Just when you are getting your hopes up, they can’t help disappointing you!
The top spot in the Premier League was up for grabs on Saturday after Leicester lost 1-0 at Liverpool. However, Arsenal couldn’t beat an average Southampton side which had only earned one point in its five previous league games. In their heaviest defeat in the league this season, the Gunners lost 4-0 at St Mary’s stadium to stay two points behind Leicester and one clear of Manchester City.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
Wenger made no change to the starting lineup that edged the Citizens 2-1 last Monday. That victory over the favorites for the title was supposed to be a defining moment of our season. But the Saints brought us back down to earth by exposing Arsenal’s poor defending on counterattacks and set pieces. Our pair of centerbacks looked pathetic while Cech produced his worst performance since the opening game.
In his post-match news conference, the manager acknowledged that Southampton showed more desire. I was surprised to see that the Saints only won 49% of the duels, according to Arsenal’s website. My first impression was that Southampton outmuscled the Gunners. That’s pretty obvious when you check the statistics for the midfielders with the hosts making twice as many tackles as Arsenal.
The Saints clearly played physical but most of the challenges were fair. Among the Southampton midfielders, only Ward-Prowse won less than 50% of his duels while Arsenal had at least three midfielders not even reaching that percentage (Campbell, Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain). The club’s website didn’t release any percentage for Ozil, but it must be low since Wanyama and Clasie had Ozil’s number, easily knocking him off the ball.
A fragile high defensive line
The Gunners struggled to build play from the back as Ramsey doesn’t have Cazorla’s organizing skills. Southampton’s pressing game also led to numerous turnovers with the hosts dispossessing Walcott 6 times and Ozil 4 times. Despite those flaws, Arsenal still had a decent first half, creating three chances compared to just two for the Saints. What really hurt us was our finishing. We were not as clinical as against Manchester City. Chasing an equalizer, the Gunners lost their tactical discipline and shape in the second half, conceding two goals from counterattacks and one from a set piece.
Playing a high defensive line with Mertesacker will always be an issue. When Coquelin and Cazorla were around, Mertesacker had a bit more protection. But now that an aging Flamini and an attack-minded Ramsey are in charge, the slow German centerback is much more exposed.
Mertesacker didn’t cover himself in glory on the opening goal in the 19th minute. He headed Bertrand’s cross into the path of Martina, who sent a swerving half-volley into the bottom corner from 30 yards. That was an outstanding strike but there were three mistakes on that play. Campbell was in no man’s land, letting Bellerin deal with both Davis and Bertrand on the right flank. Then Mertesacker’s clearance was really poor. And finally, Walcott sat too deep, giving Martina plenty of time to prepare his half-volley. Tracking back is a nice effort, but it’s useless if you’re not marking anyone.
Turning a favorable situation into a bad one
Mertesacker was not done yet with dodgy plays. In the 25th, he gave the ball away to Ward-Prowse, who dragged a long-range shot wide under Ramsey’s pressure. Then Mertesacker and Koscielny failed to execute the offside trap in the 43rd as Mane found Long with a ball over the top. The Southampton striker was clean through on goal but sent his lob over the bar. Flamini put his team in trouble by missing his interception of Wanyama’s headed pass for Mane while Mertesacker was not tight enough to Long. Bellerin saved Mertesacker from further embarrassment in the 47th by smartly body-checking Long, who had ghosted past Mertesacker to meet a teasing cross from Mane.
The Saints took advantage of Arsenal’s high defensive line to score two goals from counterattacks. Clasie collected a stray pass from Walcott in the 55th to pick out Long, who released Mane down our left flank. Mane played the ball back to Long, who tapped home for a 2-0 lead. The goal should have been disallowed because Long tripped Koscielny on the edge of the box. But let’s not kid ourselves, our defending was terrible on that play.
