Complacent Gunners punished for a shambolic first half

Unless you’re Arsenal in 2003-04, defeats are part of football. Sometimes you can play well and they just happen. A bit of bad luck or a bad call can just sway things against you. In those circumstances, while it is still painful, you can at least take it in the knowledge that your team gave everything and still put in a positive performance.
Tuesday night’s defeat to Watford wasn’t one of those occasions. What is unacceptable is when a team of talented players don’t put the effort in, don’t look like they want it and don’t turn up with the right attitude.
The first half from Arsenal was an embarrassment. Watford were well enough organised, but were hardly playing incisive, free-flowing football. Yet they deservedly led 2-0 at the break because they just fed off Arsenal’s lackadaisical approach to the game and some ridiculous individual errors. The Gunners have put in some poor first half performances since the turn of the year, notably at Bournemouth and Preston, but this half topped the lot for incompetence. In those games, Arsenal did enough to get out of jail, but as a team, they can’t just rely on being able to score late goals all the time. It’s brilliant that they have the mental fortitude and fitness to go late into games to win/draw them if necessary, but it would be good if against distinctly average opposition, which is what Watford were, they could actually turn up for the first half.
There is no good excuse as to why everyone out there in red and white played so poorly in the first 45. Almost all of them hadn’t played for a week and a half so should have been fresh, and with the clinical demolition of Southampton executed by the rest of the squad on Saturday, those starting against the Hornets should have played weary that others want their position in the team. Even though there is a big game to come this weekend at Chelsea, it was only ever going to be a chance to really close the gap if Arsenal could set it up with a win, so all the focus of the players should have been on Watford.
Amidst the general choas of the first half, there were a few things that really stood out. Even though he has done a decent enough job filling in at right-back, Gabriel really shouldn’t be used there unless there is an injury crisis in that position. Hector Bellerin has been working his way back to fitness, so it was understandable that Arsene Wenger picked the Brazilian centre-back on the flank again, but hopefully we won’t have to see Gabriel in that position for a while. His dreadful throw-in began the catalogue of errors that led to Watford’s second goal and positionally he was caught out too often.
But it’s in attack where Arsenal lose out dramatically with Gabriel playing as a full-back. There were numerous occasions in the second half where Theo Walcott had no support from Gabriel behind him, when usually Bellerin would be making an overlapping run and giving Arsenal an extra element of dynamism to the attack. There were a lack of understanding on Arsenal’s right flank for the whole game, and unfortunately it stemmed from the full-back. Had Arsene Wenger not had to make an enforced change due to Aaron Ramsey’s injury, I’m sure he would have subbed Gabriel in the second half. Bellerin was on the bench last night, so will be straight back in for Chelsea on Saturday.
Without Granit Xhaka, the midfield looked vulnerable. Francis Coquelin is a very good player and has had some great games for Arsenal, but for some reason, he and Aaron Ramsey can’t seem to click as a partnership. The Gunners had no early control on the game in the early exchanges and didn’t set the pace of the game, allowing Watford to score the early goals. For the second, following Gabriel’s rubbish throw-in, Ramsey and Coquelin could have prevented Capoue from walking through towards goal in the way he did. Although Xhaka is a card-magnet, I’d like to think he’d have done the sensible thing and fouled Capoue before he made it to the box to shoot.
It’s often true that the absence of someone can enhance a player’s reputation because you imagine how things would be improved if they’d been there, but there’s a strong case that Arsenal missed the Swiss international badly on Tuesday. Forget the bad press he got for a harsh red card against Burnley, he’s been playing well recently and would surely have offered more control in the midfield on Tuesday night.
Even though he has had some heroic moments for Arsenal this season, Olivier Giroud has to be back on the bench for the game with Chelsea this weekend. He got subbed at half-time on Tuesday night, and while he wasn’t the main problem with the performance as he had barely any service to feed off, the Gunners were sparked into life with Alexis down the middle in the second half. As the game went on, it would then have been ideal to be able to bring Giroud on for the last 15 minutes with the balls into the box becoming more direct.
Regular podcast listeners will know that I have a lot of time for Olivier Giroud and think he is a fantastic player to have in the squad, but there is no doubting that Arsenal have looked at their most dangerous this season with three more mobile players in the front three. It was clear on Saturday as Welbeck, Lucas and Walcott ran Southampton ragged, and was clear when Alexis and Iwobi were able to link up when one was down the middle and the other on the left on Tuesday. Away from home at Stamford Bridge, Arsenal are likely to have to play more on the counter-attack, so the pacey front-line has to be reverted to from the start.
Arsene Wenger was right this week to praise the quality of attacking options in his squad earlier in the week, but the pressure is on him to get the balance right for each game. On Tuesday, he didn’t get it right in the first half, but then to correct it he was left without the different option of Giroud later in the game. Whereas in the past the pressure has been on the manager to improve the squad, the pressure is now to perform with a big and good-quality squad. Excuses will start to run thin if Arsenal don’t cut out these ridiculous defeats when the squad is in the best shape it has probably ever been since the move to Emirates Stadium.
With others dropping points, Tuesday night was a massive missed opportunity. Arsenal need to almost forget the title race and just think of Saturday’s game with Chelsea as a one-off. It is a must win to have any hopes of even attempting to catch them, but if Arsenal put too much pressure on themselves, they could crumble again, so looking at it in isolation is surely the best way to approach it.
The key will be to not start like they did on Tuesday. If Arsenal play like they did early on against Watford, the defeat to Chelsea could potentially be even worse than it was three years ago when Arsenal lost 6-0.


