Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Arsenal Snatch Three Points Late (1-0 over West Brom)

Arsenal needed three points badly and they got them … just. For 86 minutes, with almost 80 percent possession and a couple dozen shots, Arsenal were staring at two more dropped points on the back of the last six on the offing. But then Giroud, in his first league start of the season, received a pinpoint cross from Ozil and was finally able to crack a well-organized and resilient West Brom defense, his lofted header ballooning over man of the match Forster. Three thoughts on the game:

1. Giroud Scores When He Plays: it took a while … a long while in the specter of a football match … but Giroud finally made one of the 26 shots in total (and 11 on target) Arsenal manufactured against Tony Pulis’ West Brom count. It was an absolutely essential three points for Arsenal to stay in the title race, particularly as those around them all earned maximum points, with only Tottenham yet to play this round of fixtures. Giroud has now scored 14 in his last 16 for club and country, an impressive run for any striker not named Messi or Ronaldo. And he has chipped in with key goals in a number of games already – the 89th minute header to snatch a point at United, the opener against PSG in the ultimate 2-2 draw, the equalizer against Ludogorets in a 3-2 come-from-behind win and now an essential winner at the Emirates.

The question some may ask is whether this means he should find his way back into the starting lineup. The answer to me is a resounding no. Giroud certainly has a winner’s mentality and has scored goals wherever he has gone, but though the winner was a brilliantly taken header that was only possible as a result of his strength, he also missed two quality chances earlier to give his side the lead and slowed down the entire side with his lack of pace. Arsenal are a substantially more deliberative side when Giroud is on the pitch and his lack of pace smarted for long stretches, particularly on the few occasions when West Brom forged forward.

It was not that Arsenal didn’t have chances, but the dynamism of their attack truncates with Giroud, rather than Sanchez, through the middle. It did improve for a short spell in the second half and a more frenetic last 15, with Ramsey and Perez adding some zip to the attack, but the entire side seems more ponderous when they have a fulcrum of attack who cannot get behind the lines. With some combination of Walcott, Ox, Iwobi or Sanchez on the wings, Arsenal can use Giroud as a central distributor, but that does not work against sides like West Brom who sit back in banks of five.

The most prosperous line of attack with Giroud in the middle is for Bellerin to get overlapping runs down the right-hand side or Gibbs/Monreal on the other and put it crosses, but the quality Monday were well below par and Sanchez and Ozil were not able to navigate around West Brom’s stout defense much better. Chances came and went, but Giroud was not heavily involved in many of them and it is clear the attack is better in his absence.

Given these realities, it appears, at least for now, Giroud’s role should be to play in cup ties and come on as an impact sub in second halves of games that are still in the balance. Whether he will accept that role beyond this campaign is still to be seen, and his only route back to the starting 11 appears to be if, god forbid, Sanchez gets hurt or leaves next summer in search of more money and trophies.

2. A Clean Sheet … Are You Sure? Petr Cech is among the greatest goalkeepers in the history of the Premier League, and yet he had only been able to keep three clean sheets heading into the game Monday. His fourth came after a nine-game wait for the side, a disappointing 0-0 draw with Middlesboro. It has not that there has been a major drop-off in his form, though there have been a few instances where he missed a save or two he probably would have secured in the past, but a more porous Arsenal defense, particularly in the absence of standout transfer Mustafi at centreback.

Earlier in the season, Arsenal had a run of four straight clean sheets, beating Nottingham Forest 4-0 in the League Cup, Chelsea 3-0 in the league, Basel 2-0 in the Champions League and Burnley 1-0 back in the EPL. After a heart-pounding 3-2 victory over Swansea, they pulled off three more (against Ludogorets in the UCL, Boro in the EPL and Reading in the League Cup). Not a bad run, of clean sheet in 7 of 8 games, even if the competition might have been a level below the best. Since then, however, Arsenal’s defense has gotten considerably leakier. They allowed a side bereft of goals, Sunderland, to get one past them, had to come back to beat Ludogorets 3-2 after gifting them an early 2-0 lead, gave up a lead to Tottenham (1-1 draw in the end), were lucky to get a point at United (1-1), ceded another lead at PSG (2-2) then gave up at least a goal in their next five (with the worst result seeing them booted out of the League Cup 2-0 by Southampton). That was followed, of course, by ceding 1-0 leads in two straight, dropping six points that could have kept them within a whisker of the leaders Chelsea. Instead, their lack of defensive nous, particularly in the absence of Mustafi (who is still undefeated when he starts), has cost them dearly and they now stand 9 points behind the breakout leaders. They will need more clean sheets down the second half stretch if they are to overcome that deficit.

3. Master Class by Forster Falls Short: Fraser Forster is among the best goalkeepers in England, though playing for West Brom sometimes leads others to forget this. He reminded them Monday with a stunning string of saves before Giroud was able to beat him with a precise header that sailed over his 6’7” frame and then plopped down into the net for the winner. Before that, he put together 10 saves, some of them quite spectacular to keep the Gunners at bay. They included quick reflexes (with his hands and feet), the ability to stretch wide, to get out quickly and to recover (on two double saves). Sanchez did hit the woodwork in the second half after a poorly defended corner, but Forster came close to pulling off another clean sheet, which would have been, rather surprisingly, only his fourth of the campaign in all competitions.

It is clear that Pulis has a keeper keeper at the moment, though, and that England might want to consider starting him in the future. Nonetheless, West Brom, though struggling against the top sides, continues to impress with their current position at 9th in the table, only three points from 7th. Should they start dreaming of a European place? While it might be a step too far, they remain in the conversation for now.

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