Walcott, Ramsey and Wilshere give Arsene plenty to ponder after Old Trafford draw

Having lost on all recent Premier League trips to Old Trafford, a 1-1 draw with Manchester United should be viewed as a positive result. And, having been 1-0 down in the game, it’s to Arsenal’s credit that they did salvage a point from the game. But I feel some frustration that it took Arsenal so long to impose themselves on the match. That Manchester United team were there for the taking, and the Gunners couldn’t repeat the result they achieved at the same venue earlier in the season in the FA Cup.
The first half was incredibly lame from Arsenal, giving the game a distinct end-of-season feel. Without Wayne Rooney, the hosts didn’t carry too much of a threat, and with Marouane Fellaini in the team, there was always going to be one obvious tactic of always looking to the play aerially to the Belgian to challenge in the air.
Fellaini’s presence drew in defenders in the first half to create the opening goal for Ander Herrera as Arsenal, understandably, looked to cover the danger he posed, leaving Herrera free in the penalty area. He was able to volley the deep cross from the left towards goal and past David Ospina at the near post. Having looked suspect in letting Bafetimbi Gomis score on Monday night against Swansea, questions should again be asked of Ospina as shouldn’t be getting beaten at his near post. Arsenal’s goalkeeper situation will be one that’s sure to be closely monitored over the summer.
Even though they didn’t create many clear opportunities, Manchester United deserved to be ahead as Arsenal lacked any urgency or drive through midfield to have any shots at goal. There were fleeting glimpses of danger, but the Gunners struggled to throw any punches before half time. Rather than the final pass being the issue, Arsenal’s second or third pass in a move was going astray, meaning there was little attack momentum. The starting XI, which was unchanged for the sixth game in a row, didn’t look like the team that has developed a good understanding in recent weeks.
Things did change in the second half as Arsenal slowly crept their way back into the game and built some pressure. Mesut Ozil became more influential and Olivier Giroud was given a bit more of the ball to bring others into the game. The extra burst from midfield was needed though, and albeit what felt like five or ten minutes too late, Arsene Wenger injected that into the game by bringing on Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere.
The introduction of Walcott in particular was significant as the Englishman went and played on the right hand side, allowing Aaron Ramsey to move back into his favoured role in central midfield. From there, the Welshman took the game by the scruff of the neck and dominated proceedings. It wasn’t a surprise that he was heavily involved in Arsenal’s equalising goal, as his superb cross-field pass picked out Walcott in the inside-right position.
Having someone who was willing to run at the full-backs made a nice change for the Gunners, and Walcott engineered half a yard of space against Tyler Blackett to hit a low cross towards the six-yard box. The ball deflected past Victor Valdes and into the back of the net to give Arsenal a deserved equaliser. Having not been in the game in the first half, the Gunners were suddenly dominating the game and looked most likely to go on to win the match.
The impact made by Theo Walcott, and the combination and energy in central midfield shown by Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere gives Arsene Wenger plenty to think about ahead of the final two league matches and the FA Cup final. It has undoubtedly been positive to be able to select the same starting XI for six matches in a row, but I’ll be staggered if the same side is picked for seventh match when Sunderland visit the Emirates on Wednesday.
Santi Cazorla has had a fantastic season, but he looked tired during the game at Old Trafford, and it was noticeable how much more drive there was from the centre of the pitch when Ramsey and Wilshere were in there. I expect at least one of Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere to start on Wednesday, and if they put in a good performance, they could yet thrust themselves into the forefront of the manager’s mind for cup final selection. I’d also like to see Aaron Ramsey back in central midfield for a whole game, as he looked re-energised when he moved there against Manchester United.
Even though third place is almost wrapped up, the dangling carrot of a place in the FA Cup final team should keep Arsenal players motivated for the final two matches in the Premier League. With changes likely, the fringe players should have a chance to press their claim, as the starters in possession at the moment didn’t do much to prove they deserved their place in the first 45 minutes at Old Trafford.

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Character and spirit can't hide defensive concerns

