Arsene Wenger will prefer to focus on the positives. A 3-0 victory, and an opportunity to rest players in next week’s second leg ahead of the League Cup final. A first clean sheet in seven games, achieved without Petr Cech. A second away win in 11 matches, and a virtual guarantee of a place in the Europa League last 16. Disaster averted.
For 26 minutes, Arsenal were dominant against Ostersunds. They revelled in their role of Goliath, although David was intent on aiming his slingshot at his own foot. Keeper Aly Keita was at fault for Nacho Monreal’s opener, before defender Sotiris Papagiannopoulos proved the bane of every commentator by converting Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s cross into his own net. Arsenal had done what they so rarely do: embraced calm waters by sailing smoothly.
But then the visitors reverted to type. With the smallest of icebergs in the far distance, Arsenal’s players jumped overboard instead of simply steering a little to the left. What was once a routine check-up became an invasive operation as Ostersunds set about making this look like a battle of equals.
From the 28th minute to the 42nd, the hosts had five shots on goal; they had not completed a pass in the opposition half until the 27th. As has been the case alarmingly frequently of late, Arsenal collectively abandoned ship at the first sign of danger.
Mesut Ozil would eventually add a layer of gloss as Arsenal weathered the storm into the second half, but the Gunners never truly settled after Ostersunds displayed a sliver of attacking endeavour. The defence began to lose tackles, the midfield started to misplace passes, and the forwards failed to relieve any of the pressure with effective hold-up play or creativity.
As Arsenal’s emphasis switched from dominance in possession to swift counter-attacking, the weaknesses in this squad were exposed. Moments of promise came and went as breakaways quickly broke down. Passes were too slow, decisions too delayed. One instance saw Danny Welbeck lead a counter down the left-hand side and reject a pass to Alex Iwobi, before being instantly tackled. Iwobi was visibly distraught, but it was precisely the kind of hesitation in the final third that he has become synonymous with.
There was no one player who took control, who proved capable of carrying the ball forward against the tide. A midfield of Mohamed Elneny and Ainsley Maitland-Niles provided neat short passes, but little in the way of forward thinking or proactivity.
The absence of Jack Wilshere was sorely felt. The 26-year-old is still nowhere approaching his absolute best, but he offers something no other player in this squad can: dribbling ability. Despite not starting a Premier League game until December 13, the midfielder has attempted the most dribbles (42) of any current Gunners player in the league – Alexis Sanchez had 60 before his departure.
“Jack has a quality that is very difficult to get together,” Wenger said in December. “He can dribble and he can as well give the final ball. You don’t find that a lot in the same player.”
But Arsenal find it in perhaps no-one else. Wilshere was one of just four Arsenal players to complete at least one dribble in the meek north London derby surrender against Tottenham; Petr Cech was another.
That the Gunners rank 12th for attempted dribbles in the Premier League would ordinarily be no cause for concern. Their style owes far more to short, sharp passes, and dragging defences from one side to another in the hope of finding a gap to exploit. But there is no viable alternative, no back-up plan. It is difficult not to juxtapose Arsenal’s inability to counter-attack effectively or to stem the tide when it turns with Tottenham, for whom Mousa Dembele is key in adapting to the conditions. Arsenal have the same style for when they are 5-1 up and cruising as when they are 3-0 down and losing. Or, in this case, 2-0 up and faltering.
Be it Wenger’s stubbornness, the naivety of the players or a combination of the two, it is an issue that has to be addressed. The Gunners must find a way of adding more weapons to their Arsenal.