European disappointment mustn't damage title chances

Even though the most optimistic of Arsenal fans knew that a win against Barcelona would have been incredibly difficult to get, with 70 minutes gone at Emirates Stadium on Tuesday, Arsenal were right in the game. Arsene Wenger had got things right tactically, the team were working hard for each other and had kept the much-heralded front three of Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi and Neymar as quiet as we could have hoped for. But as they have done in recent years at the same round-of-16 stage of the Champions League, Arsenal contributed to their own downfall and the subsequent 0-2 defeat means it’ll take a footballing miracle for Arsenal to get the result they need in the Nou Camp in three weeks time to go through.
The game was a bit of a freebie in terms of the main focus being on the Premier League, but that doesn’t change the fact it was incredibly disappointing to do well for so long before effectively being out of the tie completely.
The two goals scored by Barcelona highlighted just how ruthless this current incarnation of that team are. While they’re still able to play the possession football, they thrive on counter-attacking and utilising the quick interplay between the front three. Just after the 70-minute mark, Arsenal were caught short defensively as the back four pushed up and Francis Coquelin was further upfield. With Arsenal horribly exposed, Suarez was able to find Neymar, who in turn found Messi, who inevitably found the net. Arsenal knew they’d have to concentrate fully for the whole game to get anything from it, and the first time they didn’t focus, they were punished.
For almost every other similar situation to the first goal in the game, Arsenal’s back four had dropped off, allowing Per Mertesacker to not get exposed, while Coquelin and Ramsey worked hard in midfield to cover the space in front of them. But it only needed to be one lapse against Barcelona and the Catalans took their opportunity. Arsenal were building up a head of steam prior to the opening goal, and maybe got too excited and neglected the defensive duties. Even though it came against a much weaker team, it felt like Arsenal hadn’t drawn on the horrible experiences against Monaco last season when the Gunners piled too many men forward and got killed on the counter-attack, and in a competition where away goals, rightly or wrongly, are incredibly important, that is plain daft.
At 1-0 down, it was still going to be difficult for Arsenal to get through with the second leg to come, but it was important they didn’t do anything stupid to make it worse. Unless Francis Coquelin was injured, I can’t work out why Mathieu Flamini came on with 10 minutes to go. Seconds later, Mertesacker tried to play a pass in the edge of his box when he should have put his foot through the ball and wellied it clear, Flamini was caught on his heels and desperately hacked towards the ball and brought down Messi for a penalty. Even though his presence keeps Mesut Ozil happy, that moment of madness makes it harder to see Flamini getting a contract extension at the end of the season. He tries hard, but isn’t good enough to be playing in an elite game against a team like Barcelona.
Barcelona are the best team in the world right now, so there’s absolutely no disgrace in losing 2-0 to them, but Arsenal matched them for 70 minutes and got nothing to show for it. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain missed a glorious chance in the first half when the ball broke to him unmarked in the penalty area, but he snatched at the opportunity rather than calmly finishing. Olivier Giroud also had a good headed chance in the second half, but he did well to get a decent downward header on target as his shirt was literally being ripped off him by Javier Mascherano. It continued a worrying trend of Arsenal missing chances, and while the effort and link-up play of Giroud remains excellent, with Danny Welbeck looking lively on his return to the squad, the Frenchman’s place in the team is under threat.
The challenge for the Gunners to not let the result affect them in the Premier League. In previous years, the doom and gloom heading towards the second leg has hung badly over the team, but this year, there’s a league title to win, and Arsenal have to focus on that. There were plenty of positives to take from the game as, for the most part, I thought Arsenal played really well with the likes of Cech, Bellerin and Monreal all putting in some stellar showings. If the Gunners win the next three league games against Manchester United, Swansea and Tottenham, then the disappointment in Europe will soon disappear.
Finally, a word on the nasty side of Barcelona. They’re a great team and the front three can be mesmeric to watch, but the team are guilty of some disgraceful behaviour during matches and, more often than not, the referee accepts it and does nothing. The worst example on Tuesday night came when Jordi Alba threw himself to the ground clutching his face after Giroud ran past him and brushed his arm on Alba’s chest after the two competed for the ball. Alba’s subsequent accusations of an elbow, and pushing his head into Giroud, typified the side of Barcelona that gets ignored too often. Had that been an Arsenal player putting their head towards a Barcelona player, I’m certain the Barca man would have rolled on the ground and Arsenal would likely have been down to 10 men. When they’re such a good team, it leaves a sour taste in the mouth as they don’t need additional help from the officials and they don’t need to cheat.

