Qualifying for the Champions League is no gimme. In the past 10 years, Arsenal fans have taken for granted a top 4 finish in the Premier League. But the Gunners could miss out on Europe’s most lucrative club competition next season because of Southampton’s surprise run and Tottenham’s resurgence. Arsenal lost 2-1 at White Hart Line on Saturday to slip to sixth place in the league, one point behind the Spurs.
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Tottenham dominated possession while Arsenal’s passing game never really clicked. The Gunners led 1-0 at halftime against the run of play. It could have looked like the blueprint used at the Etihad stadium last month. However, the big difference was that Manchester City only had one scoring chance whereas Tottenham had 18 shots to only 6 for Arsenal on Saturday.
Pochettino won the midfield battle by relying on the physical and hard-working Bentaleb, Dembele and Mason. We fielded the same trio that shone against the Citizens, but Coquelin never looked like the enforcer the Gunners desperately need, Ramsey made very few tackles and Cazorla was let down by his ball retention skills.
With a bit of luck, Arsenal could have escaped with a draw. Tottenham’s goals resulted from lost duels. Dembele met Lamela’s corner in the 56th minute with a header that Ospina saved, but Kane stabbed the rebound home. On that play, Dembele beat Monreal and Giroud to the ball at the near post while a static Ramsey lost track of Kane at the far post. Kane scored the winner in the 86th by outjumping Koscielny to head in Bentaleb’s cross. Nobody tried to pressure Bentaleb as the first Gunner was 10 yards away from the Algeria midfielder.
Welbeck’s first game since December
Wenger made only one change to the side that routed AstonVilla 5-0 a week ago with Welbeck replacing Walcott in the starting lineup. It was a strange move because Welbeck had been sidelined by a hamstring injury since late December. I guess the rationale behind that decision was to give Bellerin more defensive support. But the duo showed such a poor understanding that Rose enjoyed plenty of freedom in the first 25 minutes.
Ospina palmed behind a low strike from Rose in the 14th. Rose then took a pass from Dembele in the 22nd but missed the target with his angled effort. Each time Bellerin was a split second late for a block because he had to mark Eriksen, drifting inside, while keeping an eye on his right flank. Welbeck adjusted after that play by tracking Rose. Things almost turned ugly for Welbeck, who received a yellow card on the stroke of halftime for a late challenge on Rose. Two minutes after the restart, Welbeck lost a bit his temper by shoving Rose from behind.
Welbeck’s best contribution of the game was his run for the opening goal. The England striker led a counterattack in the 11th by dribbling past Rose to cut the ball back for Giroud. The Frenchman fluffed his shot and redirected the ball toward Ozil, who volleyed home. Welbeck also tested Lloris with a curling shot in the 61st before Walcott replaced him in the 78th.
Cazorla’s off day
Ozil is more clinical since his return from a knee injury, finding the net in his last three games. He scored a brilliant goal on Saturday but still lacks Sanchez’s will to press opponents. Sanchez’s defensive contribution would have been helpful in that kind of match. Up front, Giroud did a good job to hold the ball up but had very little service. He headed wide a cross from Ozil in the 75th and was unlucky to pick up a yellow card for a late challenge on Mason in the 84th while Rose was not even booked for an ugly stamp on the Frenchman’s ankle in the 60th. Cazorla’s off day clearly hurt Arsenal’s passing game. The Spaniard had a high turnover rate and was replaced by Rosicky in the 68th. The Czech could have leveled in the last minute of regulation time but fired his half-volley straight at Lloris.
What we’ve learned from Saturday’s game is that the heart of our defense is still too soft. Coquelin failed to stop Dembele’s counterattack in the fifth minute and the Belgium midfielder fed Kane, who cut inside Mertesacker to curl a shot that Ospina tipped away. Ten minutes later, Eriksen capitalized on a Cazorla turnover to dribble past Coquelin and slip a through ball that Mertesacker intercepted. As the Gunners chased an equalizer in the closing minutes, Wenger shifted to a 4-4-2 formation by pulling out Coquelin and sending on Akpom.
Playing the lottery
I never thought Coquelin was the answer to our troubles in midfield after his outstanding performance against Manchester City. Likewise, I don’t think he’s a weak midfielder after Saturday’s game. Coquelin made numerous interceptions but also lost some key duels. In my eyes, he’s a starter for a mid-table team but a benchwarmer for a contending side.
Koscielny is a more tricky case than Coquelin. We all know he has been troubled by Achilles tendon problems since the summer, which help explain some of his poor performances this season. Koscielny made two crucial clearances in the 59th and could have given Arsenal a 2-1 lead in the 62nd with a downward header from a Cazorla corner.
But he also made a few defensive mistakes. Koscielny was late for a block when Kane fired wide in the 40th and 42nd. The Frenchman also received a yellow card for a poor challenge on Dembele in the 53rd. Should the manager keep playing the lottery by fielding a half-fit Koscielny or should he give Gabriel a chance, although the Brazilian centerback has a weak understanding with his new teammates?
The odd moment
Ospina protected Arsenal’s lead in the first half with a couple of fine saves, turning Mason’s long-range strike around the post in the 30th. However, there was a moment when he acted like the gaffe-prone Szczesny. The Colombia goalkeeper decided to come off his line in the 39th to catch a long ball. In the end, Koscielny headed the ball out while Ospina could only catch Kane. Ospina took over the goalkeeping duties because of his low-key attitude, better ball distribution and sound decision-making. Were Ospina to have another odd moment, you can expect the manager to put Szczesny back in goal. Ospina delayed Tottenham’s winner by stopping a diagonal shot from Dembele in the 59th and a low drive from Bentaleb in the 64th.
Losing at White Hart Lane is a disappointing result but I have more regrets about the 1-1 draw in September when Pochettino’s team had not gelled yet and the Gunners were the better side. Arsenal should make up ground this month as it will host last-placed Leicester on Tuesday and travel to Crystal Palace on Feb. 21.