Arsenal vs. Chelsea: Gunners still in driving seat to finish 2nd

The Gunners slipped to third place in the Premier League after a goalless draw with leader Chelsea on Sunday. They are now level on points with second-place Manchester City but have a game in hand. It was a frustrating match to watch because Mourinho is so good at neutralizing his opponents’ strengths. Arsenal dominated possession but had very few clear-cut chances with just one shot on target compared to three for the Blues.

Arsenal vs. Chelsea

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Wenger made six changes to the side that lost 2-0 at Stamford Bridge last October with Ospina, Monreal, Bellerin, Coquelin, Ramsey and Giroud replacing Szczesny, Gibbs, Chambers, Flamini, Wilshere, and Welbeck in the starting lineup. I think the big difference is that Coquelin gave more protection to the back four than Flamini while Bellerin did a better job than Chambers to keep Hazard quiet.

Mourinho had a tactical surprise for the Gunners. The Portuguese coach played with six midfielders and no forward. Oscar ended up leading the line because both Costa and Remy are still injured and the 37-year-old Drogba is past his prime. Hazard, Willian and Oscar swapped positions a few times to confuse the Arsenal defense, but their movement could not make up for the lack of a focal point.

A world-class player?

Sunday proved a long day for Giroud and Sanchez. Terry and Cahill gave Giroud no space. The Frenchman’s only occasion came in the 12th minute when he controlled a ball over the top from Sanchez. Back to goal, Giroud held Terry off and took a couple of touches before flicking the ball straight at Courtois.

Giroud is having a good season but the trouble with him is that he depends on good service to score. To a certain extent, I would compare Giroud to Adebayor, who scored 30 goals in the 2007-08 season. You have players like Giroud and Adebayor who find the net when the team plays well. And you have players like Henry and Van Persie who keep scoring even when the team struggles. In the tight games against the top teams, it’s world-class players creating goals out of nothing who make the difference.

In my book, Sanchez is a world-class player. Unfortunately, he could not do much against a very compact Chelsea team, which apparently put a contract on his head. Ivanovic did not even receive a yellow card in the ninth minute for deliberately stamping on Sanchez’s ankle. The Chelsea rightback only got booked in the 72nd when he planted his studs in Sanchez’s calf.

Bullied on the ball

Ozil is definitely the player who disappointed me the most on Sunday. He’s so weak in challenges that you wonder whether he’s tailored for the Premier League. The Germany playmaker was bullied on the ball by Hazard in the 50th and Azpilicueta in the 56th although both are shorter than him.

When Arsenal enjoyed a short spell of domination at the end of the first half, the ball fell to Ozil after a goalmouth scramble. With his weaker right foot, Ozil fired straight at Courtois from 15 yards. There was very little time and space, so I don’t blame Ozil for not converting that half-chance.

On the other hand, I thought his finishing was poor in the second half. Ozil was played in by Ramsey in the 67th, but a heavy touch allowed Terry to clear the ball. In stoppage time, Monreal overlapped with Sanchez to cut the ball back for an unmarked Ozil, who produced an air shot from six yards. As the ball sailed through Ozil’s legs, Welbeck could not react quickly enough to make contact with the ball at the far post.

It’s time for the manager to stop babysitting Ozil. Wenger needs a plan B for next season and Ozil needs some competition to improve his mental toughness. Ozil is still not fulfilling his potential although the manager made room for him by forcing Cazorla to play as a defensive midfielder and by fielding Ramsey on the right wing.

Doing the dirty work

The Blues were the better side in the first half with two clear-cut chances while Arsenal could only manage half-chances. There was also a bit of controversy with four penalty claims all rejected by the referee. The first one was a clear dive with Oscar falling to the ground in the eighth minute as soon as Bellerin put his hand on the Brazilian’s shoulder. The second penalty claim was much more difficult to assess. Oscar chased a long ball from Fabregas in the 16th to chip Ospina. Bellerin rushed back to head the ball out while Ospina collided with Oscar.

Let’s analyze that play. I thought it was a mistake to play the offside trap with no pressure on the ballholder. We all know Fabregas is a terrific pass master. Yet Ozil, the nearest player to Fabregas, never made any move to press him. Fans keep talking about Ozil’s altruism but where was his defensive contribution when the team needed it?

