This really was a game of two halves, or at least a team of two faces. The first half saw an Arsenal side bristling with attacking intent, neat, quick interplay and a performance that deserved far more than the solitary Laurent Koscielny goal to show for it.
The second half display from Arsenal, however, was as poor and lacklustre as the first was good, conceding two late goals to see what should have been an easy win snatched away from us. Thanks to Chelsea’s equally late win against Wolves, we again find ourselves outside of the Champions League spots, once again looking short of the confidence it took us so long to build.
A question of fatigue?
The overload of games over the festive period always draws suggestions of tiredness and fatigue in players, none more so than this current Arsenal team, blighted by injury and players who just aren’t trusted to do a job for us. Following the surprisingly draining performance against QPR on Saturday, the Fulham game threatened to push our players closer still to the fabled “red zone.”
The way our performance dropped so shockingly in the second half suggests that fatigue was the primary factor in our defeat and our inability to keep hold of the game. But was it?
We’ve all seen moments at the end of a game where players get tired and it affects their overall play. Our crisp passing in the first half was some of the best we’ve seen all season, and was indicative of a team full of energy, both physically and mentally.
The statistics bare this out too. As a team, we had an 83% passing accuracy, which sits just below our season average of 85% and only attempted a total of 29 long balls (excluding Szczesny) throughout the match. This is the same as the QPR match and less than the 34 attempted during our last away game at Aston Villa1.
So why did our performance drop so much in the second half? It wasn’t just the two late goals that did for us yesterday, we spent almost the entire second half under pressure from a lively Fulham team. We had a total of 16 shots on goal in the first half, nine of which were on target, but only three shots in the second half: two off target and the other blocked 3.
I said before half time that we needed to get score again before Fulham got themselves together in the break. This proved correct, as our poor performance had as much to do with Fulham’s renewed vigour as any deficiencies on our part. Their passing became quicker and their movement, particularly in the build up to the second goal was, dare I say it, Arsenal-esque.
The taste of our own medicine is something we’ve always had trouble dealing with, and so it proved yesterday.
An unbalanced defence
It has been talked about ad nauseam for weeks now, but our lack of dedicated fullbacks really is affecting us badly. The way this team is set up, from an attacking point of view, is very narrow. Our midfield three tend to stay more central and our two wide men have a tendency to drift infield, particularly Gervinho, whose average position is regularly within a few feet of Van Persie.
In order for this to work, it is necessary for our fullbacks to push further up the pitch and fill in the gaps that our attackers leave empty. One only has to look at the attacking threat of Andre Santos and the excellent crossing of Carl Jenkinson to see why Wenger chose to bring them to the club over the summer. They fit the Arsenal fullback mould perfectly.
But how is their absence affecting the team defensively? Johan Djourou’s suicidal play in the first half against Chelsea was an easy example of the problems experienced when playing a defender out of position, but yesterday showed us just what can happen when an inexperienced midfielder is played in defence.
Many have blamed the winning goal on Sebastien Squillaci’s poor header, but his mid-air collision with Kerim Frei changed his position, thus changing the direction of the ball from it’s intended trajectory. Others have rightly pointed out that it was Francis Coquelin whose mistake helped to create the goal. Overall, Coquelin had a highly respectable game under the circumstances, and was far more threatening from an attacking point of view than any of our stand-in fullbacks so far, but when Squillaci’s unintended cross came in towards an unmarked Bobby Zamora, you could see a strolling Coquelin’s expression change from blasé to “oh crap, I should be marking him!” but it was too late, the space had already been created.
As a midfielder, even one with defensive qualities, it seems Coquelin is drawn more to space than to an opposition player. He was initially caught in two minds as to whether to try and prevent the cross into the box, or to track Zamora’s run, but once the cross had come in, his natural instinct saw him waiting on the edge of the box on the off-chance that he could start a counter attack, should we regain possession.
So what do we do now?
