Monday, December 22, 2014

Arsenal Blow Lead Again (Draw 2-2 With Liverpool)

Arsenal came into the game against Liverpool on the back of some impressive results, including the 4-1 thumping of a previously hot Newcastle. But Wenger’s record against the traditional Top 4 left many fans, including me, nervous, and the display for most of the first half seemed to justify those concerns. The squad was overrun in the midfield, exposed at the back and unable to string together more than three or four passes at a time. But they held firm until the 45th minute, when a poor back pass from Giroud led to a Coutinho opener. Then two minutes later Debuchy headed in a seemingly unlikely equalizer bolstering the Gunners for the second half.

Liverpool continued to dominate possession (64 percent), but Arsenal were dangerous on the counter. And in the 64th minute, a wonderful cutback from an increasingly in form Cazorla was finished strongly by Giroud. The Gunners had the lead but Liverpool continued to threaten their goal. Then Fabio Borini (remember him?) was sent off for a second yellow, giving Arsenal the lead and an additional man. But as I was saying to my friends at the pub, the Gunners needed a third to seal the game. And even a man up and in the 7th minute of extra time, Martin Skrtel towered over the defense and headed in the equalizer without even being challenged. In fact, the increasingly beguiling Per Mertesacker appeared to duck out of the way of the ball, allowing it to go in. So another two points dropped in a season that is becoming consumed by draws.

Rather than my usual three points or “by the numbers,” I thought I would think a little bit about why they lost the two points and were outplayed for most of the contest. From the onset, Arsenal was chasing the game, with Ox and Cazorla okay going forward (though not great) but unable to provide any challenge to a surprisingly fluid Liverpool passing attack. Flamini had to deputize just behind them and was not fully up to the task, particularly after an early yellow and the back four seemed to sit back far too often, failing to challenge balls in and around the box (a problem for me all season). Up front, the combination of Welbeck, Giroud and Sanchez were obviously great against Newcastle, but they seemed to be off all day, with Sanchez largely anonymous (except for the free kick he won and the resultant free kick that ultimately ended up in the Liverpool goal) and Welbeck and Giroud both failing to hold the ball up well or link up play. Overall, it appeared that Arsenal needed more midfield cover, someone to maybe replace Welbeck, who didn’t do much all game. The problem? With all the injuries there wasn’t an obvious choice. Wenger did bring on Coquelin for the second time this season late, but maybe that should have happened a little earlier, as Wenger watched the first half unfold.

In the back, Chambers was less than impressive yesterday, but Mertesacker is the real and growing enigma (or is it carcinoma?). He seems lost when he plays without Koscielny, who is now out with a calf problem, and just generally seems weak and out of position more than usual. It looked like he lost his footing on the equalizer, but then appeared to snap his head away from the ball, rather than blocking it, thus allowing not only a free header but a free path through. Gibbs was okay, as was Debuchy, but neither challenged the players around the box with sufficient vigor and the lack of a real DM meant that it was not terribly surprising to read that Liverpool had 27 shots (and 10 on target; to 7(3) for the Gunners)! That is unacceptable defending and cannot be blamed exclusively on the injuries. One wonders, in fact, why Bellerin didn’t get the start given how impressive he was in the last game, while Chambers has regressed a little in recent weeks?

In any case, yet another game against a rival that seemed vulnerable only for the Gunners to lose points. First it was all three against a injury-plagued United that we outplayed and then two against a Liverpool team that suddenly played their best game of the season, as many note, though not why that might be the case (maybe that Arsenal can’t defend?). Chelsea are already two up on Stoke and thus it looks like the Gunners will be 15 points behind the leaders after 17 games. They currently sit in sixth place, tied with Tottenham, and four points behind West Ham. While Wenger will probably steer them back into the Top Four with wins against the bottom 12 or 14, assisted by a couple of Winter signings that should have been made four months earlier, is that really enough to keep his job? The only good news, and it is worth noting, is that this team can beat anyone in the world on their best days (probably by outscoring them) and have a good shot at the final 8 of the UCL. After that, the injured should have returned and who knows?

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