After their stunning victory at Ashburton Grove back in September, Hull City were always going to fancy their chances of completing an unlikely double when the Gunners visited the KC Stadium last Saturday. Certainly, the home team started the match full of intent and held plenty of possession in the early stages. Arsenal soon eased themselves into the game though and took the lead on the half hour when Emmanuel Adebayor emphatically headed home a Robin Van Persie corner.
From this point the Gunners should have gone on to dominate the match. But, as we have seen so many times this season, they allowed their opponents back into the match and sloppy defending from Gael Clichy presented them with a chance for an equaliser in the 65th minute that they duly took when Daniel Cousin got on the end of a Bernard Mendy cross, thumping a header past the flailing hands of Manuel Almunia. For reasons best known to himself, Clichy had backed off Mendy, failed to close down the cross and afforded the Hull winger the time and space to pick out his man.
If one had to draw up a list and rank the most whole-hearted players in the current Arsenal squad - men who give everything every week for the team and die for the cause - Gael Clichy would be at the top of many supporter's lists. His energy and effort are unquestionable but he does seem to be unfortunate in that his mistakes often lead to opposition goals. Whereas many defenders would get away with the occasional blunder, Fate is not quite so kind to Clichy as evidenced on Saturday, also at the home game with Spurs back in October and, most notably, up at Birmingham City last season. It is shame because if the rest of the squad showed his level of commitment and endeavour week in and week out, no Arsenal supporter would have any cause for complaint.
As the game wore on Arsenal weathered the Hull storm following their goal and the introduction of Nicklas Bendtner in the 67th minute in place of Emmanuel Eboue was pivotal. Yet again, Eboue's performance was poor as he endlessly drifted out of position and misplaced pass after pass. It was a display that was beyond ineffective - he verged on being a liability. His substitution came not a moment too soon. Bendtner was obliged to take up Eboue's position wide on the right and, picking up where he left off against Bolton the previous week, began making some neat incisive passes. In the 83rd minute, he fed Robin Van Persie who in turn found Samir Nasri on the left side of the penalty area. The Frenchman was given a few yards of space by the Hull defence and he didn't waste them. He arrowed a shot into the far corner of the net to give the Gunners the lead.
Any fears of a late Hull equaliser were quashed three minutes later when Bendtner swept home a third Van Persie assist. The points were safe and the young Dane was unlucky to not grab a second goal in injury time when his fierce header thundered off the post instead of hitting the back of the net.
Overall, it was a pretty workmanlike performance by Arsenal. Though they were able to raise their game at the end to clinch the points and it was a worthy victory at a potentially difficult away ground, they lacked a degree of fluency in their play and the fact that the defence is far from watertight is a concern that is just not going away. Arsenal fans could possibly tolerate a weak defence if they could be sure the team was playing in a style that would see them score three or four at the other end every week, but some of the champagne football that we were treated to last season has been in very short supply since August.
With it being such a tight league this season, there can be little margin for error and the lack of defensive acumen has been a constant thorn in the Gunners' side so far. Though Johan Djourou has added a bit of height to the back line when he has played, Arsenal still find themselves vulnerable at set pieces. The biggest worry though is the lack of leadership and, indeed, unity across the back four. It is questionable whether Arsene Wenger actually knows what his best central pairing is and with a distinct lack of continuity in his selections - sometimes enforced, sometimes not - it is unsurprising that the defence lack the understanding and telepathy required to consistently keep clean sheets.
Whether Wenger decides to address this issue in the transfer window remains to be seen but as the days tick by there are very little in the way of solid rumours circulating other than that of the acquisition of Andrei Arshavin from Zenit St Petersburg. Though getting a creative replacement to deputise for the injured Cesc Fabregas would be highly desirable, there is also a strong case for buying a central defender as well as a combative midfield player to strengthen the squad as the run-in to May gains momentum. The manager has money to spend and now would seem to be the time for him to be a little less parsimonious in his transfer dealings.
On Sunday, the Gunners get a break from the Premier League as they travel down to Wales for a potentially treacherous FA Cup Fourth Round encounter with Cardiff City. It will be interesting to see what sort of team Wenger puts out. One would imagine that with a tough visit to Everton in the Premier League waiting three days later, he might well err on the side of caution and throw a few youngsters into the mix. Either way, whoever plays must be ready for a battle because a hot atmosphere and a committed performance from the home team are assured.
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