It’s no understatement to say that everything that could go wrong did go wrong for Arsenal on a dreadful Saturday afternoon at Stoke.
A loss to one of the weaker sides in the competition? Check. Serious injuries to three critical first-team players? Check. A deserved sending off for another key player? Check. A team performance so lacking in desire and cohesion that they would have done better not to turn up at all? Check.
Put the injuries to one side and it’s hard to argue the fact that the blame for this defeat falls squarely on the shoulders of the manager and his team. Rory Delap may have been the hero with his missile-like throw-ins but it was Arsene Wenger and his side who were very much the villains in a performance which began on the wrong foot with some bizarre team selections and got progressively worse as the contest rolled on.
It is not the first time this season I have criticised Wenger for his team selections – take this rather cutting critique of his managerial performance against Everton, for example – but on Saturday the Frenchman’s efforts were as poor as I’ve ever witnessed. To start with four central midfielders was an awful error and one which paid far too much respect to Stoke. Wenger has since explained that he had hoped to nullify Stoke’s aerial threat by playing a taller, tougher, more narrow line-up but the outcome of the match and the quality of the performance presents the undeniable conclusion that he made a mistake.
It’s very easy to say in hindsight that playing a more traditional Wenger line-up, one with two out-and-out wingers, would have stretched the Stoke defence and allowed an outlet for Arsenal’s counter-attacking to put them in the box seat. But hindsight was not required to work this out. The warning shot had been fired on Wednesday night when Theo Walcott’s substitution against Tottenham saw us lose our ability to stretch their opponents and subsequently gave them an invitation back into a contest they scarcely deserved.
What worries me most about Wenger’s managerial performance against Stoke was not that he altered the team in an attempt to counter his opponents. In many ways this is a good thing, evidence that the manager is not as set in his ways as many supporters think and can adapt when he feels it is necessary. No, what worries me most is that the changes he made were so horribly wrong.
By starting with the side he did Wenger changed our team’s mentality from one which proudly boomed “we’re going to score more goals than you!” to one which whispered “we’re going to concede less goals than you”. And while that sort of shift in mentality would be somewhat welcome in the odd fixture – a Champions League away game, for example – to adopt that mentality against Stoke was suicidal.
You see, Stoke are so reliant on Delap’s throw-ins that they are never going to have more than one or two goals in them regardless of who they play. As an opposition side, if you choose not to attack them then you run more of a risk of those one or two moments becoming game-defining, which is exactly what happened against Arsenal.
If Wenger sent his side out to play in the attacking way that they are so comfortable with it’s likely that we would have run out comfortable winners. Perhaps 2-1, 3-1, 3-2 or 4-2. But the feeling I get is that the four goals conceded in the draw with Tottenham spooked Wenger into playing more defensively than they ought to and this change in mentality brought about their downfall. It was an indication of Wenger going out to prove a point rather than doing what was required to take the points at the end of the day.
The ramifications of this defeat to Stoke are huge. Despite being just six points off the top, the team have been written off as title-contenders by the media and will go into next week’s crucial home game against Manchester United without Adebayor, van Persie, Sagna and Walcott. That means Nicklas Bendtner alone up front and a significantly weaker right-side open to be exploited by Sir Alex Ferguson via his most dangerous weapon, Cristiano Ronaldo. Any which way you look at it, things don’t look promising.
What’s even more of a concern is the consistently poor team selections being made by the manager and the distinct lack of effort and focus the team have shown all too often this season. While I can understand Wenger’s decision not to sign a replacement for Mathieu Flamini in the hope that Denilson or Alex Song would step up to the plate, I simply cannot understand some of the team selections he has made. The decision to play Denilson and Diaby as wingers against Stoke was one example, Song at right-back at Everton another.
Wenger must stop his needless fiddling now if Arsenal are to get back on track. He needs to get back to picking the right players in their natural positions and stop trying to be too cute about things. That means resisting the temptation to play WIlliam Gallas and Kolo Toure together, putting Abou Diaby in the middle of the park and ensuring that Samir Nasri and Theo Walcott are given the consistent game-time their performances have merited. Otherwise it’s going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better.
It may have gone horribly wrong for Wenger and Arsenal at Stoke, but my tendency to be positive makes me think that the awful experience could well be the catalyst for some welcome changes and a necessary injection of pressure on the team to perform. Wenger and the boys must find the spirit and willingness to play for one another that was so evident last time around or this season will slip away faster than anybody could have predicted.
Which would be an awful shame given how close we came to winning last season.
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