A week ago, all the talk was about the Gunners’ mental weakness after they conceded a goal in stoppage time to draw 2-2 with Liverpool. Guess what? They did their homework, protecting a 2-1 lead against Queens Park Rangers on Friday and against West Ham on Sunday to go level on points with fourth-place Southampton in the Premier League.
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Wenger made three changes to the side that edged the Hoops with Koscielny, Coquelin and Chambo replacing Gibbs, Rosicky and the suspended Giroud in the starting lineup. Partnering Flamini with Coquelin in midfield gave more protection to the back four while the Gunners could double-team Carroll in the air with Koscielny and Mertesacker at centerback. It was only the third time this season that Arsenal started with two defensive midfielders in the Premier League.
Arsenal proved clinical in the first half, scoring twice in a four-minute span. Cazorla put the Gunners ahead by converting a penalty in the 41st minute after Reid brought him down with an outstretched leg. Three minutes later, Oxlade-Chamberlain combined with Debuchy to square the ball back for Welbeck, who slid home for a 2-0 lead. Arsenal had a bit of luck for both goals. Reid’s clearance bounced off Cazorla for the first goal while Chambo’s cutback rolled through Reid’s legs for the second. But as the old saying goes, fortune favors the bold.
West Ham could have opened the scoring in the sixth minute when Song volleyed a clearance from Koscielny into the bottom corner. However, the referee did not let the goal stand because Kouyate and Sakho obstructed Szczesny’s line of sight while in an offside position. Allardyce whined about that decision after the match but the rules are very clear and both the referee and the linesman who waved his flag had no doubt about it. Stoke also had a goal disallowed in a 3-2 victory over Arsenal earlier this month because Diouf was offside when Bojan fired home a low strike.
What is Welbeck’s potential?
The main question before the game was: how would Welbeck perform in his favorite position? The England striker did not get much service in the first half but still managed to notch his fourth goal in 16 Premier League matches. In the second half, he made a 60-yard run à la Thierry Henry, outpacing a defender before shooting wide from a tight angle. You can’t blame him for missing the target from such a tough position and after such a tremendous effort.
On the other hand, I thought Welbeck was wasteful in the 77th when he intercepted Downing’s sloppy pass for Song. He ran 20 yards before blazing over the bar from 10 yards. A top striker would catch the frame in that kind of situation. Obviously, Welbeck doesn’t have Henry’s technique and is still a work in progress. Wenger is known for his ability to develop young players. I’m wondering whether Welbeck could score 30 goals in a season like Adebayor did under the guidance of the French manager.
Welbeck has played quite a few games on the wings, but that’s no excuse for his weak scoring record. Sanchez has scored 10 goals in the league despite starting most of the games as a winger. The Chile forward tried hard on Sunday but couldn’t find the net. His curling shot in the 24th took a deflection off O’Brien before looping wide. He also had a close-range effort blocked on the stroke of halftime following a goalmouth scramble. West Ham goalkeeper Adrian then stopped Sanchez’s toe poke with his right foot in the 76th.
The Gunners would have killed off the game without a couple of outstanding saves from Adrian. Chambo headed a cross from Sanchez in the 74th but Adrian somehow made a reflex save with his leg. I feel more comfortable when Chambo plays on the wings. His turnover rate is a liability in midfield while his electric strides and dribbling skills are more useful in the final third. Chambo led a counterattack in the 10th and attempted a complicated pass for Sanchez that was intercepted instead of taking his chance. In the closing minutes, Chambo hit the Hammers on the fast break with a 50-yard dash and fired wide. Chambo made the assist for Welbeck’s goal but he still needs to be more efficient in the final third. He has only scored once in 18 Premier League games this season, that’s not good enough for a starter.
Cazorla played in a more offensive role after focusing on defensive tasks against the Hoops. His movement created a lot of problems for the Hammers, finishing a lot of plays as a second striker. The Spaniard won the penalty for the opening goal with a run in the heart of the West Ham defense. In the second half, Adrian parried Cazorla’s powerful strike from 18 yards in the 56th as well as an angled effort in the 80th.
Mertesacker and Koscielny did a fine job to neutralize Carroll in the air. The German defender got ahead of Carroll to head out Sakho’s cross in the 54th. Their performance on the ground was more questionable. Kouyate intercepted Mertesacker’s pass for Debuchy in the 19th but could only hit a tame curling shot. Koscielny was just as reckless when he tried to dribble past Downing on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 53rd.
In the end, our fullbacks proved our main weakness at Upton Park. Carroll knew he would have a favorable matchup in the air anytime he would deal with Debuchy or Monreal. The West Ham striker outmuscled Debuchy in the 20th to control a cross from O’Brien, but his angled shot was blocked away by Koscielny.
Debuchy contributes more than Sagna offensively but he’s also a bit less reliable defensively. The Frenchman tested Adrian with a cross-shot in the 53rd and headed over the bar a corner from Cazorla in the 57th. At the back, Debuchy had a hard time with Kouyate and Valencia. Tomkins dribbled past Cazorla in the 54th to cross the ball for Kouyate, who outjumped Debuchy for a header to cut Arsenal’s lead. Debuchy was also late in the execution of the offside trap in the 38th as an unmarked Tomkins volleyed over the bar a long ball from Downing.
Szczesny removed some pressure off his defenders’ shoulders by claiming a lot of high balls outside his six-yard box. The only glitch came in the fifth minute of stoppage time when Coquelin made a stupid foul to gift the Hammers a set piece. Szczesny weakly punched Song’s free kick into the path of an unmarked Cresswell, who headed the ball across goal toward Valencia. The Ecuador forward got ahead of Monreal but sent his header over the bar. The Gunners are still vulnerable on set pieces but at least they survived that moment of poor defending.
Looking back at 2014, most fans must have a bittersweet feeling. The Gunners ended a nine-year title drought by lifting the FA Cup in May. But they have also regressed in the Premier League. A year ago, Arsenal led at the halfway stage for the first time since the 2002-03 season. In fact, the Gunners were the club that had racked up the most points in 2013 with 82, compared to 80 for Manchester City and 77 for Chelsea and Manchester United. Unfortunately, those promises were not fulfilled and Arsenal quickly fell out of contention this year. In 2014, the Gunners have tallied only 70 points compared to 88 for the Citizens and the Blues and 76 for Liverpool.
Too quickly, too soon
What do those stats say about Arsenal and the Premier League? First, the Gunners had a good chance to win the league title last season because the Red Devils, Chelsea and Manchester City were all going through a transition period. Arsenal also became a contender because of the improvement of players like Ramsey and Giroud. In my eyes, that title bid came too quickly, too soon, and concealed the weaknesses we still had in the squad.
And second, the Gunners were no longer contenders once Pellegrini and Mourinho optimized the potential of their respective teams and once Ramsey’s exceptional form came to an end. Another factor is how Chelsea and Manchester City upgraded their squads this summer while Arsenal still had holes in two key positions: centerback and holding midfielder. Basically, the Blues and the Citizens will fight for the title this season while the Gunners, the Red Devils, Southampton and Tottenham will vie for third place.
Finishing third would be a good season for the club while a fourth-place finish would just mean a decent season. The Gunners sold their best players from 2006 to 2012. It’s only since the signing of Ozil in 2013 that the club has changed its policy. Realistically, it will take more than those two summer transfer windows to bridge the gap with the contenders and reverse years of decline in our recruitment dictated by the club’s financial constraints.