The Gunners are losing momentum in the title race as they are suffering their worst run of form this season with just three points from their last four Premier League games. They drew 0-0 with Southampton on Tuesday to slip to fourth place, five points behind leader Leicester.
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Wary of the pace of Long and Mane, Wenger gave the nod to Paulista over Mertesacker at centerback. The manager was also cautious with Coquelin, who returned from injury last Saturday. Flamini started as the holding midfielder and was replaced by Coquelin in the closing minutes.
The Gunners dominated the game with 67% of ball possession and 11 shots on target to just 3 for Southampton, but were let down by some poor finishing. It’s pretty obvious that the lack of efficiency in front of goal is hurting Arsenal’s title bid. If you look at the top four teams in the standings, the Gunners are doing fine defensively. Only Spurs have leaked fewer goals. Offensively, it’s a different story. Leicester, Manchester City and Tottenham have each scored at least seven more goals than Arsenal. In fact, even West Ham and Everton are ahead of us for the number of goals scored.
Ozil was arguably our best player, making 10 shot assists and testing Forster twice. In the first half, he mostly played as a second striker, making runs in behind the defense and finding pockets of space inside the area. Ozil chased a long ball over the top from Sanchez in the 12th and trapped the ball with a perfect first touch before forcing Forster into a leg save with a low strike. You can’t blame Ozil for not converting that chance. It was a tight angle and Ozil had to shoot quickly since a defender was closing down.
Sanchez’s average season
His second chance came in the 21st when Giroud headed a Bellerin cross into his path. Ozil stretched his boot up to flick the ball past Forster but the Southampton goalkeeper palmed the ball out. Again, it wasn’t a miss. Ozil was so close to Forster that the space for a shot was tiny. Maybe he could have done better with his third chance on the stroke of halftime. Campbell played a one-two with Sanchez to cut the ball back for Ozil, who took two touches to turn and had his third touch blocked. I thought Ozil lacked a bit of spontaneity on that play. A backheel flick with his first touch would have been the more natural move. Easier said than done.
Technically, Ozil should have done better with two of his corners, which failed to beat the first man. In the second half, Ozil played more like a traditional No. 10, creating chances for his teammates.
Sanchez also had his share of chances. Forster stopped downward headers from the Chile striker in the 64th and 67th. Sanchez was then on the receiving end of a corner in the 71st. He managed to beat Forster with a low strike but Ward-Prowse cleared the ball off the line. Arsenal could have won the match in the 85th. Ozil combined with Sanchez inside the Southampton area and was about to pull the trigger when a Saint dispossessed him. The loose ball fell to Sanchez, who controlled the ball and was denied with his second touch. I felt Sanchez had more room to place the ball with a first-time effort.
Let’s be honest, Ozil’s performances are the main reason why the Gunners still have a shot at the title. If Sanchez was at his level of last season, Arsenal would be neck and neck with Leicester. So far, Sanchez has scored 6 goals in 16 league games for an average of 0.38 goal per game compared to 16 goals in 35 games last season for a 0.46 average. By contrast, Giroud has racked up 12 goals in 24 league games this season for a 0.5 average.
The right wing issue
Of course, Sanchez did not get much rest after the Copa America last summer and missed a few games because of a hamstring injury. But another issue is Sanchez’s predictability. Sanchez had 7 turnovers, the most for any player. Teams in the Premier League are aware of his tendency to cut inside and shoot with his right foot. Wanyama twice dispossessed Sanchez as he was drifting inside.
Giroud got some decent service on Tuesday and tested Forster three times. Giroud took a pass from Ramsey in the 48th and curled a shot from 15 yards that Forster palmed away. The France striker then met a corner from Ozil in the 56th for a downward header that lacked pace to beat Forster. Giroud was able to put more power on the ball while connecting with an Ozil free kick in the 80th but Forster tipped his header over the bar. I thought we could have used Giroud in the air a bit more to evade Southampton’s pressing game.
