Sunday, October 26, 2014

Arsenal Win Ugly Again

Arsenal again played a disjointed and ugly game, scored a late goal and grabbed three points. Like last Wednesday, the team seemed completely out of sorts, losing the ball over and over again, failing to create many chances and showing an almost endemic shakiness on the defensive end. Lucky for them, they faced one of the weakest teams in the EPL at present, a Sunderland squad that shipped 8 goals to Southampton in their last match (and then refunded the fans in attendance). Yet but for two mistakes, one by Wes Brown and the other by ex-Gunner goalkeeper Mannone, the game could easily have finished nil-nil.

Alexis Sanchez was the one standout for the Gunners, latching onto a terrible backpass by Sunderland defender Wes Brown and then charging toward the goal and easily beating Mannone with a nice chip in the 30th minute. One could argue that goal was against the run of play, as Sunderland actually seemed the better team up to that point. From here the Gunners settled, but again failed to put the game away – a problem all season but for the Aston Villa and Galatasaray games (where Ozil played in the #10, one might note). They spurned a few decent chances and otherwise continued to give the ball away, though they did press up with resolve and often won the ball back. The second half saw Sunderland get forward more often and with more resolve, though some important Mertesacker clearances, a couple of missed opportunities and decent team defending kept the meager one goal lead intact, even as the Gunners had several chances to counter that each failed before a shot was even hit.

With 74 minutes gone, Gibbs was subbed out, almost 15 minutes after he started complaining of yet another injury but was ignored. Bellerin came in to replace him, though he took Chambers spot at right back, Chambers moved to the centre and Monreal to the right. On 80 minutes, Welbeck had a good chance to seal the victory with a header, but it sailed over the corner of the goal. Aaron Ramsey came on for Arteta in the 88th minute and then Rosicky for Ox in the 90th. Arsenal were hanging on, with Sunderland missing a few chances and then, in the 92nd minute, Mannone miskicked a back pass in the box and Sanchez grabbed the ball from his foot and flicked it into the corner, causing further blushes to a team that can’t stop making defensive mistakes. And so the game finished 2-0, though it flattered to deceive the stuttering quality of the performance by Arsenal.

There is no question that injuries are hurting them, but their problems were apparent from the very beginning of the season. First, as I can’t help but repeat repeatedly, they need a DM that cuts off the counter and stands firmly in front of the defense. While Arteta’s return was welcome, and his pinpoint passing a glaring contrast to almost everyone else on the pitch, neither he nor Flamini (who started beside him in a surprise move by Wenger) get the job done on a consistent enough basis. Second, they needed to replace Vermaelen for defensive cover. As Koscielny continues to recover from what was hoped to be a minor Achilles problem, we see the effects, with an unconvincing Nacho Monreal playing beside lumbering Mertesacker. When Gibbs limped off toward the end, Wenger had no choice but to bring the young Bellerin on to play right back, moving Chambers to CB and Monreal back to his more natural LB. But if Gibbs is out yet again injured and any of those four go out, I’m not sure who is supposed to play in any of those positions (with Debuchy and Koscielny out and no one else on the squad). It’s an insane situation that could and should have been resolved, given the money in the bank. Finally, the continued injury plague that again must ultimately lead to questions about training and treatment.

One thing that I believe is becoming clear is the importance of Ozil. I have been defending him since last season, as I think his style just irks the British press, who then feed into a meme among fans that is not based on his very impressive impact. In any case, since the Gunners lost him to injury, they have looked completely discombobulated in attack, whether it is Wilshere or Cazorla pulling the strings. Today the midfield consisted of Flamini, Arteta and Cazorla with Sanchez and Ox interchanging on the wings. None of them played terribly well, beside Sanchez, who scored both goals and again showed a hunger and will to win that seems to be missing from the rest of an increasingly anemic team. Ox seemed unable to finish any of his usually impressive runs toward goal, Cazorla missed two good chances to score and seems to have lost the form that he showed for his first year and a half in the red and white and Flamini appears to be a player in rather rapid decline. Too often a counterattack that should have resulted in a goal was cut short by an errant pass, failed attempts to dribble past defenders or a slowing of forward thrust. The Gunners continue to win the possession battle, but watching them compared to the impressive win by Real over Barcelona today showed how far the team is from world class at the moment. They need Ozil back as soon as possible, need Ramsey to show the form that had fans so excited last year, need Cazorla to find his confidence and Wilshere to become more disciplined when he plays through the middle. Hopefully two wins from poor performances will restore some confidence, but it’s getting harder and harder to understand why the performances are so consistently flat with only glimmers of the clear talent these players possess.

The good news is that while the game continued to highlight the weaknesses of a team that many thought had an outside shot at a title run this year, Arsenal did pick up points on Liverpool (who drew 0-0 with Hull) and Man City (surprise 2-1 losers to an increasingly impressive West Ham) and will pick up points on Chelsea, Manchester United or both, if they draw tomorrow. Next up is Burnley, which should be a relatively easy game for the North Londoners, though few have turned out that way so far this season.

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