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.

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Arsenal salvage a point despite second half Coq up

In terms of the title race, a draw at White Hart Lane was far from ideal for Arsenal against Tottenham on Saturday, with the Gunners now eight points off the top with nine games to go. But in terms of the team showing some spirit, heart and commitment, the draw was a deserved reward for players that had to scrap their way back into a game after Francis Coquelin’s moment of madness could have cost Arsenal dearly.
After the demoralising week that we’d had as Arsenal fans, I’d virtually written off any title hopes, so as a standalone North London derby, in the fragile state Arsenal were in before the game and the adversity they faced in the second half, the 2-2 scoreline was a good effort. It’s because of lapses in other matches, rather than what happened on Saturday, that has really cost them in terms of the title this season.
Arsene Wenger had to make changes as things just weren’t working against Manchester United and Swansea in the past two games, so while it put a lot of pressure on Mohamed Elneny to make his first Premier League start in such an important game, Arsene Wenger was right to bring him into the side to sure up the midfield. David Ospina came in for the injured Petr Cech for his first start in the league this season, and Kieran Gibbs also got a rare Premier League outing with Nacho Monreal struggling with an injury. For players who have had limited game time at the top level for the club this season, all three performed admirably.
Ospina has gained a slightly dodgy reputation this season, partly through the excellence of Petr Cech, and partly through his own error in dropping the ball over his line against Olympiakos, but he offered a reminder as to why he replaced Wojciech Szczesny as the number one last season. The reflex save in the first half to deny Erik Lamela was superb and he also did well to just about prevent the ball from crossing the line from a Kane effort in the second half, which was blocked with an inch of the ball not in the goal.
Arsene Wenger also got his team selection right in an attacking sense with Danny Welbeck picked up front and Aaron Ramsey shifted out to the right. Freed up of the greater responsibilities needed in the centre of the pitch, Ramsey was able to get in more dangerous positions going forward, and whether he likes it out there or not, the team is much more balanced when he plays there. With Arsenal predominantly looking to counter-attack, Danny Welbeck’s selfless running stretched the Tottenham defence and gave the Gunners an out-ball, even if they weren’t holding onto possession for much time as Welbeck would relieve pressure by chasing the the ball deep into Tottenham territory.
The Gunners were set-up expecting a Spurs onslaught, and even though the hosts dominated the opening exchanges, Arsenal were able to limit their opportunities. Ospina’s diving stop from Lamela was the only real moment of alarm as the combination of Coquelin and Elneny was able to deny Erikson and Alli space to create chances. Arsenal slowly grew into the game having got through the early period of pressure and were able to sneak into the lead before half-time.
Welbeck was able to spin in behind the defence before laying the ball back to Hector Bellerin, who had crept up to the edge of the penalty area unnoticed. Rather than trying to blast the ball towards goal, Bellerin picked out Ramsey, whose flicked finish from 12 yards out was sublime. The Welshman can be incredibly frustrating, but it’s easier to live with the failed flicks and tricks when he scores goals like that in the North London derby.
Arsenal then could have doubled the lead before half-time when the mental weakness of Spurs showed itself as the Gunners had a few half chances and were suddenly the dominant team in the game. That continued into the second half as Arsene Wenger’s team looked in control. I expected a fired-up Spurs to come out positively in the second period, but Arsenal looked much more composed and pumped up for the game. That was until Francis Coquelin intervened.
I’m a big fan of Coquelin and love the selfless work he does for the team, but to get sent off in a derby like that, with the team in control of the match, was utterly stupid. Already on a yellow card, there was no need to dive into a tackle on Harry Kane on the touchline. It was indefensible. Arsene Wenger’s look as Coquelin walked off summed up how he felt let down by his holding midfielder.
Inevitably, that changed the feeling of the match. It gave Spurs a boost, whipped up the crowd and forced Arsenal into a frantic reshuffle to try and provide support in midfield for Mohamed Elneny. The space that Coquelin had been shutting down was suddenly open and exposed the back four more. David Ospina made a remarkable save that needed goal-line technology to prove hadn’t crossed the line before Toby Alderwireld was able to fire into the net after the ball dropped kindly to him following a corner. 
Moments later, Harry Kane was able to bend the ball into the far corner via the post and suddenly Spurs were ahead with over 25 minutes to go playing against ten men. After such a solid and disciplined performance prior to Coquelin’s red card, I was fearing an embarrassing result as it felt the floodgates were about to open. Even compared to the terrible week we’ve had, a 4-1 or 5-1 defeat to Spurs having been 1-0 would have felt apocalyptic.
