The Arsenal Monday verdict: Soft centre exposed for all to see
18:20 04 March 2013
Arsenal’s central defence and central midfield has cost them so often this season, and did so again in the derby defeat to Spurs
There was to be no miracle comeback this time, no rising from the dead to provide a stunning 5-2 victory. The derby spoils remain in N17 and Arsenal can have no complaints.
They have been second best to Spurs for much of the season, and were second best on Sunday. Surprisingly, Arsene Wenger was calm after the game, as calm as you could expect in the circumstances, at least.
Some saw that as him being resigned to his fate this season, to the fact that his side are now outsiders to claim what has almost felt like a birthright for the past 15 years; a top-four finish.
In truth he was just disappointed, although his summing up of the game: “We lost a game we didn’t deserve to lose. When we went 2-0 down we should have been 2-0 up”, was one that was at odds with what most people felt they witnessed on Sunday.
Wenger urgently needs to rid himself of the idea that conceding 2-0 leads is some kind of unfortunate coincidence.
In the past two months alone, Arsenal have generously presented two-goal deficits to Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Bayern Munich and now Spurs. Only against Liverpool did they salvage something from the game, and then only a point.
This is not unlucky or ‘strange’ as Wenger called it after the game. It suggests that there are mistakes being made in preparation, in personnel, and, given that these were all ‘big’ games, that the mentality of the team, something Wenger always praises, is not quite as strong as he believes.
For large swathes of Sunday’s game Arsenal were competitive, as good as their hosts. But once they found themselves 2-0 in front, Spurs could afford to play within their limitations.
“They only threatened us on the counterattack” said Wenger afterwards, but that was a luxury Spurs were afforded by defending of the most negligent nature in that vital spell before half-time.
There are no acceptable ‘downtimes’ in football matches. If you don’t concentrate for the full 90 minutes, you can get punished. Three minutes was all it took for Spurs to turn the game, and maybe the season, their way.
The problems are deeper than merely defensive, however. While Arsenal’s centre-backs are culpable, their central midfield screen was non-existent for both goals.
Mikel Arteta has done a fine job playing one of the holding roles for the past 18 months since arriving from Everton, but it is not his natural game.
On Sunday he was partnered in front of the back four by AaronRamsey, who also has more attacking instincts.
The feeling persists that Wenger has not done enough to replace Alex Song in this squad since he was sold to Barcelona last summer. Abou Diaby, Francis Coquelin and Emmanuel Frimpong were all possibilities to fulfil that role at the start of the season but, for reasons of both form and fitness, none has made the step up.
The contrast with Spurs was stark on Sunday, when their central defenders excelled, and then Scott Parker helped them dig in and protect their lead in the second half.
It could prove a pivotal win, but really we are where we were last season when Spurs’ seven-point lead in early March did not guarantee superiority come mid-May.
Andre Villas-Boas was keeping his feet on the ground after Sunday’s win, his first over Arsenal after harrowing defeats in charge of both Chelsea and Spurs, and with good reason.
Chelsea also have to be factored in. In case anybody has forgotten, last season Chelsea finished sixth, while Arsenal and Spurs both ended in the top four. It could happen again.
Arsenal can’t be distracted by north London derby pride. If the Gunners have to suffer the indignity of finishing below their neighbours for the first time in 18 years, then so be it.
But, unlike last season, when it was Tottenham who were ousted by Chelsea’s improbable triumph in Munich, fourth will be good enough to reach the Champions League this year.
There are 10 games remaining, 30 points to play for. Last season Arsenal ended with 70 points and it was enough for third place.
To repeat that tally, they need to take 23 points from those 10 games. Not implausible, even if it may not be enough to overhaul Spurs this time around.
On paper Spurs have the harder run-in, with this Sunday’s visit to Liverpool followed by one to Chelsea in April and then hosting Manchester City a week later
But Spurs control their own destiny, so Arsenal must refocus on what they can achieve themselves. They have lost the battle, but not the war. Mistakes have been made, but this is not the time to feel sorry for yourselves. That can wait until May – nothing has been decided yet.
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