The Gunners restored some confidence by drawing 1-1 with Manchester City in the Premier League. It’s definitely a good result, given our poor run of form and skinny squad. On Saturday, we had five youngsters (Bellerin, Jenkinson, Gnabry, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sanogo) and one veteran past his prime (Kallstrom) on the bench while the Citizens could rely on Lescott, Kolarov, Milner, Garcia, Negredo and Jovetic.
I was a bit pessimistic before the match because the team looked rusty against Chelsea and Swansea. But outstanding performances from Flamini, Rosicky and Cazorla helped Arsenal salvage a point that could prove crucial in the race for a Champions League spot.
The Gunners have had a decent home record against the top contenders this season. They defeated Liverpool and drew with Chelsea and Manchester City. On the other hand, they’ve suffered embarrassing losses to those same teams on the road. Yet, that’s not the reason why Arsenal fell out of contention. The Reds currently lead the Premier League although they lost at the Emirates Stadium, Stamford Bridge and the Etihad Stadium.
The Gunners’ only chance to win the title this season was to beat the weak or average sides in a more consistent way than their rivals. Unfortunately, they dropped five points against Swansea and Stoke in March, and that’s exactly the difference now between Chelsea and Arsenal in the standings.
Matching the Citizens’ intensity
Wenger made one change from the team that drew 2-2 with Swansea by replacing Chambo with Podolski in the starting lineup. Experience can help in the big games but I guess Chambo’s turnover rate was the main concern against a Manchester side feasting on counterattacks.
The Citizens used the same recipe as Chelsea and pressed high up the pitch to force turnovers. Szczesny’s nervousness did not help Arsenal get off to a good start. The Poland goalkeeper sent a routine clearance kick straight into touch in the second minute. He then nearly gifted Manchester the victory in the 52nd by awkwardly palming away a cross from Navas.The ball bounced off Mertesacker and inches wide of the post.
The Gunners were clearly under pressure in the opening minutes and lost a lot of duels. However, Arteta intercepted Zabaleta’s cutback for Nasri in the second minute and some great positional play from Rosicky froze a counterattack in the fourth.
The Gunners were switched on, matching the Citizens’ intensity, while they were not at the races against Chelsea and Liverpool. You kind of wonder why. Did they feel too much pressure at Stamford Bridge because it was a key match in the title race? And did they play much better against Manchester because they were virtually out of the title race and had therefore nothing to lose?
A costly turnover
Just when it seemed that Arsenal had weathered the storm, the Citizens capitalized on a turnover to open the scoring in the 18th. Podolski lost the ball to Navas in midfield, allowing Silva to lead a quick counterattack. The Spain midfielder fed Dzeko, who struck the near post. But Silva followed up to flick the rebound home. Podolski’s defensive effort was poor on that play. He stayed on his knees, hoping to get a foul, while Silva was running away with the ball. Our two centerbacks did not cover themselves in glory either. Mertesacker gave Dzeko too much space while Vermaelen was beaten to the ball by Silva.
The Gunners were nearly punished from another turnover in the 30th. Nasri intercepted a sloppy pass from Gibbs on the edge of the box and fired a low drive that Szczesny saved. Obviously, there’s not much that can be done when we so carelessly lose possession near our own area. But when it’s a turnover in midfield, we should either slow down the counterattack by quickly getting back into a solid position or simply kill the counterattack with a cynical foul. Twice, the Citizens had no qualms about choosing the second option. Toure pulled Rosicky’s arm in the 32nd and Kompany made a body check on Arteta in the 33rd.
Flamini’s deep run
Navas and Zabaleta took advantage of a weak understanding between Podolski and Gibbs in the first half to do a lot damage on our left flank. Podolski made a couple of good crosses but his defensive contribution was poor. Flamini connected with an offering from the German winger to slide home in the 22nd but the goal was disallowed for offside. Podolski then crossed for Giroud in the 35th but Demichelis got ahead of the Frenchman to clear the ball.
