Sunday, April 10, 2016

The most Arsenal-like game of the season?

As much as I’ve tried to think that Arsenal are still in with a shout of the title, despite the good wins over Everton and Watford, the chances were pretty slim before Arsenal managed to be in control of the match against West Ham on Saturday before throwing it away but subsequently salvaging a point.
There were plenty of positive moments for the Gunners during the game, but ultimately, it summed up why this team won’t be lifting the Premier League trophy in May, despite the failings of other big clubs around them.
The positives were the link-up play and the fluidity of the front four again. Since Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, Alex Iwobi and Danny Welbeck have been picked from the start in recent weeks, the Gunners have scored nine goals in three Premier League games, and some of them have been works of art. The first two scored at Upton Park on Saturday fell into that category as excellent assists from Iwobi were finished off by Ozil and Alexis. Slaven Billic had hoped to nullify Arsenal’s threat by playing three centre-backs and limit the space for Arsenal to play into the inside-channels, but the movement of the front four pulled the Hammers’ defence all over the place in the first half and Arsenal deservedly scored two lovely goals.
As has been mentioned on numerous occasions in the last few weeks, Iwobi has been a breath of fresh air to the team and has, along with Danny Welbeck, given Arsenal a different dimension to the attacking play with some pace and creativity. The movement of those two has, in turn, reinvigorated Alexis Sanchez and has given Mesut Ozil more options when looking to create opportunities.
The other main positive was how Arsenal responded to going 3-2 down. At that stage, it looked like the team would crumble, but they were able to assert a bit of dominance back into the game and equalise through Laurent Koscielny. But, the bigger issue is that Arsenal should never have been in the position of needing to make such a comeback having been leading by two goals.
Being 2-0 up with a minute of normal time left in the first half, it should have been inconceivable that Arsenal would be level at the break. The Gunners made it easy for West Ham to get back into the game and then crumbled once the Hammers put on some pressure. No-one closed down the cross when Aaron Cresswell set up Andy Carroll for his first goal, and having conceded, Arsenal panicked and weren’t focussed on the next set piece.
Having conceded two, it just felt inevitable that West Ham would take the lead in the second half through the same tactics. Andy Carroll was always going to beat Hector Bellerin in the air and Arsenal were punished again for not preventing the delivery into the box as he completed his hat-trick.
Even though the Gunners went into the game off the back of two wins and two clean sheets, it was a surprise that Petr Cech didn’t come back into the team for David Ospina, and that Per Mertesacker wasn’t selected with Andy Carroll likely to start for the hosts. On seeing the team sheet, West Ham must have been delighted to see Arsenal’s two most commanding defensive players sitting on the subs’ bench. Gabriel has had some good games for the club and will get better with experience, but at a time when Arsenal have been saying that they have to go all out for wins in this final run of games, it was arguably a big risk to play him against Carroll.
Against Everton and Watford, Arsenal’s back-line was rarely tested, and when it came under the pump at Upton Park, it struggled. Laurent Koscielny is still adapting to being the leader of the defence, and even if just Cech was selected, you can’t help but think that the organisation and communication would have been better at the back. Ospina is a good shot -stopper and, to be fair to him, has deputised well for Cech in the past month, but he’s still not as commanding or dominant as the Czech. Having pulled off the coup of signing Cech in the first place, it always feels like a waste when he isn’t selected, and now he’s back from injury, he has to be in the team.
This season is meandering towards its conclusion, and the dropped points mean Arsenal have a bigger gap to make up on Spurs. Once again, the Gunners are left with North London supremacy as the only thing to fight for and, while there are moments of glorious attacking play and promise, there’s moments of defensive and mental weakness that lead to stupid dropped points, all summed up in a balmy and frustrating 90 minutes in East London on Saturday.