Top four fight goes to the final day

The chances still seem slim given Liverpool just have to beat a relegated Middlesbrough at home, and Manchester City only need to avoid a heavy defeat to Watford, but Arsenal go into the final day of the season knowing a win could yet sneak them back into the Champions League for another year.
If results don’t go the way of the Gunners on Sunday and they do end up in the Europa League, it’ll be what has gone before during the season that has cost them rather than whatever happens on the final day. But despite the train wreck of a league season, it is to Arsenal’s credit that they have shown signs of recovery from a dreadful run of form to even give themselves a chance of dining again at Europe’s top table. I would have questioned the sanity of someone saying four weeks ago that Arsenal would still have a live chance of getting in the top four on the final day, but in a run of games since the defeat to Spurs when any dropped points would have been curtains for the league season, Arsenal have kept winning. It looked like the team reached rock bottom in the defeat to Crystal Palace and were beyond repair, but with the change of system, Arsene Wenger has very slowly begun the healing process.
The latest victory wasn’t as comprehensive as many hoped for on Tuesday against Sunderland, something that could haunt Arsenal should goal difference become a factor on the final day, but mainly down to the saves from Jordan Pickford in the Sunderland goal, Arsenal could only win 2-0. The Gunnners chalked up 36 shots in the game with the opening of the match feeling slightly like it was shoot-on-site as Arsenal looked a bit impatient to break through.
Chances came and went for Giroud, Ramsey, Bellerin and Holding, as well as other more speculative efforts as Sunderland frustrated Arsenal. The Gunners also looked fatigued after their exertions of the previous week to beat Manchester United and win away at Southampton and Stoke.
Despite any tiredness, Arsenal upped the intensity in the second half with Mesut Ozil really coming to the fore. He’s steadily improved in recent weeks, along with the team, as he’s got used to the new system, but on Tuesday he had a licence to roam about a bit with the visitors sitting deep. With the game needing some inspiration in the second half, Ozil was demanding the ball and driving the team forward. It was no surprise that he picked up the assist for the goal that broke the deadlock.
Ozil found Xhaka from the left and set off on a driving run into the box before the Swiss midfielder found him with a superb pass over the defence. The cushioned first-time ball from Ozil across the box was delightful and Alexis Sanchez was in the right place to tap in one of the easiest goals of his career.
The other key man in that goal, Granit Xhaka, continued his good recent form with another influential display. The quality of the opposition does have to be taken into account, but his passing was excellent all night. Playing as a deeper-lying player, his long range of passing was vital in stretching the packed Sunderland defence and making space for others. Don’t believe what some ‘experts’ say about him being a flop this season. His first season for Arsenal has been a lot about adapting to English football, and now that seems to have happened, I can’t wait to see him have a great campaign next year. He looks fitter and sharper than when he first appeared in the team and has learnt from mistakes that brought him cards earlier in the season. There’s definitely a great player in there. 
The security of Xhaka meant Arsene Wenger was able to introduce Alex Iwobi as an extra attacking creative player in midfield in the second half, and it was a very lively and positive cameo from a youngster who has been out of limelight recently. It definitely helped turn the game as Arsenal were able to flood the box and play with a greater fluidity.
Keen to get more goals, Arsenal didn’t relent after going 1-0 up. The second came as a short corner worked its way across the pitch through Iwobi and onto Shkodran Mustafi, who had popped up on the right wing. He whipped a great cross above the goalkeeper for Giroud, but Pickford managed to parry the Frenchman’s acrobatic volley. Unfortunately for the keeper, Alexis was perfectly positioned to nod in the rebound to bag a brace.
Champions League qualification is still out of Arsenal’s hands, but strange things have happened on the final day before. This has mainly been at Tottneham’s expense, but it’s not completely outside the realms of possibility that there could be a chef change at Liverpool’s team hotel and lasagne is suddenly on the menu on Saturday night. If Arsenal can score early against Everton on Sunday and Liverpool get wind of it, the pressure could just increase and something unexpected could happen. A long inquest will be needed if Arsenal do end up in the Europa League, but at least there’s still a chance of avoiding it going to the last weekend.


