Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Nervous Gunners edge past Leicester

Following a derby defeat, there’s always a possibility that a team will be a bit edgy in their next game. Following important defeats in the last few seasons, it’s been common for Arsenal to take a while to get back up to speed again, meaning there’s almost been a danger period after these defeats where Arsene Wenger’s team look more vulnerable than usual. Fortunately, Arsenal’s post-derby match came against the Premier League’s bottom club, Leicester City, otherwise back-to-back defeats could have occurred.
A more clinical team would have punished Arsenal more as the Gunners, especially in the second half, lacked fluidity and became very nervous. The Foxes worked hard and did well to turn the tide of a game that could easily got away from them, with Kramaric finishing well to scare the hosts at 2-1, but the visitors weren’t ruthless enough when Arsenal were really on the ropes during the second half.
Not that Arsenal fans will be bothered that the opposition didn’t punish the Gunners. After Saturday, Arsenal just had to win, and although it wasn’t pretty, they did just that. The three points also moves Arsenal back above Tottenham in the table and, even if only for 24 hours, into the top four.
Arsene Wenger tried to freshen up the starting line-up by bringing in the returning Alexis Sanchez, Tomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott. This did pose an interesting tactical dilemma for Arsenal with both Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck on the bench, as they played the majority of the game without a proper centre-forward. Both Alexis and Walcott can play the role, but they predominantly played from the wings rather than sticking centrally. With Leicester playing three centre-backs, all too often Arsenal just had the ball in front of the defence but didn’t have a striker to be a pivot in attacking moves, or to occupy the defenders to create space for others.
Mesut Ozil mainly ended up as a ‘false 9’, and while he looked very dangerous, especially in the first half, I doubt this is an experiment Arsene Wenger will try again. It also upset some of the patterns for the rest of the team. For example, David Ospina, whose distribution downfield away from danger has generally been good since he came into the side, didn’t want to kick it long without a main striker, so instead always passed the ball short to his centre-backs, and with Leicester sitting quite deep with 5 at the back, passing their way through was going to be tough for Arsenal.
It wasn’t necessarily a surprise that Arsenal’s opening goal didn’t come from fluent play from a front-line that couldn’t work out who was meant to be the central man. Laurent Koscielny pounced well to finish at the near post from Ozil’s corner to calm the crowd at the Emirates.
That was followed before half-time by Theo Walcott dispatching a second goal after Mesut Ozil’s long-range effort was saved. It was another example of Walcott’s excellent instinctive finishing as he didn’t have long to think about what to do, but he sweetly struck the ball into the corner.
At 2-0 at half-time, even with a slightly strange system, Arsenal should have looked to push on and ramp up the goal difference a bit. They could have sat back slightly, as they did in a similar situation recently against Aston Villa, and then looked to use the open spaces to punish the visitors on the counter attack. Instead Arsenal’s midfield couldn’t control the game as they’d have liked, and couldn’t get the ball out to Walcott and Alexis in dangerous areas. Leicester responded, got back in the game at 2-1 and came very close to equalising on a couple of occasions.
It felt a bit like watching a car-crash in slow motion during the second half, as it had done against Anderlecht earlier in the season, but Arsenal saw the job out in the end. The performance won’t strike much fear into anyone, but the points put pressure on Manchester United and Southampton ahead of their matches on Wednesday night.
The main concern after the game for Arsene Wenger will be injuries, again. Just as it seemed like most of the key players were coming back, there are three main worries off the back of the match with Leicester. Only just back from a hamstring complaint, Alexis Sanchez didn’t quite look himself, and he wasn’t helped by being on the receiving end of some hefty tackles. He went off midway through the second half. Aaron Ramsey came on in the second period and pretty quickly pinged a hamstring, and Laurent Koscielny limped off the field at the end of the match, suggesting his achilles problem has flared up again. There is more depth to the squad now, but to lose three such important players would be a huge blow. They might have all been rested against Middlesbrough anyway, but Arsene Wenger will be hoping they’ll be back soon afterwards, especially with the imminent return of the Champions League.
Finally, and I’m fed up of having to do these bits of the blog, a word on the referee. Mike Jones gave Liverpool a penalty against Leicester earlier in the season when the ball hit Wes Morgan in the face, so maybe he’s trying to make up for it by evening things out whenever he referees the Foxes now. He gave some baffling decisions, none more so than booking Olivier Giroud when the ball was kicked at his back when he wasn’t looking. For a league that just sold three years of domestic TV rights for £5.136 billion, it’s scary that the standard of the men in the middle this season has dropped so alarmingly. The FA and the PGMOL can say all they want about the percentage of key decisions being right, the truth is that there is serious problem that needs addressing.
Fortunately the officiating didn’t cost the Gunners any points on Tuesday. It looked like Arsenal’s nerves would do that instead, but even if it wasn’t overly enjoyable, it was a much needed three points.