Injuries to Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey and the failure to sign a striker in January is costing Arsenal, writes former Gunner Adrian Clarke...
Heat maps, red zones and chalkboards are brilliant at supplying us with a fountain of facts to back up what we see on a football pitch, but one thing they can’t measure is cutting edge.
Floating in the air, every team has it, loses it, gets it back again, sees it go through the roof, and then predictably, watches it vanish from under their nose and into thin air once more. One moment it’s not an issue, the next you’re desperately hunting high and low for it.
Right now, just at the wrong time in their season, Arsenal have temporarily lost their ‘edge’.
Injuries to Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey have had a colossal impact on this key component. Recalling what they both provide, the Gunners were poorer for their absence in last night’s cagey, uninspiring goalless draw with Manchester United at Emirates Stadium.
Pace is the king of modern day football, and that makes Walcott, Arsenal royalty. The England winger may not shine very week, he may not consistently deliver match-winning performances, but without his searing speed, Arsene Wenger’s side are half as less-frightening to the opposition. Especially the strongest, when you sometimes have to draw on Plan B, C or D to wear them down.
Blessed with ball-players who love to twist, turn and tease is one thing, but if the magic dust isn’t quite as punchy as it normally is - as was the case last night - Arsenal’s armoury begins to look a touch limited.
Not only does Walcott force defences to drop off (in turn leaving the midfield magicians more space to concoct their spells), he also provides a simple outlet for others to deliver those critical passes in behind. With no runners, there may as well be no space. Somebody, has to try and stretch defences, and with just the full-backs there to do it at the moment, it’s simply not the same.
Leadership and drive are also must-have team accessories, and its here that Ramsey’s absence is being felt most.
Taking responsibility in possession isn’t a problem for Ozil, Cazorla, Rosicky, Wilshere, Arteta and Oxlade-Chamberlain, but it’s perhaps only the latter who naturally bursts through defensive lines as a matter of course. The injured Welshman, as he showed in the early months, is the man most adept at piercing a hole in tight units and supplying a finish inside and outside the box. Picturing Ramsey trying this against David Moyes’s side last night, and succeeding, isn’t hard to do.
Cutting edge is also dependant on your striker of course, and in this respect Olivier Giroud’s dynamism and sharpness have looked a little blunter than they did in the summer and autumn months.
Is he knackered? Perhaps. Arsenal’s decision not to reinvest in a forward who provides something different, has this week looked costly.
When Giroud isn’t full of beans, when he isn’t able to provide a reliable platform for his midfielders to bounce balls off, he isn’t the same and nor are the team. Unfortunately for Wenger, his alternative options aren’t significantly different in style. Something he now regrets? Again, perhaps.
You can’t just blame individuals for losing your edge. It’s also a state of mind. When the Gunners were on fire earlier this season, the speed of their passing, the intuitiveness of their flicks, and the confidence in their ability to apply a finishing touch, was there without even thinking about it.
Losing 6-3 and 5-1 to Manchester City and Liverpool, respectively, has to some degree, affected that glow. Home draws with Chelsea and Everton dulled it a touch too. Now, more concerned by avoiding costly mistakes, the powerful, carefree force that surged to the top of the league bears its teeth less often.
Boosted by a solid defence, good character, and an ability to grind out victories against the smaller clubs, Arsenal have kept pace without ever scaling the heights of September and October. Now, at the business end you suspect they need a little bit more.
Without a striker to bring in who can freshen up the attack, it’s not going to be easy to rediscover the early season formula. It’s not impossible though. Arsenal still have the talent and the team ethic to end this campaign with a title-winning flourish.
To do it, they must forget about the pressure and who’s missing. They must believe in themselves again, take risks, make runs, and try the things that no opponent was able to live with earlier this season when the mood was lighter.
Playing with the handbrake on will keep the points ticking over, but it won’t win them the title. It’s time to release it, and let themselves go.
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