Complacent Gunners punished for a shambolic first half

Unless you’re Arsenal in 2003-04, defeats are part of football. Sometimes you can play well and they just happen. A bit of bad luck or a bad call can just sway things against you. In those circumstances, while it is still painful, you can at least take it in the knowledge that your team gave everything and still put in a positive performance.
Tuesday night’s defeat to Watford wasn’t one of those occasions. What is unacceptable is when a team of talented players don’t put the effort in, don’t look like they want it and don’t turn up with the right attitude.
The first half from Arsenal was an embarrassment. Watford were well enough organised, but were hardly playing incisive, free-flowing football. Yet they deservedly led 2-0 at the break because they just fed off Arsenal’s lackadaisical approach to the game and some ridiculous individual errors. The Gunners have put in some poor first half performances since the turn of the year, notably at Bournemouth and Preston, but this half topped the lot for incompetence. In those games, Arsenal did enough to get out of jail, but as a team, they can’t just rely on being able to score late goals all the time. It’s brilliant that they have the mental fortitude and fitness to go late into games to win/draw them if necessary, but it would be good if against distinctly average opposition, which is what Watford were, they could actually turn up for the first half.
There is no good excuse as to why everyone out there in red and white played so poorly in the first 45. Almost all of them hadn’t played for a week and a half so should have been fresh, and with the clinical demolition of Southampton executed by the rest of the squad on Saturday, those starting against the Hornets should have played weary that others want their position in the team. Even though there is a big game to come this weekend at Chelsea, it was only ever going to be a chance to really close the gap if Arsenal could set it up with a win, so all the focus of the players should have been on Watford.
Amidst the general choas of the first half, there were a few things that really stood out. Even though he has done a decent enough job filling in at right-back, Gabriel really shouldn’t be used there unless there is an injury crisis in that position. Hector Bellerin has been working his way back to fitness, so it was understandable that Arsene Wenger picked the Brazilian centre-back on the flank again, but hopefully we won’t have to see Gabriel in that position for a while. His dreadful throw-in began the catalogue of errors that led to Watford’s second goal and positionally he was caught out too often.
But it’s in attack where Arsenal lose out dramatically with Gabriel playing as a full-back. There were numerous occasions in the second half where Theo Walcott had no support from Gabriel behind him, when usually Bellerin would be making an overlapping run and giving Arsenal an extra element of dynamism to the attack. There were a lack of understanding on Arsenal’s right flank for the whole game, and unfortunately it stemmed from the full-back. Had Arsene Wenger not had to make an enforced change due to Aaron Ramsey’s injury, I’m sure he would have subbed Gabriel in the second half. Bellerin was on the bench last night, so will be straight back in for Chelsea on Saturday.
Without Granit Xhaka, the midfield looked vulnerable. Francis Coquelin is a very good player and has had some great games for Arsenal, but for some reason, he and Aaron Ramsey can’t seem to click as a partnership. The Gunners had no early control on the game in the early exchanges and didn’t set the pace of the game, allowing Watford to score the early goals. For the second, following Gabriel’s rubbish throw-in, Ramsey and Coquelin could have prevented Capoue from walking through towards goal in the way he did. Although Xhaka is a card-magnet, I’d like to think he’d have done the sensible thing and fouled Capoue before he made it to the box to shoot.
It’s often true that the absence of someone can enhance a player’s reputation because you imagine how things would be improved if they’d been there, but there’s a strong case that Arsenal missed the Swiss international badly on Tuesday. Forget the bad press he got for a harsh red card against Burnley, he’s been playing well recently and would surely have offered more control in the midfield on Tuesday night.
Even though he has had some heroic moments for Arsenal this season, Olivier Giroud has to be back on the bench for the game with Chelsea this weekend. He got subbed at half-time on Tuesday night, and while he wasn’t the main problem with the performance as he had barely any service to feed off, the Gunners were sparked into life with Alexis down the middle in the second half. As the game went on, it would then have been ideal to be able to bring Giroud on for the last 15 minutes with the balls into the box becoming more direct.
Regular podcast listeners will know that I have a lot of time for Olivier Giroud and think he is a fantastic player to have in the squad, but there is no doubting that Arsenal have looked at their most dangerous this season with three more mobile players in the front three. It was clear on Saturday as Welbeck, Lucas and Walcott ran Southampton ragged, and was clear when Alexis and Iwobi were able to link up when one was down the middle and the other on the left on Tuesday. Away from home at Stamford Bridge, Arsenal are likely to have to play more on the counter-attack, so the pacey front-line has to be reverted to from the start.
Arsene Wenger was right this week to praise the quality of attacking options in his squad earlier in the week, but the pressure is on him to get the balance right for each game. On Tuesday, he didn’t get it right in the first half, but then to correct it he was left without the different option of Giroud later in the game. Whereas in the past the pressure has been on the manager to improve the squad, the pressure is now to perform with a big and good-quality squad. Excuses will start to run thin if Arsenal don’t cut out these ridiculous defeats when the squad is in the best shape it has probably ever been since the move to Emirates Stadium.
With others dropping points, Tuesday night was a massive missed opportunity. Arsenal need to almost forget the title race and just think of Saturday’s game with Chelsea as a one-off. It is a must win to have any hopes of even attempting to catch them, but if Arsenal put too much pressure on themselves, they could crumble again, so looking at it in isolation is surely the best way to approach it.
The key will be to not start like they did on Tuesday. If Arsenal play like they did early on against Watford, the defeat to Chelsea could potentially be even worse than it was three years ago when Arsenal lost 6-0.


