By Ewan Roberts
Throwing away a two-goal lead in Germany, beaten at Old Trafford by an inspired Robin van Persie, conceding five goals against Reading, struggling past QPR, suffering a rare European home defeat to Schalke and losing against Norwich: it has been a rough 18 days for Arsenal fans.
The Gunners had started so positively, initially unbeaten in seven games in all competitions, and beginning their league campaign with three consecutive clean sheets.
Since then, however, Arsenal have kept just one clean sheet in their subsequent 13 games and shipped 20 goals, while their meagre tally of 15 Premier League points is their lowest total at this stage of the season in the Arsene Wenger era.
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Assistant coach Steve Bould, so highly praised in September for the improvements in Arsenal’s solidity and defensive strength, has seen his back four develop into a colander, leaking goals both as a consequence of individual mistakes and a collective lack of cohesion.
The former was particularly prevalent against Manchester United on Saturday, as Andre Santos spectacularly failed to deal with the Red Devils’ right flank and Antonio Valencia especially. He invoked the 2AM reveller, struggling to stand and devoid of basic coordination.
But Thomas Vermaelen, replacing the beleaguered, premature shirt-swapping Brazilian against Schalke, fared little better against Jefferson Farfan and the German team’s right side.
The Belgian was often out of position, regularly beaten by the Peruvian winger (and, in one instance, landing on his derriere as Farfan twisted away from him), unable to contain the early overlapping runs of Atsuto Uchida and regularly seeking the central sanctuary of his favoured position. He was also at fault for Schalke’s equaliser.
Arsenal’s early defensive success owed much to a defined, consistent back four: Carl Jenkinson, Per Mertesacker, Vermaelen and Kieran Gibbs. In the last 11 games in all competitions, Arsenal have been unable to field the same defensive line in back-to back games. Of course injuries have played their part, but have Wenger and Bould meddled too much with a good thing?
It is clear that Arsenal lack partnerships on the field too, lacking couples who share an almost telepathic understanding - Everton’s Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar being the best example of that idea and perhaps the Premier League’s foremost double act.
The centre of Arsenal’s defence and the right and left flanks have seen numerous different combinations trialled, without ever finding (and sticking on) the perfect solution.
Wenger is not sure of his best centre-back pairing: Vermaelen, Mertesacker or Laurent Koscielny? Jenkinson, who enjoyed a resurgence earlier this season, has been ousted for the returning Bacary Sagna, with no regular, first-choice right winger deployed consistently ahead of them.
That is a great contrast to the benchmark to which all Arsenal sides are compared – the Invincibles – who had partnerships across the field: Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure in defence, Lauren and Freddie Ljungberg down the right, Ashley Cole and Robert Pires down the left.
In fact, there is arguably just one established, successful partnership in the entire current Arsenal team, and it exists between Mikel Arteta and Santi Cazorla.
The Spanish duo control possession, and often the game, linking wonderfully with each other, dove-tailing, always conscious of where the other will be. If there is one criticism of the pair though, it is that they are not direct enough.
Arsenal in general have been somewhat disjointed this season, failing to find the balance between a threatening attack and a resilient defence. So often it has been one but not the other.
Depth is another major concern for Arsenal, underlined by the listing of the 21-year old goalkeeper James Shea on the bench against Schalke, a player whose only professional appearances have come on loan at League Two side Dagenham and Redbridge.
With Gibbs injured, the left-back spot has become somewhat troublesome, while there is no legitimate challenge to the misfiring Olivier Giroud and without Abou Diaby the Gunners are bereft of a reserve enforcer.
Diaby’s absence has perhaps been the biggest contributing factor to Arsenal’s defensive struggles since September. As elegant and cultured as Cazorla and Arteta undoubtedly are, there is a timidity to them. They cannot physically boss games, and the return of Jack Wilshere hardly rectifies that.
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The lanky French defensive midfielder started the season in fine form, obliterating any lingering doubts from the Arsenal faithful about how their side would cope in the wake of Alex Song’s Barcelona exit.
Diaby provided what Arsenal’s current, uninjured, options cannot: tenacity, bullishness, energy, physicality. His long legs covered so much ground, winning possession, harrying the opposition. Arsenal are more forgiving without him, more considerate to an opposition that is allowed to play without pressure or fear.
This current Arsenal side has so little power, so little anger. There are few players who can dominate physically, and even fewer leaders. It is a side almost devoid of veterans and senior figures. Incredibly, Theo Walcott, just 23-years-old, is one of the longest serving players in the Arsenal team. Six of the starting XI in Germany joined in 2010 or later.
Arsenal, then, have endured an autumn of discontent, fuelled in part by injuries and poor squad building that has left the club dependant on a few key individuals who have been missed as much for the qualities they bring as their actual quality. They must find consistency of selection and form bonds in order to stop the rot.
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