Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Arsenal Scrape Out Another 0-0 Draw (with Southampton at the Emirates)

If Arsenal fail to win the league this season, which is looking increasingly likely as they continue to struggle in the New Year, they might look at five points dropped against Southampton. The first three came right after a spirit-lifting victory over Manchester City before Christmas, losing 4-0 at Southampton, with some help from the refs. This 0-0 draw, the third of the campaign, was not without its chances, though many fell to Southampton. Cech had to make an excellent save early straight from a free kick before Arsenal had their first sniff of goal in the 11th minute, when a beautifully lofted pass from midfield by Alexis Sanchez was sent to the foot of Ozil, whose first touch was even more impressive, though his shot was saved from close range by Fraser Foster, who has yet to concede a goal since returning from injury. A second chance fell to Ozil later in the half from close range as he snatched onto a Giroud header, but his high boot shot was somehow parried away by Foster yet again. Those were the two shots on target for Arsenal in the first half, with only one other shot registered, two less than Southampton, even as the Gunners bossed 64 percent of possession.

The second half provided further opportunities for the Gunners, but they were unable to capitalize, even in the six minutes of stoppage time, and they settled for a point. It was the fourth straight clean sheet for the Saints and the third league game in a row that Arsenal failed to score a goal. Three quick thoughts on the game:

1. Arsenal Title Challenge Wilting: for the second time in three seasons, a poor second half appears to be pushing Arsenal out of a title race that was arguably theirs to win. Since a 1-0 victory over Newcastle on January 2, the Gunners have blown a late lead against Liverpool to settle for a 3-3 draw, again failed to earn three points at the Britannia in a 0-0 draw, lost to Chelsea (at the Emirates 1-0) and tonight settled for a point at home against Southampton. That is nine dropped points in the past 30 days and sees the team fall from first place to five points behind Leicester, two behind Man City and even with Tottenham, though with a worse goal difference (25 to 15). Arsenal are back in fourth place yet again and now only five points above United. It is a story that is becoming far too familiar in the twelve long years since they last won the Premier League and again calls into question whether Wenger can ever lead the red and white back to the summit of the league at season’s end.

With Guardiola now officially taking over at City in the summer, United ready for another big summer of spending (and maybe their own new manager) and Chelsea ready to rebuild as well, this was the year when Arsenal had their best chance of winning the title since 2008. And yet, as has become their habit no matter who is on the pitch, they have found a way to flounder the opportunity. The race is not run yet but with Leicester continuing to scoff at the odds (they won 2-0 over Liverpool today) and City again finding ways to win (1-0 at Sunderland), those two and five point gaps feel much larger. The only good news for the Gunners is that Leicester City play City this Saturday while they travel to Bournemouth and that they then host the leaders seven days later. If results go their way, Arsenal could again be at or near the summit of the table – but they need to match their improved defensive displays with some goals.

2. Inability to Finish: as the goals flowed in and Arsenal were getting results, some including me began to wonder if Wenger knew what he was doing in not signing a world class striker in the summer. Now that Giroud has entered another of his cold patches, Walcott and Ox continue to perform below their best and no one else is stepping up to take on the scoring load, Arsenal have scored a measly four goals in their last five league games, with three coming during their trip to Anfield. They have done better in the FA Cup, putting three past Sunderland and two past Championship side Burnley, but complaints that their best players go missing in the biggest games continue to plague the side. Ozil was saved well with his two chances in the first half, but a little more composure would have put the Gunners ahead. In the second half, Giroud almost scored less than three minutes into the second half with a ball heading to the far corner, but was again denied by Forster. Walcott was then saved twice in quick succession by Forster midway through the second period and he ended the game with 10 in total, including holding the home team at bay in the closing minutes, when they seemed to largely reside in their box.

Arsenal are clearly missing the deep service of Cazorla, who orchestrated so much of their counterattacking flair, while also moving the ball around with great accuracy, while Ozil has now gone four games without an assist after his blistering first half. The blame is not completely his, though, as was shown in the 52nd minute, when he beautifully cut the ball back across goal for a tap-in, only to find no one charging in to meet that ball. It was the case again in the 66th minute, when a beautiful cross that Koscielny met five yards out, but he somehow headed over a rather simple chance to garner all three points. The attack appears to lack the incisiveness and creativity they were showing earlier in the season, with many of their goals over the past month and a half actually coming from set pieces. They were unlucky here, though, to meet a keeper at the top of his game and to miss out on a goal as defender Ward-Prowse cleared a shot from Sanchez off the line that would have won the game. In any case, the Gunners need to resolve their scoring issues quickly, or the title challenge will truly be done and dusted.

3. Southampton Flexibility Paying Dividends: Koeman has had the Saints playing a rather odd 3-4-2-1 formation over their recent winning streak (that included victories over Watford, West Brom and United) but switched to a more traditional 4-2-3-1 today. It largely worked with the Saints able to stifle the flow of the Arsenal passing game while providing several good opportunities on the counter, given more verve by the pace of Mane – though his finishing was well below par. What he did do effectively was keep Flamini lying deeper and tracking him for most of the game while Ramsey failed to impress in the deeper role. One wonders, in fact, if Arsenal might have benefitted from new signing Elneny getting a run in the second half, as he combines strong defensive skills with creativity in attack.

Wanyama and Romeu were excellent throughout, though, clogging up the passing lanes and challenging the Gunners well. Forster was the man of the match, though, and earned a valuable point for his side, who have moved all the way up to seventh in the table (above Liverpool). Across the game, he twice saved well against Ozil, reached across to stop a rare right-footed shot from Giroud, had an incredible double-save on Walcott and added a couple more from Sanchez. Given all of the personnel changes over the past two seasons, one has to count Koeman among the most impressive managers in the league at present. A European place is not beyond the scope of possibility at the moment, particularly with Forster between the sticks.

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