Injuries mount as Arsenal slip up

Hopefully, the 2-1 defeat to West Bromwich Albion can be written off as one of those days where everything that could go wrong, seemingly does. At face value, losing a game in which you missed a penalty, scored an own goal, initially took the lead before going behind and had two holding midfielders go off injured looks rather careless.
The fear is that, with injuries building up, the defeat could spark a dip in form at the wrong time for the Gunners. Without anyone taking the league by the scruff of the neck and being a proper front runner, the opportunity really is there for Arsenal in the Premier League this season, so dropping cheap points in the manner they did on Saturday at the Hawthorns is concerning.
Everything seemed to be going well when Olivier Giroud glanced in another perfect set-piece delivery from Mesut Ozi to give the Gunners a 1-0 lead. With Jamie Vardy, rightly, dominating the headlines for his remarkable run of scoring in 10 games in a row, it went under the radar that Ozil bagged an assist for the seventh game in a row, leaving him alone out in front as the Premier League record holder for consecutive assists.
While Arsenal were restricted somewhat by having to play Kieran Gibbs as a left winger, and by West Brom sitting so deep when the Gunners had the ball, things still looked relatively comfortable. Ozil and Cazorla were still able to find a few small pockets of space, Alexis looked surprisingly lively considering how much he needs a rest and Kieran Gibbs didn’t look out of place on the flank.
However a crazy period of play before half time turned the match on its head and left Arsenal wondering how they were behind having been in control of the game. The answer was that West Brom punished a couple of slack moments from the Gunners, which was disappointing given how good the focus of the team has generally been during this season.
Mikel Arteta, who entered the fray early following a worrying injury picked up by Francis Coquelin, was wrongly penalised for a foul, despite Mark Clattenburg being right next to the incident. From the resulting free-kick, Arteta and Per Mertesacker didn’t stay with their runners and James Morrison was able to shin the ball in over Petr Cech.
Arsenal should have then looked to consolidate and make sure they didn’t concede again soon afterwards. The team were too casual having just conceded and were soon 2-1 down as some lazy tracking back allowed James McClean to play a ball across the six-yard box. Arteta had gone back into the penalty area but could only divert the ball into his own net as Cech didn’t intercept the ball in front of him.
Mikel Arteta hasn’t had much football this season, and can still do a job coming on later in a match to help close the game out, but his performance off the bench did highlight how important Francis Coquelin has become for Arsenal. Hopefully his knee injury isn’t too serious because, not long into the second half, Arteta was forced off with an injury himself, meaning Mathieu Flamini is now the only holding midfielder left. With Ramsey, Wilshere and Rosicky also out, the centre of Arsenal’s midfield is suddenly looking extremely thin.
Flamini did give Arsenal a bit more energy in the middle of the pitch as West Brom increasingly were forced further and further back in the second half. It wasn’t for a lack of effort from the Gunners, but they struggled to break down the organised Baggies. Mesut Ozil almost drew the Gunners level when he hit the post with a snap-shot from the edge of the box.
Joel Campbell was introduced for Kieran Gibbs, and the Costa Rican showed why he wasn’t given an opportunity in the team when others were fit earlier in the season. Santi Cazorla produced a fantastic chipped ball to the back post where Campbell had ghosted in to the edge of the six yard box, but he made a complete hash of the finish. It was on his stronger left foot, it wasn’t a hard chance, but Campbell completely mistimed his shot and screwed it horribly across goal. It’s not as if Joel Campbell was thrown into the game cold as he’s played in Arsenal’s last three matches and played in the international break for his country, so to produce such a woeful effort was terrible. When others return from injury, I can’t see Joel Campbell ever establishing himself as a regular in the Arsenal team.
Despite the Campbell miss, Arsenal had a chance to get back in the game late on as Mark Clattenburg awarded a penalty for Chris Brunt’s foul off the ball on Alexis Sanchez. It was good that Clattenburg gave the spot-kick, but it did make his decision to ignore Jonas Olsson’s rugby tackle on Olivier Giroud in the area earlier in the second half a bit stranger. Santi Cazorla stepped up and shot over the bar as his standing foot slipped as he went to strike the ball. It’s difficult to be angry at Santi for the miss because it’s hard to legislate for slipping over like that. It just added to the frustration of Arsenal losing a game they could, and should, have won and the feeling that it was a day when everything was going against the Gunners.
