Sunday, August 24, 2014

Arsenal Snatch Back Two to Draw at Everton 2-2

Wenger might have been thinking of “the best laid plans of mice and men” after his first half experiment of leaving Giroud on the bench and playing Sanchez centrally found the Gunners down two at halftime for the second time in two games at Everton in just a few months time. Reverting to Giroud in the middle to start the second half, then spicing things up with the introduction of Cazorla and Joel Campbell (in his first EPL appearance for the club) for the Ox and Wilshere, Arsenal charged back late to draw level and almost win the game in extra time. The game was both a reminder of the way Arsenal capitulated on the road versus their major rivals last season and an uplifting draw that just might send the Gunners on to challenge for the title.

The game started with Everton in the ascendancy and dominating possession, as Wenger decided to play a tighter formation without the high line that had been caught out by Liverpool, Chelsea and Everton in quick succession last Spring. Yet on the stroke of 20 minutes, Ozil decided he needed a break from defending at the worst possible moment, allowing Seamus Coleman to race to the far post and head in a beautiful pass from Gareth Barry. Then, just as Arsenal appeared to be mounting a little offensive pressure, Ozil gave the ball up in the Everton box, it went out to Lukaku, who appeared to push Mertesacker then flew past Calum Chambers before marauding toward the goal, sending a perfect pass to Naismath, who finished coolly through Szczesny’s legs. That Naismath was clearly offsides was of little consolation as the Gunners found themselves down 2-0 with seconds until the break.

It looked like another away disaster against the top six for Arsenal was 45 minutes away, and a reminder of all that is wrong with the team – from the lackluster play of Jack Wilshere and lack of strength and resolve in midfield (where they lost the ball repeatedly to the more physical, pressing Evertonians) to problems in attack without the central focal point of Giroud and sloppy defending on set pieces or in responding to the counter. In fact, with 20 minutes left, and Giroud having squandered three good chances (in addition to two half chances), the criticism of Wenger for not already signing a world-class striker and Patrick-Viera-type defensive midfield enforcer seemed more warranted than ever.

But a funny thing happened on the way to a resounding defeat – the introduction of the young Campbell and wily Cazorla all of a sudden started to rattle Everton players, and the Gunners created one chance after another. As time was ticking down, Cazorla took the ball at the edge of the box, got around two defenders and sent a low, screaming cross across goal that was neatly bundled in by Aaron Ramsey (83rd minute); the man who can’t seem to stop scoring important goals. Arsenal kept on pushing for the equalizer, but missed a couple of golden chances before the “misser of the match” came through with a perfect header to the far corner from a Nacho Monreal cross that was so good, Tim Howard didn’t even move an inch before turning to grab the ball. Arsenal had scored at the stroke of 90 minutes for the second league game running (with Ox almost pulling the feat in Turkey Tuesday, but for a fine save and the crossbar) and the Gunners had a valuable away point that might feel more like four, given the resolve it took to gather it.

Some thoughts on the game:

