Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Another patchy performance but another positive result

Despite making three changes to starting XI for the Champions League trip to Paris Saint-Germain, Arsenal started even slower than they did against Southampton on Saturday and once again had to salvage something after going behind. The fluency wasn’t there and Arsenal conceded plenty of chances to the hosts, but came away with a credible point.
Given that Arsenal had rotated the squad in the opening games in last season’s competition and it cost them with two defeats, I was staggered to see David Ospina start in goal. Not necessarily because he’s a bad keeper, but just because of the message it sends out to the opposition and the rest of the team to see the second choice keeper between the sticks. It was also a surprise to not see Granit Xhaka and Olivier Giroud picked after they were rested against the Saints. The team selection did bring about some negativity after it felt like fans had been quite positive about the chances in Paris.
With PSG also struggling for fluency at the start of the season, it felt like a good time for Arsenal to play the Parisians. But all of that was blown out of the water within a minute of kick off. Arsenal allowed Serge Aurier too much space on the right and he whipped in a perfect cross for Edinson Cavani to nod the ball past Ospina. I thought before the game that Arsenal could cause lots of problems to the hosts, but the opening minute was a horrible reality check, and a strange sense of deja vu after the terrible start the Gunners made in the group stage last season.
With Alexis Sanchez roaming too much from the centre-forward position and Arsenal making individual errors with some slack passing, PSG were able to build up a head of steam, and should have gone 2-0 up when Cavani rounded Ospina but shot wide from the edge of the box.
Alex Iwobi and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain didn’t offer enough protection to Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin as PSG’s full-backs regularly flew down the flanks to cause Arsenal problems. Mesut Ozil was struggling to get in the game as when Arsenal did get possession, it wasn’t near the final third for the German to create opportunities, and with Alexis dropping too deep to try and get the ball and make something happen, Arsenal were often left without a player in the middle to either link the play up or be a target around the penalty area.
I can understand why Arsene Wenger potentially wanted a quicker player in the main centre-forward role as the expectation would have been that Arsenal would be able to sit in a bit more and look to counter attack the hosts, but with the early goal, that plan was immediately thrown out the window as PSG were happy to be the team to soak up some pressure before releasing the pace of Cavani, Di Maria and the full-backs. Cavani’s movement around the Arsenal centre-backs was superb, but his finishing meant that despite playing poorly, the Gunners made it to half-time at only 1-0 down.
It was a surprise that the boss didn’t make any half-time changes, but the players did respond in the second half as they played with more intensity and managed to push PSG further back with a better pressing game. The final ball was still missing though, with the hosts still looking like the more dangerous side. David Ospina justified his selection with a string of fine saves, especially when one-on-one with Cavani. While the Uruguayan will be heavily criticised for some of his finishing, massive credit had to go to the Colmbian keeper. Ospina proved himself how hard it can be for a goalkeeper to come into games of this magnitude from the cold with his performances in the group stage last season, so to put on a stellar showing was a great effort from the keeper.
Olivier Giroud did eventually come on to give Arsenal a much needed focal point, and someone to be a nuisance to the centre-backs for the hosts, who up to Giroud’s arrival, had had a relatively comfortable evening. With Alexis coming off the flank, Arsenal were able to get more players into the area, and that paid off with Chilean’s equaliser. For one of the only times in the game, Ozil found a pocket of space and had some players in forward positions to thread a pass to. He fizzed the ball across the box into Iwobi, who controlled well and shot early. The keeper parried, and with the defenders occupied with Iwobi and Giroud, Alexis read the play well to find a bit of space near the edge of the box to run onto the ball and slam it into the bottom corner.
The game threatened to wildly open up as Cavani and Iwobi had opportunities to score the winner, before Arsene Wenger decided he was happy with the point and brought on Mohamed Elneny on to shut off the midfield.
There was a bit of late drama though as Olivier Giroud and Marco Verratti received second yellow cards in a bizarre altercation. From the limited TV pictures, it appears as if Giroud understandably just told Verratti he wasn’t impressed by the over elaborate fall from the Italian, before Marquinhos pushed Giroud into Verratti, which knocked the PSG man over. He can sometimes be prone to some hot-headed moments, but on this occasion, I can’t work out what Giroud has done to deserve a second yellow card. Hopefully something can be done about getting it rescinded, but this is UEFA so I’m not holding my breath.
Arguably Arsene Wenger did get the team selection right because the end result was a decent one, but it’s hard to not wonder what might have happened had Xhaka and Giroud started. It feels like the manager is still getting used to having so many options in the squad, so he doesn’t quite know his best combinations for certain games yet. That should come in time, so I guess for the moment it is positive that Arsenal are able to pick up decent results while still fighting for form. Once again, it points to the more steely edge to the side this year, and that does give cause for optimism that this season’s group stage won’t be the frantic fight to the end that Arsenal brought on themselves last season.