A stroll in Swansea moves Arsenal back into the top four

After a slightly stressful festive period and third round of the FA Cup, it was nice for Arsenal not to need a late goal from Olivier Giroud to bail them out again as they comprehensively beat Swansea on Saturday. The 4-0 win will have been an eye-opener for Paul Clement as he begins the task of trying to keep the Swans in the division, and if they continue to play like they did in the second half against the Gunners, that job is going to be nearly impossible.
Arsenal continued the slightly annoying recent trend of starting poorly in the first half as the hosts created a few decent openings, pressed high up the pitch and restricted space for the likes of Ozil and Alexis, but once the Gunners took the lead, they never looked like surrendering it. 
Olivier Giroud continued his excellent run of form by scoring the opener in the first half. The only surprise was that it wasn’t in the last ten minutes and wasn’t a scorpion kick. The Frenchman seemed to pick up a knock to his ankle early in the game and aggrevated it trying to get on the end of Aaron Ramsey’s low cross. He picked himself up and fired in from close range moments later as Alexis collected the ball from Ramsey, crossed for Ozil, and the German’s blocked header fell perfectly for Giroud to find the roof of the net with his right foot.
He immediately signalled to be substituted, but battled through to half-time and for 15 minutes into the second half. By that time, the game was almost wrapped up after the second Arsenal goal. Arsene Wenger’s team started the second half in much the same way they did at Preston in the previous game. There was more intensity about the play as they didn’t let the home side dictate the terms of the game. They pushed Swansea back, piled on the pressure and made them panic. Even though it was 1-0 at the break, the first half was slack from the Gunners, but they were much sharper in the second period. Similar things have happened now at Bournemouth, Preston and Swansea, and against better opposition, if Arsenal continue to start badly, they’ll be punished more. It’s something Arsene Wenger needs to address, but it was pleasing that even though the team were winning, they reacted to the quality of their performance rather than the scoreline. It would have been easy to think that it 1-0, not try and up the tempo and just look to slow the game now. Instead, Arsenal massively upped their game and swarmed all over the Swans in the second period.
This second-half improvement wasn’t driven primarily by the returning Mesut Ozil or Alexis Sanchez, but by Alex Iwobi. The Nigerian buzzed around dangerous areas and always offered himself to the midfield as a forward pass. His strength on the ball while maintaining close control really shone through in the second half, as did his mature decision making. He’s not just got the skills to play well with his feet, but increasingly his brain is thinking a couple of steps ahead of others, which is very impressive for a young player like him.
Iwobi’s goal-bound shot after a period of concerted Arsenal pressure doubled the lead after half-time as Jack Cork’s touch looped the ball over Lukasz Fabianski. Shortly afterwards, Iwobi drove into the Swansea box again and his low, drilled cross was put past his own goalkeeper by Kyle Naughton. The second one was definitely an own goal, but hopefully the dubious goals panel don’t credit Jack Cork with an own goal when Iwobi’s shot was likely to go into the bottom corner. The Arsenal attacker definitely deserved a goal for an industrious and eye-catching performance.
