Sunday 6 May 2012

Letting it slip

Arsenal 3 Norwich City 3

In a way there’s no point reviewing this match until after Spurs and Newcastle play today. If they don’t win today, the point gained yesterday by Arsenal could look completely different.

But we shouldn’t be relying on the mishaps of others to gain a place in the Champions League by default and in isolation this performance was dreadful. Given the chance to win three points against a promoted team which has over-achieved and had nothing to play for, Arsenal gave them the freedom of the pitch for an hour and paid the price. The team showed guts to reverse the scoreline and take the lead, but even though there was less than 10 minutes remaining it didn’t have the defensive wherewithal to see the game out.

Let me single out Aaron Ramsey in assessing the game, not because I want to pick on him (he was one of several who struggled yesterday including Szczesny, Song and Rosicky in particular) but because he typified the team’s flaws.

Firstly, Ramsey’s reaction to the threat posed by Norwich reflected a desire to always put attack over defence regardless of the circumstances. Look back at Norwich’s second goal, the breakaway, and watch him put in a cursory jog towards his own goal. Then see Simeon Jackson through on goal early in the second half and watch Ramsey simply gave up the chase. Perhaps Ramsey wouldn’t have caught up with the attacker even if he’d really tried but he needs to really try in the first place.

Secondly, Ramsey, at a key position at the heart of midfield, was unable to adapt to Norwich exploiting gaps in the Arsenal team. There is one game plan and if someone finds a way of disrupting it Arsenal do not possess the brains, individually or collectively, of finding a solution. Hence Ramsey is far further forward than he should have been at the start of Norwich’s counter-attack that led to them taking the lead even though Norwich had been ripping us apart for the past 25 minutes. And that’s why you also get Sagna and Gervinho (who, incidentally, I thought had one of his better days) stood within yards of each other in the opposition penalty area at the start of the same move.

It reflects the Wengerian approach to making football the beautiful game by always trying to out-attack the opposition. Amazing when it works, a mess dictated by Russian-roulette fortune when it doesn’t.

Ramsey is taught day-in, day-out to think and act like he does. Passes going astray and missed tackles are errors on his part and down to form but being in the wrong place at the wrong time and reacting to danger in such a cursory manner are the result of years of training under a manager who wants the game played in this way. Ramsey knows no different.

It means Arsenal rely on players to bring the tactics to the team and Arteta’s absence yesterday and over recent weeks has highlighted it. Without the Spaniard’s tactical intelligence, we have looked much less assured and it is slowly costing us a place among Europe’s elite competition.

If I was Robin Van Persie, games like yesterday’s would make me think I need to move. Over the course of a season, or several seasons, that lack of defensive conditioning ultimately leads to frustration more often than glory for players and supporters. Forget the relative lack of resources the manager has compared to his rivals, on a basic tactical level his team has some basic tactical flaws ingrained within its psyche.

Even if both Spurs and Newcastle lose today, let alone get a draw, we still need to travel to West Brom on the final day of the season and, in all likelihood, win.

If we play like we have since returning from our last trip to the Black Country, when we beat Wolves easily, it won’t happen. Even if we turn our form around and get three points, it still may not be enough. For all the credit the team deserves for showing great character to overcome an awful start and turn-of-the-year blip to take charge of the race for the Champions League slot, not earning a place in the top four now would represent a real failure.

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