As Arsenal took on Chelsea in a fourth-round tie in the Capital One Cup, both teams fielded better than average starting 11 given that a win over the other not only represented advancing on in the competition, but also meant taking the first mental battle against a direct competitor for the Premier League title. It was Chelsea who advanced in the competition as they won 2-0 thanks to goals from Cesar Azpilicueta and Juan Mata.
In addition to losing their second game in their last three, the loss on Tuesday night highlighted three weaknesses that Arsenal have not yet fully addressed despite their good run of form early on.
The first was the fact that Nicklas Bendtner was given a start as the striker. It is understood that Olivier Giroud, who came on to play in the 67th minute, needed to be given a game off, but the fact that Arsenal had to start Bendtner highlights a lack of depth at the striker position for Arsenal.
While the argument can be made that the issues will be resolved when Theo Walcott returns from his abdominal injury sometime in the next few weeks and Lukas Podolski returns to training from his groin injury, the fact of the matter is that Arsenal still need a more traditional striker who can play that role when Giroud needs a game off.
The fact that Bendtner is still a member of this team is inexcusable, and his play on Tuesday further highlights how much of a waste of space he is. Arsene Wenger needs to bring in a forward during the January transfer window.
Arsenal’s other exposed weaknesses are both related to defensive play. The first is the need for a traditional defensive midfielder. It is clear that in the loss to Chelsea and the loss to Borussia Dortmund in Champions League play last Tuesday that Arsenal missed the presence of Mathieu Flamini in that role.
While Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey can in theory fill in, neither is a defense-first holding midfielder like Flamini. As a result, Arsenal were put on the back foot several times because of an inability to break up an opposition attack.
Flamini is out 2-3 weeks because of a groin injury, and his absence in two of the last three games, both of which were Arsenal losses, highlights how important he has been to Arsenal’s early-season success. It also shows the need for the team to go out and bring in a defensive midfielder to provide cover and give Flamini a break.
It is clear if he doesn’t play, Arsenal’s back-line gets over exposed. Speaking on Arsenal’s back-line, Tuesday’s loss to Chelsea exposed the fact that the defense is still prone to bad mistakes and keystone cop moments.
This was exhibited in Chelsea’s first goal where despite Karl Jenkinson committing the ill-advised header that Azpilicueta pounced on to score, the main culprit was Thomas Vermaelen, whose error in communication led to forcing Jenkinson into making a decision which ended up being a poor one. It has been no surprise why Vermaelen has been relegated to the bench as his play in the last year has dipped from where it was during the 2011-12 season.
With Arsenal having started so well after a disappointing opening-game loss to Aston Villa in league play, many have forgotten the issues which many, including myself, had about the team headed into the 2013-14 season. After Tuesday’s loss to Chelsea, those weaknesses have reappeared and as Arsenal enter the month of November in which it faces a gauntlet of tough games, their weaknesses are once again a topic of concern.