Thursday, November 24, 2016

Top spot out of Arsenal's hands following frustrating draw

Just to start, the head-to-head rule being used in the group stage ahead of goal difference is nonsense. The away goals rule is a pain in the arse at the best of times, so to have it added into the mix in the groups is stupid. It does make the fact Arsenal pummelled Ludogorets, mathematically, seem a bit pointless so kudos to Uefa for not encouraging attacking football with this rule and making the group stages potentially even more dull than they usually are.
Anyway, the rule is what it is, and Arsenal didn’t play the situation of the game well enough with the home tie with Paris Saint-Germain effectively being the second leg of a knockout game. They were too loose defensively and allowed PSG to take control of the game for large periods. It doesn’t bode well for the knockout rounds to see Arsenal be a bit naive in that situation, but hopefully they’ll take the experience from this game and not be so open when the competition returns in February.
Arsene Wenger made a few changes to keep the squad fresh, but in the most part if affected Arsenal’s fluidity. Carl Jenkinson is still working his way back to full match fitness while Kieran Gibbs, Alex Iwobi and Olivier Giroud all came into the outfield line-up from the weekend draw at Old Trafford. 
PSG did play well so is wasn’t as if Arsenal just allowed rubbish opposition to dominate the game. Effectively playing with four central midfielders, the French champions were able to use Marco Verratti, Thiago Motta, Blaise Matuidi and Grzegorz Krychowiak to control the tempo of the first half. Arsenal’s midfield two of Aaron Ramsey and Francis Coquelin did some good stuff defensively with some excellent tackles, but they struggled to impose themselves on the game in possession.
The visitors took the lead inside the first 20 minutes when Matuidi found space on the left and his low cross was finished by Edinson Cavani. Earlier Kieran Gibbs had cleared the ball off the line as Arsenal made a similar start to the one they made in the Parc des Princes back in September. 
The whole first half was also reminiscent of the second half at Old Trafford on Saturday. The game seemed to pass Arsenal by until later in the half when they were able to build up a bit of pressure and it quickly told as they scored with their only shot of the half. 
Alexis Sanchez was clipped by Krychowiak in the box and Olivier Giroud continued his clinical streak in front of goal by sending the keeper the wrong way from the spot. Beforehand, there was a bit of a kerfuffle with Cavani as the striker inflamed the situation by stopping Arsenal from having the ball.
From that altercation, it does seem as if some pundits have been quick to criticise Aaron Ramsey for his reaction to Cavani swiping around his throat, but the Uruguayan should have been punished. Ramsey unfortunately had to react like he did to try and highlight it to the referee, but the official still chose to do nothing. I don’t like that Ramsey had to over-react, but things are slightly different with referees in the Champions League. You only had to look at Olivier Giroud’s ridiculous sending off in the first game with PSG to see that. 
The goal did galvanise the Gunners and they were much improved after half-time. They stepped up the intensity of the performance and pushed PSG back. Mesut Ozil was seeing a bit more of the ball and the full-backs got forward more. 
This lead to Arsenal going ahead as Carl Jenkinson’s low cross into the box caused some pinball, and the ball eventually went into the bottom corner off Marco Verratti. For someone that is a superb player in possession, Verratti is also thoroughly dislikable in the way he conducts himself on the field, so it was enjoyable to see him dejected on the ground having inadvertently given Arsenal the lead.
But having gained the initiative in the game, Arsenal didn’t punish the visitors. PSG were wilting with the second goal and were there for the taking. The Gunners were quick to sit back with 25 minutes to go, when another five or ten minutes of high-intensity pressure could have killed the game off. 
With Olivier Giroud given a chance to start up front, overall Arsenal didn’t use him well enough. There weren’t many crosses for him to attack or many passes into him around the area for his clever flicks to bring others into play. Even down to David Ospina still being keen to play goal-kicks short with his unusually short kicking distance for a keeper, Arsenal didn’t feed the big Frenchman enough. While a lot is made of Giroud’s ability to adapt to the team, the team also have to adapt to him to get the best out of the Frenchman. He’s confident and efficient in front of goal at the moment and Arsenal need to make the most of it. 
As the Gunners began to look a bit nervy, the equaliser came. A deep corner was headed towards goal by Lucas Moura and Iwobi unwittingly got a flicked header on the ball for it to go past David Ospina. He was already scheduled to go off following the corner, but it was unfortunate that the change then came straight after his misjudgment led to a goal.
PSG had the best chances of the rest of the game as Arsenal were fortunate that for all of is excellent runs and general attacking play, Edinson Cavani needs about ten clear chances for every goal as he missed a header from six-yards and a one-on-one with Ospina when he failed pretty miserably with a chip.
The 2-2 draw means Arsenal need PSG to slip up on the final day against Ludogorets, and then get a better result themselves in Basel to top the group. It felt like a real chance missed to not get the top spot secured having been 2-1 up, but with Bayern Munich and potentially Real Madrid also sitting in the group of second-placed teams, there’s still a chance the draw could be kind to Arsenal if they don’t win the group.
Arsenal haven’t been at their best in the dreaded month of November, but they remain unbeaten following the opening day of the season. In isolation, draws in the North London derby, away at Old Trafford and against PSG are not bad results, it’s just the run of draws and the performances that have flattened some of the positivity.
In three of the toughest games of the season, there’s been a sense that had Arsenal played even slightly better, they would probably have won all three. The current levels of performance are unsustainable if Arsenal are going to continue on this unbeaten run, but they are continuing to show resilience to make things happen when they aren’t playing well. If Arsenal can come out of this slightly iffy period unscathed, then they can build on the resistance to defeats that they’re developing and, hopefully, get a kind draw to advance in the Champions League. If they don’t, letting the lead slip against PSG will become a bit more frustrating.