Thursday, January 01, 2015

In Fourth Again …. Nope (Southampton 2 Arsenal 0)

Arsenal headed to Southampton today hoping to get their birthright of fourth place back from the current interloper in that spot, those very same Saints. Giroud was, of course, out, as was Welbeck and the usual long list that includes Ramsey, Ozil, Arteta, Flamini and Diaby – with Walcott apparently unready to start though he did come on in the second half. In addition, Chambers was moved to central midfield, creating a completely different starting 11 then fans have seen in recent winning efforts. But many of the same problems that have hurt the team all year were still there to see.

Southampton had the first good chance of the game, when a free header was missed in the 8th minute. In the 20th, Sanchez started an attack, got the ball down the line to Rosicky who cut it back across goal to Cazorla. The Spaniard struck the ball well but too close to Forster, who saved it on the line (Cazorla could have done better). Seven minutes later, Cazorla did some great work on the byline, keeping the ball in, turning away from the defender and sending a cross to Ox, who volleyed it just wide of the opposite corner of the net. Two chances scorned and that often leads things in the opposite direction.

And that is exactly what happened in the 33rd minute, as Koscielny lost Mane on the edge of the box, Szczesny inexplicably came out to the edge of the box to block him, changed his mind and then started backpedalling as the Saints player settled and chipped the ball perfectly with sidespin toward goal, with the bumbling Mertesacker unable to clear it on the line. 1-0 Southampton. In the 40th minute, Sz partially made up for the error, with an impressive save with his foot as he dove in the opposite direction.
In the 55th minute, Sanchez found himself with the ball a few meters out, settled, got around a defender and shot hard, but Forster was there to save excellently with a strong left hand. Then less than a minute later another terrible bit of defending led to a second goal. This was even worse than the first boner with Debuchy collecting a cross in the middle in front of goal with plenty of time to clear his line before Szczesny inexplicably tapped it with his left foot right to Tadic, who clipped it in from close. Arsenal were down 2-0 and it was almost three a moment later when Tadic got a long ball and beat Mert, surprise surprise, to get off a nice curling shot that was just wide.

In the 60th minute, Theo Walcott came on for the first time since November 9th against Swansea, after the injury he suffered on International Duty. Seeing him on the pitch was probably the only good news of the entire game for the Gunners, who reverted to form at exactly the wrong time. In the 67 minute, Sanchez was in on goal when he was fouled just outside the box, but what should have been a red was only a yellow from a referee who is pretty terrible in general (being the same man who missed the triple elbow by Cisse against Everton and rewarded a Saints corner earlier simply because a player asked him to). In the latest “what the hell are you thinking” Wenger moment, he decided to bring on Akbom for Debuchy in the 84th minute, only the second senior appearance for the future prospect. Three thoughts on the latest Arsenal debacle:

1. Tactical Flexibility (no really!): One difference we have seen with Wenger since the early season flood of goals the Gunners were conceding was to occasionally play with two defensive minded midfielders. And that was the case again today, with Coquelin and Chambers deputizing those roles as both Arteta and Flamini remain out. So kudos to Wenger for changing things up a little, except for the fact that it, of course, didn’t work. And I have a real fear that the only reason he did so was as a preemptive strike against criticism for failing to buy a DM for the fourth window in a row this month (since letting Song leave for Barcelona two summers ago).

2. The Bumbling Buffoons of Arsenal: Poor decision-making and positioning are killing the Gunner this year and both goals were the result of terrible defending, particularly from our Polish goalkeeper, who has already cost the Gunners a trophy (the Capital One Cup in 2011) and arguably more sustainable title run last year in his first few years as first choice. On top of this, the idiotic decision by Giroud last game also hurt, as the lack of a target man was clearly a problem throughout (see below). The Saints had several good chances to score, but it was the error by Koscielny and terrible positioning by Szczesny from which the opener came (with Mertesacker having a chance to clear at the line, but fluffing that opportunity) and an equally absurd decision costing the second (on top of the fact that a better clearance by Sz would have done the job). Shambolic is the best word for their defending from one game to the next and I don’t think it will improve until changes are made at CB (auf wiedersehen Mertesacker) and in Goal (that guy from Chelsea currently sitting on the bench is supposedly pretty good). It is hard to believe that this defense (with Sagna in for Debuchy) was statistically the best in the league in the calendar year of 2012. 2013 showed them to be a much more vulnerable bunch and this year has now started on the same note.

3. Target Man Interruptus: As mentioned above, Giroud’s head-butt-inducing red card was felt throughout this game, as Arsenal got in a decent amount of crosses but with no target man in the middle to take care of them. A focal point has become key for this team, for holding up the ball and distributing it, giving room to Cazorla, Sanchez and others around the box and for finishing the chances the forward players create. With a few minutes left in regulation, for example, Gibbs put in a great cross, but the only Gunner in the box was Akpom. This is a very short-term problem, but reinforces point #2 from above.

Finally, I think it worth mentioning that since Southampton was in the Top 4, it was yet another loss for Wenger against a team in one of those positions, which probably explains their first loss to them in over 12 years (and the first win for the Saints against a legitimate top team this year, except us in the Capital One Cup!!!). Good job, Wenger, keep up the mediocre work in 2015! For those who are wondering, our record against the Top 6 from this year or last is as follows: 8 played, 1 Win, 4 Draws, 3 Losses and thus only 7 points (2-2 draw with Everton, 2-2 draw with City, 1-1 draw with Tottenham, 2-0 loss to Chelsea, 2-1 loss to United, 1-0 win over Southampton, 2-2 draw with Liverpool and the 2-0 loss today). This is really the only statistic one needs to look at when deciding whether Wenger should keep his job (as it has been more or less this bad for years now). At this point, I’m cheering for us to fall out of the Top 4 for the first time under Wenger so the board has no choice but to get rid of the Frenchman once and for all. And there is that crazy fella from Dortmund who might just be ready for a change after this headache of a season concludes (they are currently teetering near the bottom of the table).

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