The Arsenal Monday verdict: Fallout from Ewood, can it get any worse?
No improvement before October 2 at White Hart Lane, and it just might
It was a nice theory while it lasted, but it looks like Old Trafford wasn’t just a blip.
Saturday’s hideous, error-strewn defeat at Ewood Park was the stuff of nightmares for Arsenal fans, nightmares that even touched the memory of last month’s 8-2 defeat down the road in Manchester.
While 4-3 is an undeniably more respectable scoreline, given the level of the opposition, the team Arsenal had on the pitch, and the farcical nature of some of the goals, this was perhaps an even more worrying result.
Arsenal have been in Jekyll and Hyde mode for all of this fledgling season, and have see-sawed between a side with rich promise, and one on the verge of collapse.
There have been genuinely encouraging performances in Europe, only last week picking up a highly respectable point in Dortmund, and before that the nerve-shredding win over Udinese to reach the group stages.
But three Premier League defeats in five games tells its own story, and looking at a league table that shows Arsenal hovering immediately above the relegation line is as disconcerting as it is troubling.
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Following the win over Swansea and creditable draw in Dortmund, at half-time on Saturday, leading 2-1 with fine goals from new signings Gervinho and Mikel Arteta, all looked well again in the Arsenal world.
What happened afterwards is hard to comprehend, but from the moment Alex Song diverted a 50th minute free-kick past Wojciech Szczesny, the Gunners were in freefall.
As the rain started to lash down at Ewood, the locals sensed a famous recovery, much as Newcastle had done little over seven months earlier, from 4-0 behind lest we forget.
In an instant Arsenal, so imperious in the first half, looked fragile, weak, and beaten. As ever the need for a leader to rally the troops, to reinstil belief that one bad goal shouldn’t turn a game, was notable by its absence.
Defensively, Arsenal were in chaos. Yes, Bacary Sagna limped off just after that second equaliser to be replaced by an out of position Johan Djourou, and yes, maybe that hard night’s work in Dortmund began to take its toll, but the last half-hour was inexcusably bad.
Laurent Koscielny, a lion in Dortmund, was run ragged by Yakubu, Djourou’s confidence looks shot to pieces, while Per Mertesacker, well, the German looked utterly off the pace and almost lost at times.
Andre Santos was caught out of position a little too often, and the back four essentially looked like exactly what they are – a bunch of strangers who have been thrown together and asked to perform.
And all the time, supporters, pundits and maybe even players were probably looking at Chris Samba at the other end and wondering; why didn’t Arsene Wenger sign him in the summer window when he was quite clearly pushing for a move? If not him, then how about any other centre-back who has had a taste of this league before, who knows what to expect at places like Blackburn, Stoke and the rest.
“We dominated the game but in the weak moments we had we were not strong enough to resist,” admitted a visibly downhearted Wenger afterwards. “We didn’t have many weak moments in the game but, every time we had one, we paid for it.
“We gave a lot at Dortmund. It is difficult to go away from home in the Champions League and go away again on Saturday morning. You could see in the second half that it had an influence. But it is the same for everybody and we have to deal with that.
“I felt it was a lack of sharpness,” Wenger continued. “It was a bit unfortunate as well because we had two deflections in our own goal. But overall we never looked completely secure enough.”
Wenger’s attempts to paint the picture of first Old Trafford and then this game as exceptions rather than the rule are starting to wear a little thin. This is not the first time this has happened, and it will not be the last either, on Saturday’s evidence.
It is not just the 4-4 draw at St James’ Park in February, think of the 3-3 draw at Tottenham soon afterwards, or the 3-2 loss to Spurs at the Emirates last November.
On all those occasions, conceding a goal seemed to completely knock the stuffing out of Arsenal, they seem powerless to regain their defensive shape after it and look like they could concede again almost at will.
The solutions? More games for Mertesacker, Santos and all the new players will obviously help, although it is the return of Thomas Vermaelen that could be decisive, just as it proved last season when the Belgian was out from late August until May.
He definitely adds solidity and organisation, but his fitness issues have become more than a worrying aside and are threatening to derail his Arsenal career.
Certainly, it is too early to start writing off any of the new signings as bad buys or the season as one with no potential. But Arsenal must find consistency, and they must find it soon.
Home games against Shrewsbury, Bolton and then Olympiakos should provide a good platform for some respite, but the next Premier League away game has a foreboding look to it.
White Hart Lane on 2 October, against a Tottenham side who have found their feet and who have a certain Emmanuel Adebayor ready to plunder against his former employers is hardly an enticing prospect for Arsenal in their current state.
An away record that has seen them concede 12 times in the last two games could get worse still. Arsenal have less than a fortnight to sort themselves out.