Saturday, October 18, 2014

Arsenal Draw Again; Title Chase All But Over After 8 Games

Arsene Wenger warned his players before the game that this was not going to be a rollover win at home against Hull City. One only wishes the players had heeded that call a little more. The Gunners dominated possession throughout, but allowed Hull to score on their only two chances of the game, settling for a draw that should have been three points. Arsenal started brightly and controlled the game, creating several half chances, the most obvious falling to Jack Wilshere, who again failed to connect when in on goal (a troubling habit for a player who should put the ball in the net more often, including a chance to equalize against Chelsea a fortnight ago). But a bit of magic from Alexis Sanchez opened the scoring soon after, as he got past two defenders and then shot the ball hard across the crease and in on 13 minutes.

But as has become a rather destructive habit this term, the Gunners shut off at a key moment and allowed Diame to dribble past three defenders, push Flamini aside and score to equalize on 17 minutes. To be fair, it shouldn’t have been a goal, as Diame clearly fouled Flamini on his way to chipping over Szczesny, but he shouldn’t have had the chance, with three defenders there to block him or at least get a tackle in. With the score equalized, Arsenal looked a little shell shocked, and though they continued to dominate possession, were sloppy around the box and unable to capitalize any further on 68 possession and 14 shots (5 on target) in the first half.

As the second half began, most fans still presumed the Gunners would come to life and win the game. And then the unthinkable happened. Mertesacker fell asleep on a floating cross from Huddlestone and allowed striker Hernandez to slip in front of him and send a strong header past a diving Szczesny. The team found themselves down 2-1 on two chances around relative dominance of the game. Arsenal then went about chasing an equalizer, and came close on a few occasions, but the sloppiness around the box continued to plague them, with Ox the most culpable, losing the ball somewhere around 15 times in the game (or more; I lost count) through heavy touches, bad passes and some even worse shots. Hull began time wasting, angering supporters, and Ramsey was sent on for Flamini with 26 minutes to play (after missing several weeks with a hamstring injury) before Joel Campbell came on for Wilshere six minutes later (the Englishman had a relatively good game, though he failed to connect on his best chance to score and went off with a twisted knee that could see him added to the list of casualties that is giving Stalingrad a run for its money).

Arsenal appeared to wake up soon after and began attacking Hull with greater vigor and creativity, particularly in the last ten minutes of regulation. Nothing came of the attacks until the 91st minute, when a lovely pass from Sanchez let in Welbeck, who finished coolly across goal with his left foot. And so Arsenal saved a point again, as they did against Everton and * so far this term, though it again feels more like two points dropped. Some thoughts on the game …

1. Defensive Frailty is Back! It’s getting harder to remember those halcyon days of 2013 when Arsenal shipped the fewest goals and had the most points in the league (unfortunately, you get no title for a calendar year haul, only questions of why the two seasons that sandwiched that year started and then ended so meekly). The reality is this isn’t all the players fault – they are pushed too far up the pitch, don’t have the midfield cover they need and are backed by a goalkeeper that seems to let in far too many savable goals. If the Gunners don’t solve this problem soon, they will have a very hard time securing a top four spot.

2. The Power of Two: Since their clean sheet win over Man City in the Community Shield, they have had only three clean sheets in all competitions (two against Besiktas and one over Aston Villa). They have shipped two goals in 6 games and 1 goal in 3. Even in their dominating win over Galatasaray they still gave up a goal, on the rather silly red card-inducing penalty given up by Sz. The big problem for Arsenal appears to be giving away points this season. Sure they came back to beat Crystal in the opener after falling behind 1-0 (with an extra time strike from Ramsey), drew 2-2 with Everton after being behind 2-0, scored in the 74th to draw with Tottenham and came back for the draw with an extra time goal today. But they should have gotten maximum points out of many of those games and the list of blown leads is extremely troubling: they led today before giving up two goals, were beating City 2-1 late before giving up the equalizer (they came back from a goal down to take the lead there), led Southampton in the Capital One Cup before shipping two goals and exiting the competition, gave up an equalizer to Leicester two minutes after scoring in a disappointing away draw in August, and lost their two biggest games of the season so far 2-0 (to Dortmund and then Chelsea).

3. Sanchez a Great Signing: Alexis Sanchez is the sort of player who may annoy you at times, trying to be too cute, losing the ball and missing his passes. But his ability to get around defenders, spot out charging teammates and finish chances is quickly showing him to be a dominant force in the EPL. In 10 appearances for the Gunners, he has scored 5 goals and added 3 assists (3 and 2 in the league in 6 starts and 7 total appearances). While he has not put up the totals of Diego Costa, who plays through the middle obviously, or shown the consistent quality of Angel di Maria, he is emerging as one of the best signings of the summer and should help Arsenal as they struggle for the “trophy” of fourth place yet again.

4. Wenger Aging Pains: Wenger came out with a decent game plan, pressing Hull up and controlling the ball, but he again played two high a line with Mertesacker and Monreal (in for an injured Koscielny) and it aided Hull in scoring the first goal. Arsenal is so prone to being beaten on the break again, it is like the team from a few season back that had the most defensive mistakes leading to goals in the entire league. Wenger seems unable or unwilling to make any dramatic tactical changes any longer and really is hurting the team. While his errors are too numerous to list here, let’s look at the biggest three this term: 1. Not buying a DM to dominate the area in front of the back four and cover for the DBs, who go forward together far too often, or the CBs who were playing closer than 40 yards from the Hull goal on several occassions. 2. Not playing Ozil through the middle before he lost yet another player to injury. Ozil was dominant the two times he was allowed to play in his natural #10 role, but was shuttled out to the wing in each subsequent game. 3. Not buying more defensive cover to deal with the injuries that were sure to crop up this term (Koscielny might have stopped both Hull goals). Wenger is making it harder and harder to be a Gunner fan at present and I will be hosting a party the moment he announces his retirement, or move to Monaco (who apparently want him).

5. Casualties of War: Arsenal changed their physio this summer to try to quell the long list of injuries that seems to derail their season year after year. But instead of stemming the trend, it appears to have gotten worse. Out at present are Giroud (broken tibia), Debuchy (ankle), Gnarby (knee), Rosicky (calf), Sanogo (hamstring, though that is probably good news), Arteta (calf), Walcott (knee, though will be back very soon), Ozil (knee) and Koscielny (Achilles). Wilshere might soon be added to the list again and Ramsey just got off it. I’m also not sure what is happening with Diaby, though I assume he has 6 or 7 injuries and they just decided not to list him on the site anymore. Some of these injuries could not have been avoided, but rumour has it that Ozil felt pain in his knee in the first half against Chelsea, but was allowed to continue and with a record like this over so many years, training and treatment have to be seriously questioned.

Overall, this team is an enigma at present. One day Wilshere is terrible and Ox is great, the next the table is turned. They dominate possession in almost every game they play, but are often beaten on the counter (as they were today and against Chelsea two weeks ago). They are pressing up and winning the ball at times, but then miss the pass that could turn those strong defensive plays into goals. They tend to start and finish strong in most games, but sometimes fall asleep in the middle, fail to put teams away, or give up sloppy goals. And the result is, that they sit in sixth place, 11 points behind league leader Chelsea after a mere 8 games, with Swansea and Liverpool having the opportunity to push them down to eighth in the next two days. They are out of the Capital One Cup and need to beat Anderlecht twice to ensure they get out of their group in the UCL (though it looks as though it might be in second place yet again). And they might need to come up with a strategy to score three in every game if they are to turn the season around, given their penchant for shipping two goals a game. Not shaping up as a great season at all …

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