Gunners grind out a win to stop the rot

Saturday’s 2-0 win over Hull won’t live long in the memory for Arsenal fans, but it was incredibly necessary to put some sort of momentum back into the season. Despite Chelsea dropping points at Burnley, the title challenge remains over for Arsenal, but with Bayern Munich to come on Wednesday, the Gunners would surely have had no hope of a positive result in that game if it followed three defeats on-the-bounce.
Even though Hull are fighting for survival, they weren’t pushovers at the Emirates. Marco Silva has got them organised at the back since his arrival, and made them more adventurous going forward. It led to an unexpectedly open game, which was beneficial to Arsenal in some senses as it played into the hands of the having a front three spearheaded by Alexis Sanchez, but it also created a slightly frenetic feel to the game as the Gunners couldn’t control the tempo. If Arsenal were in any doubt as to Hull’s intentions for the game, Lazar Markovic confirmed them early on with a dangerous run and low cross, which should have been converted by Niasse. Petr Cech also had to make a smart save from a header as the visitors looked to capitalise on any vulnerabilities Arsenal had after back-to-back defeats.
But the Gunners were creating openings of their own, and should have taken the lead when Alexis fired wide with his left foot about 12 yards out. 
The Chilean did get his name on the scoresheet before half-time in a slightly fortuitous manner. A good Arsenal move ended wth Kieran Gibbs’ shot being blocked on the line, but as Alexis went to poke the ball into the net, the ball got kicked into him, ricocheting it into the net. There have been plenty of calls to suggest that it was a handball from the striker, but it was definitely not deliberate. His arm was up to balance when kicking the ball on the floor. That the clearance was kicked into him and went in was bad luck for Hull and good luck for Arsenal, but it was the correct decision to award the goal.
It was similar to Laurent Koscielny’s winner at Burnley earlier in the season. The ball did hit his arm, but there was no intent to handle the ball and it was a split-second from the ball being kicked to it making contact, making it impossible to avoid.
It felt somewhat unusal for Arsenal to lead at half-time after a string of rubbish first-half performances. The Gunners hadn’t been at their best but at least they’d been competitive in the game and weren’t having to come from behind again.
The Gunners did get increasingly nervous as the game went on as they realised the necessity of not dropping more stupid points. Hull felt hard done by again as Kieran Gibbs fouled Markovic 30 yards out from goal, with the visiting team surrounded referee Mark Clattenburg demanding a red card. It was to the referee’s credit that he ignored the mass of Hull players and only showed Gibbs yellow. While he was the last defender, it was a clumsy but not cynical challenge, and Markovic didn’t have full control of the ball, making it hard to justify it being a clear goal-scoring opportunity and being worthy of a red.
It was good to see Kieran Gibbs get an opportunity to start in the Premier League as, while he’s still been solid enough, Nacho Monreal hasn’t quite hit the same levels of performance during this season as he did in the previous two. Elsewhere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain continued to impress in the centre of midfield, often looking like the more experienced central player alongside Francis Coquelin. What was most impressive to me was his willingness and awareness to chase players back and make important defensive contributions, as this has sometimes been a weakness of his on the flanks. The extra responsibility of playing in the middle does seem to have brought out a more disciplined side to Oxlade-Chamberlain’s game. With Mohamed Elneny back from the African Cup of Nations and Granit Xhaka now back from suspension, there’s a chance we won’t see much of the Ox centrally again, but Arsene Wenger should seriously consider using him in there again before the season ends. An Ox-Xhaka combination has a lot of potential on paper and hopefully is one Wenger explores soon.
Arsenal didn’t kill the game off until injury time as they punished Hull on the counter-attack. Ozil slid a good pass forward for Alexis, who was forced wide by an AWOL goalkeeper. He crossed for Lucas to head towards goal, but the ball was blocked by the arm of Clucas on the line with the keeper out of goal, bringing a clear red card and penalty. Alexis slotted it beyond Jakupovic to bag a brace and secure the three points.
There has been a lot written and said about the club in the last week, particularly about Arsene Wenger. Most of it has been a load of clickbait nonsense with any old footballing hasbeen wheeled out to try and twist the knife into the Frenchman. It was good to have an actual game on Saturday to interrupt all of it. While the atmosphere was far from lively at the Emirates, it was nowhere near as negative as I feared it might be, and nowhere near as toxic as you’d expect from a cross-section of media coverage of Arsenal this week.
It’s been a bad couple of weeks, but Arsenal remain firmly in the middle of the scrap with the rest of the top six behind Chelsea and the club still have a serious involvement in the Champions League and FA Cup. The league is now on the back-burner until the beginning of March, so the team can really focus on the other competitions, as the performance in those two tournaments will now have a big impact on any decision Arsene Wenger makes regarding a new contract at the end of the season. It wasn’t a stellar or particularly stirring performance on Saturday, but at least it’s a win to go into the other two competitions with.


