Arsenal faced FC Schalke in the Champions League without Gibbs, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott. After a dismal display against Norwich at the weekend, they needed to show that this was just a blip. In Schalke they faced a well-organised, technically proficient team with self-belief. Arsenal’s second defeat in a row poses some questions for M. Wenger.
Should Andre Santos play (ever) again at left back?
Santos as left back guarantees excitement. He is strong going forward and alongside Cazorla was one of the few attacking outlets in the first half. While an energetic player with vision, he showed that in his own half, he is a liability. His positional sense is absent. There should be a caveat or proviso to add that statement, but there is none.
Schalke’s main attacking threat came repeatedly down Arsenal’s left and we were treated to the recurring spectacle of Santos huffing and puffing, vainly attempting to get back into position. He is not necessarily a bad defender, just not a defender at all. How he was allowed to remain on the pitch for 90 minutes is incomprehensible. Wenger must have felt as though he was locked in someone else’s nightmare, as he sat imprisoned in the stands, serving the last of his dugout bans.
Excluding Santos, has the defence improved?
Much talk has focused on the way in which Steve Bould is playing a pivotal role in transforming the Arsenal defence into a watertight unit. It is unreasonable to expect this objective to be realised overnight, but there are signs that the back four are forming an understanding that might yet lead them to become a solid, reliable platform from which attacks may be launched.
Jenkinson is continuing to mature, while Mertesacker, Koscielny and Vermaelen are skilful and reliable. Gibbs is an excellent left back, although he does break easily. In spite of conceding twice against Schalke, Arsenal have taken some positive steps this season. On the other hand, I have yet to be convinced by the zonal defending system, as it surely gives the opposition the upper hand. It is predictable and matches the weakest defender with the strongest attacker at set pieces.
Can Gervinho play as the main striker through the middle?
At least we know that Gervinho is an attacker (unlike Santos), as he is better at attacking than defending. Unfortunately, playing him through the middle does not work, as he lacks the pace, decisiveness and speed of thought to really trouble defences. He is better suited to a wide position, where he can ghost past defenders and put in crosses. He loses impetus at the critical moment and consistently makes poor decisions when put under pressure.
Who is going to score for the Gunners?
It is rare for Arsenal to pose so little threat over 90 minutes. Podolski is direct, tenacious and committed and right now looks to be the only attacking player to have a chance of scoring. Giroud is struggling and Gervinho can’t make his mind up. Wenger may need to weave his magic by turning Walcott into a latter-day Henry, or else empty his piggy bank in anticipation of the transfer window.
Money in the bank is a positive but the lack of firepower up front is a cause for genuine concern. It is of course possible that Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott will transform the side, but I am not certain that their return will herald a glut of goals.
Two defeats on the trot do not fundamentally dent Arsenal’s progress in the Champions League or Premier League, but the extent of their capitulation is troubling, all the more so given a rather tricky away fixture at Old Trafford on 3rd November.