arsenal has been settling slowly like a dense fog. So instead of being caught by surprise with what happened yesterday against Sunderland, you could see it coming. Some would say it’s been a fog that’s been settling for seven years.
Of course the pitch at the Stadium of Blight was a shambles. If you reach back into the days when this fog was just starting to build, you might remember a match against Sheffield United. December 2006, Arsenal traveled to Bramall Lane to face Neil Warnock’s Blades on a pitch that was so utterly destroyed it looked like the surface of the moon. Since that game, I can think of several teams who have left their pitches in disrepair when Arsenal come to town. So it should be no surprise that Milan laid fresh sod on Monday before a Wednesday match against Arsenal and that Sunderland’s pitch actually looked worse than it had the week prior — both games against Arsenal.
That the Sunderland pitch injured four Arsenal players in a week (Mertesacker, Coquelin, Ramsey, and Squillaci) is highly unusual but the fact that Arsenal are struggling with injury is not. Arsenal have a history of players who not only pick up long-term injuries but unusual long-term injuries. Yes, Arsenal have had some horrible bad luck with players having their legs broken by the opposition. Diaby, Eduardo, Ramsey, Gibbs, and van Persie have all been victims of bad tackles that required surgery to repair. But there is also the mystery ailments of Rosicky, Vermaelen, and Walcott. Rosicky had some kind of groin injury that kept him out for almost two years. Vermaelen had some kind of congenital tendon problem in his Achilles that kept him out for a year. And Walcott had surgery on his shoulders to repair another congenital problem.
That was by no means an exhaustive list of the long-term injuries (Dourou, Frimpong, etc) that Arsenal have carried over the last several years. And now Arsenal have had Jack Wilshere out for an entire season. Any team can carry long-term injuries to one or two big players, but no team can expect to challenge for a title when they’ve had ten big name players out for a combined ten seasons.
Arsenal though are insanely loyal to these players. After returning from Dan Smith’s horrible tackle, Diaby got a contract extension in 2009/2010 when he played 29 League games for Arsenal. He has since played 17 League games. In two years. While making £60,000 a week.
We are told that these injured players will return “like a new signing” for us but I’m not so sure. When Rosicky signed for Arsenal, he immediately scored two goals in the World Cup against the USA and I remember thinking that it was another master stroke by Wenger to sign him up. Since his surgery, though, he’s not been anywhere near what he was before. His goals have dried up to the point where he had a shot yesterday against Sunderland, which curled out for a throw in.
Walcott is the same: he used to be this player who was a cool finisher in one-on-ones and now he’s a mess. Vermaelen’s looked better at left back than as center half since his surgery. Eduardo was kicked out of the Premier League. Ramsey is a shell of the player we saw before he was Shawcrossed. On and on… these players don’t return “like a new signing” they return to Arsenal “like a busted up old signing.”
Just like the fact that teams leave their pitch in disrepair, Arsenal’s injury record and the manner in which those injured players never seem to regain their form should not be news to anyone. Does it really surprise anyone that Arsenal lost five players to injury this week?
It should also be no surprise that Sunderland didn’t really want the ball yesterday. Teams have been content to concede possession to Arsenal for the last seven years as well. At the beginning of this building fog teams had little choice but to sit back and watch Arsenal play, staying compact and trying not to let Arsenal overwhelm them with slick passing. But lately the games have a rope-a-dope feeling to them. I remember Manchester United winning 3-1 back in January of 2010. They seemed to beg Arsenal to have a go at them knowing that we tend to be toothless up front and who could blame them? Arsenal’s starting center forward that night was Andrei Arshavin, flanked by Rosicky, and Like A New Signing, Nasri.
Arsenal did manage to finish the game against Sunderland yesterday with a whopping 10 shots. However, Arsenal spent the first 80 minutes of that game with just four shots and just one shot on goal. It’s extremely worrying to me that one-nil down wasn’t enough to get Arsenal thinking that they should play more direct. That it took Arsenal to go down two-nil before they started taking shots at the Sunderland goal is worrying because if we are going to be a team that plays a high line and that is ostensibly an attacking team, then maybe we should play attacking football. It’s emblematic of the team that the last pass of the game yesterday was Bacary Sagna playing a back pass to Fabianski from midfield.
