FA Cup: 2-1 loss to Watford sums up why Arsenal’s season is getting ugly

The Gunners only have a Top 4 finish in the Premier League to play for after losing 2-1 to Watford in the quarterfinals of the FA Cup on Sunday. In theory, they still have a shot at the Champions League, but it’s hard to see how Arsenal could win by a two-goal margin in Barcelona with such a poor run of form. The defeat against Watford showed all the issues that have made Arsenal’s season turn sour: a lack of creativity, a failure to exploit Giroud’s skills and poor defending.

Fa Cup quarters

Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

The Gunners dominated ball possession in the first half but struggled to produce clear-cut chances. They especially struggled to build play from the back because Watford pressed high up the pitch. Our passing game has looked average since Cazorla’s injury. The Spaniard is usually the one who creates plays by making the penultimate pass. Ozil was so frustrated with his team’s passing game that he dropped back at the end of the first half to bring the ball more quickly in the final third.

Wilshere or Rosicky would have been the most obvious alternative to Cazorla in midfield. The manager assumed that Wilshere and Rosicky would be fit this season despite their injury record. Unfortunately, Wenger made a mistake in his assessment since Rosicky has played only one game so far whereas Wilshere hasn’t made any appearance yet.

The lack of rotation since Cazorla’s injury on Nov. 29 has put a big strain on the other midfielders. Ramsey has picked up a thigh injury against Hull while Ozil is doing a Fabregas. Ozil has enjoyed a stellar first half of the season with 16 assists in the Premier League but his form has dipped in the second half with just two league assists, both from set pieces.

Are Cazorla’s shoes too big to fill?

How can Arsenal fix the problem? As an echo to the duo formed by Arteta and Ramsey in the 2013-14 season, the manager initially relied on Flamini and Ramsey in central midfield. The first results were quite good since the Gunners won four straight games in all competitions after the 1-1 draw with Norwich. But it was a very demanding system for Ramsey, who basically performed three duties by winning the ball, creating plays and helping the team score goals with deep runs.

As you can guess, fatigue kicked in after the Christmas period with a string of poor results against Liverpool, Stoke, Chelsea and Southampton. Coquelin made his league return as a substitute against Southampton before taking Flamini’s starting spot in the 2-1 win over Leicester. Losses to Barcelona, Manchester United and Swansea then showed that Cazorla, and not Coquelin, was the key component in Arsenal’s midfield.

Wenger tried to improve the balance in midfield by partnering Elneny with Coquelin against Tottenham. The Gunners were outplayed at White Hart Lane but the short period in which they had the lead gave the manager some hope that maybe he found a new platform to launch attacks and shield the back four. Unfortunately, the defeat against Watford is leading him back to square one. Elneny does not have the passing skills of Cazorla, Wilshere or Rosicky.

So what are now the alternatives? Having Ozil in the role of a deep-lying playmaker would reinject some creativity in our passing game, but he would also be less likely to deliver the final ball or score. Another option would be to adopt a more direct style of play, a bit like Manchester United under Ferguson.

No decent service for Giroud

As the leading scorer at the club, Giroud is mostly a two-dimensional player. First, his power and the quality of his first touch allow him to hold the ball up and bring his teammates into play. With their deep runs, Ramsey and Wilshere definitely help Giroud play to his strengths. However, Sanchez and Campbell barely combine with Giroud and therefore nullify the Frenchman’s skills.

And second, Giroud is a forward who feasts on crosses because of his smart movement inside the box and his ability to win aerial duels. When you have inverted wingers like Sanchez and Campbell who mostly cut inside to shoot with their stronger foot, that means they are unlikely to feed Giroud with crosses.

Giroud got no decent service in the first half. The Gunners created half-chances through Chambers’ crosses, Elneny’s movement in the final third and Ozil’s technique. Sanchez in the third minute and Giroud in the 23rd couldn’t make contact with teasing crosses from Chambers. The Arsenal fullback pounced on a poor clearance from the Watford defense in the 30th to pick out Elneny, who struggled to control the high pass and fired wide from a tight angle. Elneny then took a pass from Ozil in the 33rd, but his shot lost its sting after deflecting off a defender.

A fresh Ozil, who did not play in the 4-0 rout of Hull, tried to make the difference in the final third. He dribbled past Ake in the 41st to find Campbell, who teed up Elneny but the Egypt midfielder lacked composure and missed the target from 16 yards. That’s the kind of chance that Ramsey or Wilshere would have fancied. A minute later, Ozil slipped a through ball to Campbell, whose flick sailed over the bar. Basically, the Gunners failed to test Pantilimon in the first half despite dominating ball possession.