When Walcott lost possession, we had a favorable situation with six Gunners (Ramsey, Flamini, Bellerin, Koscielny, Monreal and Mertesacker) facing three Saints (Clasie, Long and Mane). However, when Long took Clasie’s pass, it became a tricky 2 vs. 2 situation. From the moment Ramsey was closing down Clasie, Monreal and Flamini had to track Mane. Instead, both Monreal and Flamini stayed lethargically near the halfway line and were never able to make up the lost ground. Then Koscielny should have taken the risk of leaving Mertesacker one-on-one with Long to mark Mane.
One constant factor
In stoppage time, the Saints hit Arsenal on the fast break again to add a fourth goal. Fonte intercepted Ramsey’s pass for Giroud and connected with Juanmi, who found Tadic in midfield. Tadic had plenty of time to slip a through ball to Long, who ghosted past Koscielny to fire through Cech’s legs. Chambers, who had replaced Flamini in the 74th, was in a too advanced position, trailing Tadic by six yards when Juanmi released the ball. Then Mertesacker’s positional play put Koscielny in trouble. Instead of cutting the inside route, Mertesacker seemed to anticipate a run from Tadic down the flank, leaving therefore too much space for Koscielny to cover.
The Gunners dropped the number of goals conceded from 41 in the 2013-14 season to 36 last season, mostly because of the improved protection provided by the midfielders, not because Mertesacker and Koscielny are world-class centerbacks. But one constant factor every season is our vulnerability on counterattacks and set pieces. As long as we don’t have an upgrade at centerback, it will still be a lingering issue.
Fonte made it 3-0 by heading home Bertrand’s corner in the 69th. There were three mistakes on that play. First, letting the Ox mark Fonte was a bad idea. Then Fonte beat Koscielny to the ball at the near post. And finally, Cech should have claimed the ball three yards from his line. Maybe Cech still had in mind his decision to come off his line in the 50th. Van Dijk beat Cech to the ball to head in Clasie’s free kick from eight yards. However, the goal was disallowed for a marginal offside. It was interesting to notice that nobody marked Van Dijk on that play.
Missed chances in the first half
Southampton nearly scored from a throw-in in the 89th. Juanmi won a header against Koscielny to feed Tadic, who got the better of Bellerin to release Long down our left flank. Long outpaced Mertesacker only to hit the base of the far post as Cech slipped on that play.
The Gunners had their chances in the first half. Ozil delivered a pinpoint free kick in the fifth minute for Mertesacker, who could have made a sliding effort at the far post but stopped his run thinking the goalkeeper would come off his line. Ramsey tried to make things happen, with a blind pass for Monreal in the 14th and a cutback for Giroud in the 39th, but each time the Southampton defense was able to clear the danger.
Wanyama and Vlasie managed to limit Ozil’s influence, except in the 17th when Giroud met a cross from Ozil. Martina cleared Giroud’s header into the path of Monreal, who could only muster a tame effort straight at Stekelenburg from 10 yards. When you compare Monreal’s half-volley with Martina’s wonder strike, you realize one fullback got lucky while the other didn’t.
In the end, Walcott proved our most threatening player. He made a mazy run in the 37th but his tame shot didn’t trouble Stekelenburg. Two minutes later, Walcott had a free header from an Ozil corner but missed the target from nine yards. Arsenal found a bit more space in the closing minutes. Monreal overlapped with Iwobi in the 80th to make a low cross for Ozil, who was denied by Stekelenburg. Then Giroud tested the Dutch goalkeeper with a looping header from an Ox cross.
A nonsensical schedule
The Gunners host Bournemouth less than 48 hours after having played at St Mary’s stadium. I think it’s a stupid decision to have a schedule with only one full day of rest between two games because of the greater risk of injury. Leicester plays Manchester City on Tuesday and Sunderland faces Liverpool on Wednesday. So why can’t the eight other games also be played on Tuesday or Wednesday?
Our squad is so depleted and some players look so tired that the manager shouldn’t take any risk with his starting lineup on Monday. Ozil, Ramsey and Flamini are definitely the three players who should be rested. Gibbs, Debuchy, Paulista, Chambers, the Ox and Iwobi might start the game. Wenger mentioned the need for the team to bounce back, but at this stage of the season, avoiding injuries should really be the top priority.