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Monday, 25 January 2016

Mertesacker done and done for

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Everything about yesterday was wrong. From Mertesacker handing over the Arsenal captaincy, to Mertesacker being the wrong side of a quick striker, to Mertesacker diving in to a challenge, to Costa diving over said challenge when in on goal, to Clattenburg allowing himself to be fooled (again) by Costa's cheating, to the defending for their winning goal, to the failure to get close to Fabregas whenever he had the ball, to the substitution of Giroud and then Joel Campbell, to the collective failure to put pressure on Clattenburg, to the collective failure to get in the face of Diego Costa, to Flamini being the only man with any desire to get in to a scoring position at 1-0 behind. The only thing that I felt was a positive what that the players certainly tried hard on the day and did everything they could to get something out of the game, but the actions of the Manager severely restricted their chances of doing so.
The major incident is, of course, the sending-off. As the play developed, with Willian moving past Ramsey like a cone on the training ground, I could see what was about to happen. My seat at the stadium gives me a very good view of the pitch, from high enough to see things unfold. I screamed that Mertesacker was the wrong side of Diego Costa. I fail to see how the BFG couldn't recognise this fact. Once Costa was given the pass there was no way Per was ever going to catch him having given a yard start. I've seen Flamini criticised this morning for backing away from Willian as he ran towards the halfway line but all that should have meant was Koscielny (who was outstanding on the day) and Mertesacker drop off themselves to occupy the space in behind. Koscielny was doing that which is why Costa was onside. What happened next was the kind of thing I expect to see from a youngster learning his trade. For a man with over 100 caps to dive in, with no chance whatsoever of reaching the ball, simply defied belief. It was amateurish from the most senior player in the team. What then happened, of course, is all about the kind of person and footballer Diego Costa is. The fact is, and this is indisputable, that Mertesacker didn't touch him. He didn't cause him to stumble or break stride. Costa's first-touch had actually been perfect and put him in to score past Cech. What kind of centre-forward then is the man who would choose to dive? You could argue that it was exceptionally clever as he went on to score the winning goal a few minutes after against a defence that hadn't yet organised itself properly, but that's far from a guaranteed outcome when you've just passed up the opportunity to put your team ahead in order to get someone a red card. When Clattenburg jogged over to the incident I initially thought he was going to book Costa for diving - the rolling and body-popping that was going on as he threw himself towards the penalty-area should have been a bit of a clue to the official in hindsight. And regardless of the red card Clattenburg could still have booked Costa for his blatant play-acting - I'm not holding my breath for the FA to act on it either. Once he had given the free-kick the referee had no other option than to send off Mertesacker. There is one thing that is bothering me, however. Clattenburg took his time, which is good refereeing. But it also would suggest that he wasn't quite 100% sure until he'd thought about it a bit. Now given who the forward was in this incident, and his record with regards to diving, it should surely follow that if you need time to consider whether or not he dived then the chances are that he did. Costa is the boy who cried wolf, but it seems match officials don't know that story. It's actually the case that there should always be enough doubt whenever Costa is involved. None of this excuses Mertesacker, however, who should have been equally aware of who it was he was trying to tackle and that referees seem incapable of dealing with him. As I said, once the decision was made to award a foul, the red card was inevitable.
For me this should mark the beginning of the end of Per Mertesacker's Arsenal career. I've been a fan of the BFG since he arrived. His lack of pace has always been chronic but he reads the game superbly. He is a communicator at the back and the likes of Jenkinson and Bellerin have benefited greatly from his presence alongside them, as has Koscielny who has developed in to a fine player. The pundits have regularly slagged him as not being good enough but this is a man with over 100 caps for Germany - you do not win 100 caps for Germany if you can't play. My biggest criticism of Mertesacker has always been his failure to dominate in the air when he stands at 6'6". He doesn't attack the ball properly for the most part and this has let him and Arsenal down too often. Earlier this season he had a spell out of the team and Gabriel and Koscielny formed a very decent alliance. This came to a head last time we encountered Diego Costa and Wenger seems to have not forgiven the Brazilian. He also relies on Mertesacker as a leader, especially as the actual Captain of Arsenal is either injured or no longer worth a place in the team. This has been totally misguided in my opinion. Mertesacker could still have been a major figure in the squad, even if he isn't actually on the pitch - Arteta certainly is. The other concerning thing from Per yesterday was this issue of passing the armband to Theo Walcott. Now there isn't much wrong with Theo being skipper - he's a senior player and he sets the right examples in the way he behaves off the pitch. He is committed to Arsenal and has done the job before in pre-season. However, it is not Per Mertesacker's responsibility to decide on Arsenal having a ceremonial captain. This isn't the NFL for God's sake! It says to me that the attitude is wrong when you're taking time out to give Theo this "gift" instead of thinking about how you motivate those around you in a crucial match when you're trying to win the Premier League. Where is your head at when you've been named as Captain of Arsenal FC an hour before kick-off but you have time to think of passing it on to someone else because you believe he deserves some kind of recognition? As I said at the top, just about everything was wrong yesterday.
When the red card occurred we all knew Arsene Wenger would have to make a change to get Gabriel on to the pitch. I don't believe anyone would have considered that Olivier Giroud would be the man to make way. It was utterly crazy. The reaction of those of us inside the stadium and of Giroud himself spoke volumes. It had to be Walcott or Ramsey as far as I'm concerned. Wenger's claim afterwards that we wanted to go longer and use Theo's pace does not hold water. Since when have we been in the habit of doing that? And for a man who will take every opportunity to remind us of his years in football, while we have no experience, it showed a deep lack of understanding of tactics. What made him think that, with an extra man, Chelsea would start playing a high enough line to let us use Theo in behind them? What we needed was Giroud's height and strength to hold the ball further up the pitch allowing Ozil and co to get on the ball in better positions. Giroud had already dominated Terry and Zouma for the first 20 minutes and we'd created some good chances - Campbell and Flamini both should have scored before the red card. When we really went for it after half-time we got in to some really good positions past the Chelsea full-backs, only to find that there was nobody in the middle because we had taken off our centre-forward and leading goalscorer. It is to Flamini's absolute credit that he twice more got in there during the game, albeit he was unable to score - the one on half-time should have been headed in to the net rather than what he actually tried to do, but I'm not having anyone criticise him as his attitude was second to none on the day. The fact is that we were immediately hamstrung by Wenger's stupid substitution that he then compounded by taking off Joel Campbell ten minutes in to the second-half instead of Waclott who may as well have come and sat next to me in the stand.
I was interested in Wenger's comments after the match, when questioned about the lack of a protest from Mertesacker, that his players will not argue with the referees as this is something they have decided is right. It's a very noble attitude and should be lauded, I suppose. However, it does us no favours. I understand why we are like this as, when we had a team that set about pressuring the officials, the media attacked Arsenal at every opportunity. But look at how the other top teams behave. When Mertesacker dived in yesterday the first player to charge towards the referee was John Terry, as he does every time there is a decision to be made, in order to put pressure on. Manchester United have it with Rooney and others, and used to have it with almost their whole team. Vincent Kompany attempts to act as some kind of pseudo-official every time he takes to the pitch at Manchester City. We do nothing of the sort. When the incident occurred at Chelsea earlier in the season their main protagonists were all in Mike Dean's face - not the least of whom was Fabregas, a man who was constantly in the ear of Clattenburg yesterday. All we are doing is rolling over and making it easy for the officials to find against us. We make it too easy. Do I like people haranguing the referee? Of course not. But the time has come to realise that we can't beat them so we may as well join them. If all these sides are allowed to bully the weak officials then it is time Arsenal's players grew a pair and got involved themselves.
I personally believe that the Premier League is beyond us now. We are only a couple of points behind but we are going backwards at the wrong time. A look at our away fixtures to come means I have no real cause for optimism, unless we bring in a player that will seriously boost all the other players in the way Arshavin and Ozil did with their arrival (I thought Ozil tried his heart out yesterday, by the way). We have signed Elneny yet it seems he has not been signed to be a first-team starter at this point, making me wonder why we bothered. The one bright spot is the reaction of Petr Cech to what happened yesterday. He literally picked Koscielny up off the floor and then went on TV to talk about why we can still be Champions, and did so with the smile and confidence of a man who knows what it takes. That is real leadership. I'm no fan of making a goalkeeper your skipper, but it underlined the importance of Cech to this team in every possible way. I might need to cling to his optimism over the next week or so.

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