The right wing is Arsenal’s main attacking weakness this season. Campbell is still unproven in the Premier League while Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain are both struggling with confidence. Sanchez released Ozil down the left wing in the 52nd and the Germany playmaker cut the ball back for an unmarked Campbell, who froze and did not take his chance. Campbell’s body language was quite telling. Ozil’s offering would have been perfect for a right-footed player, but Campbell is left-footed and expected the pass to be slightly behind him so that he could shoot with his stronger foot. I’ll repeat it again: it’s the situation that dictates which foot you should use, not your personal preference.
Ramsey’s disappointing performance
Campbell was replaced in the 62nd by Walcott, whose lack of confidence showed in the 67th when the ball fell to him after a goalmouth scramble. Walcott controlled the ball before firing a tame shot from 12 yards that Forster stopped with his foot. From the rebound, Walcott hit an angled strike that Forster palmed to safety. I have no doubt that a confident Walcott would have smashed his first chance into the top corner with a first-time effort.
Koscielny also came close to scoring in the 68th but he headed Ozil’s cross over the bar from four yards. I won’t blame Koscielny for missing that chance since he was running at full speed, making it difficult to adjust the timing of his jump.
The Saints worked their socks off in midfield like in their 4-0 win at St Mary’s stadium in December. Wanyama won 5 of 6 tackles, Romeu 7 of 9 and Ward-Prowse 3 of 3. Flamini showed more discipline in his positional play than in the 1-0 loss to Chelsea and performed well, winning 4 of 5 tackles and 62.5% of his duels. Only Romeu had a better percentage among the midfielders. Ozil did his bit while Ramsey proved a real disappointment.
Ramsey lost the only tackle he made and won just 28.6% of his duels -the lowest percentage among the midfielders. I felt Ramsey lacked ambition on the pitch as he made very few deep runs. His only decent goal attempt was a low strike straight at Forster in the 90th. He’s obviously responsible for the team’s balance in midfield with Flamini but it shouldn’t be at the expense of his attacking qualities.
The referee’s leniency
The Saints troubled Arsenal in the opening minutes with their own rendition of gegenpressing, putting a lot of pressure on our right flank. Bellerin lost 50% of his duels, the lowest percentage among the defenders, and struggled with the accuracy of his delivery. Somehow, the Gunners managed to get hold of the game after 15 minutes. In the end, Cech only had to make four basic saves, turning Ward-Prowse’s free kick around the post in the third minute, parrying an angled strike from Mane in the 12th, and stopping long-range efforts from Tadic in the 30th and Mane in the 54th.
Southampton’s best chance came in the 41st when the Arsenal defense struggled to clear a corner. Romeu won a header in midfield and Van Dijk knocked the ball into the path of Mane, who was put off by Paulista and dragged his shot wide. I thought it was a risky decision to play the offside trap on that play. But the main mistakes were: 1. Koscielny and Monreal not winning the second header, and 2. Giroud not marking Sane.
The officiating was quite lenient. Romeu, Ward-Prowse and Long did not get booked although each of them made at least four fouls. Most of them were minor fouls but significant enough to disrupt Arsenal’s passing game. I thought the referee showed a bit of complacency when Fonte had a head injury in the 74th. Fonte was next to the by-line and could have received treatment off the pitch. But the referee preferred to stop play for three minutes, allowing Fonte to have a head bandage on the pitch. The Gunners were enjoying a long spell of domination since the 64th. That three-minute break allowed Southampton to recover physically and killed the momentum Arsenal had.
The Gunners are in danger of falling out of contention if they don’t win at Bournemouth next Sunday. Failing to score in their last three league games is obviously impacting their confidence. There were a lot of misplaced passes on Tuesday, with Flamini, Paulista and Bellerin giving the ball away in their own half. It’s up to the manager to find the tactical answers and up to the players to show character. Otherwise our title bid could be over by the end of this month.