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.


Holders advance with three stylish goals against Sunderland

It was difficult to know how Arsenal were going to approach their FA Cup third round tie with Sunderland as, despite being the holders and looking for an historic third FA Cup win in a row, it is down the priorities list given where the Gunners sit in the league table and there seeming to be a concerted effort to target the Premier League this season. Arsene Wenger had to make some changes to keep some key players fresh ahead of some important league games, so it wouldn’t have been much of a surprise to see Arsenal let the FA Cup drift away this season.
But, Arsene Wenger has a proud record in the tournament, and despite making some changes, the Gunners fielded a strong line-up and produced a good performance to see off Sunderland with the same scoreline as they achieved against the Mackems in the league last month, and there were the same goalscorers in a repeat 3-1 win.
Arsenal had to work hard to break Sunderland down, and the game was quite even for periods as the visitors fielded a side that was stronger than expected following Sam Allardyce’s quotes during the week about the need to make changes. When the goals did come though, they all had classic hallmarks of what Arsene Wenger likes to see from his team. The passing was incisive, the movement was quick and the finishing was clinical.
The Gunners did have to come from behind though as a rare defensive lapse from Laurent Koscielny occurred in the first half. He was tackled on the edge of penalty area by Jermain Lens, who thumped the ball past Cech to give Sunderland the lead. It was a weak pass back to Koscielny by Kieran Gibbs, but the Frenchman tried to do too much with the ball and got caught out.
Having got the lead, Sunderland were all too happy to take opportunities to take time out of the game, so it was important for Arsenal to get back into the game quickly. The visitors were only ahead for nine minutes before Joel Campbell finished off an excellent forward move from the Gunners down the left. Theo Walcott drove towards the by-line and cut the ball back well towards the penalty spot, and Campbell timed his run well from the right to calmly finish into the bottom corner.
The goal was the high point of a very good performance from Campbell, who is growing into this Arsenal squad. I don’t think he’ll ever be the first choice in one of the three front positions, but he is an excellent option to have and a useful man to call upon when others are unavailable. When he first broke into the side earlier in the season, there seemed to be a lack of trust from other players to give Campbell the ball, but now he is regularly used in the sweeping attacking moves and he’s becoming more consistent.
The other impressive peformer going forward was Alex Iwobi. Given a first senior start at the Emirates, Iwobi was keen to get on the ball and looked to be involved. He also played with his head up and looked to make driving runs forward from midfield. Considering he was tasked with playing in the Ozil position behind the main striker, Iwobi did well to stamp his own style of play on proceedings.
He did tire though, so it wasn’t a surprise to see Iwobi replaced by Aaron Ramsey with 25 minutes to go with the scores at 1-1. With returning captain Mikel Arteta also brought on to hold in midfield, Ramsey was freed up to make his charging runs forward from midfield, and this paid off for Arsene Wenger as the Welshman put Arsenal in front soon afterwards.
Joel Campbell was at the heart of things again for Arsenal as he was part of a one-two with Hector Bellerin that put the Spaniard into space towards the by-line before Bellerin played the ball across towards the six-yard box. Ramsey timed his run perfectly and deftly glided the ball into the far corner past the goalkeeper.
Hector Bellerin then showed his creative side again as he charged forward down the right and got on the end of an excellent chipped pass wide from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Bellerin was patient before threading a fantastic pass across the box for Olivier Giroud to slide the ball into the net for 3-1. While he still has things to develop in his game defensively, he adds a lot to Arsenal going forward and, if he wants to, Bellerin could be the Arsenal right-back for many years to come.
The win could have been even more comfortable had the referee spotted Olivier Giroud being wiped out by Yedlin as he was about to shoot inside the penalty area, but somehow Martin Atkinson came to the decision that it wasn’t a foul.
Overall though, it was a job well done, especially given the players that didn’t play for either being rested or injured. To win by scoring three lovely goals without Alexis, Ozil, Cazorla et al was very encouraging, and was a great way to start the cup defence.

