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Arsenal huff and puff but can’t blow the big bad Wolves down

Arsenal 1 Wolves 1

Gervinho 8; Fletcher 38

After watching Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool all drop points unexpectedly on Boxing Day, Arsenal wasted an opportunity to claim a place in the top four as they were held at home by a stubborn Wolves side. The visitors battled hard to end a run of six consecutive away defeats in the Premier League and earn their first point away from Molineux since August 27th – exactly four months ago. However, this was a game Arsenal should have won, and nine times out of ten would have won.

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The week in numbers: w/e 4/12/11

Sócrates, 1954-2011. RIP (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

57 – Age of former Brazilian football captain Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira – better known simply as Sócrates – who died in hospital in São Paulo after a three-month battle with illness. Instantly recognisable to a generation of football fans by his trademark beard and headband, he played 60 times for Brazil, scoring 22 goals from an attacking midfield position, and captained his country at the 1982 World Cup.

0 – Number of women in the final shortlist of ten candidates for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, which will be awarded on December 22nd.

58 – Winger Shane Williams capped his 87th and final Test with his 58th try in the final move of the game as Wales lost 24-18 to Australia at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.

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Ruthless Arsenal send woeful Wigan bottom

Wigan 0 Arsenal 4

Arteta 28, Vermaelen 29, Gervinho 61, van Persie 78

A pair of goals in each half saw Arsenal cruise to a comfortable victory over a Wigan Athletic side whose resistance crumbled once Mikel Arteta had opened the scoring with a long-range pile-driver. While Arsenal’s sixth win in seven moved them up to to fifth ahead of Liverpool’s game on Monday night, the four-goal margin of defeat consigned Roberto Martinez‘s team to the foot of the Premier League table.

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Van Persie’s fourth quarter magic lifts misfiring Gunners

Arsenal 3 Stoke 1

Gervinho 27, van Persie 73, 82; Crouch 34

On a day when the NFL came to London and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers narrowly failed to complete a fourth quarter comeback against the Chicago Bears, Robin van Persie came off the bench for the final quarter of a game to provide the spark necessary to ignite an otherwise lacklustre performance by his Arsenal teammates. His late brace of close-range goals inspired a 3-1 victory, the Gunners’ sixth straight at the Emirates and their sixth in their last seven games overall. The win moved them up to seventh in the table as Arsène Wenger‘s rebuilding side continue to exhibit steady signs of improvement.

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Walker fires Spurs win as Arsenal shoot themselves in the foot again

Tottenham 2 Arsenal 1

Van der Vaart 40, Walker 73; Ramsey 50

A controversial goal by Rafael van der Vaart and a rocket from England under-21 international Kyle Walker gave Tottenham victory in a closely fought North London derby. Arsenal tumbled to their fourth defeat in seven league games this season, leaving Arsène Wenger with some serious thinking to do during the international break, as yet again his side proved to be their own worst enemies.

Wenger made six changes from the weakened side who beat Olympiacos 2-1 on Wednesday night, with only Mikel Arteta surviving from the front six. Theo Walcott and Gervinho returned after passing late fitness tests, while Robin van Persie, Aaron Ramsey, Francis Coquelin and Kieran Gibbs also started after being rested in mid-week.

Szczęsny

Sagna – Mertesacker – Song – Gibbs

Coquelin – Arteta

Ramsey

Walcott – van Persie – Gervinho

Last season’s equivalent fixture finished 3-3 after Arsenal squandered a two-goal lead, just as they had done at the Emirates. It was also reflective of the transitional and injury-depleted nature of the current Arsenal squad that today’s line-up featured just five of the players (Szczęsny, Sagna, Song, Walcott and van Persie) who started that previous game at White Hart Lane less than six months ago.

