Sunday, February 21, 2016

Dull draw brings unwanted, but deserved, replay

After the euphoria of the epic late winner from Danny Welbeck after Leicester City last Sunday, Arsenal’s 0-0 draw with Hull City in the fifth round of the FA Cup felt like a large reality check in the life of a football fan. The win over Leicester was tense, exciting, attacking and had an intense atmosphere. The draw with Hull was cold, wet and pretty uninspiring.
It was incredibly frustrating for Arsenal because even though Arsene Wenger will rotate his squad again for the replay, it’s difficult to see when the match can actually take place before the quarter-finals are scheduled to happen on the weekend of 12th March. With the Gunners having European and domestic midweek matches already scheduled, and Uefa not allowing other matches to be broadcast on the at the same time as any Champions League game, the inevitable postponement of other matches will give Arsenal a more bunched up fixture list later in the season, and could potentially put them a round behind should they win the replay and advance to the quarter-finals, if the replay has to take place on the same weekend as others are playing in the last eight.
It’d be easy to criticise Arsene Wenger for making nine changes to his starting line-up, and inevitably, that level of alteration to the team meant Arsenal lacked fluency and it took them a while to get into the game. But it was completely understandable that the manager made the changes that he did. With Barcelona on Tuesday, and then a huge week of Premier League matches with Manchester United, Swansea and Tottenham to come, the manager had to keep his key men fresh. Even with the changes, on paper, Arsenal had a decent side out with plenty of experience and international quality, with Alex Iwobi being the only genuine youngster thrown into the side, and he has impressed in the FA Cup so far this season.
Despite another decent showing from Iwobi, Arsenal lacked a proper link man in midfield to glue the team together and help prize open a deep and packed Hull defence. With a pretty defensive midfield duo of Mathieu Flamini and Mohamed Elneny, Arsenal missed the likes of Ramsey and Ozil to drive the team forward and give the striker other options to bring into play around the penalty area. Theo Walcott generally thrives off some space in behind the defence, and with Hull sitting so deep, it was hard for Walcott to make much of an impact on the game. His hold-up and link-up play has improved a lot in the last couple of years, but with less options around him to utilise, it was always going to be tough for him against Hull as the defence was so deep and congested with Steve Bruce effectively playing a back five.
Fresh from his goal scoring heroics last week, Danny Welbeck was quite lively, but there were still moments where he looked like he lacked some match sharpness, which is to be expected after such a long time out injured. Joel Campbell on the other side of the front three also wasn’t quite as effective as he was a few weeks ago when he was getting a run of matches in the team.
Given Arsene Wenger picked a team of players who should be desperate to get back in starting XI in the Premier League and Champions League, I was expecting more urgency. It’s tough when you’re a squad player without regular game time to immediately play brilliantly, but if Arsenal had played with more intensity, they should have comfortably seen off the Tigers, who themselves had made plenty of changes. Those who were rested by Arsene Wenger won’t be losing much sleep over their places in the team ahead of the crucial run of league fixtures.
Bar a couple of decent efforts from Walcott and Welbeck, the first half pretty much passed Arsenal by, and they didn’t really crank up the pressure on the visitors until the second half. By that stage, Hull were well set in their defensive organisation, so the onus was on Arsenal to try and break them down. Campbell was unlucky to have his shot tipped onto the post from a free-kick and Danny Welbeck’s deflected curling effort also stretched the goalkeeper Jankupovic.
The introductions of Olivier Giroud, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Alexis Sanchez couldn’t help Arsenal to find a way through as the Chilean still looked like he’s striving for form. Hopefully, as with his dip earlier in the season, it’ll only take one goal to get him back on track and everything will click into place again. With the run of games coming up, Tuesday night against Barcelona would be as good a time as any to hit the net again.
On another day, Arsenal might have won a couple of penalties as there was a clear handball by Alex Bruce that Mike Dean somehow missed, Danny Welbeck looked to have been sandwiched in the box and Calum Chambers was brought down in the area in the second half as he looked to make a driving run forward. While the second two were debatable, how the referee missed the handball is baffling. But, this is Mike Dean, so hoping to  have anything go for Arsenal when he is in charge is slightly optimistic.
Ultimately though, Arsenal didn’t do enough to win the game, so a replay is all that they deserved. It’ll be a scheduling nightmare, and will put pressure on Arsenal when they don’t necessarily need it later in the season, but the FA Cup defence isn’t over yet.The first teamers will come back in for Barcelona, and on the evidence of Sunday’s performance, will have to do the bulk of the work in the coming crucial league games as well.