But Arsenal rallied themselves. The ten men fought for every ball and tried to use the pace of Welbeck and Alexis to get in behind Spurs as they pushed a bit higher up the pitch with the man advantage. Knowing it was a do or die game, Arsene Wenger rolled the dice and brought on Olivier Giroud for Mohamed Elneny, leaving Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil as a midfield two that wasn’t very defensively inclined. But it worked as Giroud occupied defenders and helped make space for others. 
With 14 minutes to go, the Spurs defence misjudged their offside line as they looked to squeeze up against the ten men. Ramsey found Bellerin, who in turn slid a perfect ball in behind the defence for Alexis Sanchez to run into and finish into the far corner for 2-2. It was clear that Alexis needed a goal to get some confidence back, and after his quotes during the week about the team lacking the winning mentality, it was great to see him be so instrumental in dragging the ten men back into the game.
With chances always likely to be few and far between with ten men, Arsenal had to be clinical, something they’ve struggled a bit with this season. Alexis delivered when the chance came, and hopefully that can spark him into a similar vein of form to the one he got on earlier in the season. 
Arsenal’s ten looked more likely to win the game than Tottenham’s eleven as the game went on, and Aaron Ramsey might have done so but for a last-ditch tackle from Kevin Wimmer. 
Questions have to be asked as to why Arsenal couldn’t show the same levels of desire and spirit in adversity in other games. We know the team have it in them to fight, but it seems difficult to bring it out of them at all the key moments, rather than just a few of them. Until that is rectified, Arsenal are unlikely to win the league. But they can take great pride in how they fought back on Saturday and use it as inspiration for the rest of the season. The blueprint has been set, there’s now no reason not to follow it and see where it gets the club come the end of the season. 
As for Francis Coquelin, you owe your team-mates, your manager and the Arsenal fans an awful lot.

SMR end-of-season review 2014-2015: The Midfielders

In the penultimate post reviewing the 2014-2015 season, I’m going to assess the performance of Arsenal’s midfielders. As with the previous ones, there’ll be a short review of each player’s season and a one-word summary.
7. Tomas Rosicky
It was a frustrating season for Tomas Rosicky as he didn’t get as much game time as he wanted, or deserved. Despite being one of the oldest players in the squad, he still brings energy to any game with his driving runs forward and turn of pace to change the tempo of an attack. During the random start to the season, Rosicky was unlucky to not play more often as Arsene Wenger seemed determined to shoe-horn Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere into the same starting XI, despite both not quite being at their best. When he did get an opportunity, Rosicky made telling contributions with goals against QPR and Everton, and a sublime performance away to Brighton in the FA Cup.
I’m pleased he’s got another year at the club, and hopefully Arsene Wenger won’t be so reluctant to use him because of the different dynamic Rosicky can still bring to any Arsenal performance.
One-word summary: Persistent
Rating: 6/10
8. Mikel Arteta
Mikel Arteta’s season was ruined by injury, and the form of Francis Coquelin in his position means that it is likely Arsenal will go through another season with the club captain operating mostly from the bench. People shouldn’t be so quick to write Arteta off though as he remains a steadying influence on the rest of the team. This was typified by the Anderlecht capitulation at home in the Champions League. Arsenal were playing ok and were 3-0 up when Arteta went down injured. Anderlecht scored with the Spaniard on the ground and went on to draw 3-3 as Arsenal’s midfield disappeared when Arteta left the field. He will still be a quality player to have in the squad next season.
One-word summary: Respected
Rating: 5/10
10. Jack Wilshere
Another midfielder whose season was disrupted by injury. As with everyone in the early part of the season, there were glimpses of Wilshere’s undoubted ability without any consistency. The brilliant performance and goal at home to Manchester City was mixed in with pretty drab performances like Anderlecht away. Apart from his finishing, Wilshere was playing well in the game he had his ankle mangled in against Manchester United, so to see him on the side lines again was incredibly frustrating. His return was excellent though. Given how settled the side looked around April, Wilshere made some energetic cameos off the bench force his way into the starting XI before scoring that thunderous, net-busting, goal against West Brom.
Forget the newspaper rumours about Manchester City, there’s no way Arsene Wenger would let a home-grown player with this amount of talent leave.