Now compare and contrast Ozil’s attitude with Fabregas’ in the 40th. Sanchez cut inside and dragged his shot wide because Fabregas put him off when he pulled the trigger. Basically, you have one playmaker who’s willing to work his socks off and one playmaker who’s reluctant to do the dirty work.

To dive, or not to dive

From the moment Fabregas had plenty of freedom for a perfect ball over the top in the 16th, Mertesacker and Koscielny had to drop off. Instead, they kept a high defensive line and Bellerin played Oscar onside. Koscielny missed his interception, leaving Oscar one-on-one with Ospina.

Both Ospina and Oscar ran at full speed toward the ball. Oscar managed to hit a lob before colliding with the goalkeeper. I guess the referee did not award any penalty because Oscar took his chance and no longer had possession. If the Brazilian had controlled the ball to skip past Ospina, it would have been a different story. And you can bet Ospina would have been crucified for conceding a penalty even though Ozil, Mertesacker, Koscielny and Bellerin are the players who made mistakes on that play.

I still can’t make up my mind after watching TV replays of the third penalty claim several times. Cazorla, wrongfooted by Fabregas, stuck his leg out before pulling it back in the 23rd. Fabregas was deemed guilty of simulation and received a yellow card. There was definitely contact but the referee, a couple of yards from the action, thought Fabregas made a meal of it while he could have stayed on his feet.

Cahill’s handball

The fourth penalty claim was an Arsenal chance in the 34th. Bellerin made an acrobatic first-time pass for Cazorla, whose effort was blocked by Cahill’s hand. There was no need for Cahill to raise his arm in the air while making a sliding block. However, the referee thought Cahill was too close to Cazorla to pull out his arm on time. A stricter referee would have awarded the Ospina and Cahill penalties. But Sunday’s referee did not want the game to be decided by a controversial call and I think that was the wiser approach.

Chelsea had another opportunity to open the scoring in the 38th. Bellerin, Giroud and Coquelin surrounded Willian, but none of them really closed him down. Willian slipped a through ball to Ramires, who ghosted past Koscielny to flick a low shot that Ospina saved. I believe Coquelin had to challenge Willian because Bellerin was marking Hazard and Giroud could only make a risky tackle from behind. Then Koscielny again missed an interception while Monreal was not tight enough in his marking of Ramires. In any case, that was poor defending because we had numerical superiority on that play with 6 Gunners vs. 3 Blues.

Poor finishing

Arsenal’s best half-chance before the break came from a counterattack in the 35th when Ramsey fed Sanchez with a backheel flick. The Chile forward had three passing options with Ramsey to his left, Giroud to his right and Ozil down the middle. In the end, Sanchez’s pass sailed behind Giroud and the chance was gone.

The positive from the first half was Mertesacker’s performance with some sound positional play and timely interceptions. The German defender even dispossessed Oscar to stop a counterattack in the 32nd. The negative was Coquelin’s yellow card for repetitive fouling. If Coquelin had his hands full in midfield, maybe he needed someone else than Cazorla by his side.

Whereas Chelsea deserved the victory in the first half, Arsenal showed enough in the second half to claim at least a draw. The Blues were pretty much toothless after Drogba replaced Oscar at halftime. The only minor scare came from a collision involving Ospina, Fabregas and Koscielny in the 51st. Ospina was forced to collect the ball near the 18-yard line because Koscielny was reluctant to make a clearance.

Poor finishing prevented Arsenal from scoring. When Courtois flapped at an Ozil free kick in the 69th, the ball fell to Mertesacker whose first-time shot sailed wide. Cazorla also lacked composure in the 76th. The Spaniard took a pass from Koscielny but missed the target from 15 yards despite having plenty of time and space.

Still in the driving seat

Feeling the Blues were happy with a draw, Wenger replaced Coquelin with Welbeck in the 77th and Giroud with Walcott in the 83rd in the hope of getting three points. Courtois made his only save of the match in the 82nd when Welbeck’s angled strike took a deflection off Azpilicueta. In the closing minutes, Ramsey, Cazorla and Monreal were booked as the Gunners showed their maturity by making cynical fouls to kill fast breaks.

Wenger still hasn’t beaten Mourinho in 13 matches. But Sunday’s game showed it will just take a couple of additions this summer to bridge the gap with Chelsea and become a contender next season. In the meantime, the Gunners are still in the driving seat to finish second and retain the FA Cup.