The injury problems are mounting, but we do have a near two week break ahead of us for the FA Cup, where many of the first teamers will be rested. The bigger problem is the Jekyll and Hyde characteristics we displayed against Fulham, failing as we did to get a foothold in the game in the second half. If we’re being honest with ourselves, this defeat has been coming for weeks now, with many results against the ‘smaller’ teams being heavy-going affairs where we’ve been lucky to come away with anything at all.
It’s obvious that players need to be brought in, if only temporarily, to ease the burden on a first team that has been run into the ground over the past few months. But the question is who to bring in – fullback is the obvious area for improvement, but would a rusty, out of favour player of experience be any better than promoting someone from the reserves, keen to impress and already trained in the Arsenal way? It’s a question that Wenger himself must be asking.
Arsenal 1-0 QPR: The Dutchman breaks record in narrow win by Brian Fisher
Arsenal controlled the game against a resilient Queens Park Rangers side that saw the home side get a one nil victory to rebound from an unlucky, yet disappointing, draw against Wolves on Tuesday.
Arsene Wenger made three changes to his side from Tuesday with Theo Walcott replacing Gervinho, Andrei Arshavin replacing Yossi Benayoun, and Aaron Ramsey replacing Tomas Rosicky. With injuries still an issue, Wenger was once again forced to play four center backs across the back line with Johan Djourou on the right and Thomas Vermaelen on the left. This would end up being crucial with Arsenal often lacking width to their play in the final third.
Queens Park Rangers came out in a defensive 4-2-3-1/4-5-1 shape. This was an obvious choice due to the fact that Arsenal play with three central midfielders and allowed QPR to match up three on three in midfield and keep numbers behind the ball. However, it was QPR’s personnel and tactics within the formation that were of more interest.
Shaun Wright-Phillips was deployed as the attacking central-midfielder in QPR’s formation and played very poorly, completing only 74% of his 35 passes and finishing the match with a rating of 5.11 . This was a surprising decision from Neil Warnock because of his lack of technical ability and the lack of space for him to utilize his number one asset; pace.
Wright-Phillips probably would have been better suited on the left against the slower Djourou where he would have been one against one most of the game and in far more space. Instead, he was often crowded out in midfield (up against Alex Song) where he was uncomfortable on the ball and eventually made the mistake that lead to Robin van Persie’s record -breaking goal.
Arsenal’s wing play / lack of width
Arsenal’s play from its wide forwards was very poor throughout the match. Theo Walcott had very little impact and was largely ineffective with a match rating of just 5.951. This always had the potential to be a problem due to QPR playing Armand Traore at left back.
There are a lot of things Traore is not – a good defender being one of them – there is one thing he is, however, and that is very fast. Fast enough in fact to match Walcott’s pace. This in turn exposed Theo’s biggest flaw: his technical consistency. There was an instant spark when Gervinho was introduced for Theo as his superior technical ability created more chances in 15 minutes than Walcott created in the 75 minutes he was on.
On the flip side, width was always going to be an issue on Arsenal’s left side with Arshavin starting and a center back deputising at left back behind him. Because of The Little Russian’s preference to drift into more central positions, it was imperative for the left back to provide the width in the attacking third. However this didn’t happen as Vermaelen was more cautious than a natural left-back such as André Santos when going forward.
This was evident as many of Arsenal’s best first half chances at goal were long balls over the top to RvP rather than through clever wing-play. However, the introduction of Francis Coquelin (albeit to unfortunate circumstances) provided the width Arsenal were lacking down the left had side – in turn leading to more balanced play in the final third and helping to spread the QPR defence in the second half, allowing for some very good chances late on.
In the end Arsenal should have probably scored more for the amount of time they enjoyed on the ball, but a win is a win and we will take the three points. Add to the fact that Chelsea lost and Spurs drew, and it makes those three points look all the more important.
The most important thing coming up though will be whether or not this team can survive without Gervinho while he is at the Africa Cup of Nations. It is very apparent that he is far more effective than Arshavin and is more consistent that Walcott, so it will be interesting to see if this team can cope. Perhaps Thierry Henry can fill that void as he returns to Arsenal on a short-term loan, but with Arshavin possibly leaving this window it looks as though Arsene will have to buy, unleash the Ox, or both.