Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Arsenal's title challenge teeters on the edge

Draws can be funny things in football. If you’ve had to come from behind to sneak one, they can be great. If both teams are a bit rubbish and no-one deserves to win, then a draw can be very unsatisfactory. There are also the draws that feel like a defeat and like the end of the world (or season to be a bit less dramatic) is nigh. The 0-0 with Southampton was one of the latter ones for Arsenal fans.
Now I’m, generally, a pretty positive Arsenal fan and will cling onto any hope the team can give me. But it was hard to walk away from the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday night and not have a sinking feeling about how Arsenal’s title challenge is faltering. Arsenal’s failure to win in four leagues games, coupled with Leicester, Manchester City and Tottenham all building some momentum means that even though Arsenal are only five points off the top of the table, it feels like the Gunners have an awful lot of work to do to see off their title rivals.
Since the injuries to Santi Cazorla, Francis Coquelin and Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal’s results haven’t been disasterous, and there have been some very good wins in that run of games, but the team has looked more vulnerable, and the midfield partnership between Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey has been a very thin piece of paper over a rather substantial crack. With Coquelin back in contention for selection following his injury, barring injury to others, Mathieu Flamini shouldn’t be seen in the starting XI in the league for the rest of the season. He works incredibly hard for the team, but the balance isn’t right with him alongside the Welshman as Flamini can’t link the play as well when in possession of the ball, and he has a tendency to get caught upfield or drop too deep when out of possession, inviting pressure on the back four.
That was evident against Southampton as Arsenal had Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez dropping deeper to get the ball to try and make something happen, rather than being higher up the field to receive it in front of the opposition back line. Even though Francis Coqulin and Aaron Ramsey haven’t played together very often in the middle of the pitch, Coquelin’s better positioning and better ball distribution should give the Welshman more confidence when bombing forward in support of the main striker and allow Arsenal’s more creative players to stay higher up the pitch.
The centre of the midfield isn’t the only big problem Arsenal have to solve to avoid the title challenge continuing this slow-motion car crash. They need to score goals. None in the last three games isn’t going to get you anywhere, and while one of those matches had exceptional circumstances as Arsenal had ten men for most of the game, they just weren’t clinical enough against Southampton.
Fraser Forster made some superb saves in goal for the Saints, but he shouldn’t have been given the opportunity to save them because of poor finishing from the hosts. Ozil was guilty in the first half as his finish couldn’t match his exquisite control, before Theo Walcott wasted two great opportunities with a horrible lack of conviction in the second half. At least Arsenal created the opportunities, and for the most part actually played pretty well in the second half, but the finishing is what wins you games, and it isn’t good enough at the moment. Hopefully the return of Alexis Sanchez, who scored the winner in the FA Cup at the weekend and had one cleared off the line on Tuesday, can spark the others into converting chances.
The finishing, and all round contribution, of Theo Walcott is a major concern. Earlier in the season, I would have laughed at the suggestion that Joel Campbell might get picked ahead of Theo Walcott for an important Premier League game, but it seemed like the right thing to do on Tuesday night. When Walcott did come on, apart from missing two chances, he pretty much did nothing else. It’s great that he’s been at the club for ten years, but he actually needs to start acting like the longest serving player and be an example to others in terms of putting in the effort and commitment needed in a title race, and not just disappear into the background. Despite completing a decade of service, Walcott won’t, yet, be remembered as a club great. He should view this season, as his tenth anniversary season, as a fantastic opportunity to become one by making a serious contribution to a title win. He can do it, he’s a good enough player to do it, but he needs to show a killer instinct that, sadly, hasn’t been there for a lot of his career.
These issues hanging over the team at the moment come down to Arsene Wenger to sort. He will get questions about the team’s mentality and the ability to cope under pressure. I can’t really do justice to how much I want him and the team to be able to answer those questions confidently and with positive results on the pitch, but our recent track record of lasting the distance when in the title race is abysmal. I do genuinely believe that there is something different about the squad this season, and that there is a bit more of a winning mentality in the squad, but that feels more like a hope than something we have tangible proof of existing through results on the pitch. Hope does keep us going as football fans, but Arsenal’s is unfortunately looking like a forlorn hope at the moment, which is really rather depressing after an encouraging campaign, up to about a month ago, seemed to be on the cards. It’s not quite last chance saloon yet for Arsenal, but it does feel like anything other than a win at Bournemouth on Sunday could almost be terminal if other title rivals continue their worryingly decent form.
Finally, I have to mention Lee Mason’s refereeing performance at the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday night. There weren’t major game-changing decisions to make so he didn’t cost Arsenal the points, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a referee look like he was guessing at almost every decision he made in the way Lee Mason did on Tuesday. The lack of common sense used during the match was also staggering, such as allowing Southampton to take four or five minutes out of the game as Jose Fonte had his head bandaged two yards away from the edge of the pitch, when he could have easily stepped off and not disrupted the flow of the game. It only added to the frustration of the evening, and was another damning example of how refereeing standards are dipping in English football.