Arsenal fell three points behind Manchester City in the race for second place in the Premier League by losing 1-0 to Swansea on Monday. The Gunners still have a game in hand but the Citizens have a much better goal difference, which means that if both teams were level on points, Manchester City would pip us to the post.
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The Gunners suffered their first defeat in all competitions since a 3-1 loss to Monaco in February. The first half was listless with a lack of urgency, a lack of penetration, and a passing game that was too slow to unsettle the Swansea defense. Arsenal dominated possession but proved toothless with zero shot on target compared to two for the visitors. Even if you don’t score in the first half, it still matters to exhaust your opponents so that they tire in the second half and make mistakes. Swansea never showed any sign of exhaustion after the break simply because the Gunners did very little in the first 45 minutes.
Arsenal played at a quicker pace in the second half, producing nine shots on target to just one for the Swans, but was let down by some poor finishing and some poor defending. Swansea scored against the run of play in the 85th minute. For a few seconds, it looked like Ospina clawed out a downward header from Gomis. But goal-line technology confirmed the ball had already crossed the line.
Not sensing the danger
Let’s analyze that goal. The fullbacks made the first mistake by failing to cut crosses. Barrow combined with Sigurdsson before outpacing Monreal to hoist the ball into the box. Bellerin couldn’t climb high enough to clear the ball, which fell to Montero. The Ecuador winger rounded Bellerin to make a cross for Gomis, who outjumped Koscielny and Monreal.
Koscielny made the second mistake by failing to mark Gomis. Mertesacker was marking Sigurdsson at the near post, so it was Koscielny’s job to keep an eye on Gomis. But Koscielny didn’t seem aware of Gomis’ presence on that play. When you look at the TV replays, what you see is Koscielny simply following Mertesacker while watching the ball. Koscielny failed to sense the danger. When Gomis met the cross, Koscielny was too far to challenge him.
The third mistake came from Ospina’s positional play. Gomis’ finish was very good with the ball much better placed than in any of our goal attempts. But Ospina still had room for a save. The Colombia goalkeeper lost a yard because he went too far to protect his near post when Montero crossed the ball. That’s a tiny detail but one that makes the difference between a world-class goalkeeper and a decent one. I believe Courtois and De Gea would have made the save.
No alternative up front
The Swans gave Arsenal a hard time by playing with 10 men behind the ball. But you also have to question the manager’s tactical approach. Why did the Gunners so often try to penetrate through the congested heart of the Swansea defense? Could they not make a better use of the wings? And then when Walcott came off the bench to replace Giroud in the 69th, why did Wenger not play them together?
Wenger named the same starting lineup for the fifth straight game in the league. I don’t think the manager is lazy but it just shows the current lack of competition inside the squad for some positions. On current form, Giroud wouldn’t have started against Swansea. Unfortunately, the only alternative up front is Welbeck since Walcott is weak in the air. Welbeck was not even in Monday’s squad because he is recovering from a knee injury. So Wenger stuck to Giroud, whose form has dipped in the past few games.
Giroud had very little service in the first half. He connected with a cross from Ramsey in the third minute for a header that looped over the bar. He then took a pass from Sanchez in the 42nd to curl a shot from 25 yards that sailed wide. Hard to blame Giroud for not converting those half-chances. But I thought he should have done much better in the 59th when Ozil combined with Sanchez to feed Giroud. From 16 yards, the Frenchman could only muster a tame low strike straight at Fabianski.
Bellerin’s learning process
I felt the officiating was a bit lenient in the first half. Shelvey received the only yellow card of the match for a reckless challenge on Sanchez in the 38th. In my eyes, the Swansea midfielder should have also been booked in the third minute for a scissor tackle on Sanchez. And I thought Fernandez was very lucky to finish the match with no booking. He tripped Sanchez to kill a fast break in the 15th and planted his knee into Giroud’s back in the 26th.
Ospina got some stick for conceding the lone goal but he rescued his defenders a couple of times. Koscielny missed his interception in the ninth minute when Williams sent a long ball for Dyer. However, Ospina read the play well and quickly came off his line to head the ball away. The Colombia goalkeeper then dived in the 55th to catch Shelvey’s cross for Ki.
Bellerin had his share of teasing crosses that kept the Swansea defense on its toes, including one in the 72nd that Williams diverted into the path of Walcott, who could only flick it toward Fabianski. Defensively, Bellerin struggled a bit against Montero. The Ecuador winger won a duel against Bellerin on the stroke of halftime only to drag a low drive wide. Montero again got the better of Bellerin for the winning goal with some quick first steps to create space for a pinpoint cross. It’s part of the learning process for the young Spaniard. You can’t always win all your duels, but you have to make sure that you win the key ones.
The most frustrating Gunner in the first half was definitely Ramsey, guilty of several stray passes. But what is so funny with Ramsey is that he can look clueless and then make things happen in the same match. Our best chance came in the 78th when Ramsey fed Sanchez with a first-time pass. Sanchez cut inside Richards with his first touch but shot straight at Fabianski from 10 yards. Walcott pounced on the rebound but hit the ball back at the Polish goalkeeper from a similar distance. Both should have scored. That was definitely poor finishing.
In fact, all our shots on target were pretty much in the middle of the net. All the saves Fabianski made on Monday, Ospina would have made them too. Cazorla’s low strike in the 64th, Monreal’s sliding effort in the 74th, Cazorla’s bouncing volley in the 79th and Sanchez’s curling shot in stoppage time were too poorly placed to beat Fabianski.
The Gunners were also guilty of some poor decision-making in the final third. Giroud diverted a long ball from Ozil toward Sanchez in the 53rd. Sanchez held off Fernandez and fired into the side-netting while Ramsey waited for a cross at the far post. Giroud’s movement was very poor on that play. Ramsey was 10 yards behind Giroud when the Frenchman fed Sanchez. For some unknown reason, Giroud stopped after passing the ball instead of giving Sanchez some support. Arsenal wasted another opportunity in the 61st when Ozil released Ramsey down the right flank. The Wales midfielder rounded a defender and took his chance from a tight angle, ignoring an unmarked Monreal at the far post and Sanchez near the penalty spot.
The need for a top striker
Wenger showed his lack of faith in Giroud by replacing him in the 69th. You can bet that Henry and Van Persie would have never been treated that way by the manager with the team chasing a winner. That substitution and our missed chances speak volumes about our need to hire a world-class striker this summer.
The stakes are now higher for Sunday’s match against the Red Devils at Old Trafford. Manchester United could overtake us in the standings with a victory whereas a draw would maintain the two-point gap between the two teams. Neither Arsenal nor Manchester United wants to play two Champions League playoff games in August because it’s such a waste of energy and it affects how the squad peaks in the first half of the season.