The 2-2 draw between Arsenal and Manchester City at Emirates Stadium was a great game for neutrals, but for fans, it was impossible to feel comfortable at any moment. Most draws can be categorised as good ones or bad ones (see Everton for a good one and Leicester for a bad one), but having been 1-0 down and then 2-1 up, it’s very difficult to know how to feel about the draw with City.
If I’d have been offered a draw at half time, I’d have taken it, but to not win after getting ahead is immensely frustrating. On the balance of play, a draw was a fair result as City always looked dangerous when they got David Silva into space.
The most pleasing part of the performance for Arsenal was undoubtedly the character and spirit shown to come back from being a goal down initially. The Gunners had started well in looking to take the lead, but were clinically punished when Aguero put City ahead. I’d like to see Arsenal take the lead first in one of these games against others in the top four as it wouldn’t necessarily leave the Gunners so exposed. The problems last season stemmed from Arsenal going behind early and having to chase the game, and on the break on Saturday, City almost punished Arsenal again but for Szczesny denying Silva in the first half.
The match went through a bit of a lull as Arsenal tried to build up a head of steam but couldn’t break through City after they took off the struggling Lampard. However a frantic period of play that opened some holes in the City midfield enabled Wilshere to neatly exchange passes with Ramsey before gliding past Clichy and finishing brilliantly with his weaker foot over Hart.
Wilshere has steadily improved during the season, with his performance on Saturday much more like the ones that caught the eye when he first became a regular in the side back in 2010. His inclusion alongside Ramsey, Flamini and Ozil does present a problem when balancing the team as Arsenal aren’t getting the best out of Mesut Ozil by playing him in a wide area, but it’s hard to leave an in-form Jack Wilshere out of the side. It’s something that Arsene Wenger needs to try and work out.
Wilshere was involved as a fired up Arsenal took the lead in the second half when his header found Alexis Sanchez in space in the left side of the box. Rather than needing a touch to control the ball, the Chilean showed the quality that over £30 million can get you with a fantastic volleyed finish past Hart. That’s three goals in three games for Sanchez, and was proof that he doesn’t hide in the big games. He works very hard for the team and has incredibly quick feet to get out of tight situations. In Sanchez, Wenger has signed a proper player.
Seeing the commitment and chasing of Sanchez is almost emphasising how that isn’t a big part of Mesut Ozil’s game, and that is causing the German to be the subject of discontent from some supporters at the Emirates. It isn’t just offensively that Ozil isn’t as effective when playing wide, but defensively he just isn’t the sort of player that wants to be chasing back and putting in big challenges. He undoubtedly can work harder, but he wants to be further up the pitch to be in a position to create when Arsenal get the ball back as he can spot and play passes that no-one else in the squad can to set up chances.
Hopefully Ozil will be creating chances for Danny Welbeck who, as expected, worked hard on his debut and showed some promise for the rest of the season. He was unlucky not to score in the first half with the chip over Hart that hit the post and he also went close with a curling shot from outside the box. Welbeck does give Arsenal the combination of pace and a target man up front, so in time as he gets to know his team mates better, he can be effective.
Having gone 2-1 up, Arsenal seemed slightly unsure of what to do. Even though they had momentum in the game and a raucous crowd, I think Arsenal sat back too much too early and invited pressure from Manchester City. Against lesser teams, that’s fine. However with quality operators like Silva near the penalty area, City will always create small openings that can lead to goals. That almost made it more frustrating to concede a goal from a corner. Defensively, it’s a concern to concede from a corner, but it’s something that Arsenal have improved on in previous seasons, and should be easily rectified.
The bigger concern at the back, that could undermine any amount of spirit and character the players show during the season, is the lack of players. Mathieu Debuchy went off with a very worrying looking injury, and a long term absence for the Frenchman would leave the Gunners ridiculously short on numbers. It would mean the only reserve centre-back, Calum Chambers, playing at right-back with someone like Hector Bellerin drafted onto the bench. One more injury and we have a crisis. The pressure that puts on those that are fit to stay fit, and play well, is immense. I already fear that any crumbling title challenge this season could come from a lack of defenders rather than a lack of goals, a defensive midfielder, or other tradition problems the media like to focus on. I hope I’m proved wrong and the Debuchy injury isn’t serious.
A quick word does need to be written about Mark Clattenburg for his performance in the 2-2 draw. In fairness to him, the referee did try and let the game flow, however the way he didn’t punish some continued fouls by City with cards was frustrating. Both teams will have some grievances over some of his decisions, but Clattenburg completely bottled the decision when he should have sent off Fernandinho. Already on a yellow, the City midfielder booted the ball away at the Arsenal bench after a foul was given against his team in the middle of the pitch. It was both dissent and time wasting and should have brought a second yellow.
Overall it was one of the games that goes down as a great advert for the Premier League. It was too open at times for the liking of the two managers, but it was two evenly matched teams going all out to win the game. Even though Arsenal are unbeaten this season, some of these draws need to be turned into wins sooner rather than later. But, having been 1-0 down, Arsenal went toe-to-toe with the champions and it’s hard to disagree with a draw.

The SMR Arsenal Squad Review – Midfielders

With the season over and a trophy in the cabinet, I’m going to assess the season for each member of the Arsenal squad and rate them. I’m sure there’ll be some disagreements about some of my ratings, so feel free to comment at the bottom with your thoughts. Moving up the pitch, it’s the midfielders.
 
7. Tomas Rosicky
The Czech has been an excellent player to have around the squad in 2013/2014, and is someone that can be relied on in big games. Rosicky can be brought on to control the tempo of the game if Arsenal are leading, or he can add urgency to the team with direct bursts forward. As he moves towards the latter stages of his career, it’s great to see Rosicky making an impact at the club considering his previous injury problems.
Rosicky is developing an excellent knack of scoring against Tottenham, contributing two crackers this season. The FA Cup goal was a result of his relentless pressing high up the pitch before a calm finish, and the goal at White Hart Lane was a rocket. It was one of the few Arsenal goals that made me stand up and shout THRIKER!
Season Rating: 7/10
 