1.    The Mercurial Giroud: you might have caught my post on Giroud a few days ago ( highlighting the fact that he rarely scores in big games and just doesn’t have the finishing touch of the best strikers in the world. Well, that theme appeared to be repeating itself today, after he failed to score after a peach of a cross from Ox that could have made it a one-goal game less than a minute into the second half, before missing again in the 67th minute (with a nice shot that slid just wide, having beaten Howard) and then again a minute later when he was one-on-one with the keeper but shot weakly into Howard’s arms. And then, after Ramsey had opened the scoring in the 83rd minute, Giroud missed another half chance, as he skied above the Everton defense only to pass the ball toward the far post, too far ahead of a charging Ramsey. But good things do sometimes come to those who drive us crazy and that moment came in the 89th minute, when Ramsey sent the ball long on an attempted cross that Monreal collected and sent back in with a perfect cross that Giroud guided neatly into the bottom corner of the goal. It was a lovely header and saved a point for the Gunners, restoring some confidence in the Frenchman, though still asking the question of whether we need another world class striker – particularly as the Sanchez through the middle experiment appeared to be an abject failure.
2.    Wilshere Woes Worsen: Many will fail to recognize that it was the subbing of Wilshere and Ox in the 74th minute that so radically altered the game, but I’m not one of them. While Ox was among the brightest figures on the pitch for the Gunners throughout the first 50 minutes or so (creating chances, running past defenders, and even putting in some good defensive work), he did appear to go missing as the game moved toward its conclusion. But Wilshere played downright terrible football, guilty of giving the ball away (I counted seven times, though it might have been more), failing to take shots when open (twice), falling to the ground needlessly (at least three or four times) and generally disrupting the forward momentum of the attack and exposing the defense to counters. He is a player that helps the team most when he is on the bench and this is a problem that Wenger will have to sort out. One hopes he can and we do have the great example of him staying with Ramsey as he put in one terrible performance after another a year and a half ago, but one wonders if Wilshere is on the same level as the Welshman and whether he will simply become another of those “next big things” to end up washed up before he hits 25.
3.    The New Boys: looking across the pitch at the new players, there was some reason for optimism and some concern. Debuchy made some important interceptions and tackles on the defensive end, but was relatively uninspiring going forward (though he was held back a little by Wenger) – 6. Sanchez is still getting his feet wet with the Gunners system and the more physical EPL, but does have a lovely turn, was really close on a few through passes and has blistering pace. This wasn’t his best 45 minutes, but the upside potential looks really good – 5. Chambers played through the middle again, in place of the injured Kos and again showed a maturity well beyond his years. He did make a few mistakes, had two cynical challenges (with the second earning him a booking) and was juked rather pathetically by Lukaku on the way to Everton’s second goal, but his strength and poise in the middle is quite impressive and his stature will only grow as he gets more time on the pitch – 6. Joel Campbell came on late and, though he was sometimes guilty of heavy touches and clumsy passes, his threat appeared to pull Everton’s midfielders toward him, opening up the space for the first goal. One wonders what role he will play this term, but impact sub or backup striker are certainly worth considering after this performance. 
4.    Refs Revenge: Arsenal actually received a little help from the referees last season, for the first time in my memory, except in the Bayern game, where the penalty and straight red seemed particularly harsh. But in two games in a row, the referee appeared to do everything in his power to contribute to a Gunner’s loss. In this case, we can include a horrific miss by the linesman on a clearly offsides second goal, two missed corners for Arsenal, a questionable yellow, several baffling calls on fouls against Arsenal and for Everton and the rewarding of a soft foul that actually led to the first goal. Arsenal came back for the draw, but arguably would have won the game if not for the terrible refereeing, and slightly below average finishing of Giroud.

I think Arsenal can take a lot of positives out of the performance in the second half and recognize where things went wrong in the first. The game does seem to highlight, more than ever, the fact that the Gunners need a DM really badly (particularly with Arteta injured and Flamini flaming out, after impressing in the first few months of his return last season) and could also use another option up top to give Giroud the rest he clearly needs to be at his best. The might also note the way they were overrun in the midfield and the need to toughen up and press higher, at least on occasion, as they did near the end of the game when they scored twice in less than 7 minutes. They should take note of how important Ox can be this year, adding creativity and a direct threat to their attack and how Campbell’s introduction seemed to liven the game up. And Ospina might be warming up for a potential appearance after a less than impressive performance from Szczesny, who seemed to have an off day at Goodison Park, failing to stop two shots that many top goalkeepers would have. On the positive side, Arsenal now have several combinations of players they can use in attack and on the defensive end (though clearly short in the centre), but have to either figure out how to motivate Wilshere, or put him on the bench. Wenger can be proud of the growing confidence of his team, and their belief that they can come back to win or draw in any game, but must also worry about their discipline, effort and depth of quality at a couple of key positions.

Wednesday is one of the biggest games for the Gunners in a while – or at least since the FA Cup final and Community Shield over the past few months – and one they really need to win. They will be without Ramsey and Arteta, and possibly Koscielny, but must hold firm, push forward with resolve and get the result they need to push on to the Group Stage of the Champions League. A loss or draw would be devastating and I think they now have the resolve to get the job done … I hope. COYG!

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