One-word summary: THRIKER
Rating: 6/10
11. Mesut Ozil
Mesut Ozil typifies the two halves of Arsenal’s season. He looked off the pace after the World Cup before getting injured at the beginning of October. Ozil also wasn’t helped by playing out on the left as Arsene Wenger tried to get all of his attacking midfielders in the team. The time off the pitch injured did allow Ozil to bulk up and look refreshed when he returned in January. Several gorgeous and instrumental performances followed including a goal and an assist at home to Aston Villa, a spirited showing in the attempted fightback in Monaco, the glorious free-kick against Liverpool and *that* flick against Hull City. He almost saved his best for the FA Cup final as he strolled around Wembley in complete control of the game. He seems to have got to the grips with the Premier League and is a joy to watch play.
One-word summary: Silky
Rating: 7.5/10
15. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
2014-2015 was the first season that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was able to hold down a regular starting place for a sustained period of time before injury (what else?) disrupted his progress. The Ox was one of the positives to emerge from the early season performances with some excellent displays. Before his last injury of the season, Oxlade-Chamberlain was superb at Old Trafford in the FA Cup as he bagged an assist and forced Louis van Gaal to substitute left-back Luke Shaw at half-time after he was rinsed by the Ox. He’ll still only be 21 at the start of the next season, so there’s plenty of time for further progress as he’s got all the attributes to be a phenomenal player for the club.
One-word summary: Maturing
Rating: 7/10
16. Aaron Ramsey
It was a strange season for Aaron Ramsey as it’ll probably go down as a disappointing one, but there were still some brilliant moments. He didn’t quite hit the goal scoring heights of the previous campaign, but it’s telling how high his standards have now become that he reached double figures from midfield and it’s still a disappointing campaign. Ramsey had moments where the old tendencies of giving the ball away and shooting wildly wide returned, but generally he was a driving force in the Arsenal midfield. Even when playing badly, he has a knack of making something happen or emerging on the scene at the right time to make a pass or have a shot. Overall, Ramsey is unrecognisable from the player he was two years ago. Oh, and there was that goal at Galatasaray. Phwoar.
One-word summary: Bearded
Rating: 7/10
19. Santi Cazorla
2014-2015 was the Spaniard’s best season for the club. Without Mesut Ozil for a lot of the first half of the season, Cazorla was able to be the attacking hub of the team again, which helped him regain his mojo after a slightly slow start to the season and the terrible World Cup efforts from Spain. The dominant showing at home to Newcastle, which was topped off by a glorious chipped goal and Paneka penalty, was a particular highlight in that period of the season. When Ozil returned, Cazorla remained central, but dropped deeper and showed what a sensational footballer he is. He would have been the obvious man to drop out when the German returned from injury, but Cazorla made himself un-droppable with consistent, brilliant performances. I believe that his display away to Manchester City was the best all-round performance from any midfielder in the Premier League in 2014-2015.
One-word summary: Majestic
Rating: 8/10
20. Mathieu Flamini
Flamini is now nothing more than cover in central midfield. He’s clearly a respected and popular member of the squad, and he did a good job in the previous season after signing on a free transfer, but I don’t think it was a coincidence that some of Arsenal’s worst performances in 2014-2015 had Mathieu Flamini at the base of the midfield. He did provide one of my funniest moments of the season though by coming on to play on the right wing against West Ham and scoring a tap-in a minute after arriving into the game. You can never question him for commitment or effort on the pitch, but he’s now the third-choice holding player in the squad.
One-word summary: Usurped
Rating: 4/10
24. Abou Diaby
The case of Abou Diaby makes me very sad. He could have been majestic in Arsenal’s midfield for many years, but some bad tackles and his body letting him down has meant his career at Arsenal could be at an end. He did get more game time in 2014-2015 than in the previous season, but it was only by a matter of minutes and still totalled less than 70 minutes. It’s unlikely he’ll play in the Arsenal first team again, but that isn’t a reflection on his character and commitment to try and play again.
One-word summary: Saddening
Rating: 2/10
34. Francis Coquelin
The story of the season. I’d almost forgotten he was at the club until he suddenly appeared at left-back in the Capital One Cup against Southampton. A loan move to Charlton seemed like the final step towards a permanent move away from the club in January before injuries to overs intervened, and suddenly the Coq was in the squad for a Premier League game. When he got his chance, he took it with interception after interception, tackle after tackle and disciplined displays that took pressure off the rest of the team. Like Cazorla, his performances made it impossible to drop him from the starting XI. Whether Coquelin can maintain his high standards into next season will be interesting to see, but he thoroughly deserves his chance to continue to patrol the midfield after a stellar second half of the season.
One-word summary: Immense
Rating: 8/10