Watford take away Arsenal's FA Cup safety net

One of the only things keeping me, and I suspect many others fans, going during this slightly turbulent time for Arsenal was the prospect of challenging for a third successive FA Cup. While it isn’t the Premier League or the Champions League, it would have been an unprecedented achievement in the modern era, plus I’ve really enjoyed the last few trips to Wembley. But now that hope of been wiped away from this season of promise that is rapidly turning into a nightmare.
The FA Cup probably saved Arsene Wenger in 2014, and felt like a stepping stone in 2015, but it now represents another under-achievement in 2016. With discontent growing ever louder around Arsenal, the FA Cup can no longer paper over the cracks appearing in the team and in the fan base. Should Arsenal’s wretched run of form continue on for the rest of the season, those dissenting voices will only grow louder and pressure on Arsene Wenger will only become greater. A spectacular collapse during a season wasn’t how it was supposed to end with Arsene at the club, and I desperately hope he turns it around and this isn’t the end, but I don’t like the way this season is heading. Something feels different this time.
As for the defeat to Watford itself, Arsenal didn’t create enough chances to merit a win. In the second half in particular, it was only in the scramble late in the game that they looked particularly threatening. Arsenal’s lack of goals, especially at home, is now a serious issue, with too many players out-of-form. Mesut Ozil is continuing to create opportunities, but no-one else around him seems to be on the same wavelength. Alexis isn’t lacking for effort but something just isn’t clicking for him at the moment.
At the back, Gabriel is going through his toughest period since joining the club. In general, he’s looked strong and has rarely been caught out, but that’s now happening with too much regularity. After some shoddy defending at Old Trafford recently, he contributed to the concession of a poor goal early in the second half against Watford. No team should ever concede from a throw-in, but after the ball was flicked on by Troy Deeney for Odion Ighalo, Gabriel was too tight to the striker and made it easy for him to roll into a shooting position and slot the ball past David Ospina.
At that point, the Brazilian was lucky to even be on the pitch as he launched into a reckless two-footed challenge on Deeney in the first half that should have seen him sent off. It’s great that he shows a bit of passion, but there’s ways of channelling it, and that tackle wasn’t it. Laurent Koscielny can’t return soon enough.
Having gone behind, Arsenal then got sucker punched by a thunderous strike from Guedioura. It was a brilliant finish, and worthy of winning any cup tie, but from an Arsenal point-of-view, he should never have been allowed the space to unleash his rocket shot. Poor David Ospina would have lost his hands if he’d got in the way of that.
Arsene Wenger went for broke by sending on Theo Walcott, Danny Welbeck and Alex Iwobi at the same time, and that did liven Arsenal up a bit, but against a visiting defence that were comfortable to sit deep and soak up pressure, Arsenal just couldn’t find a way through. That Iwobi was much more willing to get on the ball and try and make something happen than Walcott says a lot about the lack of confidence the England winger is playing with, even after his two goals in midweek. He, like a lot of players at the moment, is a passenger in the team and is relying on others to make something happen.
Arsenal did finally break through late on as a sublime Mesut Ozil assist allowed Danny Welbeck to finish across the goalkeeper, but unfortunately for Welbeck, that won’t be what he is remembered for in this game. Just a minute later, Alex Iwobi fired a shot against the post from the edge of the box, Kieran Gibbs was alive to the rebound and played the ball to Welbeck, who shot wide on the spin with the goalkeeper on the ground.
The Gunners would barely have deserved a draw, but it would have been some consolation from another pretty desperate performance. A trip to Barcelona, when already 2-0 down, isn’t particularly welcome this week, but the Gunners have to do everything they can to try and salvage some pride and have something positive to take into the league as there’s very few positives around the club currently. As mentioned after the defeat to Swansea, it’s all very sad at the moment, and with the way the season is going, I’m beginning to fear that there could be an even more heart-wrenching moment to come at the end of the season, especially without the FA Cup to save Arsene or the season.
Just finally, Andre Mariner’s embarrassing refereeing performance has to be mentioned. As already discussed, he missed the obvious sending off of Gabriel, and then proceeded to happily accept Watford’s ludicrous time-wasting and only add four minutes on at the end of the game. I don’t really blame Watford for having their players go down off the ball with random ‘injuries’ that forced the play to be stopped, as they knew they could get away with it because the referee didn’t have the bottle to actually punish it. He didn’t cost Arsenal the game, as the Gunners should have been reduced to ten men, but it just needs highlighted that, for an FA Cup quarter-final, Andre Mariner was poor.

