Monday, May 11, 2015

That wasn't supposed to happen

Given the run of form Arsenal have been on, it was easy to assume Monday night’s visit from Swansea City was nailed on as a home win. Swansea have had a good season, but with the Gunners flying, the Swans were surely going to be opened up and exposed by a vibrant home side.
Well that was what was meant to happen. Instead, Arsene Wenger’s side lacked some purpose in a fairly tame first half, where neither goalkeeper had much to concern themselves with. Then, after the break, Arsenal did pin the visitors back, couldn’t shoot anywhere other than straight at the goalkeeper, and paid a price for profligacy in front of goal as Bafetimbi Gomis headed in a late winner.
It was incredibly infuriating as Arsenal came up against a well-organised defence and didn’t vary their attacking play enough to create clear opportunities. After getting a few whacks in the first half, Olivier Giroud didn’t quite look himself as he struggled to impose himself on the two Swansea centre-backs. After his excellent run of form, the Frenchman is finding defenders are paying extra attention to him, so he needs more options around to utilise when pulling defenders in towards him. But, too often, Arsenal were crowded around the edge of the box and didn’t create space by using the flanks.
The winning run has meant that there hasn’t been too much to discuss in terms of Arsenal’s starting XI, except the issue of the right-hand side. That came into focus again against Swansea. Aaron Ramsey has done well out there in the last few games, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that his most effective games in that position have come when playing against a back three. When there isn’t a proper full-back and some space in front of a back three, Ramsey is a perfect player to exploit that space. But against a well-organised back four, as was the case against Swansea, Ramsey’s tendency to drift inside congests the midfield area, and limits Olivier Giroud’s options when holding the ball up. The Frenchman is also unlikely to be on the receiving end of a cross from the Welshman.
While Giroud wasn’t having his most effective evening, I was surprised that Arsene Wenger opted to bring on Theo Walcott as a centre-forward and had Jack Wilshere wide in the second half, as this only served to congest things further. With Swansea sitting deep and leaving little space for Walcott to run into behind the back four, the English forward looked ineffective, and was certainly not going to win any headers when the ball was tossed forward in desperation near the end.
I got the sense that there was a touch of complacency about the way Arsenal went about their work against Swansea, which was a disappointing thing to feel. It was as if because the method of having a central midfielder playing wide had been effective recently, there was going to be nothing that could happen in the match that would change Arsenal’s formula. When it wasn’t working, I don’t think it would have done any harm to move Walcott wide to find some space to run into. Arsenal looked most dangerous on Monday when both full-backs flashed low crosses into the box, so mixing it up to have wide men also available to play those balls in was an avenue that was worth exploring as the game went on, as it was clear that Swansea had done their homework on Arsenal’s recent successful style.
Lukasz Fabianksi retuned to the Emirates in the Swansea goal and played well, but was never properly tested. He made a high number of saves, but was never particularly stretched by any of them. Because Swansea made it so congested around the edge of their box, Arsenal were reluctant to shoot, so when they did finally manoeuvre themselves into a shooting position, the players often snatched at the chance.
Despite the frustrations, Arsenal still dominated the game, particularly in the second half, as Swansea played the majority of the match without a recognised striker. When they did bring one on, Gomis made the difference by heading Monteiro’s cross, just, over the line. David Ospina didn’t cover himself in glory with the rather late dive to try to save the ball.
There’s plenty to ponder for Arsene Wenger ahead of the weekend trip to Old Trafford. Away from home, using Ramsey on the right could be a good option, but in a home game when dominating the ball against a defensive team, that option has its flaws. Swansea exposed them on Monday. The Gunners can still finish 2nd, but the end of the season has taken on a more serious tone after the defeat. Forget looking ahead to the cup final and next season, there’s still a job to be done in the final three league games. Arsenal would do well to remember that.