And of course Sunderland were physical with Arsenal yesterday. In the history of sports, teams who play technical are always confronted by teams who play physical. Better teams than Sunderland have done this to Arsenal in the past. Arsenal’s 49 game unbeaten run was ended by a Manchester United team who deliberately targeted Jose Antonio Reyes, kicked, and dived their way to a 2-0 win. That day it was referee Mike Riley who refused to send Rio Ferdinand off for what was a clear a red card tackle on Ljungberg. Once Man U knew that Riley wasn’t going to do anything about it, the kicking from there on out was ruthless. And against Sunderland yesterday it was referee Howard Webb who refused an obvious penalty and swallowed his whistle when Sunderland kicked, only to show cards when Arsenal retaliated in that tame way that Arsenal retaliate these days.
It shouldn’t be any surprise for me to tell you that Webb has always been a referee who is sympathetic to physical teams. You saw it in the Champions League final between Bayern and Inter. You saw it in the World Cup final where he gave Nigel de Jong a yellow card for a kung-fu kick — which he later admitted should have been a red card. Here, Webb watched on as Rio Ferdinand kicked Bacary Sagna in the chest. This wasn’t even called a foul.
And let’s not forget that Webb was the referee for Arsenal’s League Cup final against Chelsea back in 2007. A match where he allowed Chelsea to kick Arsenal all over the pitch and when Kolo Toure had finally had enough and stood up to John Obi Mikel for a stamp, Webb started showing red cards – two to Arsenal, one to Chelsea. He even sent off Adebayor for some face-touching that was later attributed to Eboue.
Webb’s anti-Arsenal bias is well known and has been exposed at several sites. It should not surprise anyone, then, that Webb denied two penalties to Arsenal against Sunderland yesterday. It should not surprise anyone, then, that Webb allowed Clattermole to kick Arsenal all night but whenever Craig Gardner dived it was an automatic yellow card to an Arsenal player.
What is a surprise to me, however, is the insane way that Arsenal keep doing the same thing over and over again — with ever more diminishing returns. I have not provided you with an exhaustive list of Arsenal’s faults* because I’m sure you already know them all.
Rather, that is my point. You know them, I know them, the world knows them and they all exploit them. If you face a team who intentionally mess up their pitch, you need to have a plan to deal with that — Chamakh was brought to Arsenal precisely to provide an aerial threat and yet he doesn’t even play. With Wenger preferring to play Theo Walcott through the middle, against a team which congested the middle of the pitch, and on a pitch which wasn’t conducive to Arsenal’s passing game.
And if teams are going to be physical and referees are going to allow teams to be physical then moaning at the referee won’t do a lick of good. You have to have a plan to beat those teams despite the referee.
And if you know that your team is full of players who have a history of long-term injury and who tend to return from those injuries less capable than they were before, you might want to address that issue as well. And by “address that issue” I don’t mean a charm offensive by the medical team where they invite bloggers to inspect their shiny new facility. I mean dealing with the medical team who allowed Coquelin to play despite having pulled his hamstring last week. I mean selling players and bringing in players who are less injury prone. I mean dealing with this situation.
In the end, that match against Sheffield United still haunts me. The pitch was terrible that night, Sheffield United were physical, Arsenal were caught on a counter attack, and up front, Arsenal lacked any teeth to their attack. It was a game which saw Phil Jagielka moved from midfield to goal keeper. Arsenal are down 1-0, Sheffield United have a midfielder in goal, and yet Arsenal could only manage to force Jagielka into one save.
At the time, I made excuses for Arsenal. The pitch, the ref, the tackles, the injuries, the congested schedule, the bad luck…
But at this point losing 2-0 to Sunderland after a deflected goal and an own goal, is not looking like luck. It’s not a sudden or shocking change. It’s not the convergence of three storms to make some perfect storm. It’s just the same fog that’s been settling in North London for years.
*The fact that Arsenal have a tendency to concede goals on the opposition’s first shot on goal has gotten to the point where it would be funny if it weren’t so painful. Arsenal conceded 6 goals on 6 shots on goal in the last two games.