Podolski adjusted in the second half and made a greater effort to track back. The Gunners finally tested Hart with a low drive from Cazorla in the 52nd. The Manchester goalkeeper was helpless in the following minute when Flamini met a low cross from Podolski to sweep the ball into the bottom corner. It’s the kind of goal that Ramsey has often scored this season.
Deep runs from the midfielders are difficult to spot for any defense. I don’t expect Flamini to turn into a prolific scorer but Giroud’s poor form and injuries to Ramsey, Walcott, Wilshere and Ozil mean we need contributions from everybody. Flamini stepped up on Saturday but it could be the turn of Cazorla, Arteta or Rosicky in the next game.
Pellegrini settling for a draw
While the Citizens dominated the first half, Arsenal had the better chances in the second half. Podolski took a pass from Cazorla in the 60th but Hart saved the angled strike from the German forward with his leg. Four minutes later, Arteta played Flamini in but the Frenchman fired over the bar from a tight angle. At that stage, Pellegrini seemed happy with a draw and sent on the defense-minded Milner and Garcia for Navas and Nasri in the 65th and 80th respectively.
A bit of passivity from the Arsenal defense led to a goalmouth scramble in the 75th. In the end, Dzeko had his effort blocked. Would Arsenal fans take Dzeko over Giroud right now? Probably. Giroud did very little up front. Obviously, he’s feeling tired after having played 43 games for Arsenal this season. That’s OK not to press high up the pitch in that case, but when your team has a scoring chance, any striker should make a decent run to meet a cross.
Giroud wasted good crosses from Rosicky and Sagna against Swansea because of his lack of movement inside the box. The same thing happened against the Citizens when Sagna made a low cross in the 54th. Demichelis missed his interception but Giroud did not even attempt a sliding effort. Giroud’s only notable contribution was to cut inside Demichelis in the 78th before dragging his shot wide.
Wenger is facing a real dilemma. Should he keep trusting Giroud although his work rate has been terrible in the last couple of games? Or should he bench him and give a chance to Sanogo, who hasn’t scored yet this season?
Momentum on Everton’s side
The Gunners still have a four-point lead over Everton but the Toffes have a game in hand. Sunday’s match at Goodison Park could determine the outcome of the race for the last Champions League spot. Everton definitely has momentum on its side with five victories from its last five matches in the Premier League while Arsenal has racked up only five points over the same stretch.
The manager will certainly have regrets when he looks back on this season. Our title bid fizzled out from the moment Ramsey and Walcott got injured. Wenger said he will launch an internal investigation into the club’s training methods and medical procedures to find out why his squad has been hit so hard by injuries. But the answer is pretty simple: the acceptable level of exhaustion has been set too high.
Obviously, there’s nothing the manager could have done for Walcott and Wilshere, whose injuries resulted from tackles. He had an opportunity to make up for the lack of pace up front by hiring a striker during the winter transfer window. But the quality of the forwards available in January was not good enough, so Wenger decided to stick to Giroud, Bendtner and Sanogo.
On the other hand, I definitely think the manager overworked Ramsey and Ozil, who both picked up hamstring injuries. They were already tired by November and I believe Wenger should have given them a break when he saw them hit the wall physically. The manager said he should have rested Wilshere more when he had his breakthrough season. But outstanding performances from Wilshere led Wenger to play him in 35 Premier League matches. The consequence of the manager’s carelessness was a stress fracture in Wilshere’s right foot and the England midfielder missed the entire 2011-12 season.
You’d think Wenger learnt his lesson after Wilshere’s lengthy injury but he didn’t. The manager saw Ramsey score goals and making assists and he simply couldn’t resist the temptation to play him until he finally broke down. That’s quite a silly approach when you remember what Ranieri did at Fiorentina in the 1990’s. Ranieri valued so much Rui Costa that he would often pull him out in the second half when Fiorentina had the lead. Of course, the Portugal midfielder wasn’t happy but Ranieri knew it was better for the team.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com