Sunday, January 22, 2017

Arsenal Steal Victory to Move to Second

Arsenal hosting Burnley at the Emirates today should have been relatively straightforward three points. While the side were well clear of the relegation zone coming in, they had earned a solitary point from their travels all season, ironically against Manchester United. However, Arsenal were only able to crack their defense with a last gasp, offsides and hand-balled, winner from Koscielny in the first matchup at home and, given the fact they have often spurned opportunities when those around them stutter in recent seasons, there was certainly some anxiety heading into the afternoon match.

In the first half, Arsenal dominated possession and created a number of half-chances, but were profligate in and around the box and left the field after 45 minutes with everything to play for; while Burnley had their own chances to take an unlikely lead (particularly given the fact they have scored a mere three away goals all season). The Gunners came out for the second half with more fervor and were finally ahead after 59 minutes when Mustafi scored his first goal in an Arsenal shirt with a well-placed header from an Ozil corner. They looked set to cruise to victory until Xhaka went in for an ill-advised tackle in the Burnley half, getting sent off six minutes after the goal. The Gunners hung tough and had a few chances to put the game away, but then Coquelin added his own mistake to the procession, swiping at a ball in the box and catching Ashley Barnes legs. Gray stepped up and scored right down the middle behind a diving Cech. But a few minutes later, it was the Gunners celebrating after another controversial call allowed Sanchez to win it with a panenka kick in the 98th minute. Three thoughts on the three points Arsenal stole today:

1. Xhaka Must Get More Disciplined: as anyone who follows English football already probably knows, Granit Xhaka has a reckless side to his otherwise smooth and stalwart game and has earned more reds in the past few seasons than any other player in European football – an extraordinary 9 in the past 3 years. This was his second for Arsenal, almost costing them two points and making him unavailable for the crucial clash with Chelsea in a fortnight.

Xhaka is still young, has an excellent range of passing, an eye for long-range shooting that is useful on a side like Arsenal that still occasionally tries to pass the ball into the net and more defensive skills than all of the Gunner’s midfielders save Coquelin. But he has got to learn to control his tackles, particularly when he loses the ball. Arsenal have lost too many big games over the past several years due to a red that put them at a disadvantage. To include just the most obvious cases, there are the two games against Chelsea two seasons ago, the 2006 Champions League final, the second leg at Barcelona in 2011 and the first leg against Bayern two years ago.

It has been impressive to see the change in Diego Costa under the tutelage of new Chelsea coach Conte and Wenger might want to steal a page from his playbook in calming down the youngster’s energetic drive for victory. Of course, maybe Wenger should be attempting to filch the entire playbook!

2. Off Night for Many Gunners: Arsenal found a way to pull out a tough victory again today, though they arguably benefitted from another questionable call against an aggrieved Burnley side who could easily have earned two points in their two games with the Gunners. Koscielny was clearly offsides before the rather obvious kick to the face he received with a chance to head the ball into the back of the net, just as he was offsides for the late winner earlier in the season. However, it is worth noting that Xhaka’s red might have been a little harsh and that Arsenal should have had a chance to make it 2-0 after Mustafi was clearly fouled by Gray in the box before the red, equalizer and late winner.

Even with the adrenaline rush the late winner will provide, keeping Sanchez even with Costa at the summit of the Golden Boot race, the game might have left more questions than answers. Giroud’s scoring streak as a starter finally came to an end and there have been clear signs of less dynamism in attack since he and Ramsey were reinstalled in the starting lineup; forgoing the destruction of a poor Swansea side.

The first question, then, is whether Sanchez should be restored to the fulcrum of the attack, a position that has provided Arsenal with their best performances of the season. Wenger can experiment a little with restoring that formation against Southampton in the FA Cup or the visit of Watford. Given the improving form of Iwobi and the availability of Perez or Ox to play on the opposite wing, it might give the offense the spark it has been missing intermittently in the past month or so. Restoring Bellerin to the right side would also benefit the attack, even as Gabriel has been better than anticipated filling in for the young Spaniard.

Another question is what to do about the continued absence of the oft-injured Santi Cazorla, who might well be done for the season. Xhaka and Coquelin have done their parts to fill the large gap his absence has created in the Gunner’s transitional game, but Ramsey has generally not been up to snuff, seemingly more interested in impressing with tricks than finishing clear scoring chances or quickly finding the right outlet for a pass. After nine years with the club, there is a real question of whether Ramsey will ever again reach the heights of three seasons ago and where he really fits into a fully-fit side now. It might be time for Wenger to contemplate replacing both Ramsey and Cazorla for next season, assuming he decides to renew his own contract. Cazorla would be sorely missed, but he has been missed for parts of most of his seasons with the club. Ramsey might come good again, but his attitude and taste for flair over results, are both troubling at this point in his career.  

A third more immediate concern that has now emerged is what to do in Xhaka’s absence. Wenger could simply put Coquelin back into the starting 11 and stick with Ramsey, who does still have his moments of brilliance, like the rabona cross that almost opened the scoring in the first half, but his lack of discipline, tendency to give the ball away in dangerous positions and meandering nature on the ball have all cost the Gunners this season. On the other hand, there aren’t many alternatives with Elneny still at the African Cup of Nations and Cazorla on long term DL. Wenger could bring Ox in, but that would mean less defensive coverage, though it would provide more attacking threat. In any case, it is a conundrum with few options but huge implications for the Gunners staying in the title hunt.

3. Title Race Run? a final question for Arsenal is whether they are truly in contention for the title. Their late victory was crucial, as it pushed them back into second, two weeks after they had fallen all the way to fifth. That came courtesy of a costly draw for United (1-1 to Stoke), a fortuitous 2-2 draw between City and Tottenham and a bizarre 3-2 home loss to the Swans by Liverpool. However, the momentum was quickly quashed, as Chelsea also benefitted from a missed penalty call – though this one against them – in what was ultimately a 2-0 victory over bottom-dwelling Burnley.

That victory for Chelsea extended their lead to eight points over the Gunners with a nice run of fixtures after a trip to Anfield and a visit from Arsenal. If the two sides take advantage of what has looked like a slightly more lackluster side over the past few weeks, the title race could reopen in a big way. If, however, Chelsea win both of those games, they could easily run away with the crown for the second time in three years. Arsenal again have their destiny partially in their own hands, needing a victory at the Bridge in two weeks to close the gap, but can do little about Chelsea’s results in their other games.

Assuming Chelsea get something out of one of those two games, their chances of keeping their lead appears to grow almost unassailable. However, a lot will be known two weeks from tonight. Below Chelsea, quite a race for the Top 4 is developing, with only six points separating Arsenal in second from United in sixth. Two sides will be on the outside looking in at the end of the season and while those two are currently the Manchester sides, plenty of matches are left to be played between the top 6.

Arsenal can be satisfied with bouncing back after the disappointing capitulations against Everton and City, but those two games together with the ultimately disappointing 3-3 draw with Bournemouth would have given them the eight points that now separate them from Chelsea at the summit. The season is far from over, but the holiday season could again be the undoing of the Gunners, while Chelsea move closer to securing another title at the expense of the side that a little over a decade ago saw them as little more than an afterthought. 

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