Monday, March 14, 2016

Watford take away Arsenal's FA Cup safety net

One of the only things keeping me, and I suspect many others fans, going during this slightly turbulent time for Arsenal was the prospect of challenging for a third successive FA Cup. While it isn’t the Premier League or the Champions League, it would have been an unprecedented achievement in the modern era, plus I’ve really enjoyed the last few trips to Wembley. But now that hope of been wiped away from this season of promise that is rapidly turning into a nightmare.
The FA Cup probably saved Arsene Wenger in 2014, and felt like a stepping stone in 2015, but it now represents another under-achievement in 2016. With discontent growing ever louder around Arsenal, the FA Cup can no longer paper over the cracks appearing in the team and in the fan base. Should Arsenal’s wretched run of form continue on for the rest of the season, those dissenting voices will only grow louder and pressure on Arsene Wenger will only become greater. A spectacular collapse during a season wasn’t how it was supposed to end with Arsene at the club, and I desperately hope he turns it around and this isn’t the end, but I don’t like the way this season is heading. Something feels different this time.
As for the defeat to Watford itself, Arsenal didn’t create enough chances to merit a win. In the second half in particular, it was only in the scramble late in the game that they looked particularly threatening. Arsenal’s lack of goals, especially at home, is now a serious issue, with too many players out-of-form. Mesut Ozil is continuing to create opportunities, but no-one else around him seems to be on the same wavelength. Alexis isn’t lacking for effort but something just isn’t clicking for him at the moment.
At the back, Gabriel is going through his toughest period since joining the club. In general, he’s looked strong and has rarely been caught out, but that’s now happening with too much regularity. After some shoddy defending at Old Trafford recently, he contributed to the concession of a poor goal early in the second half against Watford. No team should ever concede from a throw-in, but after the ball was flicked on by Troy Deeney for Odion Ighalo, Gabriel was too tight to the striker and made it easy for him to roll into a shooting position and slot the ball past David Ospina.
At that point, the Brazilian was lucky to even be on the pitch as he launched into a reckless two-footed challenge on Deeney in the first half that should have seen him sent off. It’s great that he shows a bit of passion, but there’s ways of channelling it, and that tackle wasn’t it. Laurent Koscielny can’t return soon enough.
Having gone behind, Arsenal then got sucker punched by a thunderous strike from Guedioura. It was a brilliant finish, and worthy of winning any cup tie, but from an Arsenal point-of-view, he should never have been allowed the space to unleash his rocket shot. Poor David Ospina would have lost his hands if he’d got in the way of that.
Arsene Wenger went for broke by sending on Theo Walcott, Danny Welbeck and Alex Iwobi at the same time, and that did liven Arsenal up a bit, but against a visiting defence that were comfortable to sit deep and soak up pressure, Arsenal just couldn’t find a way through. That Iwobi was much more willing to get on the ball and try and make something happen than Walcott says a lot about the lack of confidence the England winger is playing with, even after his two goals in midweek. He, like a lot of players at the moment, is a passenger in the team and is relying on others to make something happen.
Arsenal did finally break through late on as a sublime Mesut Ozil assist allowed Danny Welbeck to finish across the goalkeeper, but unfortunately for Welbeck, that won’t be what he is remembered for in this game. Just a minute later, Alex Iwobi fired a shot against the post from the edge of the box, Kieran Gibbs was alive to the rebound and played the ball to Welbeck, who shot wide on the spin with the goalkeeper on the ground.
The Gunners would barely have deserved a draw, but it would have been some consolation from another pretty desperate performance. A trip to Barcelona, when already 2-0 down, isn’t particularly welcome this week, but the Gunners have to do everything they can to try and salvage some pride and have something positive to take into the league as there’s very few positives around the club currently. As mentioned after the defeat to Swansea, it’s all very sad at the moment, and with the way the season is going, I’m beginning to fear that there could be an even more heart-wrenching moment to come at the end of the season, especially without the FA Cup to save Arsene or the season.
Just finally, Andre Mariner’s embarrassing refereeing performance has to be mentioned. As already discussed, he missed the obvious sending off of Gabriel, and then proceeded to happily accept Watford’s ludicrous time-wasting and only add four minutes on at the end of the game. I don’t really blame Watford for having their players go down off the ball with random ‘injuries’ that forced the play to be stopped, as they knew they could get away with it because the referee didn’t have the bottle to actually punish it. He didn’t cost Arsenal the game, as the Gunners should have been reduced to ten men, but it just needs highlighted that, for an FA Cup quarter-final, Andre Mariner was poor.