Sunday, November 6, 2016

Frustrating derby draw as Arsenal miss the chance to go top

A draw in the North London derby always feels like a defeat in any other game. Despite all the hype about Tottenham as title challengers from some pundits, and even though Spurs are unbeaten in the league, they were there for the taking at the Emirates on Sunday. When Arsenal got their act together, they opened up the visitors, but for the majority of the game, the Gunners looked disappointingly off-the-pace. 
The 1-1 draw was a fair result as both teams hit the woodwork and it didn’t feel like Arsenal did enough to win the game.
As against Middlesbrough in the last home league game, Arsenal missed Santi Cazorla in midfield. The little Spaniard has a huge impact on Arsenal’s ability to control the tempo of a match, and against Spurs, while Francis Coquelin and Granit Xhaka didn’t play badly, they can’t control a game in the way Cazorla does. Especially in the opening stages, Arsenal struggled to string passes together as often players didn’t have many options to pass to when in possession, something Cazorla does superbly to keep play ticking over.
The other issue was that the ball always seemed to be bouncing Tottenham’s way. It felt like after almost every header or tackle, there was a white shirt to pick up the pieces and keep some pressure on the hosts. Along with the early midday kick off and Arsenal’s inability to get much possession in Spurs’ final third, it felt like quite a subdued start by the standards of North London derbies. With Tottenham playing three central defenders and with a half-fit Harry Kane up front, they didn’t threaten the Arsenal goal too often in the opening exchanges, but they were in control of the tempo. 
When Arsenal finally woke up, they finished the first half strongly with some quicker and more incisive football. Alex Iwobi should have scored after a flowing move involving Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, before Ozil fired an awkward half-volley wide after a thunderous strike from Theo Walcott crashed back off the post.
The increased pressure told just before the break as a brilliant Ozil free-kick from the right was headed into his own net by Kevin Wimmer. It was a poor piece of defending to score the own-goal, but it was forced by the quality of the cross into the box from Ozil.
Having taken the lead, it was then immensely frustrating to see Arsenal start the second half in a similar vain to the first. It seemed risky to sit deeper and just hold on to the one goal lead, and Arsenal didn’t press the opposition with the intensity that had brought success in the first period. It allowed Spurs to settle back into the game, and it cost Arsenal when Dembele went over from a challenge by Koscielny and Harry Kane converted the subsequent penalty. 
Spurs came closest to winning the game as a whipped free-kick from Christian Eriksen on the left went past everyone in the box and clipped the outside of the post. For Arsenal, there were a few half-openings but no-one could properly test Hugo Lloris. 
It wasn’t without the opportunities to create chances though as Arsenal’s final ball went slightly awry in the second half, especially from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain when he entered the fray with 20 minutes to go. He’s been in good form, but as someone who needs to be confident to play well, I hope he hasn’t played himself out-of-form with a pretty woeful appearance off the bench. His crossing was wayward, he gave away some cheap free-kicks and couldn’t link up well with those around him, in stark contrast to a good few weeks beforehand. 
Of the other players that came off the bench, Aaron Ramsey did alright and Olivier Giroud won a few knockdowns, but the intensity couldn’t be maintained by the subs to have a grandstand finish to the game. 
Giroud had replaced Alex Iwobi, who for one of the first times in his short Arsenal first-team career, looked like the kid in the team. He was unusually hesitant at times on the ball and didn’t offer Nacho Monreal much protection down the left wing. There was also a great chance that he spurned in the first half with a weak shot at Lloris. He’s had a great impact on the team since he broke into the side last season, but there are signs that he might need to be rotated a bit more to keep him fresh. After his performance on Sunday, I’d be surprised if Iwobi lines-up at Old Trafford in a couple of weeks time. 
Overall, everyone seemed a bit panicked for Arsenal on Sunday. There wasn’t the calmness in key moments that we’ve seen from the team this season. Without playing brilliantly, Arsenal still didn’t lose, but it’s a shame that it is now two weeks before the next game as I suspect there are a few regrets for the players that they want to put right sooner rather than later. 
The draw also means Arsenal miss out on top spot for the moment, sitting two points behind Liverpool. It is already a ridiculously competitive season, so the derby draw isn’t a fatal result for the Gunners, just frustrating that they couldn’t put away an average Tottenham team.