Gibbs rescues recovering Gunners

After losing 5-1 to Bayern Munich, a huge game like the North London derby wouldn’t have been high on the list of options if Arsene Wenger was able to choose the following match. With numerous players still out with injuries, Arsenal stuttered and struggled for fluency at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday, and at 1-0 down with no real attacking options on the bench, things were looking a bit grim. That was until Kieran Gibbs emerged as the unlikely hero, rescuing a point with an equaliser.
I’m sure Arsenal will be honest with themselves and admit that the performance wasn’t good. I don’t think it was for a lack of effort, and some of the challenges from Coquelin and Flamini were pretty meaty, but Tottenham played well and Gunners looked slightly anxious at times, with the the midweek thrashing still in the back of the players’ minds. That Arsenal were wounded (mentally and physically as a team with the lack of options) and still found the resources to fightback and almost win the game is to the players’ credit and demonstrated the determination of this team to really go for the Premier League this season. 
I’ve got the impression that a lot of pundits and writers about the game have been a bit over-the-top in proclaiming that the 1-1 draw was evidence of Tottenham closing the gap on the Gunners in North London. There’s no doubting that Spurs played well on Sunday and have had a solid start to the season with just the one defeat in the league, but it seems like people have forgotten the good start Arsenal have made to the season. This was a team on Sunday without several key components and others who looked fatigued because of not getting a break due to limited options. I think it says a lot that Spurs played so well and Arsenal played poorly, yet the Gunners scrapped out a draw and created a few big chances with Giroud hitting the bar and heading inches wide to have possibly won the game.
Arsenal’s main problems came from Tottenham pressuring the Gunners high up the pitch, as Bayern Munich had done in the previous midweek. With Santi Cazorla suffering from a mysterious illness, and he really did look unwell in that first half, Arsenal’s options were limited when passing the ball out from the back four. Spurs were also able to play a high defensive line because of Olivier Giroud not offering the pace threat up front for Arsenal. Had one of Walcott, Welbeck or Oxlade-Chamberlain been available, it could have been a different story. That’s not a criticism of Olivier Giroud, the style of opposition just didn’t suit his style of game.
Tottenham deservedly took the lead on the basis of Arsenal not creating chances themselves in the first half. Laurent Koscielny made a mistake trying to play offside and got punished. The Gunners also relied on Petr Cech to keep the score down.
There was a frantic period in the second half where the play was intense, and felt like a full-blooded derby but neither team was able to exert much control on proceedings. Without much happening from open play, Arsenal looked most dangerous from set-pieces as Mesut Ozil produced some excellent deliveries into the box. An in-form Olivier Giroud was unlucky to hit the bar following a free-kick but he should have scored from six yards out following a corner.
Mesut Ozil, despite getting harried and put under a lot of pressure when he was on the ball, stood out again as the man most likely to make something happen for the Gunners. Whereas these sorts of matches, especially when there wasn’t much going on around him in the team, have bypassed the German in the past. It was a sign of growing confidence in the league that he looked determined to be the one to make the difference. Sure enough, it was his superb deep cross that gave substitute Kieran Gibbs the opportunity to force the ball over the line and past Hugo Lloris for the equaliser.
There was a bit of bemusement when Gibbs came on for Joel Campbell with Arsenal chasing the game, but Arsene Wenger didn’t really have any other options to change things around. It is to Gibbs’ immense credit that he got into the position at the back post to meet Ozil’s cross and get the ball into the net almost through a sheer force of will.
That summed up how Arsenal got the draw. Things weren’t going right for them, they were recovering from a midweek pasting and there were loads of players injured, but they were just not going to lose the game, however well Spurs might have played. That bloody mindedness will serve Arsenal well in the rest of the season and gives me hope that this team is meant of stern stuff.
Arsenal are still in recovery mode, so the international break comes at a decent time for the Gunners, providing those going away to play for their countries return unscathed. It was frustrating to see Arsenal not find top form in the derby and go to the top of the table outright, but at the moment it feels more like a point won than two points lost. Besides, Arsenal have still won more North London derbies than Tottenham this year (cheers Flam!). 