Change in formation brings a more focused Arsenal

It might be too late to get Arsenal in the top four this season, and might have been a late sign of desperation from Arsene Wenger to show he’s willing to change, but something had to be done after the humiliation at Selhurst Park. The manager decided that the formation would be the big change and for the first time since 1997, sent an Arsenal team out with a back three.
Ordiniarly, on seeing Arsenal were trying out 3-4-2-1, I’d have been very worried, but given everything else has gone wrong in recent weeks, it seemed worth doing just to mix things up. Whether it is a permanent change remains to be seen as part of me thinks that Arsene Wenger decided to make the change as a way of refocusing the minds of the players. With a new system to work out and learn, it might have been the different thing needed to freshen up training and give the squad something new to think about. It’s harder for them to sleep walk through a game if the players are having to really concentrate on the tactics and system, and while Arsenal were far from fluid on Monday night at Middlesbrough, the attitude, effort and concentration seemed a lot better than in recent weeks.
With Shkodran Mustafi missing through injury, although it wouldn’t have been unreasonable for him to be dropped after the performance at Palace, Gabriel, Laurent Koscielny and Rob Holding made up the back three with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Nacho Monreal as the wing backs. It meant that if the system failed, it was easy enough to switch back to a four with those players on the field. But it wasn’t needed as the Gunners did enough to get a 2-1 win. Of the three, Holding was particularly impressive. His composure on the ball meant he could step out of the three if necessary and there was slightly less pressure on the youngster because of the extra man in the defence alongside him.
There were moments of worry in the second half, particularly from crosses into the box as Petr Cech had to make some smart saves, which means the switch can’t be described as a complete success. I’d be surprised if it gets used at Wembley against Manchester City, but it was good to see the manager try something to stop the rot away from home. After conceding three goals in away games so many times in recent games, something had to be done.
With the extra emphasis on the defence, there was a bit missing from Arsenal’s attack. For a lot of the game, they looked like a team incredibly low on confidence and lacking fluidity. With an onus on the wing-backs to be switched on defensively while also providing service to Olivier Giroud, the Gunners missed the overlapping full-backs to create space in wide areas. But it did free up Alexis Sanchez to have some more freedom in attack, although a lot of his passing remained wasteful.
He did, however, produce the moment of real quality in the game with a fantastic free-kick just before half-time to give the Gunners the lead. After Xhaka was fouled, Alexis managed to get dip and swerve on the ball to get it over the wall and past a motionless Brad Guzan.
After being pegged back to 1-1 in the second half, Arsenal’s other heavily-scrutinised superstar found the net to seal the win. Alexis’ ball into the box was excellently chested down by Aaron Ramsey, allowing Mesut Ozil to crack the ball into the net at Guzan’s near post.
Arsenal had chances to kill the game off on the break, but Middlesbrough couldn’t find a second equaliser. The reaction of Arsenal’s players at the end of the game was interesting as it wasn’t as subdued as you’d expect for a win against a team looking doomed for relegation. In the previous victory over West Ham, the players had been quite muted at the end of the game. On Monday night, the players looked much more pumped up the victory, with Alexis in particular looking chuffed. Taking a cynical view, it could have been a bit of a PR charm offensive after the fans turned on the players at Palace. But I think something must have happened behind the scenes in the last week. The players were hurt by the criticism from supporters at Crystal Palace, as they should have been, so hopefully the win on Monday is the start of a recovery for the rest of the season. 
The change in formation focused the minds for Middlesbrough, but after Arsenal’s recent win over West Ham, they followed it up with a horror show performance. The next game is the FA Cup semi-final. There really is no excuse for not being mentally ready for a game like that. Arsenal will be underdogs against Manchester City and on current form probably won’t go through, but the players have to build on the efforts on Monday and restore some pride in the club.

