I’m sure you’ll all be familiar – even those who did not read my match preview – with the statistics flying around before yesterday’s game. Needless to say, Schalke ended a very strong run of form in Champions League home games for Arsenal. As for actual, more immediate form, Arsenal looked much the same as they did at Norwich: slow and unimaginitive. Once again, we cannot complain about deserving more, because we quite obviously didn’t.
The players and management talked about a response to such a limp performance at Carrow Road, and the response came in the way of a few changes to the lineup. As I’d hoped, Coquelin was brought in alongside Arteta, and Gervinho was not deployed out wide. Sadly, Ramsey remained in the team, playing out of position, and Gervinho had just as poor a game upfront as he did on the wings on Saturday.
There’s no doubt injuries are affecting Arsenal right now. Missing two of our first choice right-wingers makes it understandably difficult for us to play the kind of football we want to. Last season van Persie’s success in front of goal owed a lot to the crossing of Theo Walcott. While I’m as big a critic of Theo as you’ll find, I can’t argue that if he’s used properly (i.e. not involved in too much build-up) he can be a very effective winger, frightening teams with his pace and opening up space for others. Podolski on the left does not play the traditional winger role, but is more like Robert Pires or Freddie Ljungberg; basically an extra striker arriving late from wide positions, making him harder to mark than an orthodox centre-forward. With the goals coming from the left-side of the pitch and the assists expected to come from the right, we look a lot worse without Walcott or Oxlade-Chamberlain in the team.
Gervinho can’t play that role because he doesn’t cross enough, and his movement off the ball is a little brainless. He likes to get the ball to feet and then what he does with it is anyone’s guess. Although he is far from convincing as a striker either, I was glad he was moved off the wings. Sadly, Wenger made the mistake of playing Ramsey there, preferring experience over a player who can actually play the role he’s being asked of. When youngster Serge Gnabry came on he looked lively, as he did in his brief appearance at Norwich. I know we all complain (myself included) about too many young players, but if Wenger has as much faith in them as he claims, why not give them a chance when their position is up for grabs? I’d much rather that than seeing an off-form central midfielder playing on the right and messing up our system. Either stick to the system by playing players that fit, or change the system to adapt to the injury situation.
Huntelaar and Afellay got their goals. Both are quality players as I said in my preview, but the defending from Arsenal was poor on both goals, and Andre Santos had a nightmare all evening against Jefferson Farfan. I highlighted the in-form Lewis Holtby as the threat before the game, but we managed to keep him quiet. Sadly it was in the wide areas where Schalke were free to attack us. This is, again, where our lack of wingers cost us – there was no threat on the break from Arsenal if Schalke’s wingers got too far forward. A crucial, unseen part of Walcott’s game is that he makes wingers and full-backs think twice about bombing forward and leaving him too much space. Yesterday Farfan and their right-back Uchida had excellent games as they were given the freedom of our left-hand side. Podolski only made one tackle all night, looking generally sluggish. A far cry from games such as Liverpool away when he worked very hard at tracking back.
There are tactical explanations for most things in football, but as well as that it’s easy to see the team just looks a little lazy at the moment. There isn’t the same speed of passing or eagerness to get the ball back as there was in the early games of the season. Even when we weren’t scoring against the likes of Sunderland and Stoke, we at least created a lot of chances and could put our misfortune down to some bad finishing or a lack of understanding between a new set of attacking players still getting used to each other. Now we’re simply moving slower and shooting less, and basically giving our opponents an easy time. Schalke are a good side, but still one you would expect us to beat at home if we gave it our best.
Next up is QPR at the Emirates and I hope we give Gnabry a chance to start. It might also be worth resting Podolski, who looks tired, and giving Arshavin a chance on the left. Why not? He’s in our squad and we’ve got nothing to lose, so let’s use him once in a while. We know if he’s given time and shown confidence in, he can be a top performer. As ever, there looks to be a need at Arsenal to remind some players their places in the team aren’t always assured.