Monday, August 24, 2015

Fine margins cost Arsenal

More so than in most walks of life, the fine margins between success and failure are very pronounced in top-level sport. The World Athletics Championships over the weekend typified this (I had to watch something with Arsenal annoyingly not playing until Monday!).
But for a miniscule mark on a piece of plasticine, Katarina Johnson-Thompson would have been in serious contention for a heptathlon medal. Instead, she was 29th. Had Justin Gatlin not tied up and been reeled in by Usian Bolt’s final strides to be defeated by the legendary Jamaican in the 100m by 0.01 seconds, everyone would be talking negatively about a sport having a two-time doper winning the blue-riband event. Instead, the sport’s reputation has been salvaged following some negative drugs-related headlines.
On Monday night at the Emirates, the finest of margins made a linesman incorrectly raise his flag to deny Aaron Ramsey the opening goal. The officials with the flags do have a tough job because of the speed of the game, and in real time it is understandable how errors get made, but on this occasion, the linesman had the edge of the penalty area as a perfect guide line to see that Aaron Ramsey wasn’t ahead of Martin Skrtel when Santi Cazorla played a lovely through ball. The Welshman’s excellent finish was then in vain.
Had that goal stood, Arsenal would surely have calmed down, would probably have gone to win the game and Arsene Wenger would be applauded for the tactical masterstroke of having Ramsey roam off the right-hand side. Instead, frustration built up as Arsenal became too narrow again with the Welshman drifting inside and making it easier for Liverpool to defend, particularly as the visitors looked happy to play out a draw as the second half went on.
When the tactic of Ramsey roaming off the right works, it’s pretty spectacular as it usually means the passing around the box is precise and the Gunners get plenty of bodies in dangerous forward positions. When it doesn’t work, the team look horribly lop-sided. For the majority of the second half, Arsenal almost exclusively attacked down the left and were crowded out as there wasn’t much width on the right. Hector Bellerin was also understandably more reluctant to bomb forward from right-back so as to not leave Calum Chambers exposed following his ropey first half. It wasn’t until the late introduction of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain did the Gunners pose a threat on both flanks and were able to stretch the Liverpool defence with the winger was running at the inexperienced full-back Joe Gomez. By that point though, Olivier Giroud had been replaced so any lofted cross into the box was a petty futile exercise.
I totally understand why Arsene Wenger is desperate to somehow get Aaron Ramsey into his team, but sometimes the boss has to realise when a certain plan isn’t working and make changes earlier. Even an extra five or ten minutes of Oxlade-Chamberlain could have made the difference for Arsenal. Although all of that definitely would have been different but for fine margins of top-level sport meaning Ramsey’s first half strike wasn’t allowed to stand.
It was a strange game to finish 0-0 as neither side looked completely confident at the back, with Arsenal giving their supporters a pretty terrifying first half. Fans were appreciating the calmness of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny more than usual as the unexpected absentees meant starts for Calum Chambers and Gabriel, and both centre-backs suffered a particularly challenging first 45 minutes. Credit to both for growing into the match in the second half, but the back four looked wide open as Liverpool didn’t capitalise on some pretty kamikaze defending.
Fortunately, Arsenal had Francis Coquelin putting in an energetic performance to bail out Chambers a few times, and a goalkeeper keen to make amends for a slightly iffy start to his Arsenal career. Petr Cech showed why he’s still considered a world class goalkeeper with a series of stunning saves, with a tip onto the post to deny Coutinho and the almost miraculous point-blank stop against Benteke particularly standing out.
Given how fragile Arsenal’s defence looked, it was slightly surprising that Liverpool didn’t go for it in the second half when a win was there for the taking as, despite the Ramsey goal being wrongly ruled out, the visitors had by far the most and best chances in the first half. But as Liverpool sat back, Arsenal narrowed up and couldn’t stretch Brendan Rodgers’ team enough. There were still opportunities though as Alexis hit the post and Olivier Giroud could have been awarded a penalty when the defender looked to have fouled the Frenchman as he turned to shoot in the box.
The late winner wouldn’t come so Arsenal are still yet to score a home goal in the Premier League this season and another good response to home disappointment will be needed with a win away at St James’ Park on Saturday. Hopefully fine margins won’t cost Arsenal again. They’re one of the reason sports can be so compelling, but they can be both glorious and incredibly frustrating all at the same time. Just ask Katarina Johnson-Thompson, Usain Bolt and Aaron Ramsey.