Arsenal - Will They Ever Learn?

Arsenal - Will They Ever Learn?

Naive. The one word which describes Arsenal’s performances in big games in recent years. Wednesday night’s home defeat to Monaco is a performance to forget for Arsene Wenger’s men. Terrible finishing and some abysmal errors in defence proved costly as the Gunners floundered 3-1 to Monaco – a side widely regarded as the unfavored seeds for the knockout stages. Arsenal’s performance was just another of a series of poor results in big games for the North London team and only highlighted a problem that seems to be rooted deep within the players.

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It has been a common scene in recent years that the Gunners were able to pass the ball around, without any problems for most of those games, but it was when they lost possession that the opposing teams exploited their greatest weakness, defensive solidity, in particular the absence of a powerful holding midfielder. That was exactly what Monacco had done to the Gunners. They were happy to sit deep and shadow Arsenal’s players as they knocked the ball around without any real urgency to penetrate the French side’s backline and score. Once they took the ball off the home side, Monaco were looking to counter and cause damage.

Monaco under Leonardo Jardim have adopted exactly the style of play that gives Arsenal problems. Arsene Wenger has been previously criticised for not having a plan B and insisting on Arsenal’s typical style of ultimate football: neat, tidy and creative, but one of the characteristics of a team of champions is the ability to win games when the team is not playing well, something the Gunners have never quite demonstrated in recent years unlike Manchester United, Chelsea or Manchester City. All the successful teams have a variety of players that make up for each other’s weaknesses, a balance in the team, something Arsenal don’t seem to have. Even their centre-backs seem more comfortable on the ball than they do when defending. The Gunners possess a fantastic range of offensive talent in Alexis Sanchez, Santi Cazorla, Mesut Ozil, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Danny Welbeck, Tomas Rosicky and Mikel Arteta, but they will never be able to play all of these players at once. Even though almost at any given time, two of those attacking minded players are injured, Wenger is still under pressure to select a minimum of three of those players to start every game and keep them happy. That still leaves seven on the list not to mention Mathieu Flamini and Francis Coquelin, who are the only real holding midfielders in the team…

However all the attacking players on the squad list are characteristically similar. All like to dwell on the ball, create, take nice touches and play nice passes and one-twos with each other. But when it comes to it, none of those players like to change their style. That is what makes it easy for some teams who have the right tactics and right players to play against them. It does not matter whether Arsenal are losing 1-0, winning 1-0 or winning 4-0, they will keep committing men forward. A perfect example, other than Wednesday night, is when they played at the Liberty Stadium earlier this season. Winning 1-0 at Swansea, the Gunners kept pushing instead of settling for that one goal lead and focusing on protecting it, that is simply not the Arsenal way. Instead they lost the ball twice in the opposition’s half and were caught out on two breaks, one of which resulted in Sigurdsson’s lovely free kick that earned the Swans a 2-1 victory.

An encouraging sight for the Arsenal fans was their team’s victory at the Emirates in January, when Francis Coquelin played an integral part in the Gunners’ victory. It was a game in which Arsenal showed a new, different face that caught Manchester City unprepared and unable to deal with. It was the first time Wenger changed the way he set up his team for a big game, and the new approach borned it’s fruit. It was truly a great display from the whole team as a unit that worked defensively as much as offensively.

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Arsenal’s defense in the 53rd minute. Laurent Koscielny is the only player behind the ball.

But on Wednesday night, Arsenal were their old selves again, dominating possession and creating some very good chances they failed to put away. When Geoffrey Kondogbia’s shot deflected off Per Mertesacker and into the back of the net, you knew it was not going to be Arsenal’s night. The first goal was a lucky one the big German could not have done much about, but he had only himself to blame when he gave up his strong position alongside Koscielny to commit to a challenge on Fabinho and gave Anthony Martial a highway of space to charge into and set up Berbatov for the French side’s second of the game. The defending was quite aptly described as “suicidal” by Wenger. They were just over a half into a two-legged cup tie and they were chasing a goal as if it was minute 94, committing 8 men forward for the attack. Almost a criminal lack of discipline that cost Arsenal dearly.

When Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain pulled one back for the Gunners, it was a much needed lifeline for the home team that would have given them some hope to their visit to the South of France. However it was not to be, as the Gunners did not learn from their previous mistake and with the added time hero Chamberlain losing possession in Monaco’s half and what’s worse, not following the run of Ferreira-Carrasco, the Belgian coolly slotted past David Ospina to give Arsenal a 3 goal target when they visit Stade Louis II. Arsenal had no right to chase a late game-tying goal and risk a 3rd in the back of their net. There players had a rush of blood and completely forgot about the 90 minutes they still have in France; it demonstrates a lack of a leader who would tell everyone to calm down, which is odd given their captain was a World Cup winner. The problem is in their mentality and until they fix this, they may play the most attractive football of all English teams but they will not be champions and might have to wait for their next trophy for a number of years. It was perhaps symbolical of Jardim to charge down the line, celebrating in Jose Mourinho style as he tactically outsmarted his French counterpart in similar fashion the Portuguese manager does.

There remains hope for Arsenal who are going into the second leg in need of at least three goals, however against a team that has only allowed 2 goals in all Champions League games so far this season, it will be a very tough task. It must be mentioned however that the Gunners created plenty of good opportunities to finish the game at the Emirates level so it is not an impossible task to open the French defense. However keeping a clean sheet can prove to be a tougher task. Arsenal have underestimated Monaco, and perhaps the whole of Europe has, but no one expected Monaco to deal with the North Londoners so easily, especially away from home. For the sake of English football in Europe, let’s hope this time they learnt their lesson.