When Wenger was quizzed pre-game about the unusually high expectations foisted on his team this season by both supporters and media, he admitted to the feeling being a different but welcome one. He talked about enjoying the pressure and planning to do well under it. Thing is, I have never known this Arsenal team to do well under pressure that stems from positive expectation. We flew to the top of the table in 2013 when no one was expecting us to, and just when fans were moistening their loins came an almighty collapse. When out squad was nicely settled in 2014, fresh off the capture of Alexis and a thumping win against Man City in the Community Shield, we laughed in the face of predictions of a strong title challenge and went limp by Christmas. We jittered through two Wembley visits in 2014 and one in 2015, being pre-match favourites in all of them. Apropos of none of the above (or perhaps all of the above), Arsenal responded to raised expectations and the tag of favourites with a rancid piss-river of a performance against West Ham.
What Wenger did wrong
Everything he did – from his birth till the final whistle today – was wrong. His mere existence is a blight upon the North London landscape, and we need to call NATO forces to take him out discreetly if there is any hope for future peace.
I kid, of course. I didn’t think he did much wrong today in terms of team selection, but perhaps the new formation tweaks played a part in Arsenal’s sluggishness. Both in the Community Shield and today, Wenger has shifted from last season’s successful pairing of Cazorla and Coquelin in the middle, and instead has Ramsey partnering Coquelin, with Cazorla, Ozil, and Chamberlain acting as attacking midfielders to Giroud’s centre forward. Midfielders who don’t play through the centre will naturally see less of the ball and control less of the game, and that perhaps played a part in Cazorla being invisible for large parts of the game, especially in the second half.
That’s a minor point though. When else is the manager going to try out new player arrangements if not against West Ham at home? And today’s team-sheets certainly didn’t come with an attached dossier from the manager saying ‘play like a toilet in the dysentery ward of a public hospital’. That was all the team’s doing.
What the team did wrong
Pretty much everything. We started slowly, albeit bossing all soft stats like possession and number of passes, and hardly forced their keeper into a finger-lift. Ramsey kept it too square at times, lacking Cazorla’s vision, and Coquelin tried to Song-ify his game unnecessarily. Ozil was okay in the first half and poor in the second, whereas he needs to be all over games like these.
Just when it seemed like the first half was petering to a dull close, Arsenal demonstrated institutional brainfreeze in defence and let in the softest of openers. Marking was non-existent, no player seemed to organize the defence in preparation for the free-kick (Cech and Mertesacker ought to take up that mantle), and the charge and attempted punch from Cech dredged up some unwanted memories from the Almunia Pensieve of Doom.
We could have gotten back into the game if we had equalized early on, or at least if we hadn’t gone another goal behind. Chamberlain, who was our best player overall, dribbled his way out of defence and into trouble, giving the ball to Zarate. His quick turn and shot had Cech completely wrong footed, the Czech keeper going down slower than a hacked oak tree as the ball trundled past him. His subsequent matches can only get better than this.
What was as worrying as our defensive ineptitude was our lack of creation after West Ham’s second goal went in. For the last half an hour, there was a procession of indolent sideways passing, runs missed, crosses under or over hit, and half-hearted pressing to get the ball back. You can’t blame tiredness in the first game of the season, and you can’t blame complacency when you’re already 2-0 down. For a group of players that has performed so well over the past 7 months and had an on-form pre-season, the absence of cojones and drive today was inexplicable. The fact that Wenger had to bring Sanchez – a player just back from the holidays – on for 20 minutes was a damning indictment on the Mt. Fuji sized dump we took on the pitch today.
What this tells us
To be fair, you can’t read too much into one match (unless it’s a match you win, in which case you’re going to win the quintuple and get laid by Charlize Theron on a bed of milk and roses). It perhaps tells us once again that Arsenal don’t deal well with positive expectations, and need their asses on fire and the world against them in order to perform at their best. It tells us that mid-table clubs in the Premier League have improved, as also evidenced by Swansea’s draw against Chelsea yesterday. It tells us that we need to go on a strong run against tougher opposition than West Ham (Crystal Palace away, Liverpool at home) in order to have the good start that last season lacked.
And of course, it tells us that we need Benzema. Because everything tells us that. Fire that nuke, Arsene.