Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Nervous Arsenal in danger of falling away

A week and a half ago, Tomas Rosicky’s rocket at White Hart Lane looked to have put a faltering Arsenal back into the title race. Now, you can all but write off any hopes of a league triumph. It’s not just that Arsenal have only taken one point from the last two games, it’s been the manner of the results. Off the back of the thrashing at Stamford Bridge, Arsenal could have regained some pride and belief by beating Swansea, but contrived to concede a late equaliser to draw 2-2.
The worse thing that could have happened to Arsenal after the Chelsea debacle was to concede an early goal. They conceded an early goal. Arsenal had all the early possession, but as soon as Swansea got the ball, a simple cross into the box was headed in by Bony. This meant the visitors could just sit back and see if Arsenal could break them down. For the majority of the game, it looked like it wouldn’t happen.
There was no space in behind the defence, and no Arsenal player looked to create any by stretching the play or doing it at pace. Most players looked nervous in possession and over-thought passes when they had the ball. This slowed things down and made it easy to defend against. Too often there was no movement to give options to the player on the ball, just resulting in sideways passes. Players were just looking at one another waiting for something to happen, rather than making it happen themselves.
After escaping a ban for his superman-style diving save at Chelsea, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain struggled to impose himself on the game. Someone with his raw pace should have been exploited in such a game to stretch the Swansea defence, he spent too much time in central midfield. Even though Arsene Wenger wants him to play there in the future, in the here and now he needs to simplify it for the Ox. Play him on the wing and tell him to just focus on roasting the full-back.
With both Ramsey and Walcott out, Oxlade-Chamberlain is almost trying to cover for both at the same time, but is succeeding in covering for neither. His pace is needed more on the wing at the moment to offer some balance to the team, so he doesn’t need to be occupied by playing centrally and then sometimes not be involved in attacking moves because he’s been kept deeper on the pitch.
The Ox was replaced by Lukas Podolski, who made a couple of telling contributions. Get the German in space and he will score goals. Simple. He had one chance against Swansea and buried it, after good work from Gibbs making something happen rather than waiting for others. Podolski doesn’t seem to quite fit into the Arsenal system as he’s not an out-and-out winger, or a big front man like Giroud. Arsenal need to find a way to play his strengths though as he has a peach of a left foot that can make a difference.
Podolski was then involved in the only thing Arsenal did with conviction all night, just seconds after scoring. The Gunners finally attacked at pace, found Podolski beyond the full-back, and he delivered a perfect low cross for Giroud to score.
Somehow, the nerves kicked in again after the barnstorming couple of minutes, and Arsenal forgot how to see out a game. It’s become something that the team were good at this season, but Swansea were able to create openings too easily near the end of the game. Arsenal seemed to lose concentration when Leon Britton casually ran through the defence before numerous ricochets resulted in the ball going in off Flamini.
From a team that had so much confidence in its ability to see out a game, preserve a lead and create goal scoring openings when needed, the nervous nature of the squad at the moment is frightening.
Late in the match, there was a debut for Kim Kallstrom. He wasn’t at fault for the equaliser, and generally showed some good touches. He was clearly only signed as emergency cover, but we could have signed a lot worse for that purpose on the evidence of his substitute appearance on Tuesday night. He was a sizeable presence in the midfield as well, so should be able to handle himself in the Premier League.
With the tense way that Arsenal are playing at the moment, a clinical team like Manchester City are the about the last side you’d want coming to the Emirates on Saturday. Somewhere, Arsenal have to find their mojo again, otherwise another humiliating defeat could drain away the little confidence that remains, and suddenly leave Arsenal looking nervously over their shoulder at teams chasing them to get in to the top four.