8. Mikel Arteta
Arteta is beginning to divide some opinion amongst Arsenal fans, with some suggesting he’s getting a bit old and slows the play down, but others saying he plays a key role in keeping the team ticking over. Arteta is undoubtedly one of the players that Arsene Wenger trusts most as the Spaniard does quietly do a very important job for the team.
He’s not the big destructive defensive midfielder that many want, but Arteta will rarely be found out of position and putting the team under pressure by misplacing a pass. His penalty taking is also excellent, with the twice taken one against Everton in the cup showing his coolness under pressure. He’ll gradually play less as he gets older, but Arteta remains a big part of the Arsenal squad as a respected vice-captain.
Season Rating: 7/10
 
10. Jack Wilshere
It’s been a strange season for Jack Wilshere. He’s had his fair share of injury problems again, but there have been real signs of improvement. Wilshere hasn’t been dominating games as many fans thought he would do in his career, but like Aaron Ramsey was last season, he’s almost in the consolidating period after a very long injury.
Wilshere has added more goals and assists to his game this season, with the brace against Marseille being particularly impressive, along with the finish at the end of the liquid football goal against Norwich.
Next season will be a big one for Wilshere. If he can stay fit, he can build on the good progress made in 2013/2014.
Season Rating: 6.5/10
 
11. Mesut Ozil
The German attracted, and still attracts, too much criticism for his performances in 2013/2014. Expectations were always going to be high after arriving for £42 million, and whilst he might not have lived up to them for some people, Ozil still had a huge impact on Arsenal.
He clocked up assists and brought more out of others around him. This season was always going to be about adapting for Ozil, and the signs are good that he’ll be even better next season. His control is incredible, and his passing is not far short of Bergkamp-levels at times. That fact he’s at the club will make Arsenal a more attractive tea, to join for players in the summer transfer window, as they know they’ll get chances with Ozil in the team.
Season Rating: 7.5/10
 
15. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
It’s been a frustrating season for the Ox. A lengthy injury on the first day of the season was far from ideal, especially after looking dangerous and getting an assist early in that match.
He recovered well to make a difference in the second half of season, especially in the cup run against Liverpool, Everton and Wigan. I’m not sure about the insistence that he’ll ultimately be a central midfielder, as even though Oxlade-Chamberlain is good enough to play there, he’s at his best when committing defenders and running into space. Hopefully he’ll be fit to play at the World Cup, and be fit enough next season to further develop. The Oz is an exciting player and one that makes things happen when he plays.
Season Rating: 6/10
 
16. Aaron Ramsey
What else is there to say about Aaron Ramsey? The transformation has been incredible. He’s been confident, committed and sensational in almost every game he’s played. It’s just a huge shame he was out for four months of the season. He’s gone from being a semi-reliable squad player to a world class game-changer. More of the same next season please, Rambo.
Season Rating: 9/10
 
19. Santi Cazorla
Cazorla wasn’t quite at his influential best in 2013/2014, and that was partly from not having much of a summer break following a long first season in the Premier League. His quick feet still dazzled as he was deployed more on the flank than he was in his debut season, because of the arrival of Ozil.
He can occasionally go missing in games, but his technical quality and ability to use both feet mean he’s always a danger in games. The FA Cup final free-kick was also stunning. Forget any criticism of the goalkeeper, that was a hell of strike. At his best, Cazorla is a beautiful player to watch.
Season Rating: 7/10
 
20. Mathieu Flamini
It seemed like a slightly strange signing at the time, but bringing Mathieu Flamini back to the club was a good move from Arsene Wenger. He brought passion, organisation and commitment to the team at the start of the season, especially when Arsenal seemed fragile at that time.
He appeared less in the second half of the season, and as much as it was funny seeing him get booked every game, the ill-discipline did cost the team with the red card at Southampton. However, anyone who comes on for a second North London derby, kicks lumps out of a lot of Spurs players and pushes someone out the way just to get a clear run-up to fly in for another tackle against Tottenham is an instant hero.
Season Rating: 6.5/10
 
24. Abou Diaby
It was brilliant to see him even play twenty minutes this season. Any sustained playing time Arsenal get out of him next season will be a bonus. Diaby does have a huge amount of talent, and incredible motivation to comeback from what he’s been through, but his body does not support him being a professional footballer.
Season Rating: 4/10
 
29. Kim Kallstrom
He was not the striker Arsenal fans wanted in January, and having been signed with a broken back, it was going to be difficult for Kim Kallstrom to make an impact at the club. He made a few useful Premier League appearances and scored his penalty in the FA Cup semi-final. Kallstrom didn’t do much else, but did as much as fans could have hoped for from him.
Season Rating: 5/10
 
31. Ryo Miyaichi
Made no real impact on the first team except for some Capital One Cup appearances. Unfortunately for him, I can’t see Ryo making it at Arsenal.
Season Rating: 2/10
 
44. Serge Gnabry
Gnabry did make some encouraging performances in the first team, and scored an excellent first goal at Swansea. He still has a lot to learn but Gnabry is an exciting player for the future. It’s good for him to have a strong German connection at the club as well.
Season Rating: 5.5/10
 
Listen to the Sam’s Match Reports podcast end-of-season awards special!
Part 1 – Part 2 – Part 3