Arsenal pay the price for their own carelessness

Tottenham applied the early pressure, with Emmanuel Adebayor in particular proving a handful against his former club. However, the biggest early threats to Wojciech Szczęsny‘s goal came from his own players. Alex Song, playing as an emergency centre back, gifted Spurs the first chance of the game when he played a loose pass out of defence which ended with Szczęsny denying Scott Parker one-on-one. Aaron Ramsey twice conceded possession in dangerous positions in the first 20 minutes with loose passes, and generally looked out of sorts.

Gervinho wasted a great chance to open the scoring (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

For the best part of half an hour, Arsenal’s threat was sporadic and fleeting. Other than a prodded effort by Theo Walcott which was deflected behind, Brad Friedel was largely able to enjoy the unseasonal weather untroubled. But just after Rafael Van der Vaart had seen his close-range flick well saved by Szczęsny, his countryman Robin van Persie almost engineered the opening goal. The Arsenal captain wriggled free on the by-line and his pull back put the ball on a plate for Gervinho inside the area, only for the Ivorian to scuff his shot wide.

Suitably encouraged, Arsenal began to show more as an attacking force, with Francis Coquelin particularly impressive patrolling in front of the back four. Walcott took a pass from Gervinho in full stride, cut inside and curled a 20-yarder with his left foot just beyond the top corner. Ramsey received the ball in space deep in the box, but with his passing radar continuing to malfunction he squared it to empty space.

But, just as Arsenal looked to be gaining a measure of control in the game, Spurs struck. Adebayor floated a diagonal ball into the box as Van der Vaart ghosted in behind Per Mertesacker and beyond an out-of-position Bacary Sagna. The Dutchman controlled the ball with his chest – and a suggestion of upper arm – and unerringly drilled a left-footed shot across Szczęsny’s into the bottom corner.

It was hard on Arsenal, who had had marginally the better of the first half. Nonetheless, they had little cause for complaint, having been finally undone by the latest in a series of defensive errors.

Szczęsny’s defences breached by Walker’s rocket

Buoyed by their goal the home side, and in particular Gareth Bale, started the second half with their tails up. So, of course, Arsenal were level within five minutes. Spurs were unable to clear their lines after an Arsenal corner as the ball kept coming back at them, and eventually Alex Song found himself able to advance into acres of space down the left. With no defender to pressure him, he was able to measure his low cross to the near post, where Ramsey arrived to turn the ball past Friedel.

Ramsey's goal could not mask a poor personal performance (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

With the momentum provided by the equaliser, Arsenal began to turn the screw. But their good work was nearly undone when Adebayor sprang their raggedy offside trap and bore down on goal, only for the fast-reacting Szczęsny to charge off his line and block brilliantly.

However, it was enough to swing the pendulum back the other way. Spurs reasserted themselves as Arsenal were pushed further and further back. Their cause was not helped when Sagna went off with a serious looking ankle injury, to be replaced by the inexperienced Carl Jenkinson. Sagna’s injury was later diagnosed as a fractured fibula. He will be out for at least three months.

But when Spurs did regain the lead, it came from the opposite flank. Right back Kyle Walker picked up a loose ball inside the Arsenal half and dashed forward before unleashing a howitzer from at least 30 yards which flew through a crowded area and seemed to deceive Szczęsny, who had perhaps set his feet too early. It was a tremendous shot, but the Polish keeper will feel he should have done better.

Bale wasted a golden opportunity to put the game to bed, dragging a shot a whisker wide after Song and Mertesacker hesitated. Jermain Defoe had time to measure an effort from the edge of the area but was too close to Szczęsny. Luka Modrić hit the side netting. But 2-1 always looked like being enough. For all that Arsenal hurled red shirts forwards in the closing minutes, they never looked like grabbing a second eqauliser as they succumbed to another damaging defeat abetted by individual errors.

Post-match reaction and analysis

Arsène Wenger commented on a frustration afternoon in his post-match press conference:

In the first half I felt we played a little but with the handbrake on. Even playing like that we had four chances. At half time we came out and had a go at them and got it back to 1-1. I felt again that we didn’t push on enough and let them get back into the game.

We lack a little bit of confidence at the moment, and we just need to protect a result when we have one.

