Sunday, 1 April 2012

A timely reminder Arsenal remain a work in progress

QPR 2 Arsenal 1

Arsene Wenger has, refreshingly, been very critical of yesterday’s performance but I have to question why. Leaving aside the fact that I thought we were worthy of a point, this was typical of the kind of display we put in against less talented but more determined teams intent on ‘making life difficult’ for us. In such games we invariably struggle to impose our passing game and are left hoping we don’t give goals away with the kind of mistakes Thomas Vermaelen made yesterday.

His errors – a misjudged attempted interception and a slip to let a cross be made – mean it would be easy to dismiss the defeat as solely his fault. And if Paddy Kenny had not produced a great save to deflect Van Persie’s vicious strike early in the second half it could have been a very different result.

But there is a trend to be seen here. We have visited four of the current bottom five – Wolves, Wigan, QPR, Blackburn and Bolton – and claimed four points, with the Wolves trip still to come. Equally, we have won at Chelsea, Liverpool and Everton, all places where you wouldn’t bank on us getting three points, but also lost at Fulham and Swansea where you probably would.

So what’s the trend? Inconsistency or, less concisely, not knowing what you’re going to get from this team, especially away from home. Football is, for want of a better cliché, a funny old game and individual matches can follow bizarre patterns. But over a string of games a team should be able to produce a stable level of performance. Away from home, this Arsenal team hasn’t been able to do that and you don’t know what you’ll get from one week to the next, regardless of how good the opposition is – a record of seven wins, seven losses and two draws backs that up.

Some of our inconsistency is attributed to a lack of maturity or, really, a lack of game ‘know-how’. Yesterday was a great example of that. Firstly Vermaelen earned a yellow card for a totally over-the-top reaction to a minor grievance with Mackie. It meant he then couldn’t bring down the same player after falling over in the build up to the winning goal without getting a red card. And shortly after Vermaelen’s booking, when the scores were level and the home crowd was starting to find its voice, Alex Song gave away a silly free kick, shoving over Joey Barton as he dribbled towards the by-line. That earned him a yellow card too but more importantly it added to the feeling we were losing control. A minute later QPR scored their second goal.

Small moments but they reflect a wider problem of not having a reliable defensive foundation. It wasn’t working up front yesterday but we couldn’t hold out at the back. I don’t think that can be blamed on inexperience, it’s more about the system we use because this is not a one-season issue. Last year we accrued the most away points in the league, something Wenger regularly highlighted to argue his team had ‘inner strength’. What he conveniently chose to ignore was that the total (31 points) was the lowest best in the 16 seasons of 38-game Premier Leagues.

Formations are a part of the problem but it feels like a lack of defensive cohesion is the real issue, players not knowing what he is responsible for and how that fits in with his team-mates. Having better individuals on the pitch may help and summer defensive-minded signings will be useful. But no matter who takes to the field, the real work needs to be done week-in, week-out on the training ground. Until that happens, third or fourth place – which should still be achieved this year despite this defeat – will remain the limit of our ambitions. The seven-game winning run raised hopes that this team had 'come of age', 'turned a corner' and realised other metaphors to give hope for next season. The attacking positives from those victories need to be combined with solutions to yesterday's defensive negatives  – then we'll really be ready to challenge for titles.

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