Bayern out-gunned by Arsene's tactical tweaks

With the odd exception, Arsenal’s Champions League groups have often featured some rather mundane matches, and while it always feels like you should appreciate being in the competition, there have been some group games when it’s hardly felt like the pinnacle of European football. Partly through a change in the pots for the group stage draw itself, and Arsenal’s rather spectacular cock-ups in the first two games in this season’s competition, Tuesday night’s group game with Bayern Munich had the feeling of a high-profile knockout match.
While a defeat wouldn’t quite have been mathematically terminal for Arsenal’s Champions League hopes, it would have effectively ended any realistic hopes of escaping a group that, Bayern Munich apart, shouldn’t have presented many issues for the Gunners. But when a team that has won 12 games in a row turns up, it isn’t a time to feel sorry for yourself and reflect on what has gone before. The difference between Arsenal’s meek efforts against Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiacos and the rousing and remarkable 2-0 win against the Bavarians couldn’t have been more pronounced. It did make the first two defeats seem all the more ridiculous, but after such a great performance, there’s no point feeling downbeat. Arsenal were fantastic on the night and deservedly beat one of the clubs in the small group of elite teams in Europe.
Since Arsenal’s last European capitulation, confidence had been boosted by the dismantling of Manchester United and, with the exception of Laurent Koscielny starting instead of Gabriel, Arsene Wenger sent out the same starting XI that had blown away United to try and get the better of Bayern. Despite the side looking the same on paper, Arsenal showed a versatility to adapt to opponents and some subtle tactical tweaks from Arsene Wenger enabled the hosts to be solid at the back, dangerous in the final third and create the best chances of the game despite being starved of possession for long periods of the match.
Arsenal didn’t look to press high up the pitch against Bayern and were seemingly happy for the visitors to have possession just inside the Gunners’ half of the pitch. This meant there was less space for the dangerous Robert Lewandowski to work in when the ball reached him up front, while Thomas Muller was ineffective stuck out on the right against Nacho Monreal. Douglas Costa’s trickery caused a few problems, but there wasn’t space behind the Gunners back line for him to utilise, so he was reliant on taking people on from a standing start.
Interestingly, Arsene Wenger deviated slightly from the normal 4-2-3-1 formation by dropping Mesut Ozil alongside Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla to have a flat three in midfield. Usually, if Wenger does this during a match, Aaron Ramsey will drop inside and Ozil will move out wide, but on this occasion, the German was the left man of the three central midfielders. This wasn’t because of his renowned defensive work, but when Arsenal did win the ball, it meant Ozil was in the centre of the pitch to feed Arsenal’s flying forwards on the break. He was also closer to Alexis Sanchez so could unleash the Chilean when Arsenal won the ball back, or look for the diagonal pass to Theo Walcott.
Since the win earlier this year at Manchester City when Arsenal soaked up pressure and did their damage on the counter-attack, the belief and trust from the players in their own capacity to defend as a team and their ability to make the most of the opportunities when they win the ball back has grown. Even though the Gunners only had 30% possession against Bayern Munich, there was a sense that Arsenal could cause problems for Bayern’s back four as soon as they approached the final third of the pitch. With Bayern having to play a higher defensive line to retain the majority of possession, the space was there for Theo Walcott and Alexis to stretch the defense. Ordinarily, Arsenal look to the likes of Coquelin and Cazorla to start moves when they win the ball back, but against Bayern, they were often taking a few passes out of the move and being more direct to get Walcott and Alexis on the run to turn the back four around.
For all the tactical planning, the players still have to go out and deliver. Everyone contributed and played their part, none more so that Petr Cech. With so many quality players in their ranks, it is virtually impossible to deny Bayern Munich any clear cut chances despite a great tactical plan, and when Pep Guardiola’s men did find a way through the Gunners, they were faced by a world class goalkeeper who was out to make a point about his selection in the Champions League. I was always someone who looked for the positives in Wojciech Szczesny, Lukasz Fabianski, David Ospina and even Manuel Almunia, but it is almost slightly scary how much better and calmer the Arsenal defence look with Cech behind them.
After important saves in the first half, Cech produced his best stop moments before Arsenal took the lead. Robert Lewandowski escaped the attentions of Mertesacker and Koscielny for a fleeting moment, but when he went towards goal, he was met by a giant Czech goalkeeper who stood tall to parry the ball over the bar. That was with the score at 0-0 in the final twenty minutes of the game, and moments later Arsenal were ahead.
Olivier Giroud had replaced Theo Walcott and offered the Gunners a physical presence up front and won a free-kick for Arsenal just inside the Bayern half with some good hold-up play. Usually, Arsenal would have passed such a free-kick short and looked to build a passing move, but with Giroud on the field, they opted to put the ball into the box. Santi Cazorla put the ball into a perfect area to tempt Manuel Neuer out of goal, the keeper flapped at the cross and Giroud stooped behind him to somehow divert the ball into the net via his head and upper body. Neuer had pulled off a ridiculous point-blank save to deny Theo Walcott in the first half, but his erratic judgement when charging out of goal cost his team on Tuesday.
Having got the lead, Arsenal just had to soak up pressure as they had done for the majority of the match. Bayern passed and probed but couldn’t properly test Cech for the rest of the game as Arsenal looked energised by taking the lead. Mertesacker and Coquelin won vital tackles while Laurent Koscielny somehow prevented Lewandowski from getting a shot off in injury time when the striker looked to wriggle free in the box. But this energy the Gunners found late in the game was typified by Hector Bellerin.
The Spanish full-back had a tough first half against Douglas Costa, but he rose to the challenge and stood up to him in the second half. He then drew on his raw pace to make a huge impact. We’ve all known that Bellerin is quick, and have seen him utilise it in fleeting moments since he’s broken into the first team, but we’ve never seen anything like the breathtaking burst he produced in the 94th minute on Tuesday. With Bayern looking to launch one last attack, Bellerin sprinted half the length of the pitch, only touching the ball four times on the way, to intercept a pass, burn his way past the floundering Thiago and lay on a chance for Mesut Ozil to seal the victory. To show that level of speed was impressive enough, but to do it in the dying moments of an intense Champions League match was incredible. He was surely only a few miles per hour short of the 88 needed to beat Marty McFly to the 21st October 2015.
Ozil was able to apply the finishing touch, despite Neuer’s best efforts, as the fifth official behind the goal spotted that the ball did cross the line, sparking wild celebrations. It was another moment to highlight how Mesut Ozil is finding form this season as he made another big contribution in a big game.
The joyous scenes in the stadium weren’t so much about breathing life into a dying Champions League campaign, but more about the victory being another significant step for this developing Arsenal team. Bayern have been frequent recent visitors in the Champions League and have left with relatively comfortable victories on both occasions. This time though, Arsenal went toe-to-toe with them and deservedly won. The Gunners did have some luck with the nature of the first goal, but it wasn’t as if Bayern put in an off-colour performance. Their passing was crisp and there was a swagger to their play that comes with winning 12 matches in a row, yet Arsenal still managed to produce a performance to beat them.
It was a tactical triumph for Arsene Wenger, who this year has shown a greater tactical flexibility. He’s not just sending his team out in big games to just play as they normally do and hope that’s good enough. Pep Guardiola did that on Tuesday, and he found an Arsenal side that was ready and had a plan to counteract the relentless passing.
The win might still not be enough to contribute to Arsenal getting out of the group in the Champions League, but the confidence and belief it gives for the rest of the season could yet be invaluable in other competitions.