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Back to winning ways at Bournemouth

It wasn’t a classic, but it was pretty comfortable. After four league games without a win and three without a goal, that is all Arsenal needed the 2-0 win against Bournemouth to be. A good performance would have been nice, but with Leicester threatening to pull away and Tottenham also appearing in the title race, Arsenal simply had to win on the south coast to set up a hugely important clash with the Foxes at the Emirates next weekend.
While it feels like Arsenal haven’t had the rub of the green in terms of refereeing decisions this season, there is no doubt that the win owed a bit to Kevin Friend’s reluctance to send off Mathieu Flamini early on in the game after the Frenchman launched into a tackle two-footed with the studs showing. It was a bizarre thing for the midfielder to do, even if he did get the ball, because if the referee had brandished a red card, he could have no complaints. His position in the team is questioned at the best of times, but if Flamini had left the team with ten men again for the majority of a game, you’d have to question if he’d ever play for the team again, barring injury to others.
As it was, Arsenal got lucky and he stayed on the field. To his credit, Flamini managed to survive for the rest of the game on a yellow card tightrope, although there was a hairy moment in the first half as he dived into a challenge and fortunately missed man and ball, but as an experienced player he should have known better. With the score at 2-0, Francis Coquelin came on to sure up the midfield in the second half, and with more minutes under his belt, will surely start against Leicester next weekend.
While Flamini’s partnership with Aaron Ramsey has had its struggles in recent weeks, the Welshman looked to up his game against Bournemouth as he put in an excellent shift in midfield and looked to be the link man between the defence and the attacking four of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ozil, Alexis and Giroud. He had a hand in both goals as Arsenal scored two within 90 seconds of each other to effectively kill the game off in the first half.
The first goal came following a lovely floated pass towards the back post, where Olivier Giroud was determined to get his head to the ball, even getting ahead of Alexis Sanchez to do so, creating space for Mesut Ozil to glide into and slam the ball into the roof of the net as it dropped in the penalty area. After the team had gone a bit of time without a goal in the league, it was an emphatic finish to end the drought. It was almost as if even Mesut Ozil had had enough of faffing around trying to score the perfect goal and he just leathered the ball in. Although it being Ozil, I’ve rarely see a player look so graceful when finishing with such power.
The goal was like a massive release for the Gunners and it was almost as if it reminded the team why they were up at the sharp end of the table in the first place. 88 seconds after the first goal, the lead was doubled with another superb piece of finishing. Arsenal swept forward, and when the ball broke to Aaron Ramsey, he calmly laid it into the path of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who, despite going away from goal, managed to drill the ball back across the goalkeeper and into the net via the inside of the post.
It was a bit harsh on Joel Campbell to have the Ox start in his place, but not surprising that Theo Walcott wasn’t given a run out on the right after his midweek efforts from the bench. With competition for a place on that side, it was vital that the Ox made an impression in the game, and a first away goal for Arsenal was a great way to do it. He has so much potential, and could be a truly sensational player, but it’s not quite happened for him this season. He is the sort of player that can grab this season by the scruff of the neck and make things happen in the title race. If he gets a run of games and starts to make things happen, he could be an important player for the rest of the season. The talent is there, so hopefully he can take the confidence of scoring and view this run-in as an opportunity to make a difference rather than getting bogged down by pressure, as seemed to happen earlier in the season.
Having gone 2-0 up, Arsenal were able to control the game, and having picked Gabriel as the quicker centre-back, there wasn’t much of a chance for Benik Afobe to stretch the defence against his former club. While I think Per Mertesacker will return in time to the back four, it does feel like Arsene Wenger is happy to give Gabriel a run of games almost to prepare for the pace of Leicester City and Barcelona’s front lines coming later this month. The Brazilian now won’t go into those games cold and will have developed his understanding with the rest of the back four for those massive games.
At the end of the game, Petr Cech offered another reminder of how good he is with a cracking double save to preserve his clean sheet. For all the talk of Arsenal’s failures in front of goal, they’ve now only conceded one goal in four games, and that was the one conceded while the team were still rocking when down to ten men against Chelsea. Leicester are scoring pretty freely at the moment, but they will face a much tougher test on Sunday.
That game with Leicester is huge, as if Arsenal lose, I’m struggling to see how the Gunners could still have title aspirations when eight points behind the leaders with 12 games to go. Stranger things have happened, but it would be very difficult. Conversely, a win would leave Arsenal lurking just two points off the leaders, and would crank the pressure up on the Foxes. Leicester might not crack under that pressure, as they’ve certainly showed few signs of looking nervous this season, but Arsenal have to do everything they can to apply some pressure. The win at Bournemouth was at least a good starting point.

