Why Arsenal's greatest strength can also be their main weakness

The 2-0 Champions League defeat to Braga highlighted problems that threaten to wreck a promising season
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The Independent Online

1. Their style is vulnerable

The passing game that Arsène Wenger has built up is both a strength and a weakness. It is lovely to watch when the team are on song and has produced some of the best football seen in England in the last couple of seasons. It can also lead to over-elaboration and vulnerability against teams who either close down quickly and ruthlessly or simply pull men back behind the ball. Then as Arsenal push forward more and more, committing midfielders and full-backs, they can be susceptible to counter-attack.

Cesc Fabregas, particularly important to their quick, first-time passing, has not been at his best recently, partly because of hamstring problems, and is now out again.

2. Complacency can set in

Winning the first three Champions League games by margins of 6-0, 3-1 and 5-1 gave Arsenal the impression that they were effectively through to the next stage. Now they have lost return games against the two teams they beat most easily, Shakhtar Donetsk and Braga, and qualification has come down to the final match, which fortunately is at home to Partizan Belgrade, who have lost all five group matches.

Similarly easy victories at home to teams like Blackpool (6-0) and Bolton Wanderers (4-1), like taking a 2-0 lead against Spurs, may have led to the complacency that Wenger admitted to when he said this week, "We are so at ease in some games that subconsciously maybe we feel we just need to go through the motions."

3. Central defence is weak

Thomas Vermaelen, signed before the start of last season, settled in remarkably quickly and looked just the job, but since he was injured in September Wenger has failed to find a reliable central defender, let alone a pair who are comfortable together. Although always reluctant to criticise individuals, he pointed out that Sébastien Squillaci and Laurent Koscielny were both in the wrong position when Younes Kaboul headed Tottenham's winning goal last Saturday.

Koscielny had a poor game at the Emirates and was replaced in Braga by Johan Djourou, who, like Squillaci, was unable to prevent the Brazilian midfielder Matheus running through the middle to score the two late goals. Clean sheets in European away games have become a collector's item.

4. Injuries are taking their toll

While the squad overall has been strengthened, Wenger has been unable to utilise all his options because of a run of injuries. Frustratingly, several of them have occurred when players were representing their country. Robin van Persie, outstanding when fit last season, Theo Walcott and Vermaelen all missed several weeks that way and the former pair have only just returned; Van Persie did not travel to Braga, staying behind to work on his fitness.

Four midfielders missed the defeat in Donetsk, when rookies Craig Eastmond and Jack Wilshere were left exposed in the central area. Now Fabregas is out again, as is Emmanuel Eboué, who was off the pitch when Braga scored their two late goals against 10 men.

5. Luck has turned against them

Misfortune is supposed to even itself out over the course of a season, although as with any law of averages, there are winners and losers, as well as periods when the balance of ups and downs is negative. Arsenal are now in one of those periods.

Injuries are part of it; refereeing decisions are another, as was illustrated on Tuesday in Braga when with the scoreline blank Carlos Vela was clearly fouled right in front of two of the many Champions League officials, only to receive a yellow card for diving instead of a penalty. In the next few minutes, Arsenal lost Eboué to a dubious tackle and conceded the two goals. How's your luck? All set up for former Gunner Robert Pires to score Aston Villa's winning goal on Saturday.

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