Sunday at St. Mary’s & the Europa League Draw: Monday Morning

Sunday at St. Mary's
SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 10: Arsene Wenger manager of Arsenal looks over to Ryan Bertrand of Southampton during the Premier League match between Southampton and Arsenal at St Mary's Stadium on December 10, 2017 in Southampton, England. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

It’s another weekend of games gone, and another few points that the Arsenal have dropped. On Sunday at St. Mary’s, the Gunners shipped an early goal, as well as a plethora of early chances, before Olivier Giroud equaled late to salvage a draw.

This result was, despite a different scoreline, almost the same as the loss to Manchester United just over a week ago. In both games, our boys didn’t have the required mentality during the early minutes of the match, and it proved decisive.

Furthermore, the boss reverted to a back four for both games, and the switch corresponded with a major improvement with the team’s play. Although, that may have been more due to the fact the opposition then decided to park the bus in both matches.

Oh, and the Europa League draw just ended and, good news, we didn’t get the best team in the competition!

Before we get to the all that, however, let’s dissect that Sunday at St. Mary’s.

Sunday at St. Mary’s

Early Weakness

After the game, every pundit on the planet began bemoaning Arsenal’s mentality, or lack thereof. For the second time in as many Premier League matches, the boys came out of the gate very weakly and let in the game’s first goal with not even five minutes gone by.

Against the Red Devils, the first goal was conceded via a combination of Koscielny’s poor cross (and decision making), Kolasinac’s bad reading of the ball (bad decision making), as well as the other defenders ball-watching (bad decision making).

On Sunday at St. Mary’s, the first goal came after Per Mertesacker first gave the ball away from a first-time pass, then proceeded to fall down while covering Dusan Tadic, who received Charlie Austin’s pass. Koscielny picked up Tadic, but Monreal couldn’t cover Austin, who in all fairness did well to finish the move.

We have to credit the other team for taking advantage of the defensive mishaps, but this goal was entirely avoidable, as were the two that United scored early last weekend. Let’s not also forget that the Saints had a flurry of chances right after the opener, while Arsenal took a long time to get their first real scoring opportunity of the game.

After the loss to United, many fans could, at least, look to the near-record-breaking performance of David De Gea between the sticks (making 14 saves). While Fraser Forster had a solid game with 5 saves, and one or two were really good, he wasn’t really on the same level as his Spanish counterpart.

So, even if blaming the dropped points on one single opposition player is sort of bonkers, we can’t even shift the blame to the man between the posts. Simply put, we had to do better. That starts with defense.

Weak at the Back

Just imagine if the team hadn’t conceded the three early goals between these two games; we would be four points to the good instead of just one and would be level in the league with third-place Chelsea.

As with any conversation to do with a team’s mentality, we need to talk about the manager, the man who is paid to get the results.

Slow starts are nothing new for Arsene Wenger. Apart from his tactics, mentality is probably the one thing that he gets criticized for the most.

How many times have Arsenal gotten into the second half of the season in first, or within touching distance, and gone on to finish in relatively lowly fourth place?

In recent seasons, how many times has the team dropped out of the title challenge halfway through the year? How many times do the same mistakes get punished by our opposition?

I won’t go into an epic rant about it, but I think we all know that the slow starts and (seeming) lack of motivation can, at least in part, be attributed to management. Certainly at least a portion of blame should be laid on Wenger’s head, after all he is responsible for getting the players ready.

However, he has never laced up his boots and taken the field for the team, so we shouldn’t just clear everyone else of blame. To some extent, it is down to the players, especially the veterans, to perform on the pitch.

So, there needs to be a change at some level in management, but perhaps some fresh blood in the squad would help?

As discussed in articles about Sven Mislintat and Raul Sanllehi, both are things that may be changing, albeit slowly.

The Back Four Debate

If you’ve been on social media (hey, look at the thing we have on the right, with the Facebook and Twitter icon!) since the draw, you will have undoubtedly seen at least a few rants about how much better a back four would work.

It seems to make sense, as every time the team has ‘reverted’ to a back four, we see a major change in the dynamic of the game. Against Leicester on opening day the change saw us claim three points.