Welbeck’s good understanding with Ozil

The Watford goalkeeper made his first save in the 53rd, stopping an innocuous long-range strike from Elneny. But it wasn’t until the 62nd that Pantilimon was seriously tested. Giroud met a cross from Campbell for a sliding effort that Pantilimon stopped with his leg. I thought it was quite interesting that Giroud’s only chance came a few minutes after Sanchez and Campbell switched flanks.

Just when Giroud was starting to find his feet, Wenger made a triple substitution in the 67th, sending on Iwobi, Welbeck and Walcott for Elneny, Campbell and Giroud. Obviously, the emphasis was on creativity and pace. I can’t help wondering why the manager did not play with Sanchez on the right wing and Campbell on the left wing in the first half.

Sanchez had a poor game with a lot of turnovers and some sloppy passes. He still managed to make a couple of decent crosses in the closing minutes. Gibbs’ header off a Sanchez cross in the 81st lacked power to trouble Pantilimon. Chambers then connected with a low cross from Sanchez in the 83rd but his first-time effort sailed wide. The Gunners finally found the net in the 88th after Welbeck played a one-two with Ozil to slip the ball past Pantilimon.

Since his return from injury, Welbeck has developed a good understanding with Ozil. As a centerforward, Welbeck is a good compromise between Walcott and Giroud. He has pace to make runs in behind the defense as well as power to hold the ball up and win aerial duels. If Sanchez’s poor run of form continues, Welbeck could prove a key player in the run-in to score goals and help Arsenal secure a Top 4 finish.

Paulista’s two-footed lunge

Welbeck could have forced a replay in the last minute of regulation time. Iwobi hit the post with a low drive and the ball bounced off Pantilimon to fall into Gibbs’ path. The Arsenal fullback slipped the ball to Welbeck, who struggled to control the ball with his left foot and spun to miss the target with his right foot. I wouldn’t blame Welbeck for missing that chance because Gibbs played the ball slightly behind him. A minute later, Welbeck outmuscled Prodl while chasing a long ball but sent his chip attempt over the bar from a tight angle.

Wenger made a triple substitution in the 67th because the Gunners were already trailing by two goals. Our defending has been poor lately as we have conceded at least two goals in five of our last six games. Whether it’s Mertesacker, Koscielny or Paulista, our centerbacks are not good enough.

Actually, I thought Mertesacker performed well against Watford, winning some key tackles and intercepting Ighalo’s pass for Deeney in the 26th. On the other hand, Paulista was the weak link in the Arsenal defense. The Brazilian defender looked naive in his first season at the club but I still gave him the benefit of the doubt. In his second season at Arsenal, I just think he’s dodgy.

Paulista gave away a cheap free kick in the 18th by holding Ighalo. He then escaped a sending-off in the 28th despite a two-footed lunge on Deeney. Watford capitalized on a throw-in to open the scoring in the 50th. Deeney flicked the ball toward Ighalo, who turned Paulista to net from nine yards. The Gunners lost two duels inside the area on that play as Deeney beat Chambers to the ball while Ighalo bullied Paulista.

Running on empty against Everton?

The Hornets repeated that same combination when Nyon made a cross in the 52nd. Deeney headed the ball toward Ighalo, whose effort went over the bar. Chambers and Paulista lost duels again in the 60th as Ake outpaced Chambers to make a cross for Ighalo, who ghosted past Paulista but made poor contact with the ball.

Watford’s second goal in the 63rd resulted from some poor decision-making. Deeney held off Mertesacker to set up Guedioura, who unleashed a thunderstrike into the top corner from 18 yards. Elneny was late for the block while Coquelin and Gibbs made the mistake of both tracking Ighalo. Either Coquelin or Gibbs should have helped Mertesacker deal with Deeney.

The way the Hornets reached our area on the fast break is a big worry before the second leg against Barcelona on Wednesday. If I were the manager, I would rest some key players for the Everton game, which is much more important. Let’s be honest: our chances of knocking out Barcelona are zero. The trip to Spain will be exhausting, the Gunners will spend the entire game running after the ball and will only have two days of rest before visiting Everton. So why would you field your best team against Barcelona knowing the starting players will then be running on empty against Everton?