As Arsenal couldn’t salvage a late equaliser, it’s difficult to know how costly a slip that could be from Cazorla. Arsenal have responded well to set-backs this year, and they have no choice but to respond well against Dinamo Zagreb on Tuesday given the perilous position the team have got themselves in to in the Champions League. If Cazorla, and the team, allow the feelings from the West Brom game to linger, it could be a challenging few weeks for Arsenal, despite a run of fixtures that initially looked favourable.

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

In the penultimate post reviewing the 2014-2015 season, I’m going to assess the performance of Arsenal’s midfielders. As with the previous ones, there’ll be a short review of each player’s season and a one-word summary.
7. Tomas Rosicky
It was a frustrating season for Tomas Rosicky as he didn’t get as much game time as he wanted, or deserved. Despite being one of the oldest players in the squad, he still brings energy to any game with his driving runs forward and turn of pace to change the tempo of an attack. During the random start to the season, Rosicky was unlucky to not play more often as Arsene Wenger seemed determined to shoe-horn Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere into the same starting XI, despite both not quite being at their best. When he did get an opportunity, Rosicky made telling contributions with goals against QPR and Everton, and a sublime performance away to Brighton in the FA Cup.
I’m pleased he’s got another year at the club, and hopefully Arsene Wenger won’t be so reluctant to use him because of the different dynamic Rosicky can still bring to any Arsenal performance.
One-word summary: Persistent
Rating: 6/10
8. Mikel Arteta
Mikel Arteta’s season was ruined by injury, and the form of Francis Coquelin in his position means that it is likely Arsenal will go through another season with the club captain operating mostly from the bench. People shouldn’t be so quick to write Arteta off though as he remains a steadying influence on the rest of the team. This was typified by the Anderlecht capitulation at home in the Champions League. Arsenal were playing ok and were 3-0 up when Arteta went down injured. Anderlecht scored with the Spaniard on the ground and went on to draw 3-3 as Arsenal’s midfield disappeared when Arteta left the field. He will still be a quality player to have in the squad next season.
One-word summary: Respected
Rating: 5/10
10. Jack Wilshere
Another midfielder whose season was disrupted by injury. As with everyone in the early part of the season, there were glimpses of Wilshere’s undoubted ability without any consistency. The brilliant performance and goal at home to Manchester City was mixed in with pretty drab performances like Anderlecht away. Apart from his finishing, Wilshere was playing well in the game he had his ankle mangled in against Manchester United, so to see him on the side lines again was incredibly frustrating. His return was excellent though. Given how settled the side looked around April, Wilshere made some energetic cameos off the bench force his way into the starting XI before scoring that thunderous, net-busting, goal against West Brom.
Forget the newspaper rumours about Manchester City, there’s no way Arsene Wenger would let a home-grown player with this amount of talent leave.
One-word summary: THRIKER
Rating: 6/10
11. Mesut Ozil
Mesut Ozil typifies the two halves of Arsenal’s season. He looked off the pace after the World Cup before getting injured at the beginning of October. Ozil also wasn’t helped by playing out on the left as Arsene Wenger tried to get all of his attacking midfielders in the team. The time off the pitch injured did allow Ozil to bulk up and look refreshed when he returned in January. Several gorgeous and instrumental performances followed including a goal and an assist at home to Aston Villa, a spirited showing in the attempted fightback in Monaco, the glorious free-kick against Liverpool and *that* flick against Hull City. He almost saved his best for the FA Cup final as he strolled around Wembley in complete control of the game. He seems to have got to the grips with the Premier League and is a joy to watch play.
