During our first season at the Emirates season, there was theme embedded within most of our home matches; first half laziness. On many occasions, the fans had to endure a lacklustre first 45 minutes, followed by a vastly improved second in which the team was generally chasing the game. As the current season got going it seemed as though things had changed. The problem recently is that the problem is creeping back in.
Look at these games from last season.
Arsenal 1 Aston Villa 1
Olof Mellberg put Villa ahead in the second half but having battered at the door Gilberto scored late on to level the scores.
Arsenal 1 Middlesborough 1
James Morrison scored on the counter attack in the first half before Henry equalised from the spot.
Arsenal 1 Everton 1
Tim Cahill scored early on from a corner but Van Persie rescued a point with a late free kick.
Arsenal 1 Newcastle 1
Kieron Dyer nicked a quickfire goal in the first half but Henry made it 1-1 with a great free kick.
Arsenal 2 Portsmouth 2
Portsmouth went two ahead with goals from Pamarot and Taylor. Adebayor and Gilberto made the scores level in the second half.
Arsenal 6 Blackburn 2
An early Nonda penalty was cancelled out by goals from Gilberto, Adebayor and Hleb. When it became 3-2 Van Persie scored twice and Flamini added the 6th
Arsenal 2 Wigan 1
Landzaat scored a stunner after half an hour but an own goal followed by a Rosicky header finally broke Wigan’s resistance.
Arsenal 1 Bolton 1 (Fa Cup)
Kevin Nolan stole the lead early in the second half but Kolo Toure bundled the ball in for 1-1.
The common factor in all of these games is that Arsenal went behind to a goal against the run of play, only to fight back to get a point. These goals normally came late on as Arsenal battered away against deep lying defences. Teams normally came to the Emirates with a defensive set up and once they had stolen the lead in the first half, or early in the second, this game plan was only strengthened.
I say above the goal was “against the run of play”. What I should say is that the goal came against the run of possession. We came out in the first half, passed the ball from side to side, backwards a bit but rarely with much pace going forward. The team obviously took time to settle into games and were happy to wait for a chance to come rather than go all out to make things happen.
With away teams set up in the custom 4-5-1 formation, they were happy for Arsenal to play in front of them. They were able to deal with any balls pumped long and with Arsenal’s lack of width, the middle area was congested and we were forced to play wide. As the half gradually drew on, Arsenal pushed more men forward, leaving us a bit more open at the back. This was not a problem as the opposition seemed unlikely to pose a threat. Suddenly however, the away team sensed an opportunity to break and unlike the home side, created that perfect opportunity and clinically took the lead.
From then on, we were forced the chase the game. As the away side held the lead, they knew they did not have to do anything more than try and soak up all our attacking pressure. It was only once the first goal had gone in that the lads began to try and force the issue as they realised a goal was needed fast. Wenger obviously rallied the troops at half time but by then it was too late. The problem was that we did not have an answer till very late on in those games and were able to take victory against Wigan and Blackburn.
At the start of this season it looked like same old story as Fulham scored the first goal at the Emirates. Inspired goalkeeping (a common occurrence against Arsenal it seems), desperate defending and wasteful finishing meant it took 82 minutes for us to break Fulham down as Toure won the penalty which Van Persie smashed home.
Up until this moment it seemed like we were never going to score and the most we could hope for was 1 point. We had battled away and I for one thought that we had used up all our luck to get that one goal; a second would never come. I willed that second goal to go in but it seemed like the second was beyond us.
Then…in the last minute, what had been our downfall last season was seemingly put behind us. During the 2006/07 season, our downfall at home was our inability to turn up to, and kill games early on. These games took their toll on the players but this season there seemed to be a turning point. As Cesc Fabregas played the ball over the top to Alex Hleb, I knew that elusive goal was going to come.
That goal took on huge importance as it showed this team was different to the one from the previous season. On the face of it, the goal got us off to a winning start in the Premiership, but it took on added importance. With all the media doubt surrounding the new season, it was important that this team went out to show that we had moved on from Thierry Henry and we were going to fight all the way for the title.
From this game on Arsenal had a bit of a swagger about them and teams were blown away as our run of form gathered pace. Unlike the season before we started went at teams early on with the throttle pushed down hard. Teams were blitzed by the speed and ruthlessness of our Football. With the partnership of Emmanuel Adebayor and Robin Van Persie up front, the days of early mistakes and desperate late equalisers seemed to be a thing of the past.
Then we hit December. Having played such brilliant football up until the Villa game on December 1st it was not unusual to see us go in at the break 2-1 up after a master class in attacking football. As soon as Alex Hleb went off however, the life was drained out of us and as if a switch had been flicked, we lost all impetus. From that moment on the goals were not free flowing like before and our play was void of speed and movement as we had become so used to.
The middle stint of the season saw us grind out results. From December 16th to January 1st we took 13 points from a possible 15 in the league. During this period we beat Chelsea, Tottenham, Everton and West Ham; in my opinion without playing to our best. Although we beat Everton by 4 goals to 1, we did not reach our usual standard of play and resorted to the long ball game.
Over this short period of time, the media was beginning to believe Arsenal had the stomach for the fight and were getting victories without playing well; a true sign of Champions. The problem was that this could not last forever. Sooner or later we had to find our early season form. This came towards the end of January as we went to Fulham and Manchester City and welcomed Newcastle and Blackburn to the Emirates. During these games we scored 11 goals and conceded only 1. It looked as though we were finding our feet again as the goals were flowing and we looked solid at the back.
At this point we were 5 points clear of Manchester United. Now we find ourselves level on points with United but they have a game in hand. I expect them to have beaten Bolton by the time this goes out and then we will be 3 points behind. If Chelsea win at Tottenham on the same evening we will have allowed them to close down our advantage as we will be level on points with them. We visit Stamford Bridge on Sunday also.
