The Arsenal Monday verdict: Why all is not yet lost, but why it soon could be
Gunners’ top-four hopes are receding, but getting key players back could make crucial difference
Another away game against a mid-table side, another defeat - 2012 is not exactly going to plan for Arsene Wenger and Arsenal so far.
But as the Gunners boss picks through the ruins of yet another costly defeat, he will surely conclude that this time – unlike at Craven Cottage the previous week – he could not blame the referee for the result.
Sunday’s reverse at Swansea was similar to the defeat against Fulham in only one way – Arsenal’s defending was once more completely unacceptable.
There was no doubt that the Welsh side deserved their victory, and no need for Wenger to rail against officials. Yes, the penalty decision was a poor one as Nathan Dyer undoubtedly made the most of minimal contact with Aaron Ramsey, but Arsenal were already being stretched at that point of the game, despite the huge benefit of having taken an early lead.
Dyer and his attacking colleagues gave the Gunners back line a torrid afternoon, but then again looking at this Arsenal quartet, it was no real surprise.
Johan Djourou and Ignasi Miquel are centre-backs being asked to masquerade as full-backs, and it showed. Meanwhile Per Mertesacker seemed to be constantly startled by the pace and fluidity of Swansea’s attacks. For a man with almost 80 caps for Germany, he looked strangely out of his depth.
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It it wasn’t for the pace and awareness of his central defensive partner, Laurent Koscielny, Arsenal would have lost the game long before Danny Graham sped away from the Frenchman to score the winning goal.
Koscielny was possibly wondering quite how he was left on his own at the back little more than 10 seconds after Swansea had restarted the game following Theo Walcott’s equaliser. He was not alone.
“Our defensive performance was not good enough and that’s why we lost the game,” admitted Wenger afterwards.
“When we came back to 2-2 and made a defensive mistake straight away. It looked similar to Fulham to me, the lack of appreciation for the ball.
“Coincidences are always against us and it is difficult to understand what is going on. I feel we are a bit too nervous. We cannot panic every time they have the ball in the final third of the pitch. We have to show more composure and ambition. I think we panicked a bit too quickly.”
Wenger then refused to answer questions about his side’s lack of defensive options, perhaps because he is getting sick and tired of explaining why his side have no full-backs, given that six of them are injured.
Interestingly he said on New Year’s Eve after Thomas Vermaelen had limped off against QPR that finding a left-back was a priority. “It would be stupid to drop points because we don’t have a left-back” were his exact words.
Stupid is not a word you usually use in connection with Wenger and in truth there is a little bit more to Arsenal’s current problems than a lack of full-backs. The deeper issue still seems to be that most of the team don’t know how to defend.
Without Mikel Arteta on Sunday, Arsenal just didn’t seem to have the right balance in midfield. Yossi Benayoun, Andrey Arshavin, Theo Walcott and the substitute Tomas Rosicky - none of them are natural defenders.
That is usually palatable when you have and enforcer like Alex Song around, but Swansea’s movement was too slick and too widespread for Song to keep track of on his own.
With such deficiencies behind him, Song needed his fellow central players Ramsey and Benayoun to put a defensive shift in, but they were too often caught too high up the pitch. Arteta would have held his position better.
Putting players behind the ball is not really what Arsenal are about, however, especially against newly-promoted upstarts like Swansea. Once Robin van Persie scored early on Brendan Rodgers probably detected a certain swagger about the Gunners.
In times gone by that would have precipitated a four- or five-goal drubbing, but not any more. As soon as Swansea got back on level terms, they sensed Arsenal were there for the taking.
Fulham were exactly the same the previous week. The Gunners are vulnerable, and teams know it. Seven defeats in 21 league games and the worst defensive away record in the division tells its own story.
This latest loss sees the Gunners fall 10 points behind third-placed Spurs, and four behind fourth-placed Chelsea. The top two Manchester clubs are now over the horizon.
Certainly all is not lost, with Spurs about to enter a testing run of fixtures that includes visits to the Eithad Stadium this weekend, Anfield and then the Emirates in the five weeks, and Manchester United visiting White Hart Lane in between.
Arsenal are hanging on to the coat-tails of the top four at the moment, and if Wenger is not going to spend in this transfer window, as increasingly looks the case, then the return of injured players is paramount.
Thomas Vermaelen is badly needed for Sunday’s clash with Manchester United, and then Bacary Sagna and Jack Wilshere should not be too far behind in recovering, and returning.
If the Gunners have that trio back fit and playing by the time Tottenham visit the Emirates on February 26, they will still have a fighting chance of maintaining their 15-year presence in the top four.
But any more defeats before then - and there are away trips to Bolton and Sunderland to negotiate - and the reality of a finishing outside the elite for the first time under Wenger will start to hit home.