When the promise of a physical battle looms on the horizon, the players are resolute, focused and united in the face of the enemy. Yet, hard-fought single-goal victories over West Ham, Everton and Fulham were all quickly followed by defeats to Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United by the same margin. The last of those defeats produced an uncharacteristic display from the side, as Wenger’s charges appeared to be pre-occupied by a focus upon displaying physical strength, rather than playing to their strengths. They lacked the creativity necessary to break down United’s disciplined defence and after going toe-to-toe, were felled by a sucker punch.
In Monday’s outing against Chelsea, the strategy was clear. Bring in Johan Djourou to deal with the pace and power of Didier Drogba, start Theo Walcott to nullify Ashley Cole, and press high up the pitch to isolate Chelsea’s defenders in possession. And the game plan worked. Drogba and Cole were contained and the Gunners twice dispossessed Chelsea to score. Their recent poor record against the Blues ensured that despite home advantage, they entered the match as underdogs, and so it was easy to prepare for a battle against the form book and a title rival. Wednesday’s clash with Wigan posed an entirely different proposition. This time the Gunners had to be positive and creative going forward, whilst keeping focused and disciplined in defence.
The latter was not achieved as, between them, Arsenal’s central defensive pairing conceded a penalty and scored an own goal. Laurent Koscielny was unfortunate to give away the penalty with the infringement on the edge of the box and the degree of contact on Charles N’Zogbia appearing minimal at worst, yet it was symptomatic of Arsenal’s inability to deal with the Frenchman’s mazy dribbling and in the wider context their failure to assert themselves. Andrey Arshavin, coaxed into a long overdue performance by being overlooked for Monday’s victory, utilised his technique and reflexes to acrobatically draw the side level, before Nicklas Bendtner put them ahead on the stroke of half-time. The Gunners were fortunate when tormentor-in-chief N’Zogbia saw red, but this only compounds the fact they let their lead slip.
Without a resolute opponent, Arsenal seem to lack purpose and resolve themselves. The absence of the suspended Cesc Fabregas ensured the Gunners lacked attacking impetus, and inconsistency on the pitch may stem from inconsistency of personnel, with Wenger making eight changes to Monday’s starting XI. The raft of changes and subsequent poor performance indicates at best a lack of depth, and at worst a lack of respect for their opponents. As it is, Arsenal missed an opportunity, but now have the motivation to silence the critics against Birmingham City.