How to wreck a season in a week

I miss the optimism that was around after the 3-1 win over Stoke. After going behind to an extremely dodgy penalty, Arsenal had shown fight and resilience and looked really ‘up for it’. Eight days later and all of those traits, that seemingly Arsenal had improved on this year, were thrown into question again after two repeat, inept, performances.
Had Arsenal played well against both Everton and Manchester City and still lost to a wonder goal or two, or even been completely shafted by some outrageously terrible refereeing decisions, it could be written off as an unlucky week. It’d still be immensely damaging in terms of points dropped, but you’d at least be able to see some signs of hope that Arsenal weren’t going to be found wanting for effort and quality in big moments. But Arsenal didn’t play well in either game. Twice in a week, the Gunners went from being 1-0 and in control of the game, to losing 2-1. To do it once at Everton was careless, and had there not been blocked shots on the line and a penalty awarded at the end of the game, things could have been patched over. But to make the same mistakes on Sunday at Manchester City was maddening.
Both Everton and Manchester City came into their games with Arsenal with slightly fragile confidence and defences that were rife for some punishment. Both were rocking at 1-0 with Arsenal looking dangerous against them every time they got into the final third of the pitch, but for some reason, there was a lack of killer instinct and Arsenal took their foot off the pedal having only scored one goal. For a team that has been so free-scoring this season, I can’t fathom why they didn’t sense the opportunity to play their way round two static back-fours and kill both games in the process.
It’s hard to pinpoint one main reason for why Arsenal performed so poorly for the most part of both games as it seems to be a combination of issues. As much as we might try to deny it, clearly Arsenal have a problem mentally in the bigger games, as they seem to freeze in certain situations. Defensively, Arsenal are beginning to concede cheap goals. While there are legitimate claims to be made for both Manchester City goals being offside, both situations could have been defended infinitely better. Going forward, why did Mesut Ozil struggle to make much of an impact in either game? The midfield had been functioning better, so why did it suddenly feel like the back four was exposed too often in the last week? Plenty for Arsene Wenger to ponder in the next week.
The defeats are made all the more frustrating because it had felt like Arsenal did finally have a solid squad, with plenty in reserve, to really challenge. Players were being kept on their toes by competition within the squad, and there seemed a genuine realisation in the squad that they have been underachieving in the last few years and that they’d do everything to stop that from happening again this season. It feels like the first four months of the season were three big steps forward for Arsenal, but the last week was four steps back.
There has been a lot of individual criticism of Mesut Ozil in the aftermath of the last week, and in isolation, Everton’s winning goal at Goodison looked very bad on the part of the German. He then had lazy accusations thrown around after the defeat to Manchester City. But he shouldn’t be the only one singled out. No-one in the team can look at those two performances with any pride. One of the problems for Ozil on Sunday was that he didn’t get much of the ball in the final third to be effective, adding to the lacklustre look of the team. While I understood why Arsene Wenger wanted his team to sit a bit deeper against City as it worked well when Arsenal won 2-0 there a couple of seasons ago, I’d like to have seen the Gunners push on a bit more and really pressurise the wilting home defence. Had the Gunners been able to get more possession higher up the pitch, they’d surely have created more chances. Rather than taking the game by the scruff of the neck, Arsenal seemed to passively wait for City’s response when they should have made it impossible for the hosts to get back into the game by getting another goal. 
All is not lost completely as Arsenal have shown that they can go on a long unbeaten run, but with Chelsea continuing to win and Liverpool and Manchester City going past the Gunners, there is a strong sense of doom around after a dreadful week. Another defeat over Christmas and the league would virtually be ruined, despite the good work done by the team for most of the season. But it’s completely their own fault for throwing away two leads against teams who were low on confidence and were ready to be beaten. Now it is Arsenal in that boat and the Gunners could do with playing a team as friendly as themselves to throw away a game to restore some confidence.