Ozil eases Arsenal back into the groove after Southampton horror-show

Two games in three days was always going to be a challenge for most of the clubs in the Premier League, however Arsenal’s task felt that bit more challenging following the woeful performance and subsequent 4-0 defeat at Southampton on Boxing Day. The following game with Bournemouth was, in the end, a regulation 2-0 win, but the Gunners were jittery early in the game and were in need of some inspiration to get Boxing Day beating out of their system.
As with the rest of the season, that inspiration was provided by the masterful Mesut Ozil. I’m sure fans of other clubs are fed up of how much Arsenal supporters have gone on about Ozil this season, but it’s only because he keeps delivering superb performances and numerous assists. Given that he’d played the full 90 minutes at St Mary’s less than 48 hours previously, it was a remarkably energetic performance from Ozil, especially as someone who is often criticised for his languid style. He offered himself to receive the ball around the pitch, orchestrated attacking moves brilliantly and even tracked back to make a few tackles.
But for some profligate finishing by those around him, Ozil would have picked up more than the one assist he claimed in the game, taking his total up to 16 in the league this season, just four short of Thierry Henry’s Premier League record for an entire season. In the first half, Ozil’s delivery from corners was excellent, with Bournemouth struggling to cope with his accurate crosses into the box. Gabriel, rotated into the side in place of Laurent Koscielny, and Per Mertesacker were getting clear runs to attack the ball, and that paid dividends in the first half when Gabriel was able to plant a free header into the top corner to give the Gunners the lead. 
The goal topped off an excellent personal performance from the Brazilian, who offered a timely reminder of his qualities so soon after the diabolical defensive performance from the team at Southampton.
Gabriel almost grabbed a second goal soon after as he flicked a header towards goal from another Ozil corner, but after his header came back off the post, the ball was diverted wide as it hit a surprised Per Mertesacker. Arsenal had plenty of other chances to add a second goal before the break as Ozil created opportunities for Theo Walcott.
When the score was still 1-0, Arsenal were always going to be a bit edgy. The second goal was needed to kill the game off and settle the nerves of those in the team and in the stands. A tense ending was the last thing needed as the team tired from the short turn around between matches. Once again, it was Ozil who grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and made the difference.
The only surprise was that Ozil didn’t provide the assist for the second Arsenal goal, however he was heavily involved in the sumptuous build-up play before applying the finishing touch himself. Ozil exchanged passes with Aaron Ramsey before advancing towards the penalty area. With a plethora of Bournemouth players around him, Ozil played a one-two with Olivier Giroud to be able to stride into the penalty area and then stroke the ball under the goalkeeper. Giroud has been on the receiving end of Ozil’s assists recently, so returnedthe favour with a delightful flick back into the German’s path to put him through on goal.
The goal calmed everyone down and freed Arsenal up to express themselves a bit more. Ozil was instrumental in further chances for Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Giroud, but two goals were enough in the end, despite plenty of endeavour from Bournemouth on their first visit to the Emirates.
The win moved Arsenal to the Premier League’s summit ahead of the new year, and was a reminder that the dreadful performance against Southampton was out of the ordinary and isn’t the norm. The Gunners remain in a great position to seriously challenge for the title, but to do that, Mesut Ozil needs to remain fit and firing. He has developed the ability to not just silently and subtly influence matches, but completely dominate games. Bar injury, he is a Premier League record holder-in waiting.
One man who did achieve a Premier League record on Monday was Petr Cech. The goalkeeper notched up his 170th clean sheet, the most in England’s top division in the Premier League era. It’s been noticeable in recent interviews he’s given to various media outlets that Cech is not just round of the record itself, but that it that the clean sheets have contributed to trophies for his team. He’ll know as well as anyone that more are needed this season to push Arsenal towards the title. His incredible relentless hunger for success and for protecting his goal means that his record is set to grow, and it’s fantastic that it will be to Arsenal’s benefit.
With Cech and Ozil in the side, and the Southampton defeat quickly out of the system, Arsenal go into 2016 with plenty of optimism.