At home to Cologne, the tactical shift provided the first win of the Europa League for the Gunners. Then, against the Red Devils and Southampton, the reversion converted the game into one of Arsenal dominance without the result we wanted.

There is just one big problem, at least that I can see. In each of those games, the opposition sat back and absorbed pressure even before the shift.

Leicester was playing on the counter-attack all game long, as were Cologne, so putting an extra body forward made sense. Southampton, despite playing at home, were doing almost the same thing, although seemed willing to commit more bodies forward. With all three, once they had the lead they retreated to defend what they already had.

The Red Devils were a bit of a deviation, as even with a defensive approach they can hurt the world’s biggest clubs. However, even the mighty Manchester United retreated to the relative safety of their own box after the smash and grab goals of the first fifteen minutes of the match.

Just how would the back four do against an open, attacking opponent? The last sample of such a situation came last season over eight games against Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Hots***.

Back Four

Win:

Arsenal 3-0 Chelsea

Draw:

Arsenal 1-1 Tottenham

Manchester United 1-1 Arsenal

Arsenal 2-2 Manchester City

Loss:

Arsenal 3-4 Liverpool

Manchester City 2-1 Arsenal

Chelsea 3-1 Arsenal

Liverpool 3-1 Arsenal

In those eight games, Arsenal won one, drew three and lost the remaining four, or in other words six points from a possible 24. The only victory was the notable success at home versus Chelsea, when the team scored three unanswered first-half goals.

Since the change to a back three, the team have played seven games against the same opposition, since April of this year. Out of those seven, the Gunners have won two, drawn one and lost the other three, or seven points from a possible 21.

Back Three

Win:

Arsenal 2-0 Manchester United

Arsenal 2-0 Tottenham

Draw:

Chelsea 0-0 Arsenal

Loss:

Tottenham 2-0 Arsenal

Liverpool 4-0 Arsenal

Manchester City 3-1 Arsenal

Arsenal 1-3 Manchester United

When a team is defending deep and not pressing our back line, adding the extra man to attack makes sense, and is vital to getting the win. Meanwhile, against teams that will come out and attack Arsenal, the back three seems to allow for better results, if only by slim margins.

Europa League

The draw took place earlier today and in a shock result, Arsenal have not drawn Borussia Dortmund, Atlético Madrid or Napoli (somehow!), but instead will play Östersunds FK of the Swedish Allsvenskan league.

Östersunds’ story is not so dissimilar to that of Bournemouth, as they have shot up in the divisions over the past few seasons. Formed in 1996 (On October 31, almost a month after Arsene Wenger’s appointment), the team started in the third tier and didn’t win promotion into the second division until the 2012 campaign.

In the 2015 season, Östersunds then earned promotion into the Allsvenskan for the first time, where the team still plays today. They finished in 5th their maiden campaign and followed it up by finishing in 8th during the 2017 season, which ended in November.

The first leg will take place in Sweden on February 15, about six weeks before the Allsvenskan begins competition. The return leg at the Emirates will take place one week later, on the 22nd.

Analysis

This draw is very favorable for Arsene Wenger’s men, but you probably already knew that. The usual story of drawing the strongest team in the competition for the first knock-out round was a familiar happening in the Champions League for Arsenal over the past decade or so. So far, our maiden voyage in the Europa League is just the opposite.

This is also a blessing as February can be one hell of a tough month for English teams. The Carabao Cup will be wrapping up (if we get that far), while the FA Cup will start heating up and the sixth round (round of 16) will take place on the 17th of the month.

As of the time of writing there are three Premier League games scheduled for February, all against tough teams. The second North London Derby will be played on the 10th, our home game against Manchester City is scheduled (although will likely be moved from) for the 24th and the easiest match is at home to Everton, but then again the Toffees are never an easy club to face.

The relative weakness of Östersunds will allow Wenger to rotate the team. A break for the starting XI will give them freshness for the remainder of the season. That would allow for strong showings in all competitions, and let’s not forget that winning breeds winning.

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