After an impressive run of form that saw Arsenal remain unbeaten in the Premier League since their opening day defeat to Liverpool, the Gunners suffered back-to-back defeats away at Everton and Manchester City. Some critics have been quick to suggest Arsenal are “bottling” a title challenge already, but it is surely far too early to make that kind of suggestion as even title winning teams have suffered dips in form at some point. Only time will tell if this is where Arsenal’s challenge fell away or was merely a blip.
Summer recruit Shkodran Mustafi has been a stellar signing for Arsene Wenger, adding a level of stability to Arsenal’s back line and forming an impressive partnership with Laurent Koscielny. Mustafi’s absence through injury was evident in these two consecutive defeats, where the Gunners defence buckled under pressure. His stand in, Gabriel, doesn’t offer the same level of presence or composure and is to the detriment of Koscielny. However, the talk coming out of both games has not been around the loss of Mustafi, but Wenger’s comments in relation to the match day officials of both games. Rightly or wrongly, such comments will be pounced upon by the media and put under the microscope; bringing with it, further pressure. No matter what else he says to qualify his comments, suggesting officials are “protected very well like lions in a zoo” is sure to make headlines and invite increased scrutiny on himself and his team.
His disgruntlement at the marginal decision of a corner being awarded that led to Everton’s winning goal smacks of pettiness, when the bigger issue was how his team defended it. Rather than question a marginal decision from an official, it should be about questioning how the Gunners failed to kick on from the one goal lead they had in a match where they were cruising before half time. In the early stages at Goodison Park, Arsenal had their opponents there for the taking, but failed to punish them in the way they did West Ham recently.
At The Etihad, Arsenal again had an early lead against a nervy Manchester City, but sat back and handed the hosts the impetus. Wenger was unhappy that City’s equaliser was offside, but opinions were split on the replays and officials are supposed to give the attacking team any benefit of the doubt, so to complain about such a tight call sounds a little churlish. Wenger also felt City’s winning goal was offside and although David Silva was in an offside position and flicked a leg out, he did not impair Petr Cech’s view of the shot from Raheem Sterling. Whilst I can understand fans citing Silva’s leg flick as technically making him interfering with play and therefore offside, I can also understand the goal standing. Here, the ambiguity in the offside law does the opposite of protecting officials like lions in a zoo. Rather than clear cut, it was a tight judgement call which will inevitably split opinion.
Again, discussing marginal decisions from the match officials distracts from what happened on the pitch, where rather than blame officials, Wenger must take a look in the mirror for this defeat. Perhaps mindful of how Leicester recent beat Manchester City and hopeful of exploiting City’s vulnerability to counter attacks that also proved costly against Chelsea, Wenger changed his tactics. However, they looked uncomfortable sitting deep and were unaccustomed to being so direct. Rather than expose Manchester City, Wenger’s tactics by-passed the creative prowess of Mesut Özil and left Alexis Sanchez largely isolated, thus removing his two most influential attacking threats from the equation. Arsenal’s uncharacteristically direct play handed City more and more of the initiative as the game wore on, allowing them to rediscover their confidence.
Although I think changing tactics for a particular opponent should not necessarily be frowned upon, not re-shaping the team or picking the players to suit the said tactic is something I found odd. Surely Olivier Giroud as the target man, with Sanchez and Theo Walcott nearby to run and work off him would’ve made more sense than trying to hit Sanchez and by-passing Özil. Perhaps too, a third man in central midfield to match City there and provide a deep runner on counter attacks would’ve been better than applying a different tactic to the same shape. The fact Wenger waiting until the 75th minute to introduce Giroud, with Sanchez and Özil looking exhausted was somewhat puzzling to me.
So, rather than point the finger at officials, Wenger must not only look at how his team failed to capitalise from winning positions, but also the impact of his calls because if he fails to address the real issues, his critics will soon be having a field day.