One-word summary: Silky
Rating: 7.5/10
15. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
2014-2015 was the first season that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was able to hold down a regular starting place for a sustained period of time before injury (what else?) disrupted his progress. The Ox was one of the positives to emerge from the early season performances with some excellent displays. Before his last injury of the season, Oxlade-Chamberlain was superb at Old Trafford in the FA Cup as he bagged an assist and forced Louis van Gaal to substitute left-back Luke Shaw at half-time after he was rinsed by the Ox. He’ll still only be 21 at the start of the next season, so there’s plenty of time for further progress as he’s got all the attributes to be a phenomenal player for the club.
One-word summary: Maturing
Rating: 7/10
16. Aaron Ramsey
It was a strange season for Aaron Ramsey as it’ll probably go down as a disappointing one, but there were still some brilliant moments. He didn’t quite hit the goal scoring heights of the previous campaign, but it’s telling how high his standards have now become that he reached double figures from midfield and it’s still a disappointing campaign. Ramsey had moments where the old tendencies of giving the ball away and shooting wildly wide returned, but generally he was a driving force in the Arsenal midfield. Even when playing badly, he has a knack of making something happen or emerging on the scene at the right time to make a pass or have a shot. Overall, Ramsey is unrecognisable from the player he was two years ago. Oh, and there was that goal at Galatasaray. Phwoar.
One-word summary: Bearded
Rating: 7/10
19. Santi Cazorla
2014-2015 was the Spaniard’s best season for the club. Without Mesut Ozil for a lot of the first half of the season, Cazorla was able to be the attacking hub of the team again, which helped him regain his mojo after a slightly slow start to the season and the terrible World Cup efforts from Spain. The dominant showing at home to Newcastle, which was topped off by a glorious chipped goal and Paneka penalty, was a particular highlight in that period of the season. When Ozil returned, Cazorla remained central, but dropped deeper and showed what a sensational footballer he is. He would have been the obvious man to drop out when the German returned from injury, but Cazorla made himself un-droppable with consistent, brilliant performances. I believe that his display away to Manchester City was the best all-round performance from any midfielder in the Premier League in 2014-2015.
One-word summary: Majestic
Rating: 8/10
20. Mathieu Flamini
Flamini is now nothing more than cover in central midfield. He’s clearly a respected and popular member of the squad, and he did a good job in the previous season after signing on a free transfer, but I don’t think it was a coincidence that some of Arsenal’s worst performances in 2014-2015 had Mathieu Flamini at the base of the midfield. He did provide one of my funniest moments of the season though by coming on to play on the right wing against West Ham and scoring a tap-in a minute after arriving into the game. You can never question him for commitment or effort on the pitch, but he’s now the third-choice holding player in the squad.
One-word summary: Usurped
Rating: 4/10
24. Abou Diaby
The case of Abou Diaby makes me very sad. He could have been majestic in Arsenal’s midfield for many years, but some bad tackles and his body letting him down has meant his career at Arsenal could be at an end. He did get more game time in 2014-2015 than in the previous season, but it was only by a matter of minutes and still totalled less than 70 minutes. It’s unlikely he’ll play in the Arsenal first team again, but that isn’t a reflection on his character and commitment to try and play again.
One-word summary: Saddening
Rating: 2/10
34. Francis Coquelin
The story of the season. I’d almost forgotten he was at the club until he suddenly appeared at left-back in the Capital One Cup against Southampton. A loan move to Charlton seemed like the final step towards a permanent move away from the club in January before injuries to overs intervened, and suddenly the Coq was in the squad for a Premier League game. When he got his chance, he took it with interception after interception, tackle after tackle and disciplined displays that took pressure off the rest of the team. Like Cazorla, his performances made it impossible to drop him from the starting XI. Whether Coquelin can maintain his high standards into next season will be interesting to see, but he thoroughly deserves his chance to continue to patrol the midfield after a stellar second half of the season.
One-word summary: Immense
Rating: 8/10

Arteta goes off, takes whole midfield with him

After the pretty unjust smash and grab job done by Arsenal to somehow escape Brussels with a 2-1 win, it’s arguably poetic justice that Anderlecht came back so spectacularly to draw 3-3 at the Emirates on Tuesday night. But poetic justice should mean f*** all in football. If you’re 3-0 up at home, you should win the match, end of story.
But this is Arsenal. Dazzling brilliant one moment, a team with no confidence ready the pull the trigger on its own foot the next.
