The key to Arsenal’s title bid this season has been the balance between defense and offense. Some poor defending cost the Gunners two points on Tuesday as they drew 2-2 with Southampton in the Premier League. On paper, it’s a disappointing outcome because the Saints sit in ninth place and Arsenal clearly had an opportunity to come away with the victory. On the pitch, it’s a decent result for a team that went down to ten men.
Let’s not forget that Southampton created a lot of problems at the Emirates Stadium two months ago. Arsenal needed a blunder from Boruc and a late penalty for a foul on Mertesacker to win 2-0. The difference on Tuesday was the absence of Ramsey and Wilshere. The Gunners clearly missed their energy in midfield and their ability to shift from defense to offense. The Saints outplayed Arsenal in the first half, dominating ball possession and showing more commitment. They quickly put the visitors under pressure as Giroud had to clear off the line a header from Lallana in the fourth minute. Gallagher then capitalized on a missed clearance from Mertesacker to meet a cross from Shaw in the sixth minute but the teenager flicked the ball wide.
Monreal’s nightmare game
Southampton also relied on a smart game plan to force turnovers and prevent the Gunners from developing plays. Szczesny stopped a shot from Gallagher in the 10th after Monreal lost possession inside the box. Monreal showed why he has become Gibbs’ back-up by producing his worst performance this season. Gnabry gave Shaw a bit too much space for a cross and Fonte outjumped Monreal at the far post to head home the opener in the 21st. A good goalkeeper would have made the save, but Szczesny hesitated, first coming off the line to catch the ball before retreating to poorly cover his left post.
Monreal also had a clearance charged down by Davis in the 37th. Gallagher pounced on the rebound but missed the target from six yards. Monreal’s technical level for a fullback is very good but he sometimes gets outmuscled in duels. That relative weakness can prove costly in the Premiership, which is more physical than the Spanish league. Arsenal was lucky to trail by just a goal at halftime. Southampton ridiculed the Gunners in the 42nd by exchanging passes in the final third. It took a block from Koscielny to prevent Gallagher from doubling the lead.
Missing Ramsey and Wilshere
Arsenal’s midfield looked listless and its offense toothless until Boruc parried Koscielny’s close-range effort from an Ozil corner on the stroke of halftime. It’s hard to find a rational explanation for such a poor performance. Fatigue was clearly not an excuse since Wenger made seven changes from the team that beat Coventry 4-0 in the FA Cup last Friday.
To a certain extent, the result exposed Arsenal’s limited offensive options on the bench. Wenger started two ballwinners (Flamini and Arteta) and a traditional playmaker (Ozil) in midfield. The manager had no box-to-box players available as Wilshere had an ankle problem while Ramsey had a setback in his recovery from a thigh injury. We still had Podolski and Oxlade-Chamberlain on the bench, but Oxlade-Chamberlain still lacks match fitness and will need about a month to get back to his best level. Podolski shone in the victory over Coventry but starting him would have forced the manager to: 1. play Cazorla or Ozil on the right wing or 2. bench one of them to give Gnabry the nod.
Cazorla’s scoring form
The Gunners had a weakened squad but it was not an excuse since the Saints also missed such players as Lambert, Lovren, Ramirez and Osvaldo. Arsenal got off to a strong start in the second half to take the lead within a few minutes. Monreal overhit a cross in the 48th but Sagna outmuscled Rodriguez at the far post to feed Giroud, who leveled with a backheel flick. Four minutes later, Ozil cut inside to set up Cazorla, whose low drive from the edge of the box gave Arsenal a 2-1 lead.
Ramsey and Giroud carried the team on their shoulders in the first couple of months before Walcott and Wilshere took over. Cazorla’s current scoring form could help compensate for injuries to Ramsey and Walcott and buy enough time for Podolski and Oxlade-Chamberlain to hit their stride. What a pity that we can’t have all those players at the top of their game at the same time.
The most frustrating part in Tuesday’s game was Arsenal’s inability to protect its lead. Two minutes after Cazorla found the net, a lapse of concentration allowed Lallana to equalize with a low strike from a Rodriguez pass. Rodriguez was surrounded by Sagna and Mertesacker and therefore should never have been able to cut the ball back. Likewise, Arteta and Monreal were both a split second late to block Lallana’s attempt.
Ozil steps up
The Saints wasted a lot of energy to contain Arsenal in the first half and their intensity naturally dropped in the last 30 minutes as the Gunners started taking control of the match. Ozil made a 40-yard run to lead a counterattack in the 64th but his strike took a deflection off Fonte to bounce off the bar.
Ozil arguably produced one of his best performances this season. When Wilshere or Ramsey is around, Ozil is always willing to take a back seat and let other players shine. But on Tuesday, Arsenal lacked a bit of creativity in midfield since Flamini is technically limited while Arteta no longer has the legs to pull the strings. Ozil took on more responsibility in the second half to try and turn around the match. Hopefully, that will give him more confidence for the rest of the season because the Gunners definitely need his assists to stay in contention.
Arsenal could have won the match in the 72nd when Arteta played Monreal in. The Spanish leftback opted for an angled shot that sailed wide while the better option was a low cross for two Gunners waiting near the penalty spot. Monreal’s nightmare game continued with a long ball from Lallana for Rodriguez in the 76th. Rodriguez outpaced Monreal to be clean through on goal, but Szczesny quickly came outside his area to clear the danger.
Flamini’s red card
Whatever momentum Arsenal had in the second half, it completely vanished when Flamini made a two-footed lunge on Schneiderlin in the 80th. It was a reckless and useless challenge since the defense had not been pulled out of position. That’s the kind of foul we expected from Flamini in his first stint at the club. But at 29, Flamini is supposed to be a more mature player especially after honing his tactical skills at AC Milan for five years.
The Gunners needed two brilliant saves from Szczesny in the closing minutes to salvage a point. The Polish goalkeeper tipped over the bar a cross from Shaw that deflected off Sagna in the 87th. From the ensuing corner, Szczesny turned around the post a volley from Fonte, poorly marked by Koscielny.
The only positive from Tuesday’s match is that the Gunners were able to score two goals while having an off day. The two goals and numerous chances conceded against a team sitting in ninth place are the obvious concerns. Regardless of Manchester City’s result at Tottenham on Wednesday, Arsenal needs a victory over Crystal Palace this weekend to avoid any negative pressure before facing Liverpool and Manchester United.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com