Arsenal's title challenge teeters on the edge

Draws can be funny things in football. If you’ve had to come from behind to sneak one, they can be great. If both teams are a bit rubbish and no-one deserves to win, then a draw can be very unsatisfactory. There are also the draws that feel like a defeat and like the end of the world (or season to be a bit less dramatic) is nigh. The 0-0 with Southampton was one of the latter ones for Arsenal fans.
Now I’m, generally, a pretty positive Arsenal fan and will cling onto any hope the team can give me. But it was hard to walk away from the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday night and not have a sinking feeling about how Arsenal’s title challenge is faltering. Arsenal’s failure to win in four leagues games, coupled with Leicester, Manchester City and Tottenham all building some momentum means that even though Arsenal are only five points off the top of the table, it feels like the Gunners have an awful lot of work to do to see off their title rivals.
Since the injuries to Santi Cazorla, Francis Coquelin and Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal’s results haven’t been disasterous, and there have been some very good wins in that run of games, but the team has looked more vulnerable, and the midfield partnership between Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey has been a very thin piece of paper over a rather substantial crack. With Coquelin back in contention for selection following his injury, barring injury to others, Mathieu Flamini shouldn’t be seen in the starting XI in the league for the rest of the season. He works incredibly hard for the team, but the balance isn’t right with him alongside the Welshman as Flamini can’t link the play as well when in possession of the ball, and he has a tendency to get caught upfield or drop too deep when out of possession, inviting pressure on the back four.
That was evident against Southampton as Arsenal had Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez dropping deeper to get the ball to try and make something happen, rather than being higher up the field to receive it in front of the opposition back line. Even though Francis Coqulin and Aaron Ramsey haven’t played together very often in the middle of the pitch, Coquelin’s better positioning and better ball distribution should give the Welshman more confidence when bombing forward in support of the main striker and allow Arsenal’s more creative players to stay higher up the pitch.
The centre of the midfield isn’t the only big problem Arsenal have to solve to avoid the title challenge continuing this slow-motion car crash. They need to score goals. None in the last three games isn’t going to get you anywhere, and while one of those matches had exceptional circumstances as Arsenal had ten men for most of the game, they just weren’t clinical enough against Southampton.
Fraser Forster made some superb saves in goal for the Saints, but he shouldn’t have been given the opportunity to save them because of poor finishing from the hosts. Ozil was guilty in the first half as his finish couldn’t match his exquisite control, before Theo Walcott wasted two great opportunities with a horrible lack of conviction in the second half. At least Arsenal created the opportunities, and for the most part actually played pretty well in the second half, but the finishing is what wins you games, and it isn’t good enough at the moment. Hopefully the return of Alexis Sanchez, who scored the winner in the FA Cup at the weekend and had one cleared off the line on Tuesday, can spark the others into converting chances.
The finishing, and all round contribution, of Theo Walcott is a major concern. Earlier in the season, I would have laughed at the suggestion that Joel Campbell might get picked ahead of Theo Walcott for an important Premier League game, but it seemed like the right thing to do on Tuesday night. When Walcott did come on, apart from missing two chances, he pretty much did nothing else. It’s great that he’s been at the club for ten years, but he actually needs to start acting like the longest serving player and be an example to others in terms of putting in the effort and commitment needed in a title race, and not just disappear into the background. Despite completing a decade of service, Walcott won’t, yet, be remembered as a club great. He should view this season, as his tenth anniversary season, as a fantastic opportunity to become one by making a serious contribution to a title win. He can do it, he’s a good enough player to do it, but he needs to show a killer instinct that, sadly, hasn’t been there for a lot of his career.
These issues hanging over the team at the moment come down to Arsene Wenger to sort. He will get questions about the team’s mentality and the ability to cope under pressure. I can’t really do justice to how much I want him and the team to be able to answer those questions confidently and with positive results on the pitch, but our recent track record of lasting the distance when in the title race is abysmal. I do genuinely believe that there is something different about the squad this season, and that there is a bit more of a winning mentality in the squad, but that feels more like a hope than something we have tangible proof of existing through results on the pitch. Hope does keep us going as football fans, but Arsenal’s is unfortunately looking like a forlorn hope at the moment, which is really rather depressing after an encouraging campaign, up to about a month ago, seemed to be on the cards. It’s not quite last chance saloon yet for Arsenal, but it does feel like anything other than a win at Bournemouth on Sunday could almost be terminal if other title rivals continue their worryingly decent form.
Finally, I have to mention Lee Mason’s refereeing performance at the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday night. There weren’t major game-changing decisions to make so he didn’t cost Arsenal the points, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a referee look like he was guessing at almost every decision he made in the way Lee Mason did on Tuesday. The lack of common sense used during the match was also staggering, such as allowing Southampton to take four or five minutes out of the game as Jose Fonte had his head bandaged two yards away from the edge of the pitch, when he could have easily stepped off and not disrupted the flow of the game. It only added to the frustration of the evening, and was another damning example of how refereeing standards are dipping in English football.