AS Monaco did to Arsenal what they had done to Manchester City and Middlesbrough
As someone who tries to take a positive out of every performance – more for my own sanity – I’m often accused of being complicit in accepting “mediocrity” amongst various other aspersions I shan’t repeat.
I’ve searched, believe me I’ve searched, for a positive from last night’s match and it’s a damning indictment of the performance that the best I can come up with is Özil was the only player in the top 5 for ground covered in that match.
Loosely, this is further evidence that dispels the myth Özil is a lazy player. Do not mistake this for praise or countenance for Mesut – he was as bad as anyone else last night – as it is merely separating effort and effectiveness for it is the former he is grossly most often accused of.
There is as little to defend from that performance as the team actually did in the game. We were complacent, sloppy, naive and weak.
I remember getting quite annoyed at Paul Merson earlier this season when he called Arsenal tactically naive as I thought it was a ridiculous statement for that match and a description for a group of professional footballers but last night it completely fit. The label of being tactically naive wasn’t just warranted last night, it was earned.
I deliberately held off airing some of these views last night as I wanted to avoid saying something I might regret in the heat of the moment but over 12 hours later and, in a state of equanimity, many of my initial reactions to the result and performance have remained with me.
We started with a good intensity and it looked like we could be about to deliver a pasting to Monaco and that is where I feel the game was lost. After about 8 minutes, we started to look disinterested as though the result was a foregone conclusion. The mental battle was already lost.
Monaco did to us in part what we did to Manchester City
Monaco did to us in part what we did to Manchester City and Middlesbrough. They were rank underdogs for this match as we were at the Etihad and they executed their plan with the professionalism we did. They pressed us hard and high, they took advantage of our lack of width and teased us inside and waited for us to make our own mistakes before countering with rapid intent.
As we did against Middlesbrough – who had shocked the nation with their comprehensive defeat of the reigning Premier League champions – Monaco took no risks, committed few men forward, and patiently waited for an opportunity. Of course, the first goal was incredibly fortunate and gave them something to protect but their game plan was evident from the off.
Once again, Arsenal overcommitted players forward against a counter-attacking team. That is tactically naive. That is exactly what a counter-attacking team want you to do. We did it to City. Crumbs, we even did it to Leicester! We conceded possession, let them flow into our half in droves and hit back with ferocity when they lost the ball from trying to be too clever. That is exactly what Monaco did to us.
We had chances of course and they were spurned like a lovesick teenager crudely asking out the most popular girl in school in front of all her friends. Giroud, who has been in excellent form recently, looked a shadow of his worst self. That is probably the poorest performance I’ve seen from him and I’ve been one of his biggest supporters.
Our biggest problem came from the ball carrying. Too many of our players attempted to carry the ball past two or three players to make a short pass and run on to the return. One-twos are great when you’re all on the same wavelength, but we clearly were not.
We lost the ball so many times that way and it is naivety from our players that they carried on making the same mistake. The decision to take off Coquelin and bring on another ball carrying player was mind-boggling.
Winning 3-0 is probably an ask too far
Credit to Oxlade-Chamberlain, he scored what could have been, or still could be, a vital goal but then he lost the ball under scant pressure for their third goal. Winning 2-0 away was a daunting enough prospect but winning 3-0 is probably an ask too far.
He does that a lot though. His ball retention is pretty poor for someone who is tipped to have a long term future in the middle of the park. He should not be singled out though as it was not his decision to put him in the middle. Similarly, Wenger cannot be singled out for possibly being forced into a drastic decision by the complacency and naivety of his team.
The all share equal blame. It would be unfair to single out Mertesacker for his mistake for the second goal when on reflection he had little choice. He knew he did not have the pace to track the runner so he did the only thing he could to influence the situation and attempted to win the ball.
The true crime there is how far up the pitch the entire defence was. It’s another example of how many bodies we committed forward chasing the game. We do that far too often. It is comprehensible with 10 minutes to go in a normal match but in a two-legged game it’s almost unforgivable.
Arsenal also tried to play their way out from the back too often. With the quality of player Arsenal possesses it’s only right that they do, but there’s a reason long ball teams play the way they do. They punt it long because they don’t have the talent to play out from the back. Last night Arsenal didn’t have the ability. As soon as it became clear they were having problems clearing their lines they should have gone back to basics and punted it long. Sadly, they instead tried to play their way out of trouble. This is tactically naive. If something isn’t working in a match you don’t keep trying it. You do something different, something simple, and then work on it on the training ground. A competitive match of such magnitude is not the place to practice.
Execution of tactics has been a bigger problem for us than the tactics themselves but maybe more can be done by the management to reign in the expressive football when the opposition have clearly set up to frustrate us.
We picked an insanely pacey team last night which would have been perfectly suited to playing on the counter but instead we played on the front foot and quickly found ourselves on the back.
Arsenal clearly have the ability to beat Monaco, evinced by the amount of chances they had to put the game to bed last night whilst playing relatively poorly, so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility for them to buck their ideas up and put in a Bayern-esque display in Monaco.
The team needs a good shake-up for Sunday where they simply have to put things right with immediate effect. A scrappy win will not do, they need to dominate and decimate to get their minds right for busy 14 days of football which will go a long way to determining how successful Arsenal’s season will be.
Top four, the FA Cup, and at least progression to the next round of the Champions League will have been a successful season based on the up and down nature of this team this year.
I still believe in this team, but we need to finish this season with the execution of the Manchester City match and the professionalism of the Middlesbrough display in every game. We have the potential and talent to saunter our way to victories but not the mentality. Yet.