Monday, 14 January 2013

The Diary Of A Pessimistic Arsenal Fan - Arsenal See Red & Lose Their Heads

By Shane Thomas

The Emirates Stadium was an enraged and irate place on Sunday evening. Referee Mike Dean will likely take the majority of the headlines after dishing out two red cards, with Manchester City winning their first league game away at Arsenal since 1975.

The Koscielny Red

First, the elephant in the room. While many Arsenal fans were livid by Koscielny being sent-off, one hopes that after looking at it, they'll realise Dean had little option other than to brandish the red card. While there's a counter argument that we see similar offences in the Premier League every week, that's not a justification to continue to let them pass. Personally I hope that this sets a new standard in refereeing where players will stop holding & shirt-grabbing to stop an attacker.

I've also heard people posit the theory that if a player concedes an penalty, then they should be immune from the red card that comes with a professional foul. I agree that this argument has strong merit. But it's not the referee's job to draw up the rulebook, all he can do is carry out the rules that have been written. I wonder if the outrage from Gooners was more down to the knowledge that going down to 10 men, against the champions, with 80 minutes still to play, meant that any chance of a good result was minimal.

And while the loss to City will be hugely disappointing, what could prove more costly is Koscielny being suspended for the next three matches, which leaves Arsenal one centre-half injury or suspension away from Sebastien Squillaci having to come into the starting XI.

10 vs 11

In Wenger's earlier tenure at the club, Arsenal had a reputation for ill discipline, and Wenger tried to offset this in training by having practice games where 10 players would play against 11. This was to ensure that the players could adequately cope should a red card happen in a real match - I recall a particularly impressive 2-1 win at Anfield in 2001, when Giovanni Van Bronckhorst was sent-off early in the contest.

Given the way Arsenal responded after going down to 10 men, I can only surmise that Wenger has dispensed with this aspect of training these days. This was an occasion where Arsenal needed to play sensibly, ensuring that they kept men behind the ball, leaving no gaps between the midfield and defence, staying compact, and keeping the ball when in possession.

However, the very basics of defending were absent in the concession of the two goals. Arsenal spent too long bemoaning the award of a free-kick to City to effectively reorganise their shape for James Milner's goal, with Thomas Vermaelen turning his back on the play. While for the second, Kieran Gibbs was far too weak in the tackle, leaving his teammates outnumbered. The second Gibbs was outmuscled by Pablo Zabaleta, Edin Dzeko's goal was an inevitability.

Losing Their Heads

In the first hour of the match, Arsenal's mindset was alarming. They seemed to share the crowd's sense of injustice at Koscielny's red card, and allowed themselves to be swamped by their own anger. While giving everything, they needed someone to exercise a calming influence - such as the injured Mikel Arteta. Arsenal ran around like headless chickens in pursuit off the ball, and often used it without much care. City were poor in the 2nd half, regularly giving the ball away, but too often Arsenal did the same. They had plenty of heart, but needed to use another important organ; their brains.

Arsenal played as if under a febrile and frenetic spell, with any semblance of a cogent attacking strategy conspicuous by its absence. Bringing Olivier Giroud off the bench was a plus, as frantically getting the ball forward can be more dangerous when you have a physical presence in attack. Until that point, the only target was Theo Walcott, who despite his qualities, a target man he is not.

Looking Ahead

Arsene Wenger was refreshingly sagacious in his post-match comments. While he was correct in saying that we need to start matches with a greater intensity, he is also right is stating that the players shouldn't be totally disheartened by the loss. We could fault the players smarts, but not their effort.

In recent seasons, Arsenal have had a nasty habit of allowing bad results to affect them for weeks afterwards - no more so than the 2011 Carling Cup Final. They simply cannot afford to do so in this congested set of upcoming fixtures. If they spend the next few games sulking and navel-gazing, Arsenal will be out of the FA Cup, and out of touch with the top four.

Wenger and his players have to be at their most resilient, starting with Swansea on Wednesday night. They can't waste time complaining over perceived refereeing injustices, or key players being absent. Arsenal are fast running out of excuses. There's only one suitable response, and that's to start winning.

ARSENAL (4-3-3)

Szczesny - 6, Sagna - 6, Koscielny - 3, Vermaelen - 5, Gibbs - 5, Diaby - 5 (Ramsey - 6), Wilshere - 6, Cazorla - 5, Oxlade-Chamberlain - 5 (Mertesacker - 5), Walcott - 5, Podolski - 5 (Giroud - 6)

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