Sunday, August 17, 2014

Arsenal Leave it Late (Win 2-1 over Crystal Palace)

Saturday was supposed to be a veritable walk in the Emirates park for Arsenal, playing a manager-less Crystal Palace, who had failed to strengthen to Tony Pulis’ liking and thus saw him walk away Thursday evening (2.5 million pounds richer for saving them from relegation last term). But the Premier League rarely goes to script these days and it was instead Crystal that took the lead in the 35th minute, as an unmarked Brede Hangeland glanced a header from a corner past Szczesny. Arsenal looked somewhat bamboozled by a strong and organized Palace defense (who accrued 19 fouls, 2 yellow cards and a red over the course of the game) and approached halftime knowing they were in jeopardy of throwing away their opening home game for the second year running; after the 3-1 loss to Aston Villa last season. But then new signing Alexis Sanchez sent in a wonderful free kick in first-half extra time met by Laurent Koscielny, who bent his neck back like a Heron before snapping it forward to find the corner of the goal and tie the game.

The second half continued much like the first, with Arsenal dominating possession (the final possession tally was 76 percent for the Gunners, with 14(6) shots to 4(2)) without much in the way of real offensive threat. Too many wayward passes from the usually reliable Aaron Ramsey, some poor giveaways from Wilshere and Cazorla and a lack of understanding between Sanchez and the other players, all meant that the Gunners were passing the ball around but going nowhere (a problem, at times, the past two years). But the introduction of Giroud and Ox with about 20 minutes left in the contest changed the nature of the game, with the Gunners suddenly offering a consistent threat. Giroud sent in a powerful shot from outside the box, Ox charged in from the right on several occasions and then Giroud sent the ball across the mouth of goal with no takers for what should have been a simple tap in. But in the 89th minute, a reckless challenge from Palace defender Jason Puncheon meant a second yellow, and a sending off. With one minute left in regulation plus a hefty five stoppage time additions, Arsenal began attacking with real resolve. And it paid off less than two minute later, as Ox sent in a cross that was first headed by Giroud and then Koscielny, before a powerful shot from Debuchy was parried out by Speroni only to fall at the feat of a charging Ramsey, who tapped in for the winner – his second winning goal in two competitive games. Some thoughts on the afternoon victory:

1. Midfield Blues: while Ramsey was the hero in the end, his performance during the rest of the game was average at best; sending errant passes around the Emirates and looking out of sorts on several occasions. Cazorla was good at times, but seemed to get stuck on the ball and give it away and Wilshere spent more time on the ground than on the ball, as has become his habit. Ramsey and Cazorla will get back to their best soon, one assumes, but I do have to wonder if Wilshere will be spending a lot of time on the bench this term? He has cut out some of his attempts to go through three and four defenders but still would rather elicit a free kick then try to get past defenders, too often near the center of the pitch. All this does is break up the rhythm of the Arsenal attack and slow down the game – a gift to most teams playing the Gunners. He did have a great shot saved in the first half and some nifty passing, but just doesn’t seem to be improving from year to year. The return of Ozil will be good news, as even though he received endless criticism from the British press, the worst stretch of last season occurred while he was out. His calm, almost aloof approach to the game rubs some the wrong way (particularly the hard-nosed British football press), but really keeps the team moving forward. I would also chose Rosicky over Wilshere and, if we pick up a DM (as we should!), one wonders where the young Englishman is supposed to play in the setup (particularly after Walcott returns)? He’ll get time in Cups and against lesser opponents, but should really be on the bench in the big games (as Arsenal pretty consistently seem better when he is out). Regarding the purchase of that DM; if Wenger doesn’t buy Carvalho, Khedira or some other player, I think it will be a huge mistake that borders on reckless endangerment – of the title charge.

2. Striker, surely you can’t be serious? Yaya Sanogo might respond “don’t call be Shirley,” but that appears to be his problem, as he is a player with lots of upside – tall and lanky with some clear technical skills, he could someday become a great striker – but one who seems unsure and just doesn’t look comfortably in the box. The day when he is an apt backup to Giroud is not anon, as far as I’m concerned, and the game yesterday reinforces the notion that the Gunners need a better backup to Giroud than this if they want to really challenge for the title. This might be even more important than getting that DM, as Giroud can’t do it alone – as we’ve seen for two years running. Cavani is the most exciting option available, and I would love to see Wenger splash the cash again this summer.

3. Injury Issues Emerge Again? Arsenal has had a pretty poor injury record over the past few seasons and sought to address that by bringing in a World-class German physio. And yet injury-prone Gibbs limped off early with an apparent hamstring pull, reminding fans that the team sits on a razor’s edge at times. Keeping Ramsey, Giroud, Koscielny and Gibbs fit will go a long way in deciding what this team will do this season and one hopes they have developed a more sustainable training and recuperation plan.

In football, three points is three points and early season rustiness is to be expected, particularly after a World Cup-shortened preseason. One wonders if the vocal Mertesacker might have saved them from the first goal error, if Ozil could have provided a little more creativity in the middle and if Giroud starting the game might have made it a more comfortable afternoon. But the mettle shown here is an important step forward for a team that has been more apt to blow leads or draws than win late over the past several seasons. With the three Germans ready to return as early as Tuesday and Walcott a few weeks away, I think it would be silly to worry about this rather average performance, but Arsenal face the two-legged UCL playoff against Besiktas this Tuesday and next Wednesday, and away match at Everton in between and then an away tie at a just-promoted Leicester City (pronounced “Lester” for my fellow Americans), who got an impressive point Saturday.

Looking around the rest of the league, City, Liverpool and Tottenham all won, Everton lost a lead to drop two points and Man United, of course, lost their opener at Old Trafford, looking rather pedestrian in a flat performance. Sure a lot of their stars were out with injuries, but I continue to wonder if the 3-5-2 is really going to work with the team Van Gaal has largely inherited, particularly a back line of Jones, Smalling and Evans. Rumours continue to float around about a number of signings, but the inability to close the deals the past two summers might see United struggle yet again. Chelsea play tomorrow against promoted Burnley and will look to notch the three points needed to match their other rivals. Meanwhile Liverpool could have easily lost to a Southampton team that looked substantially better than pundits imagined after losing so many stars, and their manager, this summer. And Tottenham got lucky with a late goal from Eric Dier, in his debut for his new club (he has spent most of his footballing career with Sporting Lisbon in Portugal), but otherwise seemed to suffer from the same problem that plagued them last term – the inability to score sufficient goals. In fact, it appears as if for the third season running, late goals are the only thing to keep this team from drifting back toward midtable. I’ll be rooting for Burnley tomorrow, as a Gooner who hates Chelsea almost as much as I dislike United and Tottenham, but see Mourinho’s men grabbing the three points rather easily. So we’re off and running; can’t wait to see what happens next …

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