Sunday, August 24, 2014

Gunners' fight back gives early season hope

For the third time in a week, Arsenal didn’t play very well. It was a struggle against Crystal Palace, a difficult game to watch against Besiktas and, for 80 minutes against Everton at Goodison Park, worryingly reminiscent of the beating the Toffees handed out to the Gunners in April. Yet, by the final whistle, Arsenal were still unbeaten this season, had come through a tough away trip and got another useful 90 minutes that will go some way to improving the fluidity and rhythm of the team’s play.
The line-up that Arsene Wenger selected was one that would have pleased a lot of fans before the match as Alexis Sanchez was playing as the main striker. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain added some pace on the right, plus Per Mertesacker and Mesut Ozil returned for the first time after their World Cup exertions. But somehow it didn’t quite work.
Sanchez was lively, looked keen to get on the ball and tried to make things happen, but his 45 minutes at Goodison Park were a lesson in the realities of the Premier League. Sylvain Distin was regularly snapping at his heels, and when Sanchez dropped short, the Everton midfielders were quick to close him down as well. Even though he had a bruising first half and he struggled to be on the end of a chance as the central striker, I was surprised Sanchez was the one replaced at half time. But it proved to be the right decision from Arsene Wenger, and keeps the Chilean fresh for Wednesday’s Champions League qualifier.
While Arsenal weren’t clicking in attack in the first half, they were also asleep defensively. Everton were able to stroll up towards the Arsenal penalty area in the lead up to the opening goal with no pressure from the midfielders on the Everton players with the ball. When Gareth Barry did measure a cross in, the Arsenal defensive line wasn’t good trying to play offside and Ozil didn’t track Coleman at the back post, allowing the full-back to head past Szczesny. It didn’t help having a back four that hadn’t played together as a unit before, so those problems should get ironed out quickly.
It did look immensely careless for Arsenal to get caught on the break for Everton’s second goal before half time, but there were some mitigating circumstances. It was a foul by Lukaku on Mertesacker, made stranger that it wasn’t given considering some of the ridiculously soft fouls the referee did give during the game, and then Naismith was offside before sliding the ball under Szczesny. At that point, it felt like it was going to be one of those days.
At half time, Arsenal were in the same situation that they were in the 3-0 defeat at Goodison in April, when the following second half was a pathetic surrender with from an Arsenal team that looked disinterested. A similar second half on Saturday would have killed any pre-season optimism and sparked more snap social media reactions with demands for all the signings before the end of the transfer window.
Arsenal had more of a focal point with Giroud up front and did create some openings, but with ten minutes to go, there didn’t look like there wasn’t much hope of scoring. The effort was there, but everything Arsenal were trying just wasn’t coming off. After an indifferent start to the season, Santi Cazorla then made an impact off the bench with his quick feet and excellent low cross across the box giving Aaron Ramsey a tap-in.
Having been so assured for the majority of the game and looked confident in possession, Everton were suddenly panicking. After having a free-kick deep in the Arsenal half, the Toffees lost the ball after passing backwards and eventually Arsenal got the ball to Ramsey on the right. His cross was over hit, but Nacho Monreal retrieved the ball and whipped in a good cross into the centre. Olivier Giroud was having his shirt pulled by Distin, but he jostled well and planted the header into the corner for the equaliser.
For all of the criticism that Olivier Giroud gets, a lot of which is drawn out from the fact he has been the only main option as central striker at the club for too long, no-one can doubt his spirit and commitment when playing for the Gunners. He doesn’t hide in games, he regularly gets very little from referees when battling with centre backs and has to shoulder a lot of responsibility within the Arsenal team. After a dreadful performance against Besiktas, Giroud looked determined to prove his worth when coming off the bench against Everton. It was an excellent header to score and a deserved reward for his second-half performance.
There are still questions that need to be answered about this Arsenal team, with the ones about a back-up centre back, holding midfielder and central striker becoming boring now, but the comeback on Saturday showed that this season the Gunners are learning some lessons. At 2-0 down, as was proved in the corresponding game last season, the Arsenal of the last few seasons would have lost that match. Even with things not going for them, the team somehow dug in and got a decent result.
The next week will be very important for the season with the Champions League qualifier and the last knockings of the transfer window, but despite playing nowhere near as well as this team are capable of, Arsenal go into the week with some momentum from positive results. The draw with Everton was also the first sign that there will be no humiliating capitulations this season. It might not have seemed like it for 80 minutes at Goodison, but this Arsenal team are made of sterner stuff.