Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A frustrating and deserved point

With the title race as close as it is, any dropped points feel like a chance missed. On the face of it, a 2-2 draw with Southampton is two points dropped. However from how bad Arsenal were in the first half, it was a good effort to claim a point.
That’s what made the game all the more frustrating though. Had Arsenal not been so terrible in the first half, the debate over it being a good point or not wouldn’t have been needed as the Gunners could have taken all three. The first half was the worst half of football from Arsenal in a long time. Passes weren’t sticking, the midfielders were too deep, chances weren’t being created and a soft goal was conceded. For some reason, the focus didn’t seem to be there.
The opening goal for the hosts came from a free-kick (that was never a foul by Mertesacker), that Arsenal weren’t alert to as it was played short. It was a good ball to the back post by Shaw and Monreal wasn’t strong enough getting beaten in the air. The referee could definitely have given a foul against the goal scorer Fonte, but Arsenal couldn’t complain at being behind because of their lacklustre performance.
The Saints were pushing high up the pitch and Arsenal didn’t have anyone driving forward from midfield. With no Wilshere, Ramsey or Rosicky, Mikel Arteta returned to start alongside Mathieu Flamini in central midfield. As both are more defensive minded players, neither wanted to make a break forward and give Gnabry, Cazorla or Ozil options when the ball did make it over the half way line. The build-up was too slow when Arsenal did get the ball, allowing Southampton to push higher up the pitch and win the ball back.
Even though one of Arsenal’s best wins this season, the 2-0 victory at home to Napoli, came with Arteta and Flamini playing together, Arsenal definitely miss the attacking threat posed by Wilshere, Ramsey or Rosicky. After the midfield was too open against Coventry, it was trying to be too conservative against Southampton, and Arsenal paid the price for not having the right balance in the first half.
Whatever Arsene Wenger said and changed at half time worked, as Arsenal had their best spell of the game immediately after the break. Suddenly they were getting the ball forward, the full-backs were getting in advanced positions and Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla were able to influence the play more. The tempo was lifted and Southampton were the ones pinned back.
The equaliser came when Bacary Sagna showed great determination at the back post to win the ball from Rodriguez before firing it across goal. Olivier Giroud’s superb deft touch was enough to guide the ball into the net. Arsenal rolled with the momentum and got the second goal moments later. Ozil glided into space and fed the ball back to the edge of the area. The shot wasn’t the cleanest by Cazorla, but it was on target and snuck into the bottom corner.
Having started the second half so well, Arsenal then switched off defensively to allow Adam Lallana too much time in the penalty area to equalise within minutes of Arsenal taking the lead. Given that the defensive midfield axis of Flamini and Arteta was still there, it was disappointing to see neither of them track back with Lallana and be there to stop him shooting.
The game was then quite even as Arsenal almost went in front again when a burst forward from Ozil resulted in a deflected shot hitting the bar and Nacho Monreal blazed wide when well placed, but just as it felt like Arsenal were winding up for another assault on the Southampton goal in the last ten minutes, the Gunners suddenly just had to hold onto what they had as Mathieu Flamini was sent off.
For an experienced player, to dive into a two footed tackle with the game at 2-2 was just daft. Even though he got the ball, as soon as he launched into the tackle off the ground, he was giving the referee a decision to make, and it was only going to end with Flamini walking down the tunnel. With the suspension that follow the sending off covering a period of games where Arsenal could really have done with a full squad, Mathieu Flamini should be extremely disappointed in himself to get sent off for such a needless tackle.
Despite Wojciech Szczesny being called upon a few times, Arsenal saw the game out for a draw with ten men, but having seen the way they took the game to Southampton in the opening eight minutes of the second half, the Arsenal players should feel like they could have got more than a draw.
Even with the dropped points, Arsenal are still very much in the hunt for the title. With Manchester City playing Chelsea next Monday, the Gunners will have a chance to get a lead on at least one of those clubs with a win against Crystal Palace on Sunday.
The draw should serve as a warning to Arsenal for the next few weeks. With the big games coming up, Arsenal need to stay focused, especially after scoring a goal. Playing in an intense, high tempo, game will be good preparation for the big tests of February as Southampton, especially in the first half, were impressive. Arsenal have responded well to set-backs this season, and although it wasn’t a big set-back at St Mary’s, they need to do the same again.