Saturday, September 13, 2014

Character and spirit can't hide defensive concerns

The 2-2 draw between Arsenal and Manchester City at Emirates Stadium was a great game for neutrals, but for fans, it was impossible to feel comfortable at any moment. Most draws can be categorised as good ones or bad ones (see Everton for a good one and Leicester for a bad one), but having been 1-0 down and then 2-1 up, it’s very difficult to know how to feel about the draw with City.
If I’d have been offered a draw at half time, I’d have taken it, but to not win after getting ahead is immensely frustrating. On the balance of play, a draw was a fair result as City always looked dangerous when they got David Silva into space.
The most pleasing part of the performance for Arsenal was undoubtedly the character and spirit shown to come back from being a goal down initially. The Gunners had started well in looking to take the lead, but were clinically punished when Aguero put City ahead. I’d like to see Arsenal take the lead first in one of these games against others in the top four as it wouldn’t necessarily leave the Gunners so exposed. The problems last season stemmed from Arsenal going behind early and having to chase the game, and on the break on Saturday, City almost punished Arsenal again but for Szczesny denying Silva in the first half.
The match went through a bit of a lull as Arsenal tried to build up a head of steam but couldn’t break through City after they took off the struggling Lampard. However a frantic period of play that opened some holes in the City midfield enabled Wilshere to neatly exchange passes with Ramsey before gliding past Clichy and finishing brilliantly with his weaker foot over Hart.
Wilshere has steadily improved during the season, with his performance on Saturday much more like the ones that caught the eye when he first became a regular in the side back in 2010. His inclusion alongside Ramsey, Flamini and Ozil does present a problem when balancing the team as Arsenal aren’t getting the best out of Mesut Ozil by playing him in a wide area, but it’s hard to leave an in-form Jack Wilshere out of the side. It’s something that Arsene Wenger needs to try and work out.
Wilshere was involved as a fired up Arsenal took the lead in the second half when his header found Alexis Sanchez in space in the left side of the box. Rather than needing a touch to control the ball, the Chilean showed the quality that over £30 million can get you with a fantastic volleyed finish past Hart. That’s three goals in three games for Sanchez, and was proof that he doesn’t hide in the big games. He works very hard for the team and has incredibly quick feet to get out of tight situations. In Sanchez, Wenger has signed a proper player.
Seeing the commitment and chasing of Sanchez is almost emphasising how that isn’t a big part of Mesut Ozil’s game, and that is causing the German to be the subject of discontent from some supporters at the Emirates. It isn’t just offensively that Ozil isn’t as effective when playing wide, but defensively he just isn’t the sort of player that wants to be chasing back and putting in big challenges. He undoubtedly can work harder, but he wants to be further up the pitch to be in a position to create when Arsenal get the ball back as he can spot and play passes that no-one else in the squad can to set up chances.
Hopefully Ozil will be creating chances for Danny Welbeck who, as expected, worked hard on his debut and showed some promise for the rest of the season. He was unlucky not to score in the first half with the chip over Hart that hit the post and he also went close with a curling shot from outside the box. Welbeck does give Arsenal the combination of pace and a target man up front, so in time as he gets to know his team mates better, he can be effective.
Having gone 2-1 up, Arsenal seemed slightly unsure of what to do. Even though they had momentum in the game and a raucous crowd, I think Arsenal sat back too much too early and invited pressure from Manchester City. Against lesser teams, that’s fine. However with quality operators like Silva near the penalty area, City will always create small openings that can lead to goals. That almost made it more frustrating to concede a goal from a corner. Defensively, it’s a concern to concede from a corner, but it’s something that Arsenal have improved on in previous seasons, and should be easily rectified.
The bigger concern at the back, that could undermine any amount of spirit and character the players show during the season, is the lack of players. Mathieu Debuchy went off with a very worrying looking injury, and a long term absence for the Frenchman would leave the Gunners ridiculously short on numbers. It would mean the only reserve centre-back, Calum Chambers, playing at right-back with someone like Hector Bellerin drafted onto the bench. One more injury and we have a crisis. The pressure that puts on those that are fit to stay fit, and play well, is immense. I already fear that any crumbling title challenge this season could come from a lack of defenders rather than a lack of goals, a defensive midfielder, or other tradition problems the media like to focus on. I hope I’m proved wrong and the Debuchy injury isn’t serious.
A quick word does need to be written about Mark Clattenburg for his performance in the 2-2 draw. In fairness to him, the referee did try and let the game flow, however the way he didn’t punish some continued fouls by City with cards was frustrating. Both teams will have some grievances over some of his decisions, but Clattenburg completely bottled the decision when he should have sent off Fernandinho. Already on a yellow, the City midfielder booted the ball away at the Arsenal bench after a foul was given against his team in the middle of the pitch. It was both dissent and time wasting and should have brought a second yellow.
Overall it was one of the games that goes down as a great advert for the Premier League. It was too open at times for the liking of the two managers, but it was two evenly matched teams going all out to win the game. Even though Arsenal are unbeaten this season, some of these draws need to be turned into wins sooner rather than later. But, having been 1-0 down, Arsenal went toe-to-toe with the champions and it’s hard to disagree with a draw.