Thursday, February 23, 2017

Arsenal Made to Work in 2-0 Victory over Sutton in FA Cup Fairytale

Arsenal were expected to win their FA Cup tie with the non-league side Sutton over 100 places behind them in the combined English table. Yet there was the issue of the artificial surface, the partisan crowd, the fairytale quality of the match and the reality that the Gunners had just been pummeled by Bayern to essentially end another Champions League season in the round of 16, for the seventh year in succession. But after a shaky start, Arsenal pulled ahead on a Lucas Perez goal and then sealed the victory with Walcott’s 100th goal for the club. Three quick thoughts on the game:

1. Ox Hound; Perez Rising:
Something has gone wrong with the game of Oxlade-Chamberlain, who seems to lose his cool whenever he is within 30 yards of goal. He sent one pass after another askew in the final third in the second half, after coming on for Elneny,    and had another night to forget, a mounting problem for the young Englishman. In the 76th minute, Chamberlain was meandering on the ball as he cut across to the right and was dispossessed at the halfway line, carving the Gunners open but for a last second intervention from Holding. He had two half chances to score from the edge of the box as well, sending the first meekly to the keeper and the second high and wide. He did send a nice through ball to Sanchez right before that, but the Chilean held his run for a second too long and the chance was gone. And an excellent run past two defenders on the left channel certainly impressed, though like so many Arsenal attacks in this game, it went unrewarded. The heavily-watered pitch certainly played a role, but Ox is going to have to improve if he is going to live up to his big potential.

Lucas Perez, on the other hand, must be wondering what it will take to get into the starting 11 on a more regular basis. It was his fine, if fortuitous, shot in the 27th minute that settled the Gunner’s jitters, and his general poise which contrasted the general lack of it from many of those around him. Iwobi, in particular, seems to have taken several steps backward in his development as the season has worn on, with a penchant for dribbling directly into defenders rather than passing the ball off to open teammates. Getting back to Lucas, he now has 7 goals in all competitions, in 9 starts and 9 substitute appearances, along with 3 assists and a respectable 77 percent pass completion percentage. The key point is the Arsenal attack seems substantially more dynamic when he is on the pitch and they need that dynamism to ensure they stay in the Top 4.

A quick nod should also be given to Walcott, on the occasion of his 100th goal in an Arsenal shirt, a feat only accomplished by 18 others. Walcott volleyed in a deflected cross from Nacho Monreal in the 55th minute, a goal that essentially settled the tie. Walcott continues to split opinion, though, as his sometimes-excellent finishing is combined with long periods where he becomes the invisible man, the lack of progress in his ball handling and passing and the problems he causes down the right side for his inability to track back with enough frequency or intent.

2. Defense Still Shaky:
Arsenal dominated possession for much of the match, but Sutton still had chances when they did get on the ball. In the first half, an askew pass from Ospina almost created an excellent opportunity for the home side. Two other chances came in relatively quick succession after the 60th minute - a shot off the bar and a free header from a corner that Jamie Collins just sent over, as Ospina came out but got nowhere near the ball. In the 65th minute, former Gunner youngster Deacon, sent a blistering shot into the post, as Ospina stood pasted to his position, lucky that no one was on hand to put in the rebound.

Arsenal just leave too much room on the wings and through the middle, allowing crosses and shots to come in without sufficient challenge. Compare them to Chelsea in most games and you see why the latter are almost certain to win the title. Mustafa and Holding were relatively solid, though, with Gabriel getting a little too far forward a couple of times and Montreal adequate without doing anything terribly compelling. Ospina also displayed some of the shakiness and inconsistency that has kept him from the starting lineup most of the time since Cech arrived. With rumors of the ex-Chelsea star potentially moving on this summer, Arsenal have serious questions to answer at that position once again, along with the need to shore up the center with another steady presence, to play when Mustafi or Koscielny is out. Holding is still too green and Gabriel lacks the presence, pace and positioning to be a viable backup through the middle at this point, though he has certainly shown the ability to marshal the right side in Bellerin’s absence.  

3. Sutton Comport Themselves Well, Except …
Sutton showed impressive resolve after being overrun early and had some chances to make a game of it, though their inability to take advantage of their few chances meant they ultimately fell to a 2-0 defeat. The quality at this level has improved dramatically, as Wenger noted, even with Sutton’s players plying their trade between stints as ice cream men, lumberjacks and accountants, among other vocations, alongside a manager who works for free. They defended solidly for most of the game, showed a few stretches of passing flair and had two near misses. The game was not without its ugly moments, though, as a silly local decided this was the ideal moment to drop his knickers and run across the pitch in the full month, others threw a bottle at Wenger and their 320-poung, 46-year-old backup keeper-cum-assistant coach, Wayne Shaw, apparently ate a pie in the second half as a publicity stunt and to earn a few bobs for his friends with the local bookies, resigning in tears a day later.  

--> For Sutton, they can get back toward normalcy now as Arsenal move on to face another non-league side in the quarterfinals, this time the upstarts from Lincoln. The FA cup looks like the only viable trophy on offer any longer, and victory in that competition was be a fitting end to what many believe will be Wenger’s last season in charge of his beloved Arsenal.

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