Monday, 9 May 2011

Djourou and Song highlight Arsenal's defensive failings | Wenger eyes changes

Morning Gooners

There is one thing that can be said for this Arsenal team. It is consistent - that cannot be faulted - consistent at failing to turn up and win games that championship winning side would do. It appeared from yesterday's performance that very few of our players actually wanted to win that match and would rather be someplace else - probably on holiday.

Frustration is another word I'd use. We can beat the champions elect (Manchester United); the European champions elect (Barcelona) and last years league champions (Chelsea) but we can't turn up and win on a sunny but windy Sunday afternoon in Stoke.

It's been a long season - full of disappointments and what might have beens. Had we won the Carling Cup would our season been different? You would have to hope it would of. Yet when we that didn't come off we've watch a slow and painful death of our chances of winning the league, summed up by the abject performance at the Britannia yesterday.

The team was without Fabregas, Nasri and Diaby already prior to the journey north and Clichy failed to pass a late fitness test which meant he didn't travel either. So Wenger called upon Kieran Gibbs and Andrey Arshavin to stand in for Clichy and Nasri who both started in last weekend's win over Manchester United.

Aaron Ramsey also started at the ground where 15 months ago he had his leg broken by Ryan Shawcross. The Welshman was booed by the home support for every touch he made of the ball - apparently because he didn't accept Shawcross' apology. Just goes to show the class of the home support.

The first chance of the match fell to Andrey Arshavin who might have done better when he dragged wide a shot at the near post after good work from Jack Wilshere. The Englishman was again involved in a good attacking move which released Robin van Persie but his right foot shot is high and wide when you'd expect the Dutchman to score or at least put the shot on target.

I had to laugh at the home support again. With their chants of "boring" when we strung a few passes together. The animosity between the two sets of players, managers and fans isn't going away any time soon.

Nothing seemed to be coming off going forward. Van Persie and Sagna firing in crosses but they were being picked off easily by the Stoke defence.

And then in the 28th minute, the home team put the ball in the back of the net. Arshavin - having made some crucial challenges last weekend - pushes over Pennant right by the corner flag after first making a good challenge on the ex-Arsenal man. His second attempt allowed the attacker to fall to the ground and he was awarded a free kick - a foul the Russian did not need to commit.

Another set piece leads to Arsenal conceding another goal as Johan Djourou loses Kenwyne Jones in the mix, Gibbs fails to jump and head the ball clear and Jones just has to thigh the ball into the net. Yet again poor defending from a set piece.

Arsenal were failing to create chances. It was poor from a team with the players were we lining up against. Theo Walcott and Andrey Arshavin were pretty anonymous for most of the opening 30 minutes.

And then Wenger's side hand the home team their second goal on a plate. Pennant's strike from outside the box takes a wicked deflection of a late onward rushing Djourou and wrong foots Szczesny to find the back of the net.

There were no visible signs of our midfield closing down the Stoke goal scorer. Koscielny was marking Jones and the Swiss defender was slow to get to the player who had time to fire in the shot. Yet again poor defensive play from the Gunners.

And Stoke could have easily had three with no reply. Just minutes after they'd scored their second Walters hits the bar after Sagna slips and the Stoke man's shot beats Szczesny and cannons off the woodwork.

At the break Wenger opts for a double substitution with Nicklas Bendtner and Marouane Chamakh replacing Arshavin and Ramsey. The Dane going left on the attacking three, van Persie dropping into the centre, Chamakh leading the line with Walcott continuing on the right.

But within minutes of the restart Huth powers a header over from a corner and the warning signs are still there. The German brings down his marker Alex Song on top of him after beating the Cameroon international to the ball. Huth then has to come off injured as a result of pulling Song on top of him.

Arsenal are having a go at the start of the half but nothing comes off for van Persie, Bendtner and Chamakh. We just seem to be lacking in creativity in midfield and perhaps Tomas Rosicky would have added something different to the mix.

After 68 minutes, Pennant and Wilshere are involved in a challenge which brings all players to try and pull the pair apart. Wilshere went in hard on Pennant - won the ball - but took the player with his showing studs as he did so and I thought he was lucky not to have been sent off.

It was the type of crude challenge we don't like to see and one which has hurt our own players in the past. Both players receive a yellow.

The gunners were coming more and more into the game.  In the 73rd minute Bendtner dribbles across the box and the Stoke defenders know they can't bring him down. He finds a pass to van Persie who fires away a shot but Begovic manages to get a hand to it and divert the ball around the post.

That should have been Arsenal's first goal of the game. And then moments later Wilshere lofts the ball towards Song in the box who can't reach the ball at the far post.

At the other end Szczesny is called into action to produce a fine stop to prevent Whealen making it 3-0. From the resulting corner Shawcross barges into the Pole and the referee awards a free kick against the Stoke captain.

With 11 minutes to go Wenger makes his final substitution with Song being replaced by Rosicky. Two minutes later van Persie find the back of the net with a low powerful right footed drive. At 2-1 with nine minutes to go you'd think Arsenal were back in the game... how wrong you'd be.

At the other end the home team are afforded too much time on the ball outside the box. Wilkinson has time to set up his shot which is going wide but Djourou clearance is poor and falls for Walters who makes no mistake in front of goal and restores the home team's two goal advantage.

It ends 3-1 and you cannot fault the home side for their determination to win this match. Arsenal weren't up to it and we were punished for three poor defensive errors which Djourou was involved with all three.

The Swiss has had a good season but perhaps was not fully fit or is tired. His concentration in the past two away games has clearly not been good enough.

A word also about Alex Song. He goes from marshaling Wayne Rooney superbly last weekend to a bit part player this weekend. And when he doesn't have a good game we know we're in for a bad game as a team. His role is so pivotal in the stability of the team. I just wonder if he had more adequate competition could he be allowed to go from being abject to good depending on whether he could be bothered to turn up.

Theo Walcott also had a game to forget. I didn't know he was on the pitch for most of the game. When you need players to step up, he is one of them. But I think yesterday was just an all round poor team performance.

Afterwards Arsene Wenger said:

"It was a disappointing performance. The competitive level of Stoke was higher than ours. I think we lost the game because Stoke defended much better than we did and with much more purpose.
"If you do not turn up with the same competitive spirit in every game you can lose games everywhere. Stoke defend well and make it difficult for you. The most important thing here is not to be 1-0 down and with the first free kick we were 1-0 down. In a game like that, we did not penetrate enough. At the end of the day we were not dangerous enough."
And you have to be thinking he's taking the names down of players who don't turn up and deciding on whether they'll be in his squad next season.

Arguably there is not the competition in this squad we thought they'd be at the start of the season. The bench looked weak yesterday as it has done for the second half of the season. It's noticeable how we don't have players who Wenger can call on to change the game. Hardly anyone has scored when being brought on as a substitute this season - I think you can count the number of goals scored by players send on from the bench on one hand.

The formation doesn't help either. We've been found out, especially when Fabregas doesn't play. When you've got the likes of Bendtner and Chamakh coming on, play them in a 4-4-2 with van Persie on the left and Walcott on the right and fire crosses in. Not the Arsenal way, but needs must with the personnel you've got. We've got to sacrifice our principles sometimes if we want to win games.

I know there are fans calling for the manager's head but I will not support that. He is the man to change things and this summer is going to be very interesting for us all. I think we'll all be surprised with how ruthless he will be.

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