Arsenal’s away form in 2018 continues to stink up the Premier League, with our visit to St James ending with defeat despite taking an early lead through Alexandre Lacazette. The Gunners are the ONLY side in the entire Football League (England’s top 4 divisions) to have not picked up a single point on their travels in the calendar year, which is truly astonishing, and is one of the best ways to show just how terrible we’ve been this season.
There were a lot of things that went wrong with the game, including our complete inability to strong together any attack that looked remotely in danger of getting us a second goal, particularly after they went 2-1 up. Sure, our attack was missing a number of key players, but that doesn’t excuse not being able to fashion chances for two of the most potent finishers in Europe.
Still, at least one can understand that the team had trouble syncing further upfield, given Willock was playing his first Premier League game, and Aubameyang hasn’t played a lot of games on the left wing. The midfield also lacked dynamism, which was again understandable since a Xhaka-Elneny isn’t exactly going to set the field on fire.
But the defence, the defence is what was woeful, and has been for the last few games, even when we’ve won. Earlier in the season, I had avoided going after the defence, blaming our defensive troubles on the lack of cover from midfield, especially the numerous failings of Granit Xhaka and the indiscipline of Aaron Ramsey.
Neither of those reasons can apply to Sunday’s game, and nor do they really apply to other games where our defending has not been up to the mark, including the Southampton game and the shambles at CSKA Moscow. But we now have a major problem with our defenders, who look absolutely incapable of dealing with any serious pressure.
The identity of those who look most uncomfortable is a little surprising. Culprit No. 1 is Nacho Monreal, who was at fault for Ritchie’s goal on Sunday, and who was terrible in Moscow, beaten by Nababkin to the cross for the first goal we conceded there, then failing to react after Cech’s initial save for the second, allowing Nababkin to get a tap-in. Given his consistency over the last few seasons, that saw him oust Kieran Gibbs from the starting line-up, Monreal’s recent form is surprising to say the least. However, this hasn’t been a great season for the Spaniard, barring the odd game and a brief purple patch in front of goal. Sead Kolasinac must be doing something really wrong not to get the nod in games like this, but despite him not living up to his early potential, I’m not quite sure why Wenger rates him so poorly.
Culprit No. 2 is Shkodran Mustafi. When reports emerged during the summer that Arsenal were willing to sell the German, I have to admit I was baffled. Sure, he hadn’t ended the season too well, and certainly didn’t look like the great defensive hope we had pegged him as earlier on, but he looked like the kind of defender who could be a key asset – tigerish in the tackle, better in the air than his height indicated, and decent on the ball.
His struggles this season, however, have shown perhaps why we were willing to let him go – though how we were willing to do this without signing a replacement is yet another example of how poorly planned our transfer business tends to be. Mustafi went to sleep for the goals against Southampton last weekend, and again for Perez’s equaliser on Tyneside. He was also shaky against CSKA, looking so rattled anytime Musa or Schalov or Golovin got near the goal that we ended up having to switch to a back 3 to give us some stability at the back.
Both he and Monreal screwed things up fantastically well for Ritchie’s goal, of course. Mustafi failed to head a long throw away, instead sending it back towards Nacho, who failed to get rid of it either, instead heading it to Slimani. Mustafi then decided to stop and admire the roses and let Slimani get a free header to nod the ball on to Perez, in acres of space since all the defenders had been sucked towards the right (thanks to Mustafi’s incompetence, it should be remembered), and who then had all the time in the world to find Richie, who had a country of space to control the ball and thwack it past Cech.
There is a nerviness and panic to routine defending that is incredibly worrisome about this Arsenal side, and that will continue to make things difficult even when the rest of the side sorts itself out. Against CSKA, it allowed them to score two goals and put us in real danger of being eliminated, and has cost us the points in game after game in the league this season. It’s ruined game plans against big sides (think back to Mustafi’s abject failure to deal with a long ball for Aguero, for heaven’s sake) and will be ruthlessly punished, you’d have to think, by Atletico in the Europa League semis.
Lest we forget, failure is not an option in the Europa League. Sadly, because of the deficiencies in the team at present, we may have to revert to the back 3 against Diego Simeone’s side, something which we really needed to avoid so that we could rediscover our attacking verve. But if we can’t handle Dwight Gayle, Ayoze Perez and Islam Slimani, can we hope to rely on Mustafi and Monreal as part of a back 4 to face Diego Costa and Antoine Griezmann? I certainly don’t think so.
Wenger has to go at the end of this season, you suspect, but surely even in his diminished state he won’t have noticed this problem at the back. Whether he resolves it with a back 3 or by dropping Mustafi, or by getting Steve Bould and Mad Jens to threaten this lot in a dark back alley, I don’t know, but something needs to be done. Otherwise not only are we going to lose our one shot at salvaging this season, but also finish the season behind Sean Dyche’s brilliant Burnley.