Arsenal forward Sanchez ended his goal drought in the Premier League to salvage a 2-2 draw with Tottenham on Saturday. Both teams showed why they are bottlers. Coquelin picked up a second yellow card when Arsenal still led 1-0. Then Spurs blew a 2-1 lead despite their numerical superiority.
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The Gunners have virtually fallen out of contention as they trail Leicester by eight points and Tottenham by three with just nine games left. It would take a monumental collapse from the Foxes, which have an easier run-in and don’t play in any other competition, and a perfect run from Arsenal to get back in the title race. Now the priority is to secure a Top 4 finish as we are only two points clear of Manchester City, which has a game in hand, and three clear of West Ham. That sounds like a regression but that’s the logical result of the hole we have dug for ourselves in the past two months.
Wenger made four changes to the side that lost 2-1 to Swansea on Wednesday with Ospina, Gibbs, Elneny and Welbeck replacing Cech, Monreal, Campbell and Giroud in the starting lineup. Cech and Monreal were both injured while Welbeck was fresher than Giroud, who’s also struggling with confidence. Elneny’s first league start was the only real surprise, especially in a North London derby. Campbell had a good game against Swansea but the manager preferred to play Ramsey on the right wing. The idea was to match Tottenham in midfield with Ramsey often drifting inside. I had my doubts about Elneny starting in such a big game. The Egypt midfielder made a couple of reckless tackles in his previous appearances. In the end, Coquelin was the one who showed poor discipline and got sent off.
Spurs proved sharper in the opening minutes, pressing high up the pitch to force turnovers and annihilate Arsenal’s passing game. The Gunners lacked a player with strong ball retention skills and were cornered in their own half as Tottenham bossed the midfield. Dembele, Lamela, Eriksen, Alli and Dier combined to win 13 of 17 tackles whereas Coquelin, Elneny, Ramsey, Ozil and Sanchez won only 6 of 10 tackles.
A matter of millimeters
It was not a match tailored for Ozil, who played a peripheral role in his team’s passing game with no shot assist at all while Eriksen and Alli respectively had 5 and 3 key passes. Ozil had an opportunity to shine in the 51st. The Gunners were hitting Tottenham on the fast break with Sanchez and Welbeck beating the offside trap. Ozil had two passing options but his inaccurate ball over the top ended up in Lloris’ arms.
What saved Arsenal from defeat was Tottenham’s wastefulness and the fruitful partnership formed by Bellerin and Ramsey. Spurs mustered 11 shots on target compared to just 4 for the Gunners. Ospina made nine saves but only two were really outstanding. The Colombia goalkeeper prevented the hosts from opening the scoring in the 26th. Sanchez failed to track Walker, who hoisted the ball into the box. Lamela beat a passive Mertesacker to the ball for a first-time effort that a diving Ospina palmed away. Then Ospina delayed Tottenham’s equalizer. A corner was redirected toward an unmarked Kane, whose angled shot was stopped with a reflex save from Ospina. With the naked eye, it looked like the ball had crossed the line, but technology showed that Spurs had a goal denied by a few millimeters.
Ramsey and Bellerin are a nightmare for any team because they are difficult to track in the final third. The energy levels of those two players are amazing as Bellerin keeps running up and down the right flank at great speed while Ramsey makes those deep runs besides performing his defensive duties. Ramsey won 4 of 4 tackles, the most for an Arsenal midfielder.
Bellerin’s outstanding performance
Things didn’t start well for Ramsey, whose turnover in the fifth minute led to a tame curling shot from Kane. He then lost possession on the edge of the Arsenal box while attempting to dribble past Rose in the 20th. Ramsey’s passing was also off with a long ball for Welbeck sent straight into touch in the 20th. He definitely needs to work on his ball retention skills as he was dispossessed 7 times, the most for any player.
However, Ramsey is the kind of player who never gives up and his efforts were rewarded in the 39th. Welbeck picked out the onrushing Bellerin, who fed Ramsey with a first-time pass. The Wales midfielder beat Lloris with a clever backheel flick. The fact that Ozil and Sanchez were not even inside the Tottenham area when Bellerin made his pass speaks volumes about Ramsey’s flair.
The equalizer came from a counterattack initiated by Ramsey, who released Bellerin down the right flank in the 76th. Bellerin wasted a lot of good situations against Swansea with some poor crossing. But on Saturday, the Spanish fullback delivered a pinpoint cross for Sanchez, who netted a bouncing angled shot into the far corner for his first league goal since October.
Bellerin produced an outstanding all-around performance by making 3 key passes and winning 4 of 5 tackles, the most for an Arsenal defender. His adrenaline level was initially high as he made a late tackle on Kane in the ninth minute and received a yellow card in the 26th for pulling down Rose. Somehow, Bellerin controlled himself in the second half to avoid a second booking.
