Monday, 22 December 2014

Arsenal Snatch A Point From The Jaws of Victory

The roller coaster ride continued for Arsenal yesterday when they went to Liverpool and came away with a 2-2 draw from a game which could have gone either way. The team didn't play well in the first half in particular with goalscoring chances few and far between. The result may have been a lot better than the 5-1 drubbing handed out by Liverpool last season, but the late Liverpool equaliser certainly didn't make it feel too much better.

With so many injuries for Arsenal there was little choice for Arsene Wenger's team selection and he went with the predicted line up. Calum Chambers returned from suspension to play at right back with Mathieu Debuchey continuing in central defence. Otherwise it was the same team which beat Newcastle 4-1 last weekend and I thought they should be good enough to win the game despite all of the absentees.

Right from the start Liverpool dominated possession and Arsenal found it hard to find any rhythm. There weren't many chances in the first half, but Liverpool had the best of them and I hoped Arsenal could make it to the break all square. It looked like they would do just that until Philippe Coutinho found the back of the Arsenal net in the last minute of the half. He was given too much space on the edge of the Arsenal area and Wojciech Szczesny had no chance with his shot which went in off the post.

Liverpool deserved their lead at that stage, but there was a twist in the game in the one added minute which followed. Alexis Sanchez was fouled outside the Liverpool box and the free kick was floated to the far post before it was cleared in the direction of Mathieu Flamini. He headed it back towards the far post and Debuchey rose to head it goalwards. His header came off the head of Martin Skrtel and went into the top corner of the net for an equaliser which wasn't really deserved, but was very welcome.

I hoped Arsenal could regroup at half time and come out a lot stronger as they were very lucky to be still in the game after what could be described as an inept first half display. The passion and commitment which are needed in such a big game were missing and the players looked like the three days of rest they were given was having an adverse effect on them. They needed to do everything a lot quicker and impose themselves on a fairly average Liverpool team.

Arsenal were probably more than a little lucky to have 11 men on the pitch at that stage with Flamini catching a Liverpool player in the face with his arm in what looked like a deliberate action. He had already been given his traditional first yellow card of the game for his first foul despite one of the Liverpool players deserving one for taking Kieran Gibbs down as he raced away from him. With Mikel Arteta still injured Arsenal can ill afford to have Flamini suspended despite his shortcomings when he does play.

The second half started well for Arsenal and I thought they were at least matching Liverpool when Olivier Giroud accidentally stood on Skrtel's head which led to a long break as he received treatment for the cut to his head. When the game resumed it quickly swung in Arsenal's favour as a slick move ended with Giroud slotting a Santi Cazorla cut back home from six yards just after the hour mark. It looked like Arsenal might just get a win despite themselves and keep up with the team's above them in the table.

From then on it was all Liverpool as they attempted to get back into the game and peppered the Arsenal goal with what were mostly lame efforts. Szczesny had to make a couple of good saves, but he never really looked like being beaten as the game entered the nine added minutes thanks to Skrtel's injury. My Liverpool supporting friend sitting next to me in the pub told me that he still thought they would equalise and he wouldn't be surprised if it was Skrtel who got the goal. 

Unfortunately for Arsenal he was proved right when Skrtel rose unchallenged to head a corner home in the seventh of those nine added minutes. I know Arsenal play a zonal marking system, but surely somebody had to have the "zone" which Skrtel had all to himself. Even if Arsenal had a man on the post he might have blocked the header, but that too seems to be a thing of the past.

To make matters worse Arsenal were playing against 10 men at that stage with Fabio Borini taking an early bath for two yellows. The first yellow card was for a show of petulance towards the referee and the second was for a high foot on Cazorla which ripped his shirt and cut his chest too. Borini had only come on with 15 minutes left in the game and he couldn't have any argument with either card.

From what I've read Arsenal had their lowest ever percentage of possession in a Premier League game and the 27 shots Liverpool had are quite possibly the most Arsenal have allowed in the Premier League too. When you read stats like that a draw looks like a good result for Arsenal, but the most telling stat was Liverpool equalising after 96 minutes. In the time that was left Arsenal went forward and very nearly snatched another goal, but they weren't going to be so lucky.

I thought Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was way off the pace of the game and the chances are he was asked to play while injured and it affected his game. He was replaced late on by Joel Campbell in what can only be called a strange decision by the manager. Campbell is no midfielder and surely Nacho Monreal could have come on for Chamberlain with Francis Coquelin already in midfield after he had replaced Giroud. Monreal did come on for Alexis a couple of minutes before Liverpool equalised as the strange substitutions continued.

I know there weren't an awful lot of options on the bench for the boss, but the team lost two outlets for the ball when Alexis and Giroud went off and one of their best defenders from set pieces too. Giroud may still be finding his feet after his return from injury, but I think Skrtel would have found it a lot harder to score his goal if Giroud had still been on the pitch. Arsenal loaded their defence towards the end as they tried to hang on, but they kept giving the ball straight back to Liverpool and invited trouble.

It's not easy to see any Arsenal players who came out of the game with much credit, but Szczesny certainly earned his wages and I thought Debuchey did well out of position yet again. Cazorla continued his recent run of making things happen by setting up the second goal even if some of his passing was very wayward in the first half in particular. Giroud took his goal well and his form since his return from injury has been a real boost for the team.

With Liverpool closing Alexis down every time he got the ball there was no one else to step up and take on the task of making things happen in attack. I think Chamberlain might have been able to do so if he wasn't carring a knock, but Danny Welbeck was notable mostly by his absence. Alexis certainly didn't have a good game, but we cannot depend on him to win every game almost single handedly.

As a whole Arsenal just weren't good enough though and were lucky to get a point even if they did almost win the game. The have no consistency in their performances and it's just too easy for opponents to play against them. They need to improve an awful lot to make sure they finish in the top four and it's not easy to see where that improvement will come from.

The team as a collective and individually just don't seem to be learning from their mistakes and the manager is suffering from the same malaise. The injured players will surely make a difference when they return, but history has taught us that they will be replaced by others on the treatment table as soon as they come back. A top four finish is still easily within Arsenal's grasp, but they cannot continue to throw away points or it will catch up with them. 

The positives from yesterday's game are of course the team getting a point from a poor performance and improving vastly on their result from the corresponding fixture last season. There don't seem to be any new injuries either and Flamini avoided a red card which would have ruled him out of the next game too. 

On the negative side Arsenal were again absolutely awful in a game away to one of the league's supposed better sides. They had a chance to get the better of a pretty average Liverpool team, but the players couldn't rise to the occasion and the manager couldn't inspire them to do so. As long as they do so badly in these games huge questions will be asked of them and it's only the players and the manager who can change that.

There's a tough festive schedule coming up and all of those players will have to play an awful lot of games if others don't return. A performance like yesterday doesn't fill me with confidence that they can get results in away games against both West Ham and Southampton while they simply have to win at home to QPR on Friday. QPR have lost all of their away games so far and have conceded more goals than any other team in the league and Arsenal have to put them to the sword.

I'll be previewing that game closer to the day as always and my usual predictions blogs will be coming fast and furious for the next week. I'll be having trouble writing about all the footbal to be played and I can only imagine how difficult it will be for the players to play all of those games. 

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow.

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