The key turning point came just as Arsenal were celebrating Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s well-taken goal to make it 3-0. Mikel Arteta went over to the touchline to receive some treatment, and in the few minutes that followed, continued to gesture to the bench asking to be replaced as he gingerly moved around the pitch. With Arsenal’s captain essentially immobilised, Anderlecht were able to work the ball through midfield and out to the left, before Vanden Borre popped up to score. It was clearly offside, but it shouldn’t have mattered at that point. It should have just been a consolation.
Mathieu Flamini came on to replace Arteta, but Arsenal’s play missed the calming influence of the Spaniard. The Gunners were more panicked in possession and progressively dropped deeper and deeper as the second half wore on. Without Arteta, the midfield also seemed to lose all organisation. I’m all for being flexible and wingers mixing it up by attacking different flanks, but when closing out a match, there needs to be some discipline in the formation. Calum Chambers was left exposed too often as Arsenal appeared to play without any wide midfielders. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s goal was great, but I have no idea where he was meant to be playing in the second half as he didn’t seem to offer protection to either full-back. Cazorla also drifted inside so all Anderlecht had to do was the work the ball wide and they had a dangerous situation. Having been rigid with 4-5-1 earlier in the season, Arsenal’s midfield was suddenly too fluid and seemed to lack any defensive organisation and discipline without Arteta.
The penalty that made it 3-2 was also horribly predictable. Overall, Nacho Monreal has acquitted himself admirably as a make-shift centre-back, but he was always going to be at risk of being caught out because he still doesn’t have the natural instinct of how to defend certain situations in the centre. It might have been a harsh decision, but in Europe, as soon as the forward gets goal-side of the defender and there’s some contact, the referee isn’t going to hesitate over giving a spot kick.
Having brought on Tomas Rosicky and Lukas Podolski, the Arsenal midfield still didn’t quite seem to exist in the last ten minutes of the game. The equaliser for the Belgians also typified why Podolski isn’t starting games. For someone that should have been fresh, the lack of effort in closing down the cross was staggering.
Now, in reality, even though a win would have taken the Gunners into the knockout rounds, Arsenal should still qualify, only needing a point from two games to do so. But, the damaging effect of the 3-3 draw is that second place in the group is the likely outcome, so Arsenal will do well to avoid another big name in the next round, should they secure qualification, which looks immensely careless after the experience of facing Bayern Munich two years in a row.
More damaging than facing a tougher opponent could be the effect the draw has on the team’s mentality. Things had been looking up in the last couple of weeks, but it’s genuinely terrifying to see how fragile this Arsenal team is. A 3-3 draw in those circumstances can be destructive, so suddenly the trip to Swansea in Sunday has taken on a completely new complexion. Arsenal have to go there, be organised, and not do anything stupid.
That the game was thrown away by such a meagre performance in the last half an hour of the game was made more frustrating as it wasted the three good goals Arsenal scored. Welbeck worked hard to get in front of the defender to the win the penalty that was superbly dispatched by Arteta. Alexis Sanchez then continued his rich vein of form with a stonking volley after his free-kick hit the wall. Oxlade-Chamberlain then showed great pace down the left wing to set up a calm finish for what should have been the clinching goal.
Arsene Wenger isn’t always renowned as a manger who loses his temper often, but I hope he let the players know how unacceptable that capitulation was. That was a chance to ramp up the goal difference and seal qualification. Now everything and everyone, bar Alexis, is being questioned again. Wenger should have sorted out the organisation in the midfield when Anderlecht started to over-run Arsenal in that area of the pitch, but the players do have to take an element of responsibility. It should have been clear it wasn’t a balanced midfield defensively, and it wouldn’t have been difficult to sort out someone to play properly on the flanks and protect the full-backs a bit more.
It isn’t a fatal result for the Champions League campaign, but could have long-running confidence for the season as a whole. Arsene and Arsenal need to offer a serious response at Swansea on Sunday. As he went off injured, I presume Mikel Arteta will be unavailable. Without him, it’d be nice if the midfield could turn up on Sunday and show some signs of organisation.