Will this team ever learn? Thoughts as follows:
* We started well, when Yossi beautifully curled a shot in to give us the lead after barely a minute of play. I thought he had a good game in general, and was slightly bemused to see him subbed off when he was. If that’s his last home game for us, then I think we can easily say he was a worthwhile signing this season. I was slightly skeptical when we picked him up on deadline day, but he’s chipped in with five goals, and has generally looked handy when he’s played. I do wonder if Arsene has sometimes not given him as much game time as he might have done, because he ultimately knows he’s not part of our long-term plans, though, which I think is an error.
* As soon as we scored, our good start seemed to abruptly end. A good start of about one minute isn’t really enough, and Norwich deserved to equalize when they did. You have to commend Norwich – they don’t have a huge amount to play for other than pride, but they never flagged for 90 minutes, and they fully deserved to take a point from the match, and you couldn’t have begrudged them the win if they’d taken all three points.
* Szczesny was extremely poor, and not for the first time this season. If he might have done better with his positioning for the second and third goal, he must take a huge amount of blame for the first one, which should have been a comfortable save. It was interesting watching the FA Cup final later in the day, because it showed the importance of goalkeepers that make saves. Cech’s save won Chelsea the game, while Reina’s error was a large part of why Liverpool lost. If catches win matches in cricket, then saves win games in football. As Opta pointed out during the game, Szcz has a save % of only 64% - the 4th lowest in the Premier League. Yes, he may well improve in the future, but how soon is now?
* Speaking of poor defending, it’s unfortunate that I must engage in a rant against two other members of this unit – Vermaelen and Song. As Zonal Marking noted on Twitter, the second goal was similar to others we've concede in recent years, in that TV was too high up the pitch. A similar criticism could be made for the third goal. One only has to think back to Spurs’ first goal against us in February, Wigan’s first goal in the recent 2-1 defeat, or, going further back, the goals that Ibrahimovich scored against us in the 2-2 draw with Barca in 2010 for examples of TV’s desire to push-up, or just outright attack, costing us goals. I would argue that the “Verminator” myth has been fully exposed in recent weeks; he often seems more interested in attacking than defending, and his goals don’t make up for his all too frequent mistakes. At present, he would lose his place to Mertesacker, or Vertonghen, if the latter were to sign in the summer.
* Almost the exact same criticisms could be leveled against Song. For all his wonderful balls over the top that set up goals, such as RvP’s second today, there are ridiculously sloppy moments like that which led to Norwich’s third goal. I don’t know if he’s being asked to play in a more attacking role or not, but he neglects his defensive duties far too regularly, leaving our defence all too frequently exposed.
* Song’s deficiencies hint at a wider problem – a lack of tactical discipline within our midfield. Since Arteta’s injury, we have had no one in midfield willing to do the dirty defensive work that’s necessary if you want to control the game. We have, essentially, anarchy in the middle of the pitch all too frequently, and, as such, we allow teams to put pressure on us. Whether this is down to the players or Arsene is unclear, but it’s happened too often for it to be an accident now. It’s no good Arsene ranting on the sidelines – he is the one who is responsible for the shape of the team, and he could do more to make us a more cohesive unit. What is perhaps most concerning is that we have consistently conceded more goals in recent years, as this graph from 7AM Kickoff over on Arseblog shows.
* By contrast, Koscielny was superb once more. I worked out today that I like him because he’s a defender who actually seems to enjoy defending. Almost all our other defenders seem to see defending as a temporary inconvenience to the time they spend attacking. LK is the type of no-nonsense CB that we've missed for a long time, and we should build the rest of our defence around him next season.
* Ramsey had a terrible game, and probably should have received a second yellow for a reckless challenge after half-time. He needs to have a proper pre-season, no messing around in the Olympics, and try and work out what his role in the team is next year. In Arteta’s absence, he’s had the opportunity to stay deep and try and play a different role, but has failed to do so, so far. And even when pushing forward, he has looked indecisive. A few times today he elected to pass when a shot was the better option. One of the things I like about Ramsey is his directness, and I hope he is not losing this aspect of his game. There’s now no getting around the fact that he’s had a pretty rotten second-half to the season. That’s no excuse for the abuse he’s received from some ‘fans’ though.
* Sagna’s injury is concerning on a number of levels. Most immediately, it means we’ll be without him for our trip to the midlands next week. In the long-term, he may well miss the start of the new season, and it’s very concerning that he’s now broken the same leg twice in such quick succession. Jenkinson, or perhaps Coquelin, has a big opportunity – let’s hope they seize it.
* We played better for much of the second half. The Ox and, incredibly, Chamakh both made a positive impact when they were introduced, and it seemed like we had everything sown up when Robin scored twice to give us the lead. Just like Milan, however, he missed a one on one that might have confirmed our win. Who knows how costly that miss might be at the end of the season –but we can’t rely on Robin to get regular hat-tricks to win us matches. We simply don’t have enough goalscorers in the team at the moment. Rosicky, Ramsey, Gervinho etc. – they all need to get more goals if they are to be considered for attacking positions next season.
* The last goal, as I’ve already hinted at, was a mixture of ineptitude and complacency. For a team that hasn’t won anything, these players seem to regularly think that they have already won matches when they haven’t.
* And so here we are - we now have to rely on Man City and Villa to do us massive favours tomorrow, and our destiny is once more out of our hands. My main hope is that Newcastle face not only face a Man City team that is desperate for the title, but that they also face Everton away on the last day of the season. Those are two tough games, and I don’t think they will take 6 points. While I would expect Tottenham to beat Villa tomorrow, and Fulham on the final day of the season, I can also see them dropping points against a Villa side fighting for their lives, and a Fulham team managed by Martin Jol, who will be looking for some revenge against his former employers. The fact remains that if those two teams both take 6 points, we aren’t going to be in Champions League next season.
What’s saddest is that I honestly don't expect anything from this Arsenal team anymore. They are serial bottlers, competing for qualification in a competition that we undoubtedly won’t win. If we can’t even be confident of them to beat the likes of Wigan and Norwich at home, what is the point of qualification for the Champions League, other than a pay-day for the club before an inevitable defeat. That is, when you think about it, quite sad. Especially when the pay-day for the club doesn’t seem to benefit the fans in terms of reasonable ticket prices.
In the build-up to today’s FA Cup final, they showed classic action from our wins in 93, 98, 2002, 2003 and 2005 and it pained me. It reminded me of Arsene’s statement that Champions league qualification is like a trophy. It’s not. Winning a trophy is like winning a trophy. Yes, Chelsea have a huge amount of cash, but can we really not make a bit more of an effort in the FA Cup? Just one trophy would mean a huge amount to the fans, but we seem further away from this than ever.
Yes, I’ll be happy that if we qualify for the Champions League once more – but this will be tempered by the fact that we haven’t really progressed as a club this season. A big summer is coming up, whatever way you look at it, and I am increasingly convinced that we need a change of leadership, of some sort, at the club.