Saturday, February 21, 2015

Arsenal withstand Palace pressure to claim the points

I’ve always thought that the idea that 2-0 is a dangerous score in football is a slightly misleading one. While it does pose a tactical question about weather to keep attacking, the scoreline should be a clear indicator that you’ve got control of the game and don’t need to be nervous for the rest of the match.
But, the next goal in a match at 2-0 can be the tipping point. At Selhurst Park on Saturday, had Alexis Sanchez applied the finish to a swift Arsenal counter-attack having been played through by Mesut Ozil, the Gunners would have been out of sight in the second half against Crystal Palace with a three-goal lead. Even though it came late, Palace did get the next goal in the match to make it 2-1, and in the remaining minute of injury time, caused a major scare for every Gooner when Glenn Murray headed against the post.
Despite the 2-0 lead gained in the first half, Arsenal struggled to find any fluidity in the second half and invited the hosts onto them. Alan Pardew, who usually seems to get his team’s fired up for matches against Arsenal, had got his team to charge round the field and put pressure on the Gunners at every opportunity. The match did become a bit more stretched in the second half, but his side were able to keep up the frantic pace for the whole match, which was almost rewarded in injury time.
While Arsenal did get pinned back, the backs-to-the-wall defending in the second half was generally very good from Arsenal. Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny dealt with almost every cross that the hosts sent into the box, not giving the strikers much of a sniff until the last attack of the game when Murray headed against the post. After a pretty torrid opening spell of game against Wilfried Zaha, Nacho Monreal tightened up his side of the pitch and nullified the winger’s threat.
In front of the back four, Francis Coquelin continued his excellent emergence into the team with an important performance. He was fortunate early in the game to avoid a yellow card for a high tackle, which given he picked up a subsequent card made a difference, but the Frenchman was typically combative and made plenty of important interceptions, blocks and tackles near the edge of his own penalty area. He was disciplined, and most importantly in such a competitive game, looked up for the fight.
While David Ospina’s introduction into the starting XI has coincided with a good run of form, I think the first choice goalkeeper is far from a closed book at Arsenal. The Colombian generally has done everything with the minimum of fuss since breaking into the team, but there were a few panicky moments on Saturday that would have had Wojciech Szczesny looking on with interest. I’m not quite sure why he came out to head the ball away from the edge of the penalty area in the second half, falling over Mertesacker in the process, and he missed the cross that almost led to an equaliser. I’m sure Ospina will keep the position for the moment, but if a misjudgement costs a goal, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Wojciech Szczesny reinstated.
The pressure Arsenal came under in the second half followed a first half that didn’t have too much goalmouth action, but the frenetic pace of the match made it quite a compelling watch. The visitors settled into the match well and turned early possession into the lead when Danny Welbeck applied pressure to the unsuspecting Souare, who then felled the forward as he looked to advance into the area. The foul was on the line of the penalty area, which prompted Mark Clattenburg to point to the spot. As he has done with every penalty he’s taken this season, Santi Cazorla found the net.
With the attacking quintet of Cazorla, Ozil, Welbeck, Alexis and Giroud, Arsenal always looked dangerous when they had the ball near the Palace box, but on a very bobbly and slippy pitch, they couldn’t quite apply the final pass or finishing touch to some promising attacking moves until the very end of the half. Alexis found Welbeck’s excellent diagonal run into space, and Olivier Giroud was on hand to gobble up the rebound from Welbeck’s saved shot to collect his 50th goal for the club.
In the second half, that attacking five did have some chances to kill the game off on the counter, but again the finish, final ball, or in one case for Giroud in the middle of a flowing move, the pitch stopped Arsenal from extending the lead.
With Theo Walcott left on the bench, alongside Tomas Rosicky and the returning Jack Wilshere, it’ll be interesting to see what Arsene Wenger does with his team for the Champions League tie with Monaco on Wednesday. He might be reluctant to play such an attacking line-up in the first leg of a European tie, but with Cazorla, Ozil and Giroud all in good form, and Alexis almost impossible to leave out, it only leaves space for one more from Welbeck, Walcott, Rosicky and Wilshere. If Wenger wants a bit more control, then Rosicky will play, but if he wants to be attacking and look to make a fast start to the tie, Welbeck or Walcott will get the nod, and it’d be harsh to drop Welbeck after a positive performance at Palace.
Even though the Champions League draw was kind to the Gunners, they’ll need to be better than they were against Crystal Palace to secure progress to the quarter-finals. That said, Arsenal did show character to get the points against Alan Pardew’s team as it was a tricky game, played a pretty dodgy pitch, and other results in the league mean it could be a vital victory.