Monday, 25 April 2011
Bolton 2 - 1 Arsenal
Arsene Wenger seemed different after the game yesterday. His interview seemed more relaxed, more lucid, perhaps, than in recent weeks. I'm not sure if he was suffering from some kind of shock, or if the fact that all hope has gone for the Title was some sort of release for him - there's nothing to worry about anymore so the pressure is off, in some strange way. It was bizarre. I expected the usual stern expression and some criticism of the officiating (we were denied a stick-on penalty while Bolton were awarded one for a dive), but instead we got a fairly frank assessment of our defensive issues. It was interesting to hear him concede that we don't defend set-pieces very well though it has not been, as Arsene suggested, a problem this season - it goes back to the very first league game at the new stadium and has been an issue ever since. The facts are that the players are simply not instructed in how to defend corners and free-kicks, nobody is told who to mark, where to stand, and other basic functions. Even poor players, if drilled and organised correctly, can be strong defenders - just look at Fulham last season, or West Brom since Roy Hodgson took over - simple organisation, and proper defensive planning are the key to their relative success. It's all very well being able to pass the ball, or dribble in to midfield with it, but a defender's basic function is to stop the ball getting in to their goal. That is why we appear so weak in certain situations - the defenders are simply not taught, or told, how to defend properly. The fact that more than half of the goals we have conceded this season are from set-pieces tells its own story, I would suggest.
As for the game itself we had enough chances to have won it yet again. The profligacy that is another feature of Arsenal's play was there once more. Samir Nasri has been Arsenal's player of the season for me, but yesterday we saw that he has a temperamental flaw as big as any of the other chokers in the squad. When put through one-on-one, in a must-win game, Nasri didn't finish it off. In fact, his "head down and hit it as hard as you can" effort was what you'd expect to see from a defender faced with that situation. Nasri is usually a good finisher, but here he had no composure to simply roll it past a goalkeeper in no-mans land. The likes of Anders Limpar, Marc Overmars, Freddie Ljungberg, or even Ray Parlour, would have buried the chance calmly. The Manager must surely regret banging on about mental strength when many of his players have proved time and again in the past eight weeks that they have none of it. The late goals against, and the inability to put the ball in the net, point to the fact that there is something important missing from a number of these players.
There is one more thing I want to talk about with our players when in front of goal - the eagerness to pass to someone else. It winds me up when I see Wenger jumping about on the touchline at the sight of another chance gone begging because of yet another pass, rather than the shot at goal. It's something that has been plaguing us for years now. You could point fingers at one player if it was only one that did it. But with Arsenal it seems every player is determined to pass rather than take responsibility and score the goal. Ultimately you have to deduce that they are following orders - they are simply not allowed to shoot unless it the only option available - if a pass is on, then you must pass it again. How else can you explain Wilshere's cut-back after Fabregas hit the post, or Chamakh trying to nod it down to Nasri, or Nasri trying to square it when in on goal? It's just so very frustrating.
I'll just finish the comments on yesterday by noting the reactions of Jack Wilshere and Wojciech Szczesny to the winning goal. Szczesny was fuming with his defence for not protecting the goal adequately, especially as both Bolton goals followed superb saves from him to keep us on level terms. He smashed the ball away and then sat in the goal glaring at his colleagues. Good on him. Jack, meanwhile, sat in tears on the bench - tears of frustration at having had such a wonderful first season, yet all that effort has come to nothing. These two are clearly part of Arsenal's future - I hope that those who join them in that future carry the same hatred of mediocrity and defeat, then we might see some progress.
So the Title race really is over now for us. There is no more forlorn hope to cling to. The best that can be said is that we can relax and "enjoy" the last four games of the season. Arsenal, being Arsenal, will probably win all of them. However, I have a very real fear that this season is about to implode in exactly the same way it did last year. If it does then we might not even finish third - and that would mean an early start to next season as we would have to qualify for the European Cup. It's a sad state of affairs when you find yourself hoping Blackburn take something off Manchester City!
Congratulations to QPR on their, almost certain, promotion to the Premier League. QPR are a proper Premier League Club who have been away for far too long from the big time. That they have got there through a mega-rich owner, and employing Neil Warnock, is an unfortunate sub-plot. Nevertheless, I am pleased to see them back. Hopefully they will be joined by another Club that belong in the Premier League - Norwich City. As long as the Welsh sides remain down in the Championship we will see three decent additions next season to the top flight.