Sunday, January 22, 2012

This One's on the Manager: Arsenal 1 - Manchester United 2

The outcome of this game was determined by one man: Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. With zero fullbacks available to him because of injuries, Wenger, who has reneged on an earlier promise to sign at least one fullback during the January transfer window, was forced to play four center backs. In past games, Vermaelen and Koscielny have each deputized pretty well in that unfamiliar position. Today, inexplicably, Wenger chose to play the ever dubious Djourou in that position, and in the first half he was torched time and time again before Giggs beat him one last time to create the goal that put Man U up 1-0 at halftime.

Wenger had clearly seen enough of Djourou in the first half, and replaced him at the beginning of the second with young Gunner Nicholas Yennaris, who held his own resaonably well. That was Wenger's good substitution. Later in the second half, he made a horrible, game-changing substitution, bringing on Andrei Arshavin to replace Arsenal's best player to that point in the game, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. If anyone should have been substituted, it was the ever-woeful Walcott, who barely played one decent ball the entire match. Oxlade-Chamberlain came off just after he created Arsenal's equalizing goal, which van Persie (who else?) scored. On came Andrei Arshavin, who's first contribution to the game was a textbook example of matador defense (in an area that should have been occupied by a left fullback), allowing Antonio Valencia, scorer of Man U's first goal, into the box where he set up Danny Wellbeck for an easy finish. And that, as they say, was that.

After the match, Arsene Wenger attempt to justify his decision to substitute Oxlade-Chamberlain, saying that he noticed the player had begun to fatigue (see here), something no one else watching the match would have noticed. Even van Persie was visibly angry when the substitution was made. One has to wonder at what point RvP says, "That's enough, I'm off to Barca or Real."

Arsenal are back to being a team in crisis, as they were at the beginning of the season. Qualification for the Champion's League is looking increasingly like a long-shot. At some point, it's not good enough for Arsene Wenger to make excuses about injuries and complain about high prices of players in the transfer market; he needs to take some responsibility for fielding a squad that just is not good enough. Walcott is not getting any better; Arshavin probably couldn't get a run out with Swansea; Djourou has never developed into a top-flight player; Rosicky is past his sell-by date. When your team is ravaged by injuries, and your only January signing is a 34-year-old Theirry Henry, questions will be raised about whether you still have what it takes to be a top-flight manager. It is now time for Wenger to step up, take control, and prove to Arsenal supporters and detractors alike, that he does still have it.

Amazingly, having lost three games in a row, the Gunners remain in 5th place, tied with Newcastle, one point ahead of Liverpool, and 5 points behind Chelsea. It is still not out of the question for Arsenal to finish fourth or even third. But they need their manager to make better footballing (not economic) decisions, and need some of their under-performing senior players to step up. I'm almost beyond hoping that Walcott has it in him. It will certainly help if they can back a couple of legit fullbacks from injury, not to mention Arteta and Wilshire in midfield.

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