So what went wrong? Many will point to the defeat at the hands of Manchester United in the FA Cup. I do not buy that. To me, when a game goes that badly, all that the players want to do is move on as soon as possible. It is dwelled upon for a few hours the next Monday morning but from then the next game is the important thing. One must also take into ac count that only Gallas, Fabregas, Eboue, Hleb and Eduardo had played in the previous match and were likely to start the next one.
That next game was AC Milan and Arsene Wenger got a fantastic performance out of his players that night; the only thing missing was a goal. The flickering flame of the Manchester United game was extinguished there and then and we were ready to push on in the League once again. Next came a trip to St Andrews.
It was here that I believe the season changed. It is likely the players were on a high going into the game and wanted to get the chase for the Premier League title back on track. Before the game even got started, it was soured by Martin Taylor. I am being careful not to accuse him of anything deliberate but the fact of the matter is that the game was overshadowed by his horrific tackle on Eduardo.
The Arsenal players were clearly in a state of shock for the whole first half after what happened. When you see one of your best mates lying there in so much pain, there is no way you can concentrate on a football match right there and then. To add insult to injury (excuse the pun) we went into the break 1-0 down after a dodgy refereeing decision.
That 15 minute break has never been more needed by Arsene Wenger. He got the troops in and once they had re-grouped and focused on winning that game for Eduardo, they turned the game on its head. They showed great character to come from one goal behind and take the lead. Winning that game 2-1 could have been a major boost after what happened but it was cruelly taken away by the ref. There is no way Gael Clichy fouled Parnaby yet the ref pointed to the spot. The manner in which we drew that game made the day even more awful than it already was.
From here it was always going to be tough to focus the minds back to the title race. Although players came out and declared a desire to win the trophy for Eduardo, I knew it would take a bit of Football to get firmly back on track. There was one slight hitch. Aston Villa were never going to lie down in during their pursuit for Europe. Like they had done the previous season, they stole a lucky goal and were content to keep us at arms length.
The fans endured a lacklustre first half performance reminiscent of the season before. This was understandable after the events of the previous game but what was not good was our similar showing in the second. We were unable to create anything through the middle, failed to get round the Villa defence and only succeeded when we went long occasionally. There was a stubborn refusal to use this tactic more often and this was a mistake. The only time we caused problems was when we aimed long towards Bendtner and Adebayor, 6/5″ and 6/4″ respectively. Who wouldn’t cause problems with these two up front. Our goal came from one lung punt into the box and we had rescued a point.
There was me, walking out of the stadium, happy to have gained a point. Taking stock, it was not a bad point and I was confident we would push on. I knew we had Milan next and any sort of good performance would put us in good stead for the months ahead. What we got was in fact one of the best Arsenal performances in my lifetime. The way we kept the ball and moved Milan around at will was something I had not seen in recent months. After this I expected our troubles were behind us.
The simple truth was that Europe suits us more. In the League teams look to frustrate us and whereas at the start of the season we blew teams away without a care in the world, we were suddenly letting it affect us. With our most natural goalscorer Eduardo out we started to waste chance after chance. Wigan were up next and despite the appalling quality of the pitch, we should have taken three points but were wasteful in front of goal. A poor away performance yes, but still a point and ‘Boro at home’ the team that lost 2-0 to Cardiff the next day, surely 3 points here?
Well no actually, once again, only 1. Like Villa, they nicked a goal on the counter after Arsenal started at a canter. Suddenly we seemed a bit more alert but never had the speed and cunning to open ‘Boro up. We deserved a point at least and it should have been very different had this ref not dropped a clanger in the 4th minute. Once again we were hard done by an official.
What has got to change then?
The first thing is out mentality in the first half. Wenger rambles on and on about mental strength and character. Show this in the bloody first half then please! They did it at the start of the season but now have reverted back to their old ways. We have scored more goals than any side in the last 15 minutes; this can be recreated early on in games.
Maybe pre match preparation is not getting the players ready as it should. I see away teams doing passing drills against each other before games and taking shots at their keeper. All i see Arsenal doing is doing a few running exercises and passing the ball leisurely between themselves. These slightly competitive warm ups get the juices flowing and this may give teams an edge early on. Rarely do I see us practicing shots beforehand either. It is no wonder the players seem reluctant to have a go and often take time to find their range. Maybe we need to get all this done before the game starts so we can go out and kill teams early on?
Is complacency a factor? The times we have dropped points unnecessarily have been against so called lesser sides. When the season begun, everyone wrote Arsenal off and a no pressure situation was created. The players went into every game ready to prove people wrong, whoever the opposition was. Now that people have taken note of our position, weaknesses are showing. Gallas said the players were up for the Milan game, it is the type of game players thrive on. It must be this whether we visit the San Siro or the JJB.
The last factor I want to consider is the lack of options. I have often highlighted the need for a winger; someone to stretch teams and create gaps in the centre. With Hleb cutting inside and Eboue looking lost on the right we rarely get around the sides of teams. We lack someone who will get the ball and go at teams. We do not have a C.Ronaldo type player. Rosicky does add drive to our attack and we have missed him. We need to be able to shake it up once in a while and bringing Diaby on at left midfield is not it.
We play Chelsea, Bolton, Liverpool and Manchester United in the league now and these pathetic first half showings have got to stop. We may have only been 1 behind against Villa and ‘Boro but the other big three will punish this further. Hopefully the occasion spurs the players on but when we get back to the nitty gritty games, the players must show respect to the opposition, whoever it is, and play as if their lives depended on it.