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

Continuing the review of the Arsenal squad’s performances in the 2014-2015, it’s the defenders. Each player will receive a rating and a one-word summary of the season.
2. Mathieu Debuchy
The Frenchman has been incredibly unlucky in his first season at the club as a couple of nasty injuries limited his involvement. The signs were promising that Debuchy was going to be a solid replacement for Bacary Sagna, but ankle and shoulder injuries now mean he faces a real fight to be the first-choice right-back following the emergence of others in his position this season. He’s strong defensively and filled in well when needed at centre-back, so he’s still got a lot to offer the club.
One-word summary: Unlucky
Rating: 6/10
3. Kieran Gibbs
Gibbs hasn’t had a bad season, but the impressive performances of Nacho Monreal have seen the Englishman drop out of the starting XI more often than expected. He remains a very solid full-back and the competition with the Spaniard should be good for his development. The controlled volley at Anderlecht was a particular highlight.
One-word summary: Challenged
Rating: 6/10
4. Per Mertesacker:
Regular readers / listeners will know that I love Per Mertesacker. He had a difficult start to the season following the World Cup and without Laurent Koscielny alongside him, the BFG looked a bit vulnerable. Mertesacker was written off by many as being past it, but he came back strong in the second half of the season as he reached the impressive levels he played at for most of the previous season. The return of Koscielny helped, but Mertesacker’s leadership stood out as Arsenal went on an excellent run of form in the league and retained the FA Cup. Although it was off his shoulder, the cup final goal was just a beautiful moment.
One-word summary: Hero
Rating: 7/10
5. Gabriel
Many expected him to displace Per Mertesacker as soon as he arrived in January, but the German’s good form has meant Gabriel has mainly been on the bench since his arrival. That doesn’t mean he won’t have a big part to play for Arsenal in the future as the signs were very encouraging in the games he played in. It sounds an obvious thing to say, but Gabriel looks like he loves defending by being quick across the ground and tenacious in the tackle. It is great to have that quality in the squad having been light in central defence, and Arsene Wenger can now tailor the centre of the defensive to deal with different styles of attackers.
One-word summary: Encouraging
Rating: 6/10
6. Laurent Koscielny:
It’s no coincidence that Arsenal’s form picked up when Laurent Koscielny’s achilles calmed down. That sort of injury does pose some concerns for the future, but given Koscielny was available for the majority of the second half of the season, it seems to be under control. The partnership with Per Mertesacker was re-established and was excellent. He also seems to have dropped his tendency to dive in and concede needless penalties every now and again.
One-word summary: Boss
Rating: 8/10
18. Nacho Monreal
Arguably Arsenal’s most-improved player this season. Like a lot of the team, Monreal went through a tough spell in the first-half of the season as he was asked to fill-in in an unfamiliar central defensive role. His efforts in there were admirable, and stood him in good stead as he was picked for most of the big matches at left-back ahead of Kieran Gibbs. While not known as much for being an attacking full-back, the composure with which he slotted the ball in at Old Trafford in the FA Cup showed the confidence he’s gained during the season.
One-word summary: Improved
Rating: 7/10
21. Calum Chambers
Mainly due to injuries to others, and a lack of cover at centre-back, we saw a lot of Calum Chambers in the first half of the season. There were times in latter appearances where his inexperience showed, but it’s easy to forget how impressive his earlier performances were, particularly when playing at centre-back. He’ll continue to develop and will be stronger for some of the games he’s struggled in.
One-word summary: Future
Rating: 6/10
39. Hector Bellerin
Bellerin went through a few chastening experiences in the first half of the season, with his Champions League debut at Borussia Dortmund and the defeat at Stoke particularly challenging ones. But he has taken his chance given to him following Debuchy’s second bad injury. His pace has been well documented, but his defensive position improved quickly as the season went on meaning he didn’t have to rely on it as much. Bellerin’s composure on the ball isn’t a surprise given his football upbringing included Barcelona and Arsenal, but he’s also got an eye for a goal with two excellent finishes against Aston Villa and Liverpool at the Emirates. It’s exciting to see how much further he can develop after a breakthrough season.
One-word summary: Rapid
Rating: 7/10