There was a moment in the match against Watford where I started thinking that the formation of Elneny and Coquelin in the middle of the field, with Joel Campbell wide right, was the way forward for Arsenal. Even though Özil was dropping deep to collect the ball and Alexis was basically snuffed out on the left by Nyom the team were creating some gilt-edged chances and playing great football.
Özil’s long passes from deep, a skill he rarely gets to show off for Arsenal because he typically plays high up the pitch, were awe inspiring. Watching the flight of a 40 yard pass that lands with pinpoint accuracy is one of the things I love about football. Another is Joel Campbell’s defense-splitting passes where he goes left and drags the ball back between two defenders. Those moments of brilliance and vision, like the one which set Giroud free in the box, are why I watch the game.
Of course, Giroud was called offside, Campbell missed his big chance, Elneny missed his big chance, and Arsenal went into the half having dominated the game but with nothing to show for it.
So, there I was thinking “this is a good performance so far, I like this formation, Joel Campbell has made huge strides in his game this season” and then it happened. It happened before I could even tweet my thoughts.
Every time this season, at the moment I think that we are clicking as a team, at that moment when I get the warm and fuzzy feeling in my stomach for Arsenal, they go and do something crazy and stupid.
A lot of times it’s because Arsenal are attacking too much, they get hit with a swift counter. This time, they weren’t even attacking. They were defending a throw in.
Troy Deeney was the target. Neither Per nor Chambers wins the header. It was basically a free header. I don’t know what Chambers is doing. I don’t know what Per is doing. I can’t tell who is organizing the defense. But Chambers steps in front of Per, doesn’t even really challenge Deeney for the header and he gets a perfect little flick on to Ighalo who simply turns Gabriel in the six yard box.
At that moment I knew Arsenal weren’t going to win this game. As I had said in my preview, Watford thrive off errors. Give them one chance and they will bury us. And that’s what happened.
Actually, Arsenal gave them multiple errors and Watford probably should have scored three goals. But they only scored two. The second goal was just as poor defending as the first. Deeney wins the ball in the box and then holds the ball up as both Gibbs and Coquelin follow Ighalo into the box and abandon the left back position. It was a carbon copy of the open goal scored against us last week: players abandoning spaces and the opposition saying “oh cool!” as they charge in to smash home an open shot.
I went back and looked at Arsenal’s record when Gibbs starts this season and it is atrocious. Even with the inflated results in the FA Cup, Arsenal score just 1.67 goals per game and concede an abyssal 1.42. Arsenal’s record when Gibbs starts is 5-2-5. Similar story with Gabriel. Again, this is all competitions and just this season, but when Gabriel starts Arsenal score a pathetic 1.5 goals per contest, concede 1.25, and have a 9-2-8 record. In case you’re unaware of normal match notation, it goes W-D-L.
Arsenal were shocked to the core. They gave up after that second goal and even the introduction of Welbeck, Walcott, and Iwobi didn’t produce any results. That is, until Arsenal finally decided to play a little football in the 80th minute.
Welbeck scored, his third goal of the season, off a beauty of a pass from Özil. And Arsenal had the best chance of the game, fall to Welbeck right outside the penalty box, who swiveled, fired, and put his shot into the Fernando Torres hall of shame.
The game was over. Even Iwobi, who I am impressed with more and more every time I see him play, couldn’t rescue Arsenal. And to be rescued meant having to play a replay I might add.
Anger is borne out of frustration. Frustration that our expectations are not being met. The question then is whether the expectations are reasonable. It’s reasonable to expect your child to help with dishes and her homework. Basic things like that. Unreasonable expectations would be for Leicester City to barely avoid relegation one season and win the League the next.
So, what are our expectations for this Arsenal team? For me they keep getting lower and lower. At the start of the season, I thought we could win the League. In the Champions League, I thought we could finish second (we did!). As the season progressed, I thought they could just pull through the injury torn part of the season. And yesterday, I expected them to play the whole game like they did the last 15 minutes, get a win, and advance in the only competition they had any chance of winning.
And now? My expectation is fourth place. But you know what? I don’t think we are going to get it.
Our finishing is now not an anomaly. People keep waiting for it to regress to the mean. I think we have found the mean. And Arsenal’s defending early in the season was tops in the League. That has collapsed into a steaming pile of Tottenham.
Arsenal are in fourth place* but our current form is so bad that we actually have to turn things around in order to stay there. Arsenal have to start winning games and I can’t see any way that’s going to happen.
In fact, I’m expecting a righteous paddling in Barcelona mid-week followed by another in Liverpool when they take on Everton this weekend.
*They are, in fact, in third place. However, the collapse feels like they are in fourth.