Arsene Wenger had just witnessed Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Olivier Giroud all try but fail to find a way past Southampton’s Fraser Forster on Tuesday night when he was telling referee Lee Mason “it is always the same with you”.
His opposing number Ronald Koeman then intervened, saying “and it always the same with you”, telling Wenger that the officials were the wrong target of his chagrin on the night his attack fired a third league blank in a row.
It does indeed appear to be the same Wenger, again gambling with his team’s title chances by refusing to make additions in the January transfer window amid a flurry of injuries, now customary in Arsenal’s world, and slowly depreciating form.
The 4-0 thrashing at Southampton on Boxing Day was followed by nervy home victories over Bournemouth and Newcastle and Tuesday’s goalless draw marked a whole month without a win in the league, an unconvincing win over Burnley in the FA Cup the exception in a concerning month for Wenger.
Drought hampers title assault
The recent drought has set the Gunners five points behind league leaders Leicester City and it had warning signs rooted in Arsenal’s slow start to the season when they failed to score in their first two home games. Newcastle and then Stoke were both pummelled in the autumn but Arsenal emerged from those two games with just three goals, a profligacy not punished but certainly alarming.
Goals from Giroud and Sanchez, with the mercurial Mesut Ozil in supply, have kept them in contention since, but with the Chilean out since November’s draw at Norwich and the burden on Giroud intensifying as a result- risking him in the game with Chelsea despite nursing an ankle injury back-fired as he was sacrificed early following Per Mertesacker’s sending off– Arsenal have again been blunted.
Danny Welbeck seems to have been out forever with a knee problem while Theo Walcott and Joel Campbell have managed just five league goals between them. Wenger however remained steadfast in the face of the January sales, declining to add a striker but instead choosing to bring in Basle’s Mohamed Elneny, a battle-hardened, energetic midfielder but one who will be tasked with adapting to the demands of the Premier League quickly as the season enters its business end.
Wenger’s caution over how long that will take the Egyptian meant he found himself rested on Tuesday after making his debut against Burnley and with Mathieu Flamini partnering Aaron Ramsey while Elneny missed out along with Francis Coquelin, also freshly returned from his own injury absence, it highlighted the inadequacies within Arsenal’s midfield.
Flamini became the metaphorical punching bag for Arsenal’s fans as they witnessed another setback and with more adventure Southampton could have made the evening even more costly for the Gunners.
Wenger has said February is a big month for his team and with title rivals Leicester and Manchester United to face either side of a Champions League second round first leg meeting with Barcelona, the natives will be praying that the manager’s prediction that Santi Cazorla will be back by mid-February comes to fruition.
Like Sanchez, Cazorla has not played since that draw with Norwich and he his industry and midfield know-how has been sorely missed. Only Coquelin has a better pass percentage rate than the Spaniard who brings a calm assuredness to Arsenal’s midfield and when he suffered his injury in late November he had made 200 passes more than any other player in the league.
He is the influence that dictates Arsenal’s rhythm, gets them moving and Wenger’s team have looked disjointed and hesitant in his absence.
Moving in from his position on the right to partner Coquelin in a more balanced midfield, Cazorla was key to Arsenal becoming stronger away from home at the end of last season, he was superb in the 0-2 win at Manchester City nearly a year ago, and was a feature behind the optimism around the Emirates at the start of this season.
Coquelin got the ball and Cazorla moved it on; Mesut Ozil has posted some extraordinary creative stats this season but until Cazorla got injured that duo had exchanged 339 passes, 40 more than any other pairing in the league. Ozil was relying on Cazorla to supply him between the lines.
Ramsey has been a decent understudy but the Welshman’s most dangerous work comes with incisive runs into the box, exactly the type that Cazorla helps to pick out, and with Coquelin also missing holes have been quick to appear.
It was alarming that Chelsea’s Willian could gallop unchecked through Arsenal’s gaping midfield as he released Diego Costa for the game’s pivotal moment in last month’s 0-1 defeat and they are the breaches Wenger has to plug if he wishes to avoid a humiliation against Luis Enrique’s irrepressible Barcelona when they visit later this month.
Wenger will know that he needs his squad’s third captain back if he wants to fill his midfield void having seen the onset of a dip in form that could prove fatal. The gamble was made by yet again failing to make wholesale additions to his team mid-season and Wenger could yet be vindicated as Coquelin, Sanchez and even Welbeck begin to come back.
But Cazorla, the metronome of Arsenal’s passing beat, is the one that has to return if the Gunners are to avoid falling further away from a title that represents their biggest chance in twelve years.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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