Coquelin is four years older than Bellerin but he still couldn’t refrain himself from collecting silly yellow cards. He was first booked in the 29th for handling the ball in an attempt to win a foul after losing possession under pressure from Dier and Alli. Obviously, players are not supposed to ref games. The second card in the 55th was even more stupid. Coquelin ended up on the right flank because Mertesacker was out of position. However, there was no immediate danger with Kane stuck along the touchline and Gibbs and Paulista double-teaming Lamela on the edge of the Arsenal box. For some reason, Coquelin felt it was a desperate situation and brought down Kane with a mistimed tackle. The Frenchman’s performance was a mixed bag: he made 6 interceptions and won 50% of his duels but he also lost the two tackles he made and committed three fouls, the most for any player.
Oliver is one of the best referees in England but I thought he applied double standards on Saturday by not sending off Dier. The Tottenham midfielder was first booked for pulling back Welbeck in the 73rd but escaped punishment in the 79th when he pulled Giroud’s jersey.
Wenger made his first substitution 13 minutes after Spurs took the lead, sending on Giroud for Elneny in the 75th, with Ramsey and Ozil in midfield, Sanchez and Welbeck on the wings, and Giroud up front. The move paid off as Arsenal leveled a minute later. The manager then opted for cautiousness by replacing Welbeck with Flamini in the 85th, with Flamini and Ramsey in midfield, Sanchez and Ozil on the wings and Giroud up front.
Cultivating a killer instinct
It was fair to give Welbeck a chance after Giroud missed a sitter against Swansea. Welbeck has more pace than Giroud and a better work-rate than Walcott. He put in a solid shift by winning 3 of 4 tackles and 50% of his duels. Now he needs to work on his killer instinct in front of goal. I thought he should have done better with two chances in the first half. Ozil led a counterattack in the 41st to feed Welbeck, who had the opportunity to shoot from the edge of the box, but the England forward took an extra touch and was dispossessed by Walker. A minute later, Welbeck failed to make solid contact with a cross from Sanchez and Lloris had no trouble to save the tame header.
That may sound ironic, but I thought Sanchez performed better against Swansea than against Tottenham. The big difference, of course, is the equalizer he scored. For most of the game, it didn’t look like Sanchez would rediscover his magic. Sanchez played a one-two with Ozil in the 42nd to square the ball back to nobody although both Ozil and Welbeck were inside the Tottenham box. Then Sanchez was in a good position to shoot in the 52nd but Walker dispossessed him.
Maybe what fired him up was the yellow card he received in the 66th when the ball went out of play. Sanchez lost his composure and pushed Lamela back after the Tottenham winger initially shoved him from behind. A few minutes later, Sanchez found the net with a first-time effort. Then, the Gunners could have scored a winner despite their numerical inferiority. Sanchez wasted a good chance in the 84th. He had Welbeck and Giroud unmarked to his left but his pass was intercepted by Walker. The Chile striker tested Lloris with a free kick in the 88th before slipping a through ball to Ramsey in stoppage time. Ramsey was clean through on goal but Wimmer denied him with a sliding block.
In need of defensive tightness
We definitely need Sanchez firing on all cylinders to boost our chances of a Top 4 finish. But we also need to rediscover our defensive tightness. There’s no way we are going to win matches if we keep conceding two goals per game. Tottenham’s equalizer exposed our poor defending on set pieces. Paulista blocked Lamela’s effort from a corner in the 60th but the rebound fell to an unmarked Alderweireld, who fired a half-volley past Ospina. Mertesacker lost track of Alderweireld on that play while Ramsey was late for the block.
Two minutes later, Tottenham’s second goal exposed the complacency of the back four. Gibbs played Alli onside because of a lapse of concentration. Then Mertesacker was a bit passive down the right flank, thinking that a long ball would run out of play. But Alli kept the ball in play by feeding Kane with a backheel flick. Kane took advantage of a half-hearted block attempt from Paulista to curl a 25-yard shot into the far corner.
Paulista still can’t erase dodgy moments from his game. A poor clearance led to Manchester United’s opening goal a week ago. On Saturday, Paulista nearly scored an own goal in the 88th by slicing an Eriksen cross over the bar. In stoppage time, Eriksen pounced on another poor clearance from Paulista for a first-time effort that sailed wide.
Getting back to winning ways
Mertesacker is one of the leaders in the Arsenal dressing room, but I really think the club needs a younger and more mobile centerback to become a serious contender in the league. Surprisingly, Mertesacker had a proactive approach against Tottenham, winning 2 of 3 tackles and making 7 interceptions, the most for any player.
The Gunners should use the FA Cup replay against Hull on Tuesday to regain some confidence by getting back to winning ways. It should also be an opportunity to rest key players like Sanchez, Ozil, Ramsey and Bellerin in the middle of a hectic nine-game span. The league game against West Brom on Saturday is definitely more important. If we can’t even win that match, then our chances of finishing in the Top 4 are really poor.