Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Three Things: Arsenal Fail to Score at Home for Third Game Running

Arsenal lined up for their midweek game against Sunderland tonight knowing a point was probably good enough to guarantee third place for the season, though three would put some pressure on Man City for second place going into the final game. For Sunderland, a loss today meant there was still a chance they could be relegated in Week 38, while a draw would see them stave off that fate by a whisker for a second straight year. In the early going, Arsenal were on the front foot, but not creating many real chances and Sunderland came close to getting a man free on goal on two occasions. Two nice Bellerin crosses came to naught, a couple of corners were cleared and Wilshere lost out one on one with Sunderland keeper Pantillimon, before a weak shot from Cazorla on 23 minutes ended another threat. On the stroke of 30 minutes, Wilshere sent a lofted pass to Ozil, who should have done better, but shot over. Arsenal were dominating with 64 percent possession, but the play around the box was below par and minus a shot that just missed the far corner from Giroud and a couple of wild shots by Ozil, little was done with the possession for the third game running, leading to a 0-0 halftime score.

Sunderland manager Dick Advocaat brought on Steven Fletcher and forgotten prospect Jack Rodwell to start the second half and the shifts seemed to have an impact as Sunderland fashioned two good chances in quick succession, though both were kept out by fine Ospina saves. Arsenal continued to look languid and uninterested, with the possible exception of the always passionate Alexis Sanchez, though Giroud almost put a cross in from a crazy angle, hitting the top corner of the bar, before an excellent save from Pantillimon of the Frenchman’s volley kept him out a second time on 56 minutes. Arsenal were increasing the pressure on the Sunderland goal, but Steven Fletcher was free and in on goal yet again on a 59th minute counter, only denied by an Ospina finger as he tried to clip it over.

With 30 minutes to go, neither team seemed as satisfied with the draw as earlier in the game. Arsenal earned a corner on 63 minutes, but Ozil failed to clear the first defender, and groans were heard across the Emirates. Three minutes later, Ozil sent in a cross from the opposite end, but Giroud appeared to be held back by a shirt pull as he was unable to connect effectively with the ball. On 67 minutes, Wenger made his move to change the dynamics of the game, bringing on Walcott for Wilshere, but Fletcher almost opened the scoring with a toe-poked volley that went just over. Arsenal started a flurry of passes around the box that went on for well over a minute without a cross or shot (70’). And even as they were dominating possession, it is fair to say that Sunderland had the better chances to score, particularly in the second half.
Ramsey sent a beautiful through ball to Walcott, just as he had against United, but Walcott was unable to finish the chance (for not the first time since his return from injury). On 74 minutes, Arsenal just missed out on an own goal, as Jones almost headed it in from a cross. Johnson came on right after, replaced by Will Buckley and in the 81st minute, Rosicky came on for a relatively ineffective Ozil. Within a minute, a nice exchange between Rosicky and Walcott almost led to a goal, though what should have been a corner was incorrectly called a goal kick. Ramsey tried his luck with five minutes left, but too close to the Sunderland keeper and the Gunners soon had another corner, though it again led to nothing and Sunderland had a dangerous counter on before an offsides call on Fletcher. Walcott fired a fine shot from inside the box on 87 minutes that should have been in but for a fine save, and the rebound failed to find a Gunner (as they reached their 28th shot of the game).

Yet another cross went long from Ramsey and led to renewed boos from a crowd that looked likely to see a third home game in a row without a goal for the home side (the first time in six and a half years that has happened). The clock hit 90 minutes with only three additional to come, even with the fair bit of time wasting Sunderland had been engaging in throughout the second half. The visitors were able to hold on for the draw and life in the Premier League for at least one more year.

1. Giroud Dip: Giroud was in fine fiddle after returning from injury, scoring 14 goals and adding 3 assists in 25 games in the EPL (and adding 4 more goals and an assist in all competitions). But he has failed to find the net in the last 7, including the scoreless draw today (since scoring on April 4 in a 4-1 win over Liverpool). Rather than powering toward the net as he had been during his run (11 goals in 12 games during a long winning streak for the Gunners), he seemed to be too intent on the one-twos that Arsenal loves, but that rarely work when their opponent is playing 9 in two flanks at the back, and a little off the pace. While he has improved dramatically as a striker, it seems clear that Arsenal still need another quality finisher if they are truly to compete for a title next year, particularly if we look at the dearth of goals during Giroud’s decline (7 goals in 7 games, with 3 of those coming away at Hull City). Some might look to Welbeck, but I think the knock on him of not being a great finisher has continued through most of his first season with Arsenal and Walcott has reverted to form by failing to finish most of his chances (even the goal last week was a diverted cross).

2. Coquelin Importance: Francis Coquelin was given a rest for the first time in 2015 and one could see what the team was missing without him standing in front of the back four. Sunderland weren’t providing much of a threat in the first half, but they did send a few long balls over the top that were mere inches from providing a potential reward, and had at least four quality chances to score in the second, getting through the Gunner defense on the counter with relative ease. These chances showed the importance of Coquelin’s phoenix like renaissance and also, I believe, the need to add a second enforcer DM this summer, to give the Frenchman the occasional break, back him up if he gets injured or to stand beside him when facing the elite offensive teams of the league or Europe.

3. Arsenal Fizzle: the past few years, the Gunners have had to go on late runs to save their perennial participation in the Champions League, including last year when they went from first to fifth in a torpid spell before finishing the season on the up. This year, a fine winning streak after the loss to Tottenham meant they climbed all the way up to second for a time. But over the past few weeks, the results have started going against them, as their offense flounders. They had the 0-0 draw with Chelsea that ended their slim chances of a late charge to the title, a disappointing 1-0 loss at home to Swansea when second place was still in their control, the 1-1 draw with Unite and the listless draw at home today. Has the positive momentum of the winning streak been lost in this run of offensive malaise? It is hard to say, particularly as they could still win the FA Cup for the second year running, but it is pretty disappointing after second place was fully within their grasp. Wenger will get another year, but I really think it should be his last if he can’t mount a true title challenge that persists throughout an entire season. Sure the difference between second and third is of little real consequence, but it would have been a step forward for the Gunners. And the “wait until next year” incantation is really growing tired a decade in.

Sunderland, on the other hand, can celebrate having saved themselves from the drop for the second year running, though this year more comfortably then the incredible run-in required in 2013-14. They can be proud of their defensive shape, but also of the threat they provided on the counter. When Dick Advocaat took over, many maligned the choice, but the veteran manager has done his job, keeping Sunderland in the League for another year after most thought they were among the most likely to finish in the bottom three. Sunderland now has a meaningless final game, while Arsenal will hope to get back to their winning ways against West Brom before the FA Cup Final on the 30th.

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