Friday, 13 December 2013

Napoli 2-0 Arsenal: Second thoughts creeping in

All we needed was a draw. That would've guaranteed first spot for us and set up a relatively easy round of 16 featuring possibilities like Leverkusen, Olympiacos, Schalke or Zenit. It would've lessened the burdens of expectation on the players, giving them some confidence over two top of the table clashes. Most importantly, it would've slightly improved our chances of winning a trophy, which is something every Arsenal fan indisputably wants to witness this season.

Oh, but no. We've undone all our hard work and tainted the memorable wins over Napoli and Dortmund by crashing to a 2-0 loss to the former, due to late goals from Higuain and Jose Callejon. It's a loss that puts our Champions League hopes from slim to none if we do indeed face one of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or FC Barcelona.

I thought that the players played really well on that night, but it was the manager who was largely at fault for the loss. I don't think that he went out any proper game plan on that night, urging his team to go for the victory or to contain Napoli and stick with a 0-0 draw, maybe hoping to get a goal by hitting them on the break.
Of course, either game plan would've put us in a risk of losing the game altogether, but at least it's better than hesitating to attack as well as hesitating to defend throughout the course of 90 minutes. You'll undoubtedly reach a point where you don't know if you're happy with the result that you're going towards, or reluctant to stick with that scoreline. Arsene Wenger should've laid out an objective for the game - he didn't, and now we're paying the price.

What surprises me is why he didn't get Theo Walcott on around the 67th minute. Arteta was already on a yellow card, and while he wasn't walking on a tightrope, Arsene should've had the foresight to take him off before he got himself into trouble. He should've got Ozil and Arteta to make way for Theo and Ramsey, with a central midfield pairing of Flamini and Ramsey, Rosicky playing as attacking midfielder and Theo and Santi on the wings.

Walcott's pace would've unnerved Napoli, who might've hesitated to commit more men forward, afraid to be caught on the break by Theo's pace. Instead, Wenger got off Santi and put on Ramsey on the right, a bad decision for me. For all his qualities, Ramsey is horrible on the right flank, largely because he hardly possesses the skills required to perform there. If Arsene did need someone on the right flank, why not get on Jack Wilshere or the aforementioned Theo?

I can't help but feel that Wenger and Walcott have had a bit of a falling out - his exclusion from matches has been surprising for me. Surely he is match fit by now to start games more regularly and match his £100,000 salary? In this team where we only have two fit wingers - one of whom prefers a central attacking role - why aren't we starting Walcott anymore?

After falling behind to Gonzalo Higuain's opener in the 74th minute, Wenger got on Nacho Monreal for Tomas Rosicky, another poor decision. We were 3 points clear on top of the group coming into this game, and our objective in the match was to either draw or to snatch a win to seal first spot. Why stick to a 1-0 loss then?

Look, if you had asked me at the beginning of the group stages if I would take second here, I would've readily said yes. But that was before we collected 12 points from five games and were cruising in first place, having our fate in our own hands. That was before the updated objective was to finish as winners of the group and look forward to easy opposition in the round of 16.

After Arteta got sent off, the primary objective quickly shifted to avoiding a 3-0 loss at San Paolo, one which I could understand. At that point, the tables had remarkably turned, forcing us to stay content with what we had. News pouring in that Dortmund were yet stuck at a 1-1 draw against Marseille left Napoli content with the result, too. The following minute was one of the most boring ones I have ever witnessed as a football fan, because either team wanted the result to stay the same.

Then Dortmund scored, and Napoli went right at us. The changed aim for them was to score two more against us in the remaining 6 to 7 minutes, and they nearly achieved it when Callejon looped the ball over Szczesny to make it 2-0 to Napoli. I, as an Arsenal fan was shit scared then, but fortunately the final whistle blew right after kickoff, making me strangely relieved that we lost only by two.

Arsene said:

"We prepared well and were concentrated but we were a bit in between ‘do we attack or do we defend’. It is difficult to cope with that problem. In the second half, I felt that our legs went a little bit and Napoli were sharper physically than us."

What probably came as the biggest shock to me was the sudden realization that apart from Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla, we arguably have no other world class players in this side. Sure, we have our entire back five, Ramsey, Flamini and Giroud in great form, but that is exactly what worries me. All of these players are good, but none of them are truly world class. They're playing well now, but I'd hate to see what happens when they don't. 

There were glaringly obvious signs in this match that we badly need another striker to sustain our remarkable form thus far. I almost pitied Olivier Giroud, dragging his feet across the pitch, trying to create something for the team. Simply put, Giroud is a good player who is being forced to overperform on a daily basis, and is getting unfair slack for not doing so.

It's time to straighten up and be honest with ourselves now. If we draw Bayern Munich, Real Madrid or Barcelona, we can be sure that we are going to face an early exit from the Champions League (unless we buy in January, of course). Sure, we're top of the league, but we've struggled against the Spuds, United, Everton, Dortmund and Chelsea. The fact of the matter remains that we're on top because we seldom slipped up against teams that a team of Arsenal's caliber is capable of beating.

Winning the Champions League is almost a lost cause now - seeing the opposition that we're set to be pitted against - and it would be pretty difficult to predict our chances in the FA Cup, seeing that we're facing Tottenham in the first round itself. The only remaining piece of silverware that we do have left in our hands is winning the Barclays Premier League, an objective we're on course to achieving. However, even though a magnificent run of form has meant that we are five points clear, I'd be very surprised if we did manage to win the league this season without purchasing anyone in January.

Look, Giroud simply cannot carry the striker burden alone, even if we do have a finally fit Lukas Podolski. Signing Ozil brought swagger and confidence in the team, propelling us into the top of the pile. However, it's time to push on and get more world class or at least decent talent, starting in the striker area. Granted, if we do manage to get a world class striker who is cup-tied to the Champions League, he won't be able to play for us in that competition. However, he would doubtless provide another major fillip to the side, and maybe, just MAYBE see us through to the round of 16.

I would be happy if we face Atletico Madrid or PSG (I feel that we are capable of beating them), but personally, I have an eerie feeling that we are going to be drawn against Real Madrid on Monday. Unless we spend wisely in the winter transfer window, I see us bowing out of the competition in this stage itself. I couldn't really care about "being eager to welcome quality opposition at the Emirates" and the "If you want to be the best, you've got to take out the best" cliche lines, because I just want my Arsenal to go as far as possible in this competition, and see where we stand in Europe.     

In the four important fixtures that we were to face, we drew from a winning position in one and fell to second spot in the group stages in the second, set to face the elite of Europe in the next round. It's safe to say that the morale of the team has dented slightly, and needs to be picked up before the Manchester City clash tomorrow.

The FA Cup isn't until January, and the Champions League isn't till the month after. For now, we need to concentrate on our primary and most realistic hope for a trophy - taking the Premier League crown home. That battle would be put to severe test at the Ethiad Stadium tomorrow. The choice is simple - either we can push City away from us, or bring them closer and double the significance on the upcoming Chelsea clash.

The message couldn't be clearer. We NEED three points tomorrow.

P.S. Apologies for the late blogging, but the bloody net was down. And life got in the way.

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )

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