Arsenal headed into their game at the Hawthorn with only one loss in their last 19 trips there, coming way back in 2005. On the other hand, the West Brom team now coached by Tony Pulis meant that statistical edge abutted against an away record against the “rugby coach” of only one win alongside four draws and three losses in eight trips to Crystal Palace, Stoke and now West Brom. Make that four losses after the Gunners blew a one-goal lead in five first half minutes before Joel Campbell missed an absolute sitter and Cazorla missed a late penalty. It was the second time in their past two league games that Arsenal missed out on a chance to go top of the league, as West Brom held on for the 2-1 win. Three quick thoughts on the game.
1. Gunners Revert to Decade-long Form: Arsenal have won two FA Cups and two Community Shields in a row, so one can’t say this is a team without a spine, but when it comes to the league, they seem to find ways to lose winnable games more often than any other team in the Top 5. Tottenham, for example, has not lost a single game since their opening day loss to United. United, while playing a brand of football few find attractive, are grinding out results as they look for more pizazz up front. And even Chelsea got back to winning ways on Saturday. The Gunners, on the other hand, have had two chances to go top of the table and blown both. First they suffered from Olivier Giroud’s profligacy in front of goal, only able to garner a point against bitter rival Spurs. Now they lost a 1-0 lead on the road with some lax defending and an inability to finish their chances.
The biggest thumbs down has to go to Santi Cazorla, who has now failed to score in any of his 13 league appearances this season and another 14 last season since he last scored on February 21 against Crystal Palace. In fact, except for three goals for Spain and one in a preseason friendly with Lyon, Cazorla has appeared to forget how to put the ball in the back of the net. The situation is even worse for Joel Campbell, who never knew how to score outside of his international work with Costa Rica (and occasionally out on loan). The sitter he missed in the second half would have drawn the Gunners even and given them a real shot at all three points. One wonders if he will still be lining up with the Gunners next season. The third thumbs down has to go to Arteta, who actually used his hand to push the ball past Petr Cech and into the net for what turned out to be the winning goal. He is part of the old guard of Arsenal that were shambolic at the back and gave up far too many goals on errors and the fact we are without the more solid Coquelin through the busy holiday season bodes rather poorly for the Gunners staying in the title chase. I won't count by beloved Gunners out yet, but things are beginning to look dire, and oh too familiar, over the past month.
2. Injury Crisis Worsens: Arsenal are not the only team that suffers through injury crises during any given league season, but they have been the most consistent at seeing their title challenge derailed by a pile up of injuries in at least one half of the season. This is the fourth year in a row when they will probably lead the league in injury time off for presumed starters and they added two names to the list in this game – first Coquelin and then Arteta. The injury to Coquelin will see him out at least two months and, of course, justifies fans concerns that Wenger refused to buy backup to our defensive midfielder. With Arteta also sidelined, this means that Ramsey will either have to move back to pair up with Cazorla, now that the Welshman appears to be back from injury (at least for a game), or Flamini will have to start in that position. It is really an unforgiveable oversight by the most stubborn manager in the Premier League and is made worse by failing to buy another striker, with both Walcott and Welbeck still unavailable. Added to that list are the brittle Jack Wilshire, Rosicky and Oxlade-Chamberlain. These issues were supposed to be addressed when a new medical team was brought in last season, but the same old problems continue to crop up. It appears they need to explore another shift in the backroom staff, to improve the squad players (to give more rest to the starters) and maybe to sign players without long histories of injury.
3. The Case for Giroud: the Downside of Sanchez: Giroud is one of the more mercurial strikers in the world. In one moment, he scores a sublime goal either through a well-placed header, as he did Saturday, or with incredible volleys with his body contorted into Houdini-like poses. Then he goes through a game, or series of games, where he misses three tap-ins or simple headers. Lately, the Frenchman has been both at the same time, blowing simple finishes while scoring a number of spectacular goals. Giroud has 7 goals in 13 appearances this season, with those 7 coming in his last 10 appearances. As previously mentioned, his three misses against Tottenham cost Arsenal two points, but his goal on Saturday probably should have been enough to give the Gunners all three points. His hold-up play has been a little more suspect this term and the fact he has zero assists in 13 appearances means his link-up play is not up to recent seasons, and yet Giroud has the stats one wants in a striker – one goal every other game. Whether he is the best man for the job every week is still open to debate, as the pace of Walcott would be better suited to some opponents, but it is clear that he is the better option against teams like West Brom, that sit back, absorb the pressure and try to score on the counter. There are better strikers in the world, certainly, but Giroud is among the more consistent in the league over the past three seasons, as strange as that is to write.
Sanchez, on the other hand, is often the hardest working player on the pitch, and though he is streakier than Giroud, is arguably the best player on the Arsenal squad. One area where he does not measure up to his peers, however, is in possession. As Daily Mail reported last week, Sanchez has been dispossessed 41 times this season, not counting the game Saturday, good for most in the entire league (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-3324066/Alexis-Sanchez-lost-ball-player-season-Arsenal-star-best-Premier-League-beating-defenders.html). And while he has scored a respectable six goals this season, that is five less than at the same time last time around. He got hot last month, but seems to have reverted to a rather troubling trend that started late last season. Sanchez is great, but needs to find better spaces to exploit the speed of the Arsenal attack and the creativity of Ozil (who, by the way, added his 11th assist in 12 games in a losing effort).
Arsenal now have a make-or-break game against Dinamo Zagreb in the UCL on Tuesday, where anything but a win means they are out of the competition. A loss, while seemingly unthinkable, would actually mean they are not even heading to the Europa League. One assumes they will find a way to win the game, but they also have to hope Olympiakos doesn’t earn at least a draw against Bayern, as that too would eliminate them from the competition. In the league, they have what increasingly looks like must win games against and at struggling Sunderland, before the trip to Olympiakos that should decide their Champions League fate for this season; potentially costing Wenger his record of always making it to the knockout stage of the tournament.