A lot of us often question what goes in the Arsenal changing room during the half-time break as, on some occasions, the team seems to forget to do the things that were working quite well in the previous 45 minutes – often inexplicably so.
Against Preston North End last night (Saturday) we saw the opposite of that unique Arsenal trait as, after a truly abject first half, the team came back out for the second period utterly transformed.
I took to social media at the end of the first half yesterday to declare that a good old-fashioned bollocking was in order for the team as a whole and it seems as if my direct line to Arsene Wenger was in full working order.
While it was excellent to see the team produce the sort of second-half performance that befits the club, and ultimately earned them a spot in the next round of the FA Cup, it is baffling that we continue to be unable to produce a 90-minute performance.
Just what was the game plan in the build up to the match? What was discussed in the team meetings that laid the foundations for a truly awful performance in the first half.
I said as I watched the match unfold that it was quickly becoming one of the worst Arsenal performances I had ever seen and I stand by that. It was absolutely true at that point.
I have seldom, if ever, seen an Arsene Wenger team make so many individual errors. And we were not limited to simply misplaced passes; there was a catalogue of basic positional errors and errors of judgement that would concern a non-league manager, let alone a side challenging for the Premier League title.
I think most of us can acknowledge that, had it not been for Preston’s poor finishing, we could easily have been three goals behind by the break. That is bad enough against a side like Bournemouth, let alone a mid-table Championship side. Quite what was wrong with them in the first half I’m not sure we will ever know but it seems to be happening more often of late, as if the players are thrown in at the deep end and asked to come up with a plan on the hoof.
The silver lining here is that, however bad they performed in the first half, the problems were fixed relatively easily at the break. In the second period they were sharper, hungrier, winning tackles, and picking up second balls in a manner that simply didn’t happen in the first half.
Defensively, too, they were much better organised. In fact, Preston’s threat was all but nullified, with David Ospina having almost nothing to do in the second half.
Gabriel and Shkodran Mustafi were transformed from an utterly hopeless pairing into utterly impregnable one.
How this all happened is anyone’s guess but we should all be thankful that it did, as defeat in the manner in which we performed in the first half would have been a huge blow to our confidence, which seems fragile enough as it is.
After every performance like this, I say the most important thing for the team is to learn from its mistakes. One day, I hope it actually will because if we perform to our potential for 90 minutes, we have a real chance of winning some trophies this season.
Reasons to be cheerful
I think doubts about the Frenchman’s ability as a Premier League footballer have finally been put to rest this first half of the season.
Those who thought he would never ascend to the heights needed to win big matches have been shown time and again in 2016 that he can produce real quality when it matters.
His winning goal against Preston was the latest in a recent flurry of crucial strikes for the Gunners, demonstrating a sharpness and real quality at the same time. Just as talks continue between the club and Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, I think we should also look to extend Olivier’s deal for another year.
He has taken a tremendous amount of abuse both from Arsenal fans and, indeed, followers of the French national team in the past few years, but he has shouldered it all admirably and is playing as well now as he has ever done. His worth is no longer being underestimated.
When Olivier Giroud hit a lean patch between January and March last year, he was written off by a lot of fans, who held it up as proof that he would never be good enough to lead the line for the Gunners.
After an excellent European Championships, and a fine start to this season, Giroud has silenced his critics and earned the respect of a lot of fans and pundits alike.
The lessons we can all learn from the Frenchman’s example is that support is crucial during a lean period – for any player.
After a few months in which his performances have not really been up to scratch, Ramsey showed signs against Preston that his quality remains undimmed. I hope this is the beginning of a period in which he turns his form around and begins to produce the type of performances that made him such a match winner a few seasons ago.
But key to that will be the support of fans – and not the endless, vitriolic rants of some YouTube warriors.
The Spaniard is a fighter, there is no doubting that. Every time he takes to the pitch he runs himself into the ground and that is exactly what we need if we’re going to turn our season around.
He is clearly desperate to land himself a more regular starting role in the Arsenal line up and his going the right way about it. His hunger is obvious and he is starting to deliver results, too. A goal against Bournemouth and an assist against Preston completed an excellent week’s work from him. Has he done enough to continue in the side? I think so.