Yet another frustrating result for those of us who bleed red and white. And yet another bitter reminder that there are no easy games in the Premier League regardless of ladder position. So what went wrong? Why do we continue to struggle against teams in the relegation zone after the top teams have pounded them flat just a week ago? The key answer is in our squad depth, or rather the lack of. While the likes of Manchester City and United can afford to bench their superstars in favour of other excellent talents being paid an obscene amount of money to sit on a bench each week, Arsenal’s bench is brimming with considerably less talent, which was highlighted very late in the game when Giroud who’d picked up an injury, was substituted for the defensive-minded Coquelin. Now whether Giroud was fading or Wenger wanted to ensure we didn’t concede a late goal and simply accept the draw result, only he knows. A tough fixture against Everton just 3 days after this one prompted Wenger to rest several key players, most notably Wilshere who is still recovering from his long term injury and shouldn’t be overplayed. But the problem didn’t stem from this, it stemmed from the injury to Walcott and the decision to play Jenkinson and not Sagna at Right Back. It must be noted that Wenger’s hand was forced here due to Sagna still recovering from a lack of fitness due to his broken leg.
In fact the key players that required more rest than anyone else, played 90 minutes, Arteta and Cazorla. Both looked quite lethargic in this game with Arteta uncharacteristically slow in his movement and rather tellingly having less touches on the ball than his Central Midfield partner Aaron Ramsey and also Santi Cazorla. I can’t recall another game this season where Arteta has failed to manage more touches and passes than any of his team mates so this is a real indicator of his level of fatigue, also backed up by the fact he made around 15/69 of his passes back to our Central Defenders. Annoyingly the movement in the double pivot was actually very good for a change, Ramsey acquitted himself very well in the role, both in his defending and attacking play, ensuring Arteta was free to move around and couldn’t be man-marked. Aston Villa played an extremely aggressive pressing game that pushed our midfield pairing back towards our defense, thus separating the link to Cazorla and Giroud. Giroud’s frustrated response to this was to drop deeper and try to become the link in the advanced midfield, leaving no player up top to press their defense and this made our transition from defense to attack ie when we won the ball back to counter, even harder. Villa also tried to expand this problem for us by having Benteke man-mark Koscielny, leaving Mertesacker as our only passing option out from the back but the big German absolutely shone in this task and managed to distribute the ball to Arteta and Ramsey easily throughout the match.
But where we truly failed to capitalise on the risky aggressive game Aston Villa was playing was on the wings. While the potency of Gibbs and Podolski on the left is a constant threat for any team, it’s no good if you don’t pass there. Podolski looked fairly uninterested in this match and was again substituted(god knows why he’s so tired) although bringing on Gervinho instead is not something I’m a fan of. But this does little to mask the fact that we didn’t attempt to pass to them each time we looked to counter attack. This is due to Arteta’s fatigued performance and the winger’s poor positioning. Ramsey was situated on the right of central midfield and since he was the main man trying to create any kind of attacking play, it’s logical he would pass to the closest wing, being the right. But the inexperience of our right wing duo, Oxlade Chamberlain and Jenkinson, meant we wasted chance after chance to score on the break. The pair managed only 1 successful cross from 11 attempts and with Cazorla clearly fatigued and less influential than in previous games, this proved catastrophic as we were unable to create much in the middle(not aided by the heavy rain throughout the game making quick passing more difficult) and therefore crossing balls for Giroud seemed to be the best route to goal for us. Jenkinson is more of a defensive-minded fullback and I can only imagine the frustration that Ramsey must’ve been feeling every time he passed for Jenkinson to run onto it and take the ball to the corner to whip in a cross, only to have it passed straight back to him. Oxlade-Chamberlain also failed to make any impact filling in for the injured Theo Walcott and is yet to show his potential this season. Andrei Arshavin did come on for him late in the match and looked great, creating one good chance to steal the game from under Villa’s nose but in all honesty it would’ve been a “real smash and grab” style victory and not at all earned by our performance.
With Arteta playing poorly on the left of central midfield the service to Podolski was limited and is the main reason why our counter-attacks weren’t launched down the more potent left wing for Gibbs to whip in a cross for Giroud. I think it’s a rather telling stat that our best chance for a goal came from Giroud making a run down the left wing before delivering a low cross which Koscielny hoisted over the bar. Perhaps if we’d made a few more crosses from this side we would’ve gone home with 3 points. But the wingers did both Ramsey and Arteta no favours by playing too far forward, meaning that the passing distance was increased and becomes a less attractive option with the possibility of interceptions, mis-placed passes etc. If the wingers had realised this and dropped deeper to allow for a safer pass I am confident that our passing would’ve been faster and we would’ve made Aston Villa pay for their bold approach to shutting down our attacks early.
On to a huge positive! Despite the disappointing draw and lack of goals, our defensive shape throughout this match was nothing short of excellent. The continued confidence flowing from the back 4 is a very good thing to see, Szczesny had a quiet game but once again when called upon, he responded in style by making a brilliant fingertip save to parry a 25 yard screamer from Brett Holman onto the bar. Mertesacker was dominant at the heart of our defense and Koscielny once again excelled as his partner in crime. Gibbs looked lively and had a good game returning at left back and Jenkinson was solid in defense despite his lack of attacking impetus. It’s also worth noting that although obviously fatigued, Arteta did a good job of screening the back 4 although the real credit must go to Ramsey who’s workrate in this match was phenomenal.
So what do we do from here? Well clearly we need an extra striking option as Gervinho is inconsistent and if Giroud is injured we may find ourselves in real trouble. If Maroune Chamakh can’t even make the bench for this match then I’m afraid he’s finished at Arsenal. Tomas Rosicky back and fit would be very welcome so that Cazorla can have a well earned rest and I’d like to see Ramsey doing the same for Arteta once Wilshere is fully fit and established in the starting eleven. Looking at the rotation in this match, clearly the boss isn’t underestimating Everton but it’s a real shame about our lack of depth because I feel that with both Sagna and Walcott available for this match, Aston Villa would’ve been destroyed. I also think that despite Ramsey’s solid performance in Wilshere’s role, we need to look at getting a player that can cover for Wilshere as I truly believe that Ramsey is an understudy for Arteta and that one day in the future we will see a double pivot comprised of both Wilshere and Ramsey as the starting choice. Perhaps someone like Moussa Sissohko? Or another utility style midfielder who can play anywhere like Lewis Holtby.
So here’s hoping that Walcott and co are fit to play against Everton and we field a really strong team despite the fatigue to certain key players. I’ll leave you with a picture of hope, good to see him back in training finally. Now we just need him to be fit enough to start a few, Come On You Gunners!