He accepted that any title aspirations appear unrealistic at the moment:

I think at the moment we have to set ourselves a realistic target and to get in touch with the teams who are fighting for the Champions League positions. If you say today we will win the league it is not realistic. At the moment we are 12 points behind Manchester United and Manchester City – that’s not realistic to say today that we will win the league. We have to fight to come back into a much better position, that’s reality.

Finally, he expressed his concern about the severity of Sagna’s injury:

We are very worried about his injury. He is in hospital at the moment and it is too early to say but the first signs do not look good at all. It is the fibula in the ankle that has to be checked.

Sagna's leg break may prove even more damaging than three lost points (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

A minimum three-month absence for his most reliable defender is the last thing Wenger needs right now, as individual defensive errors continue to cost Arsenal dearly. Ironically, it was Sagna who was at fault for the first goal, responding too late to the danger presented by Van der Vaart’s run. But this was not a game where any member of the defence will have been happy witheir afternoon’s work. Szczęsny continues to be outstanding in one-on-one situations, but as with so many young goalkeepers his footwork remains slightly suspect, and he will (rightly) feel he should have done better with Walker’s winner. Yes, the shot was struck fiercely through a crowd, but it caught the goalkeeper flat-footed and unable to adjust to the flight of a ball which was never more than a couple of feet away from him. Song and Mertesacker each had outstanding moments, but also struggled against the pace, strength and trickery of Spurs’ attacking trio of Adebayor, Defoe and Van der Vaart. Gibbs hjad an uncomfortable time up against the marauding Walker.

The biggest problem, however, lay with the midfield trio in front of them. I will exempt the composed Coquelin from too much criticism, as he generally held his position well and was positive in the tackle, although his distribution was sometimes left wanting. Arteta had his quietest game yet in an Arsenal shirt, unable to exert his influence either defensively or in attack, and too often ponderous in possession. And Ramsey, notwithstanding his well-taken goal, had a stinker of a game. Too often he carelessly conceded possession in the middle third, and too rarely did he find his intended target with his passes in the final third. When he is on song, as he was in the second half against Bolton, he can be an extremely effective player. But he is clearly struggling to produce in the pivotal position at the head of midfield on anything other than a sporadic basis.

It is only across the front three where Arsenal appear capable of really stretching defenders with the ball at their feet. But with a misfiring supply line behind them, neither Gervinho nor Walcott were able to provide a consistent threat from the flanks. Walcott drifted in and out of the game, and Gervinho suffered from wanting too many touches of the ball, frequently ending up down blind alleys as a result. Robin van Persie spent long periods trying to remember what the ball looked like, through no fault of his own.

What is becoming increasingly apparent is that this Arsenal side is not as comfortable retaining possession as previous teams have been. They do not seem capable of stringing 20-pass moves together to probe for an opening, instead constantly misplacing passes to give away cheap possession and heap pressure on their defence. And that defence is nowhere near good or consistent enough yet to compensate for the number of misplaced passes we are currently seeing. You do not concede 16 goals in seven games just through bad luck.

What is the solution? Familiarity will help. Passing is always easier when you know where your teammates are going to be, rather than having to search for them. Better movement would also help, allowing the entire team to play at a quicker tempo and preventing opposing teams from keeping their defences tightly organised. More than anything, though, technique needs to be honed more sharply, particularly in players like Ramsey who too often seems to completely lose the ability to find a teammate with a forward pass. If this team cannot accomplish these improvements, then it is time to rethink the formation and the attacking philosophy – switch to 4-4-2, be more direct, push the ball out to the flanks more quickly, whatever it takes. It is not yet time to panic, but it is certainly time to start considering alternative plans which could be implemented when the Premier League starts up again in two weeks’ time – because the current plan simply isn’t working at the moment.

Arsenal man of the match: Francis Coquelin. Worked tirelessly to plug the holes in front of the back four. Easy to forget he was the most inexperienced member of Arsenal’s midfield.

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