Don’t believe the hype. The Gunners are no title contenders in the Premier League. When you play Sanchez just a month after his heroics in the Copa America, it simply means that your squad is not strong enough to cope with his absence for one game. It doesn’t make sense to risk an injury to our most valuable player in a season opener against an average team. But on Sunday, the manager couldn’t help hitting the panic button. In the end, Arsenal still lost 2-0 to West Ham at the Emirates stadium.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
The match must have been a big disappointment for those who thought that Cech would turn the Gunners into legitimate contenders. Terry did a great marketing job by claiming that Cech could save Arsenal up to 15 points a season. But the reality is that Cech won’t make any difference in many games. Don’t get me wrong, he’s definitely a great signing for the club. I’m even guessing he’ll make 10 more super saves than Szczesny/Ospina, which means that we could finish the season by conceding less than 30 league goals -the last time we achieved that feat was in 2004.
Cech had two super save opportunities on Sunday but he couldn’t pull them off. Kouyate beat the Czech goalkeeper to the ball in the 43rd minute to head home Payet’s free kick from 11 yards. There were three mistakes on that play. First, why did Arsenal play a high defensive line? If Ospina was the goalie, I would get it. You clean up the area to give Ospina some room to intervene. But Cech is taller and bulkier than Ospina and therefore less likely to get bullied. He also has slower legs than Ospina and therefore needs more time to come off his line. Second, Kouyate was poorly marked. The West Ham midfielder made a run between Koscielny and Monreal while beating the offside trap. Both Monreal and Koscielny watched the flight of the ball instead of keeping their eyes on Kayoute. That’s poor tactical discipline. An Italian coach would tell you to take care of your opponent first before dealing with the ball. And third, Cech should have won that duel inside his area. After watching several replays, I thought he made the right decision but the execution was poor. When Payet hit the ball, Kouyate was on the 22-yard semi-circle while Cech stood on the six-yard line. That’s six yards to the penalty spot for Cech compared to 10 for Kouyate. How did Cech lose that foot race?
Set pieces and turnovers (again)
The second super save opportunity came in the 57th. Coquelin dispossessed Cresswell and the ball fell to Oxlade-Chamberlain, who gave it away with a heavy touch. Zarate turned on the edge of the box and buried a low strike inside the near post for a 2-0 lead. Cech was wrongfooted and couldn’t react quickly enough to make the save. Either he anticipated a shot toward the far post or he simply had his line of sight obstructed by Koscielny. Cech looked bad on that play but I think Ospina and Szczesny would have also conceded that goal.
Over the past seasons, two recurrent issues have plagued the Gunners: set pieces and turnovers. Sunday’s game proved no exception. The first goal resulted from a free kick and the second from the Ox’s carelessness. How can you become a contender if you don’t iron out those flaws?
Wenger made two changes to the side that edged Chelsea 1-0 in the Community Shield with Giroud and Debuchy replacing Walcott and an injured Bellerin in the starting lineup. You could see a lot of things going wrong in the first half. Poor passes from Coquelin, Ramsey, Monreal and Cazorla betrayed the Gunners’ nervosity.
There was also a lack of urgency and commitment. The manager said the “passing was too slow” in his post-match news conference. He could have added that his team didn’t press up the pitch as hard as the Hammers did. The key stat for me was the percentage of duels won by our midfielders: 18 percent for Ozil, 31 percent for Ramsey, 38 percent for Coquelin, 58 percent for Cazorla and 79 percent for the Ox, according to the club’s website. Basically, Arsenal played with too little intensity.
Anybody inside the area?
West Ham’s tactics didn’t help the Gunners find their groove. The visitors made a lot of small fouls to slow down our passing game and did not hesitate to stop some promising plays with cynical challenges. Noble killed a counterattack with a late tackle on Coquelin in the fifth minute, Ogbonna brought down the Ox two minutes later, and Tomkins tripped Monreal in the 37th. The Hammers looked in trouble with three yellow cards, but once they took the lead, they showed more discipline while Adrian wasted time with every goal kick. That’s what we should expect for every game at the Emirates stadium. It’s just up to us to raise our game.
Arsenal enjoyed 62 percent of ball possession but created very few clear-cut chances. I thought one play in the 52nd summed up well our offensive struggles. A double-teamed Giroud ran toward the corner flag and managed to make a decent cross. Adrian spilled the ball, but had no trouble to gather it since only Ozil made the effort to show up inside the box. How can you score goals with so little presence inside the area?
The Ox was the only Gunner who played at the level required for this kind of match. He ran past two defenders in the fourth minute but his final ball for Giroud was intercepted. The Ox then pounced on a poor clearance from the West Ham defense in the 11th to fire wide from 23 yards. He produced his most impressive contribution in the 28th by dribbling past four Hammers to cross the ball for Cazorla, whose angled volley sailed over the bar.
The only stain in the Ox’s performance was the turnover that led to the second goal. He will turn 22 this week and already has four Premier League seasons under his belt. He’s no longer a rookie and definitely needs to get rid of those silly mistakes. But at least, it showed that the Ox tried to contribute defensively.
Giroud was very quiet in the first half mostly because he got no decent service. His teammates did a better job to find him in the second half. Giroud controlled a cutback from Ozil in the 55th only to hit the side-netting. He then took a pass from the Ox in the 56th and had plenty of time to pick his spot from 16 yards but Adrian stopped his low effort. The Frenchman also connected with a free kick from Cazorla for a tame header in the 65th before missing the target from a tight angle in the 89th. There was no glaring miss from Giroud but I felt that a world-class striker would have converted one of those chances.
Ozil, Ramsey and Cazorla performed below par. Tomkins blocked a close-range attempt from Ozil on the stroke of halftime, Ramsey rattled the bar in the 31st with a deflected half-volley before dragging a 25-yard drive wide in the 39th, and Cazorla had a long-range strike parried by Adrian in the 85th. However, what really bothers me is that the 16-year-old Oxford looked like a superstar in the holding midfielder position. Sure, he must be talented, but we never put him under serious pressure. Oxford’s successful debut also reflected our players’ weak desire.
Finding an answer on the left wing
The manager replaced Coquelin with Walcott in the 59th and Debuchy with Sanchez in the 67th. Walcott had a close-range effort blocked in the 81st while Adrian denied Sanchez with a leg save in stoppage time. Maybe Wenger should have started the match with a more attacking lineup. In some home games, we will have to be patient but still score in the first half if we don’t want to give too much hope to the visitors.
While sending on Walcott was a logical move, I thought playing Sanchez was a too big risk. The Chile forward clearly lacked match fitness, having a high turnover rate, struggling to beat defenders in one-on-one situations and missing power in his shots. I just hope Sanchez’s premature return won’t come back to bite us this season.
We conceded two goals but it could have been worse. Sakho ghosted past Koscielny to be clean through on goal in the 66th, but lost possession with an unexpected slip. Six minutes later, Koscielny made a risky backpass to Cech that was nearly intercepted by Sakho. As we pushed for a consolation goal, the Gunners played a high defensive line that often left Koscielny exposed in one-on-one situations. Sakho outpaced the French centerback in the 81st for a sliding effort that Cech saved. In stoppage time, Payet bullied his way past Koscielny before a lack of support killed the momentum of the fast break.
When you pretend to be a contender, you simply can’t afford to drop points at home against average teams. Boasting about our great team spirit and saying out loud that we want to win the league title is nice, but in the end the talking is done on the pitch. For the next game against Crystal Palace, the manager will have to find a solution on the left wing because Cazorla didn’t look convincing in that position and starting Sanchez so early in the season would be a risky gamble.