Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Arsenal's unbeaten run comes to a shuddering halt at Goodison Park

With Manchester City coming up at the end of the week, if there was one game that was going to end Arsenal’s unbeaten run in the Premier League, it was expected to be the one at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday, and not Tuesday’s trip to Goodison Park.
Everton have been in a sticky run of form and Arsenal went into the game having scored 12 goals in three games. With the Gunners then taking the lead inside the first 20 minutes, there should only have been one way for that game to go. But somehow Arsenal managed to lose 2-1, raising the usual doubts about their staying power in the title race, especially with Chelsea winning on Wednesday to go six points clear.
It’s important that while Arsenal stepped off the gas considerably in the first half after going ahead, Everton deserve credit for how they fought back. They looked pretty woeful in the first 20 minutes and, much like West Ham, Basel and Stoke before them, looked set to potentially concede plenty of goals against Arsenal. But they reacted, changed the intensity and tempo of their game and pressured Arsenal in a way the Gunners hadn’t experienced in their free-scoring run in the previous week. Everton almost got to the point where they stopped over-thinking things and just released the shackles that had been holding them back in recent weeks.
But from an Arsenal perspective, it was incredibly frustrating that Arsene Wenger’s team didn’t kill the game off when the hosts were struggling. Arsenal started the game in control of the match, and took the lead through Alexis Sanchez’s deflected free-kick, but there had been plenty of openings as Nacho Monreal was finding space on the left and both Theo Walcott and Hector Bellerin almost found their way to goal following through passes past a static Everton defence.
Having scored though, Arsenal didn’t keep pushing for a second goal. It’s been mentioned that Arsenal have been more ruthless and clinical this season, so it was a surprise to see them drop off when the hosts were fragile. Another goal for the Gunners in the first half could have been fatal for Everton and would have got the home fans on their backs. Instead, Everton made a few strong tackles and started pressing more themselves and whipped the crowd up a bit. While a bit of patience can be useful in football, Arsenal should have sensed the chance to really go for the jugular against Everton, but their hesitancy allowed the hosts back into the game, wth Seamus Coleman heading in the equaliser just before half-time.
From then on, it was a tight game. Arsenal’s attacking fluidity wasn’t quite there as it was a night where nothing much happened for Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, but Alexis still created a great chance for Ozil, but he fired over with plenty of the goal to aim at from the edge of the box. 
Arsenal tried to switch things up with Giroud and Iwobi coming on, but unfortunately for the Frenchman, he doesn’t quite have the same understanding with Alexis and Iwobi, as he has with the Ox and Walcott. Even though it hadn’t been a great night for the wingers, they could have become more involved had they been trying to feed Giroud from the flanks.
Everton took the lead with the game in the final ten minutes when Ashley William headed home from a corner. Mesut Ozil has rightly got criticised for letting Williams run towards the ball unchallenged to head in, but questions have to be asked as to why our worst defender in the air was stuck with one of the Everton centre-backs. That can’t have been in the plan. It was the first game without Shkodran Mustafi because of his hamstring injury, and while Gabriel and Laurent Koscielny had good games in open play, the organisation wasn’t good enough for the winning goal. Gabriel is good enough to cover for Mustafi, but can’t match the commanding presence of the German.
There was a frantic end to the game as Petr Cech came up for a corner and a free-kick, Arsenal had two shots cleared off the line and Mark Clattenburg bottled the decision to give a penalty when Mirallas’ clumsy challenge on Alexis brought him down. After the ludicrous penalty decisions that have gone against Arsenal in recent games with Bournemouth and Stoke, it’s baffling that Alexis being kicked and brought down in the box wasn’t a penalty.
Even had it been awarded and scored, it would have merely masked a slightly laboured performing from Arsenal as they looked like a team that just expected Everton to crumble and didn’t force the issue themselves.
Hopefully the defeat is just a blip, and with other surrounding teams all winning on Wednesday, Arsenal can’t really afford to drop any more points with Christmas looming. It will be interesting to see hiw Arsenal react to the setback as this team followed up defeat to Liverpool with a 14-game unbeaten run and even the fringe players recovered from losing to Southampton in the EFL Cup to then batter Basel. The responses have been good so far, and Manchester City are beatable on Sunday, so Arsenal have to play without fear. Were it not to have cost points in the table, the defeat could be viewed as a useful reminder to Arsenal to not get complacent when playing well. I think the game was just a blip, but there’s still a fear that a poor result on Sunday could make the Gunners’ form nose-dive.