In many ways I am your archetypal football fan, in that I’ll wax exceedingly lyrical over my team when they win, yet when they are defeated I often find myself chastising the players and the manager for their performance. But today I find myself ill at ease, because I’ve got both emotions to show from last night’s defeat, after we had played so well and yet truly ‘Arsenaled’ it up in the last 20 minutes of the game.
Indeed, with about 22 minutes to go I looked at the big screen in the corner and wondered whether we might even be able to replicate the Bayern game, nicking a goal from somewhere to take a slender advantage back to Spain. Up until the 70 minute mark we had stayed compact as a unit, repelled Barca’s efforts (although Cech didn’t have to make a catalogue of saves, it must be said), kept our shape and our discipline. Monreal and Bellerin I thought were particularly good.
Yet, as is the way with this Arsenal team, we still found enough time to brain-fart our way into conceding. The counter attack from a fantastic Barcelona team was lightning quick. The composure in the box from Messi was as expected. But quite what Mertesacker was doing halfway into the Barcelona half is a bit beyond me. Arsène called our performance ‘naïve’ after the game and for a man who is usually a staunch supporter of his players, that was a striking admission, showing just how disappointed he was that they had undone all of their own hard work.
He too, however, must take some of the blame for the result. For it was his decision to replace a fatigued Coquelin with a, quite frankly increasingly redundant Flamini, which has effectively ended this two-legged tie. The Frenchman’s lunch at a theatrical Messi inside the box and the referee – who’ll I’ll come to in a minute – was only happy to oblige the Argentinian in putting this match to bed. But all blame cannot be solely attributed to MatFlam, because Mertesacker’s pathetic touch gave Messi enough of a sniff to get to the ball and he too needs to shoulder the responsibility. Mertesacker and Flamini will no doubt have had nightmares about their overall contributions last night. For players who have many Arsenal fans exhasperated at their continuous appearance in the team already, last night’s result will only further their opinions that neither are good enough for the club, of which I agree to about 50%. Flamini looks ropey, but Big Per still has a role to play. He is probably on the wane as a first teamer, but as a rotated squad player I’d have no problem, but I wonder if Arsène was beginning to instigate that anyway before Gabriel got injured. Another debate for another day perhaps.
As for the refereeing display, well, we’ve got to accept that in Europe I suppose. The decisions that another appalling ref gave to both sides were baffling at times, hilarious at others. What I found particularly amusing – in a really frustrating and infuriating way – was a particular throw in where by the ‘referees assistant’ didn’t actually flag for until after the Barcelona player had picked the ball up, looked for someone to throw the ball to, then released it back in to play. Talk about the tail wagging the dog! Monreal was booked for his first challenge, yet I counted five Rakitic fouls and no yellow whatsoever. There was even an identical foul to Monreal’s in the first half, in the same area of the pitch, from a Barcelona player that drew no yellow at all! I said it last night and I’ll repeat now – the sense of entitlement that is afforded to Barcelona really is quite staggering. They’re one of the best two teams in the world, yet they still get given a helping hand from weak and incompetent officials. Go figure.
I thought our midfield too looked disciplined up until the substitution, but in the second half Ramsey faded and Özil was always going to find it difficult with two and sometimes three players on him. It was a frustrating evening for the German.
As for our attack, well, if I was being kind I’d say that we were up against a great team who didn’t give us many chances. Plus, the fact that we set up to contain, was always going to leave the forward players with slimmer pickings than they’re used to. But actually we still had chances. Ter Stegen made a good save from Giroud and much like Arsène said before the game, Barca let us have a lot more of the ball than we have been used to in the past.
However, Giroud and Alexis both had a pretty poor night overall, with the latter starting brightly but never really getting in to the game. When do we start to worry about Alexis’ form? I mean, really start to worry, because yesterday he once again ran down blind alleys and gave the ball away. A lot. Still, it could have been worse, he could have seen the goal open up inside the box, only to reverse pass the ball to nobody in space. Giroud’s radar for shooting is as off as his radar for passing at the moment it seems.
It’s not just Giroud though. The whole team is in a funk when it comes to finishing. The Ox found himself in a fantastic position in the first half, yet could only dribble the ball straight at the ‘keeper. We’re failing miserably at shot conversion at the moment, choosing to hit whatever goalie we’re up against, with balls that are straight down his throat. Ramsey, Alexis, Walcott and The Ox do not have enough goals between them for us to be a serious threat right now. Our drought is starting to really feel worrying and will completely derail our season unless something changes.
Perhaps that something is Welbeck. He came on last night and put himself about a bit. I thought he looked quite hungry and if he can contribute to more goals then all the better. He’s never in his career been a prolific goalscorer, but he looks – based on the very short time we’ve seen him since returning – like he’s got a hunger about him, so I’m hoping that he can inject something in to our forward line. He may not be fit enough to last ninety minutes right now, but you’d be mad not to give him plenty of game time against United, because he’ll be massively up for it.
That’s where our attention must now focus: the league. I know Arsène will not throw away the away leg, but it would be amazing to see him rotate in favour of playing a stronger team in whatever the subsequent game is after we’ve visited Catalonia. We’re done in this competition so unless we focus all of our efforts domestically, I can see us falling away in the league too, which none of us want.
It’s going to be a long few days until Sunday.
Catch you tomorrow.