Monday, May 11, 2015

Arsenal Lose to Swansea Again

Arsenal started brightly in their evening match with Swansea at the Emirates tonight, and Olivier Giroud had a header to take the lead after only three minutes, but Ramsey’s clever cross from inside the box was a few inches behind the Frenchman, and he sent it just over. Swansea were clearly playing deep and on the counter right from the onset and had a half chance of their own on 7 minutes, though Rangel tried to beat Ospina from an acute angle at the near post, to no avail. Shelvy then ambitiously tried his hand at a Charlie Adams hail mary imitation, though from much closer, with Ospina seemingly comfortable watching the ball float over the post. Then a long pass almost found a charging Dyer, but Ospina came to the edge of the box to collect it.

Arsenal were dominating possession, to the tune of 86 percent over the first 20 minutes, but without any real threat of old goalkeeper, anything-but-Fab-ianski (until tonight, that is). In fact, even with their metronomic possession reminiscent of the Barcelona team of the late aughts, it was Swansea that had the better chances to score, with Shelvy, in particular, looking lively and dangerous. Two questionable offsides calls in a row, one against each team, makes me wonder why line judges don’t give the benefit of a centimeter to the offensive side. On 25 minutes, Giroud was left rolling around in pain after being kneed in the back, only 10 minutes after a knee-to-knee clash with Ashley Williams and then Sanchez was grabbed twice to elicit a rather half-hearted penalty appeal. Halfway through the half, there was little to separate Swansea’s organize defense and occasional forays forward from Arsenal’s possession-first approach.

Arsenal earned their first corner of the game on 33 minutes, after a lofted pass from Ramsey to a charging Sanchez, but a Bellerin foul led to a Fabianski goal kick. The Gunners began to pick up the pace of their passing, but the crosses were below par and they continued to offer no threat on the Swansea goal. Shelvy was the first one in the book, with an overzealous tackle on Sanchez near midfield on 37 minutes, before another errant pass from Ramsey. A Giroud whipping shot from just outside the box on 42 minutes went just wide, the closest the Gunners came to scoring since the third minute. On the stroke of 45 minutes, Sanchez sent a long ball over the top, just out of the reach of Ramsey. Montero got in on goal for the Swans two minutes later, but shot wide of the near left post and the half ended soon after.

Swansea were clearly the happier of the two sides after 45 minutes, poised at nil-nil, but Arsenal could take hope from the fact that 21 of the last 22 goals between the two have come in the second half. On the other hand, it was two second half goals from Swansea in November that saw the Gunners fall to a 2-1 defeat. And those fears would, of course, come to fruition again here. The second half went much like the first, with an organized Swansea keeping Arsenal largely at bay. At the hour mark, some nice exchanges between Ozil, Sanchez and Monreal led to a snap shot from Giroud too close to Fabianski, who easily collected it. A minute later, Ramsey charged forward on the counter and was given a perfect pass in the box from Ozil, before a series of twists led to a shot just wide of the near post. On 64 minutes, a nice spell of possession around the box, led by Ozil (who had three successful tackles/interceptions in short order), concluded with a Cazorla shot across goal, well saved by Fabianski.

On 66 minutes, Wilshere came on for Coquelin, for his first home appearance in the league since way back in November; the day Arsenal suffered their only other home defeat of the league season, 2-1 to United, in a game much like this one, that they dominated for long stretches only to drop all three points in the end. His first touch on the offensive side came in the box, where he got off a weak shot from an acute angle that was easily caught by Fab. Three minutes later, Walcott came on for Olivier Giroud, and actually lined up as the centre forward. Wilshere earned a corner a moment later, but it was headed out by the first defender. Cazorla had a shot to the far corner soon after, but Williams cleared it for another corner.

The pressure was mounting, and Walcott should have made it 1-0 at 72 minutes, when Bellerin drove into the box and then sent a shot that was toed out by Williams, right into the path of the English international. Ki was replaced by the striker Gomis on 73 minutes and his first action was to clear a weak free kick from Cazorla. He has five goals in an injury-plagued season where he played second fiddle to Bony for the first half but certainly added a threat the Gunners would have to account for (this could be foreshadowing of what’s to come). Fabianski had his fourth save of the night as Monreal got free on goal a moment later, before catching the resulting corner. There was a second appeal for a penalty as Monreal appeared to be fouled, but his failure to fall before the shot probably made up Friend’s mind. Ramsey sent a decent shot across goal, but without enough power to really trouble Fab, as time began to run out on the Gunners. In the 78th minute, Sanchez found himself free on goal from 10 yards out, but somehow hit it right at Fabianski, and the resultant rebound fell to Walcott, who should have scored but again shot it right into what appeared to be hidden magnets in the Swansea keeper’s gloves. Within 30 seconds, Ozil had a third chance, again right at the Swansea keeper and it began to see like this wasn’t Arsenal’s night.

Sanchez earned a corner in the 83rd minute, but it came to naught and one had to consider the substitution of Giroud partially implicated in this loss, as a number of fine crosses late in the game found no one to finish them. As Wenger might have been contemplating that mistake, Swansea got forward on the right wing in what appeared to be a relatively innocuous counter on 86 minutes. The cross from the right wing went whipping across goal where it was collected by Montero, the winger who caused Calum Chambers such headaches in the reverse fixture and who helped Swansea win the first three of the six points they now took from the Gunners this year. He crossed it back toward Gomis, just back from injury, who headed it toward the far corner. Ospina came across and appeared to keep the ball out, as Gomis started to celebrate. No one, including the announcers, seemed to know why – until goal line technology solved the not-worthy-of-Hercule-Poirot mystery. Swansea were up 1-0, completely against the run of play, and while Arsenal fought valiantly to equalize in the remaining seven minutes of the game (including four minutes of extra time), a chance to draw even with Man City was gone.

And so the curse of Swansea continued, made worse this year by two losses that are both head scratchers. Arsenal had 70 percent possession and countless chances to score over the last 20 minutes, but instead gave up a goal on the only Swansea attack of note in the entire second half. Walcott missed two gild-edged chances, Sanchez maybe the best of the night, Ramsey had several chances himself and they played the first half without the energy we have become accustomed to this year. It was the sort of lax defending so reminiscent of the past few years that was ultimately to blame for a disappointing loss that could derail all the positive momentum building since January.

The good news is that Arsenal are guaranteed of Champions League football for an 18th year in a row, after the Liverpool draw with Chelsea Sunday, still have a chance to snatch second place from City, with a game in hand against Sunderland but a far inferior goal difference (9 behind City), and can end the season with a second FA Cup in a row. They have only lost four times this year, but those losses all mattered – first a New Years Day defeat to Southampton when the Top 4 was still very much in the balance, then 2-1 in the North London Derby before the biggest defeat of the year – the 3-1 loss at the Emirates to Monaco in the first leg of the UCL Round of 16. Losses like these remind fans of the tendency for defensive lapses and poor finishing undermining chances at titles, cups and advancement in the Champions League over the past decade (and each of those games included a combination of the two problems that beset post-Invincible Arsenal teams a little too often for comfort). In fact, one only needs to look to the two wins in the first eight games of the season as the main reason Chelsea is celebrating the title early. Arsenal fans will hope this was a one off before four wins to end yet another season that could have been so much more.

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