Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Arsenal Slip Up at Goodison (2-1)

Arsenal have not lost in the league since the opening day … until today that is. After taking an early 1-0 lead, Arsenal gave one back before the break and then lost the remaining point available with four minutes left in regulation. Like previous seasons, this could well be a turning point, the sort of loss that starts a downward spiral that takes them out of contention. It is too early for dire predictions yet, and I’m hoping for a rebound against City this weekend, but losing all three points to a team that had won only one of its last 10 is not a good sign. Three thoughts on the game:

1. Sanchez Hot Streak Continues: Alexis Sanchez scored Arsenal’s only goal of the match in the 20th minute, a little fortuitously as his free kick careened off of Ashley Williams and into the net. Nonetheless, it was the 27th goal he has either scored or assisted in his last 27 games (19 goals and 8 assists). It was also his 12th goal of the season, drawing him level in the early golden boot race with Diego Costa, though Costa could forge ahead again tomorrow. Sanchez, of course, does more than just score goals and provide assists. He again led the line with verve here, chasing the ball and players around the pitch like a whirling dervish, though service was less than stellar from those around him, with Walcott and Ozil, in particular, having off days.

Giroud came on as the usual Plan B with about 20 minutes left on the clock, along with Iwobi, but the two were unable to have the intended impact, though Iwobi really should have done better with an excellent chance to equalize in extra time, finding the only place between the sticks where a Toffee was stationed, veteran Leighton Baines, who cleared his lines. And so Arsenal lost a game that probably should have won, allowing their first goal from a corner all season after allowing the two Everton fullbacks to connect for the opener. Sanchez was unable to find another, but he is the clear MVP of the season so far and a player Arsenal should pay over the odds to retain for the long term. Whether they’re willing to splash that cash may just play a pivotal role in their future prospects.  

2. Absences Prove Pivotal: while the absence of Cazorla has not been felt as acutely as some expected it might, at least after a few games of adjustment, his continued injury troubles were felt today, as the Gunners had difficulty getting the ball forward on the break. Coquelin sent several passes askew, Ozil was off his best and Xhaka did not have his usual acuity with the ball either. That left Sanchez to track back to pick up the ball and he too found it difficult to crack a spirited performance from a leaky Everton defense. Arsenal started the match with slick passing and dominated the match until their opener, but that goal seemed to wake the Toffees from their long slumber and Arsenal were unable to take advantage of the space made available as Everton chased the equalizer. With Cazorla still suffering from his Achilles problem and no return date yet announced, Arsenal will have to improve their transition play, possibly by trying out Ramsey as the box-to-box midfielder beside either Xhaka or Coquelin.

The absence felt even more profunndly, however, was Mustafi, who was still undefeated as a starter before his injury last weekend. He and Koscielny had developed into one of the best centreback pairings in the league this term, backed by the speed of Bellerin and the positional sensibility of Monreal. Gabriel put in a spirited performance, and is strong when the ball is in front of him, but seems to lack the positional sensibility on crosses and free kicks into the box and his lack of pace was taken advantage of on several occasions today. Mustafi is out for at least a month with a hamstring problem and Gabriel will hopefully return to the better form he showed after coming to the Gunners in the Winter transfer window two seasons ago. If not, Arsenal might have to score more goals to keep up with a rampant Chelsea.

3. Big Win for Everton: Everton had won one of their last 10 fixtures, as mentioned above, after a strong start to the season. They were too leaky at the back and not scoring enough goals beyond Lukaku. They seemed to have lost their confidence and several players were playing below their best at the same time, including veteran Jakielka at the back and Barkley, Mirallas and Lennon up front. Another loss seemed in the offing after Arsenal opened the scoring, but for not the first time this season, the Toffees only came alive after conceding the opening goal. This time that pressure finally paid off, as they snuck a goal in right before halftime and then largely dominated the second half, with Ashley Williams scoring his first goal for his new team in the 86th minute, off a corner that Arsene Wenger believed they should never have been awarded. Everton showed grit and determination today and a winning mentality that might just serve them well going forward. However, the defensive shortcomings were still on display late, as Arsenal really should have equalized in an extra time flurry that saw three chances just miss in quick succession.

Next up for both sides are important fixtures, with Arsenal heading to the Etihad with a chance to push the gap between them and City further while Everton have their first Meyerside derby of the season Monday. Arsenal face a City side that has been floundering, with only 4 wins in their last 12 games, though a loss could see them fall 9 points behind Chelsea (assuming they keep up their winning streak) while Everton host a Liverpool side that has struggled in their past two fixtures, their goalkeeper playing a role in six dropped points. Both matches could very well set the tone for the busy festive season and for the remainder of the season.

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