Home defeats threaten to derail Arsenal’s title challenge
IT IS one of the most basic requirements for a team supposedly harbouring title ambitions – you have to win your home games.
Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ certainly knew that when they became the last Arsenal team to win the league in 2004, by dropping just eight points at Highbury all season and racking up 40 goals in the process.
Current champions Chelsea knew it last season when they won 17 of their 19 matches at Stamford Bridge, and Manchester United knew it the season before when they lost only once at Old Trafford en route to their 18th title.
Arsene Wenger certainly knows it as well, and as he watched Newcastle’s Andy Carroll hassle, harry and bully Arsenal into their second home capitulation of the campaign on Sunday, he will have departed the dug out knowing his side cannot afford many more slip-ups at the Emirates.
Arsenal have flattered to deceive on home soil this season, losing to newly-promoted West Brom in September, and toiling to beat the likes of Birmingham City and West Ham, before falling to the Toon on Sunday.
Wenger’s post-match reaction was a strange mix of defiance and acceptance. Perhaps because he knows there is no escaping the obvious defensive frailties which have become a hallmark of the Gunners’ nervous displays at home during the current campaign.
Frailties which saw another goalkeeping blunder, this time by Lukasz Fabianski as he hared off his goal-line only to be beaten to the ball by Carroll, and frailties which saw Arsenal’s centre-backs ruthlessly exposed by the powerful Toon forward. Not Didier Drogba this time – different player, same outcome.
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“I think he (Fabianski) didn’t have a lot to do today and maybe he was a bit too confident to take the ball and didn’t expect to be challenged,” was Wenger’s assessment of the moment which handed Newcastle all three points. “It was not a technical mistake, it was a problem of timing.
“Carroll is a handful, but I believe our two centre-backs handled their strikers very well. They had a very good game, they were our best players today.”
Quite how Wenger came to that conclusion is a mystery. Squillaci appeared hesitant all afternoon, while Laurent Koscielny was a fish out of water long before he was sent-off in injury-time for hauling back Newcastle substitute Nile Ranger, who was threatening to burst through on goal.
Unsurprisingly, the hesitancy at the back spread throughout the team, and as long as Arsenal have an error-prone keeper behind a central defence bereft of genuine Premier League experience which has yet to find its feet, consistency will continue to elude Wenger’s side this season.
Newcastle quickly capitalised on that hesitancy. Their game plan was simple – get the ball to Carroll and the ever improving Shola Ameobi as quickly as possible and let them run at the Arsenal back four.
It worked a treat and, once Newcastle took the lead, Arsenal lacked the creativity to conjour an equaliser.
In the final stages, Arsenal were forced to punt long balls to the strikers, as they searched in utter desperation for the goal which never came.
“I believe that we were never at our real level and in full flow but we played against a good Newcastle team who is a team of men, strong physically and mature,” said Wenger.
“Overall I believe we were unlucky to lose the game. They had one shot on target, and that’s the goal. Apart from that they defended well and we were not sharp enough.”
“The home form is a concern because against Birmingham and West Ham it was struggling wins. Everybody comes and plays very tight here and when we are not in full form we struggle to play through the lines.
“When you score the first goal it is alright because teams have to come out, but as long as you sit deep we have a problem playing through them when we are not on full power.”
When Arsenal lost to West Brom in September, Wenger could pass the result off as a blip. It is unlikely he will get away with that excuse this time.
Teams will continue to come to the Emirates and sit deep, just as they did at Highbury, and just as they do at Stamford Bridge, Old Trafford and the City of Manchester Stadium. The onus is, of course, on Arsenal to break them down, and so far this season they have struggled to do so at the Emirates.
Cesc Fabregas, ‘restricted’, in Wenger’s words by his recent hamstring troubles, will have better days than this, as will Robin van Persie, who played the final half hour without effect, and Andrey Arshavin, whose introduction went almost un-noticed.
Creativity has become the byword for Arsenal at home in the Premier League. Wenger’s side must rediscover it – and quickly – or risk blowing their challenge in their own back yard.