Sunday, February 5, 2017

Woeful week ends title hopes

Footballistically, it’s difficult to see how things could have gone much worse in the last week for Arsenal. Optimism was so high after the crushing victory at Southampton in the FA Cup, but since then, the title challenge hasn’t just faded away, it has been spectacularly blown up and disintegrated into a thousand pieces.
Taking Saturday’s result in isolation, a 3-1 defeat away from home to Chelsea, the team that look like Champions-in-waiting, isn’t necessarily embarrassing. As much as it is incredibly annoying to admit it, Chelsea have been comfortably the best team in England this season and have been on a fantastic run of form. But once again, the manner of the defeat is the most frustrating and ridiculous thing for Arsenal. All three goals in different ways were horribly avoidable, and it felt like Arsenal just accepted defeat with a whimper when things went against them in the second half. For the most part, it felt like I was just watching a re-run of almost every game Arsenal have played at Stamford Bridge in recent seasons, with the hosts happy to let Arsenal pass it around a bit without much penetration, before clinically killing the game off.
That said, Arsenal did suffer a massive slice of bad luck in going 1-0 down early on. For the Gunners to get anything from the game, it felt paramount for them to score the first goal and after a bright start, it felt like the team were more focussed and switched on than against Watford. But in the 13th minute, Diego Costa headed against the bar before Marcos Alonso headed in the rebound. Although to get to the ball, Alonso smashed Hector Bellerin in the face with his elbow, making the Arsenal full-back concussed and unable to continue. Alonso may well have not intended to hurt Bellerin, but how it wasn’t a foul is baffling. It was clearly dangerous from Alonso, but just because he ‘wanted it more’ and was ‘just stronger’, it seems acceptable to some people that he whacked Bellerin round the jaw in the process of scoring. 
That the Spaniard had to go off was another big blow to the Gunners. Gabriel had a stinker at right-back against Watford, so Arsenal’s ability to attack down the right was immediately weakened.
After going behind, Arsenal did play ok for the rest of the half. Towards half-time, they created a decent amount of pressure on the hosts and the Chelsea fans were getting agitated. Gabriel should have scored with a header and Mesut Ozil had a great chance to equalise but chose to shoot towards the near post when aiming for the far would have been the better option. The end to the half should have given Arsenal confidence to come out and really impose themselves on the game with a fast start to the second half, as they have done well in recent games, but it didn’t materialise.
Instead, for the second time in a week, an opposing player was able to walk through the Arsenal midfield, leading to a goal. Francis Coquelin again was the culprit as he should have fouled Eden Hazard to stop him from running straight at the defence. Coquelin has had a bad week, with his performances almost emphasising that criticism of Granit Xhaka has been grossly over-the-top. The midfield looked much more secure in recent weeks with the Swiss international in there. It was unacceptable to see the holding midfielder, who is meant to not be someone who shirks a tackle, knocked off the ball so easily by a player like Hazard. It was frankly embarrassing for Coquelin. His efforts weren’t then compensated for by the centre-backs and the goalkeeper as Hazard was almost directed through towards the goal.
There were a few exceptions in the Arsenal team with Alex Iwobi and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain not giving things up, but in general the rest of the half was insipid. Danny Welbeck added a bit of energy and had a header saved by Courtois, but a comeback never looked likely.
Things were compounded by Cesc Fabregas scoring off the bench after a horrendous error from Petr Cech. Fabregas almost looked embarrassed for Arsenal in his lack of celebration. Cech hasn’t been at his best this season, and with David Ospina putting in some good cup and European performances, I wouldn’t be surprised if Arsene Wenger gave him a run in the side. With the Champions League and FA Cup coming up in February, it’s a chance for the Colombian to stake his claim as Cech’s place shouldn’t be safe after such a poor mistake.
Olivier Giroud’s headed goal in injury time wasn’t even a consolation. The game had ended as a contest ages ago.
The battle for the top four will be tight with Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea, so the Gunners can’t take their eyes off the league completely, but I think Arsenal should really turn the focus to the trying to win the FA Cup or the Champions League. Obviously the latter is unlikely, but with the league gone, they have to do something to show that they can be considered one of the elite teams.
It may also be the only way for Arsene Wenger to appease growing sections of the fan-base, especially with reports of a two-year contract extension being offered to the manager. Consistency in being in the top four is to be admired, but consistently putting in meek performances away to big rivals and having title hopes ended way before May is incredibly wearing.