As an Arsenal fan with strong links to Rangers when my football interest goes north of the border, I knew all about Daniel Cousin. The mercurial striker brought Rangers fans much frustration and I had a hunch that Fate would give me a neatly wrapped present. Unlike some slightly naive sections of Arsenal fans, I was not expecting a walkover when Hull visited the Emirates. Just like our good old man of steel Kolo Toure, I am more nervous about games against the likes of Hull than games against the rest of the Big Four.
When Arsenal come up against fellow members of the oligopolistic Big Four, Arsenal can perform. The skill and quality of the opposing team and the knowledge that the Premier League is essentially between you four teams is enough to cause any one of the Big Four to raise it’s game. When the likes Hull City come to visit, Arsenal are overwhelmingly expected to win. Now despite claims that the Gunners were not complacent coming from the likes of William Gallas, it is a claim that I fail to believe for one second. Whether it was realised or not by the team, Arsenal shut down. The team went into stand-by mode, and as Arsene Wenger correctly stated, “Perhaps subconsciously we thought we would make it. After we went 1-0 up, we were a bit careless in not pushing on to score the second goal.”
It was this subconscious complacency that really killed us off. While pushing for the elusive second goal, the team seemed to show Shootaphobia and had to take turn after turn before their subsequent shot was smothered by a ubiquitous Hull defence. Then, came the bolt from the blue. It was unfortunate that such a loss had to come in such spectacular fashion and Geovanni’s screamer had to come when Arsenal were pushing hard (and coming excruciatingly close) to a second. The Brazilian’s strike was more than enough to steal any shred of momentum from Arsenal and give Hull more confidence than an egotistical teenager who’s just had his braces removed. Cue our old friend the corner kick and Gallas’ perplexing nonchalance then game over. And I do believe a certain wise man’s complaint was justified in the form of Arsenal missing a series of simple chances.
However there are reasons for some post-Hull optimism (demolition of Porto aside). The reason that an Arsenal fan can use all too often to justify defeats is injuries, but the fact that reason is used very frequently as a semi-excuse is because of its reality. Our big-money signing (don’t laugh), Samir Nasri, was still out, and the absence of our quasi-defensive midfielder Abou Diaby is beginning to become a lot more evident.
With the return of these players, the squad rotation that Arsenal so sorely need becomes possible. Denilson, Diaby and Song can rotate the central midfield partnership alongside Cesc Fabregas. Despite the chances of Gallas being dropped being microscopic, the defender is on his last warning and Johan Djourou must get his chance to usurp the lazy captain’s position, being 6ft 4in also helps his cause. This squad depth that Arsenal do possess (when players are fit) is enough to maintain a successful system of squad rotation that must be at the forefront of Wenger’s mind following Saturday’s defeat.
The weekend’s humiliating defeat could not have come at a better time. Although the team currently sits in fourth place on the table we are only two points off the lead and a point ahead of Man U (assuming they win their next Premier League match). Considering we have lost twice in six games, it’s impressive that we are still in touch. There is no doubt that we should have gone top at the weekend, but looking at the current pattern of Arsenal’s league games, things can only get better. After defeat to Fulham, Arsenal upped their game and wracked up three consecutive and convincing wins in the Premier League. The defeat to Hull is much worse than the Fulham loss and it breached the armoured fortress that was the Emirates, but this could work in the team’s favour.
The reaction to this defeat has to be bigger, better (Exhibit A: Porto match) and last much longer, before we leave another game with nothing to show for it. As for apocalyptic cries that Arsenal are already out of the titles race, just look at last year’s champions. Manchester United were beaten 5 times overall last season, only once by a member of the Big Four. Chelsea, Bolton, West Ham and Man City (twice) all felled the champions yet still they marched on. Losing to both Fulham and Hull, although infuriatingly frustrating, does not destine Arsenal to Premier League failure. Losing to Hull is infinitely better than losing to a Big Four club, as it is them, not Hull, who we are competing with for the League title.
Adebayor and Van Persie are also yet to hit full power but have still racked up five goals a piece in the Premier and Champions League. There is no doubt that the two front-men need to move up a gear and take more of their chances, but it can only bode well that they are still scoring without hitting their top performance plateaus.
However, these reasons shouldn’t be allowed to paper over prominent cracks in the team that still need to be addressed whether the team in winning 4-0 or losing 2-1. Arsenal can consider themselves lucky that yet another goal this season wasn’t conceded from a corner kick, which Gael Clichy clearing off the line after some statuesque defending, from which Porto really should have taken the lead. As well as making our defence on corners air-tight the team also has to provide a much more concise threat to the opponents goal when we are gifted corners. Adebayor’s scruffy header against Porto was the first goal Arsenal have scored this season from a corner. Overall this season, in the Premier League and Champions League group stage, Arsenal have had a monumental 69 corners, and scored only 1 goal from them. That is simply not good enough.
The finishing from the team is still poor, regardless of the amount of goals we have been scoring recently and that is of paramount importance. For me, it’s a matter of when, not if, the finishing efficiency returns and only then will my screaming at the likes of Adebayor and Van Persie cease.
At the end of the day, as the enlightened Emmanuel Adebayor said “losing to Hull is not like a crime.” The defeat to Hull has provided the team with a much louder wake-up call than Craven Cottage did and with the return of Nasri and hopefully Diaby in the next few weeks, the depth is returning. After the scintillatingly swift destruction of Porto in the Champions League, transferring that confidence and fluidity to the Premier League is priority No. 1. I’m not sure about you, but I believe.