Sunday, February 12, 2017

Gunners grind out a win to stop the rot

Saturday’s 2-0 win over Hull won’t live long in the memory for Arsenal fans, but it was incredibly necessary to put some sort of momentum back into the season. Despite Chelsea dropping points at Burnley, the title challenge remains over for Arsenal, but with Bayern Munich to come on Wednesday, the Gunners would surely have had no hope of a positive result in that game if it followed three defeats on-the-bounce.
Even though Hull are fighting for survival, they weren’t pushovers at the Emirates. Marco Silva has got them organised at the back since his arrival, and made them more adventurous going forward. It led to an unexpectedly open game, which was beneficial to Arsenal in some senses as it played into the hands of the having a front three spearheaded by Alexis Sanchez, but it also created a slightly frenetic feel to the game as the Gunners couldn’t control the tempo. If Arsenal were in any doubt as to Hull’s intentions for the game, Lazar Markovic confirmed them early on with a dangerous run and low cross, which should have been converted by Niasse. Petr Cech also had to make a smart save from a header as the visitors looked to capitalise on any vulnerabilities Arsenal had after back-to-back defeats.
But the Gunners were creating openings of their own, and should have taken the lead when Alexis fired wide with his left foot about 12 yards out. 
The Chilean did get his name on the scoresheet before half-time in a slightly fortuitous manner. A good Arsenal move ended wth Kieran Gibbs’ shot being blocked on the line, but as Alexis went to poke the ball into the net, the ball got kicked into him, ricocheting it into the net. There have been plenty of calls to suggest that it was a handball from the striker, but it was definitely not deliberate. His arm was up to balance when kicking the ball on the floor. That the clearance was kicked into him and went in was bad luck for Hull and good luck for Arsenal, but it was the correct decision to award the goal.
It was similar to Laurent Koscielny’s winner at Burnley earlier in the season. The ball did hit his arm, but there was no intent to handle the ball and it was a split-second from the ball being kicked to it making contact, making it impossible to avoid.
It felt somewhat unusal for Arsenal to lead at half-time after a string of rubbish first-half performances. The Gunners hadn’t been at their best but at least they’d been competitive in the game and weren’t having to come from behind again.
The Gunners did get increasingly nervous as the game went on as they realised the necessity of not dropping more stupid points. Hull felt hard done by again as Kieran Gibbs fouled Markovic 30 yards out from goal, with the visiting team surrounded referee Mark Clattenburg demanding a red card. It was to the referee’s credit that he ignored the mass of Hull players and only showed Gibbs yellow. While he was the last defender, it was a clumsy but not cynical challenge, and Markovic didn’t have full control of the ball, making it hard to justify it being a clear goal-scoring opportunity and being worthy of a red.
It was good to see Kieran Gibbs get an opportunity to start in the Premier League as, while he’s still been solid enough, Nacho Monreal hasn’t quite hit the same levels of performance during this season as he did in the previous two. Elsewhere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain continued to impress in the centre of midfield, often looking like the more experienced central player alongside Francis Coquelin. What was most impressive to me was his willingness and awareness to chase players back and make important defensive contributions, as this has sometimes been a weakness of his on the flanks. The extra responsibility of playing in the middle does seem to have brought out a more disciplined side to Oxlade-Chamberlain’s game. With Mohamed Elneny back from the African Cup of Nations and Granit Xhaka now back from suspension, there’s a chance we won’t see much of the Ox centrally again, but Arsene Wenger should seriously consider using him in there again before the season ends. An Ox-Xhaka combination has a lot of potential on paper and hopefully is one Wenger explores soon.
Arsenal didn’t kill the game off until injury time as they punished Hull on the counter-attack. Ozil slid a good pass forward for Alexis, who was forced wide by an AWOL goalkeeper. He crossed for Lucas to head towards goal, but the ball was blocked by the arm of Clucas on the line with the keeper out of goal, bringing a clear red card and penalty. Alexis slotted it beyond Jakupovic to bag a brace and secure the three points.
There has been a lot written and said about the club in the last week, particularly about Arsene Wenger. Most of it has been a load of clickbait nonsense with any old footballing hasbeen wheeled out to try and twist the knife into the Frenchman. It was good to have an actual game on Saturday to interrupt all of it. While the atmosphere was far from lively at the Emirates, it was nowhere near as negative as I feared it might be, and nowhere near as toxic as you’d expect from a cross-section of media coverage of Arsenal this week.
It’s been a bad couple of weeks, but Arsenal remain firmly in the middle of the scrap with the rest of the top six behind Chelsea and the club still have a serious involvement in the Champions League and FA Cup. The league is now on the back-burner until the beginning of March, so the team can really focus on the other competitions, as the performance in those two tournaments will now have a big impact on any decision Arsene Wenger makes regarding a new contract at the end of the season. It wasn’t a stellar or particularly stirring performance on Saturday, but at least it’s a win to go into the other two competitions with.