Monday, 7 April 2014

All at sea

Everton 3-0 Arsenal

Another away game against a top side, another lacklustre performance and yet another heavy defeat. Following the 1-1 draw at home to Manchester City, Arsene Wenger claimed Arsenal had turned the corner and overcome the mental scars of their previous away match at Stamford Bridge. Yet the manager had clearly misunderstood the signs emanating from his side, as the stench of failure now engulfs the Emirates.

This is no longer a bump in the road, a slight dip in form, or a bad day at the office. This is now a recurring nightmare which the manager has failed to rectify on four separate occasions. Away to Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and now Everton, the Gunners have looked a shadow of the side that took the Premier League by storm and encouraged the supporters to dare to dream of a title winning campaign for the first time in 10 long years. Most worrying of all is the sense that Wenger appears to be a broken man who has lost the capacity to turn things around. He seems to have learnt nothing from those heavy defeats on the road and has sent his side out with the exact same game plan in each of those games. The result?  20 goals conceded, 4 scored, 0 points and humiliation each and every time.

Yesterday’s defeat at Goodison Park was just the latest example of Arsenal’s failure to deliver on the big occasions. This was a game that was billed as a shootout for the last champions league place. Win and the Gunners would have opened up a 7 point gap on their rivals, lose and the deficit would be reduced to a solitary point, with Everton also having a game in hand. Yet at no point did Arsenal show any hunger, desire or passion to secure the crucial 3 points. In fact the two teams were polar opposites. Everything that was exceptional about Everton’s game was distinctly lacking from the Gunners display.

The home side showed immense energy in hunting the ball down when out of possession and then a great turn of pace once they had won the ball back. Arsenal on the other hand half-heartedly closed down the Everton player in possession, ambling forward without any conviction whatsoever. Roberto Martinez had a team that was a joy to behold, especially going forward, as his side were full of movement, creating space for their teammates and offering several options to the man on the ball.  

In contrast, the Gunners were bereft of any movement. No one was willing to make runs beyond Giroud and in behind the Everton defence. Time and time again the Arsenal player on the ball would look up and be faced with red and white statues as all the Gunners players were stood still. The only option therefore was to play the ball to feet, with the Arsenal player receiving the pass having his back to goal. As a result, the attack was painfully slow and the Gunners rarely troubled the Everton defence on yet another day to forget for Arsene Wenger.

Of course the manager can point to the fact that this is a side which is hamstrung at the moment, lacking any pace whatsoever, which makes defending against Arsenal a rather simple task. But Theo Walcott was ruled out for the rest of the season at the turn of the year and nothing was done to rectify the absence of genuine pace during the January transfer window. Surely then Wenger should have at least devised a plan to make up for this deficiency, but it seems that his blind faith in his side has now come back to haunt him.

Nothing epitomises the manager’s supreme confidence in his team than his decision to stick with Giroud. During the opening months of the campaign the French striker was in impressive form, but it was clear that he could not continue to play the lone role up front for the entire season. Wenger should have signed a reinforcement during the January transfer window but spectacularly failed to do so and has been made to pay for that decision. Giroud was absolutely useless against Everton yesterday. The Frenchman has no pace, is easily outmuscled, fails to win most aerial battles and is no longer holding the ball up for his teammates. Contrast this with Lukaku, who was full of pace, strength and power, and Wenger’s decision to persist with Giroud becomes all the more baffling.

Everton’s first goal came seconds after Arsenal could have opened the scoring themselves. A poor back pass from John Stones appeared too short for Tim Howard. However although Giroud seemed the favourite to latch onto the loose ball, the Frenchman was running so slowly it looked as though he was running backwards. Howard easily won the race to the ball and played a pass to Leighton Baines. The Englishman had been a threat with his forward runs from the very start of the game, with Santi Cazorla failing to track these runs time and time again. Yet Wenger did nothing to address this issue and was duly punished as Baines surged forward and played a ball through to Lukaku in the Arsenal box. The fact the ball was allowed to travel so far was embarrassing. Mertesacker and Vermaelen were both culpable for poor positioning with one pass taking them both out of the game, leaving Monreal to try to outmuscle Lukaku in the middle of the area. It was a contest the Spaniard was never going to win and although Lukaku saw his effort saved by Szczesny, the rebound fell to Naismith who slotted home.

The second goal also came on the counter attack as the ball was played down the right channel to Lukaku. The Belgian powerhouse was faced with Monreal once more, but rather than show him down the line, the Spanish left back allowed Lukaku to cut inside and with no challenges coming in from either Vermaelen or Mertesacker, Lukaku fired into the far corner of the net.

Given the lacklustre display, it would have been conceivable for Wenger to make changes at half time, but this is a manager who very rarely makes substitutions during the interval, regardless of his team’s performance and as such it was not until Everton scored the third that the manager decided he had seen enough and called for reinforcements from the bench. The third goal highlighted the home side’s hunger perfectly. Kevin Mirallas hounded Sagna and won possession in the Everton half, before driving towards goal, completely unchallenged, playing the ball through to Naismith. Szczesny raced off his line and parried the ball away, but Mirallas reacted quicker than Arteta and although the Spaniard did manage to get his foot on the ball, he could only divert it into his own net.  The ease with which Everton had torn Arsenal apart was simply embarrassing.

With a contract that has so far remained unsigned, Wenger must now be seriously considering his future at the club. The players have professed their wish for the manager to extend his stay at the Emirates, but their performances on the field suggest that Wenger’s influence on these same players has diminished significantly. Wigan must have looked at that display yesterday and been mightily encouraged. Arsenal are clearly there for the taking and defeat in that FA Cup semi-final may well be the final nail in the coffin for Arsenal’s longest serving and most successful manager.

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