At 3-0, the game was done. Arsenal kept on attacking though with the forward players sensing a chance to boost the goal difference. When Arsenal have been in these situations this season, it’s been refreshing to see them continue to attack and not just kill the game off. With the league table being very tight around the top four, it could make a difference in May.
Iwobi was involved again as the Gunners bagged a fourth. His through ball set Oxlade-Chamberlain away down the left but his cut-back couldn’t quite find Aaron Ramsey. But the ball fell to the lurking Alexis Sanchez, who expertly swivelled to volley into the top corner to continue his excellent recent form. 
At 4-0 and with 12 minutes to go, Arsene Wenger made the understandable decision to give Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez a rest by bringing on Lucas Perez and Danny Welbeck. While we all absolutely love that Alexis hates being substituted, it was a bit disappointing to see him having a sulk on the bench afterwards. I don’t think it as much of an issue as some are making it out to be as Alexis just wants to play, but he does also have to respect the manager’s decision and take the bigger picture when the team were 4-0 up. Imagine the criticism Wenger would get had he left him on and a frustrated Swansea player injured the Chilean with a crude late tackle. It was absolutely the right decision from the boss to give him a rest.
There will be much tougher games for Arsenal in the coming weeks, but with Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool all dropping points this weekend, it was vital Arsenal got the three points. Alexis and Giroud may have scored and continued to be the headline-makers, but it was a youngster from the Arsenal academy that really drove the team on to an excellent second-half display.

Captain Giroud leads from the front with another late goal

This week has proved that it is never boring following the Arsenal. After Olivier Giroud’s wonder goal against Crystal Palace, there was the comeback from 3-0 down at Bournemouth. On Saturday, Arsenal did things the hard way again with a woeful first half against Preston North End in the FA Cup but responded with a turnaround and another late goal from Giroud.
The FA Cup is a brilliant tournament, but it is striking how seriously some teams, and their fans, take the competition. There were plenty of games in the third round that were played in front of half-empty stadiums with managers making almost 11 changes to some starting XIs. For a manager that has won the FA Cup so many times, it always seems daft to question Arsene Wenger’s commitment to the competition and I’m glad that he takes it so seriously. Alexis Sanchez, Laurent Koscielny and Hector Bellerin, all of whom were struggling after Bournemouth, were rested but otherwise with the exception of changing the goalkeeper, Wenger picked the strongest team available to him. Arsenal also had almost 6,000 travelling fans behind them as a full house at Deepdale made for a cracking cup atmosphere. But the side sent Arsene Wenger sent out did little in the first half to suggest that the club were serious about the tournament. 
The Gunners were off the pace of the game as the hosts played at a high tempo and deservedly took the lead inside the first ten minutes. Arsenal didn’t have any control in midfield, couldn’t really get Olivier Giroud involved up front and looked vulnerable at right-back with Ainsley Maitland-Niles showing his inexperience. Preston should have increased the lead before half-time as they butchered a clear chance with a square pass missing the onrushing forward with the goal gaping and Nacho Monreal had to clear a lobbed effort off the line. 
Questions still have to be asked about how and why Arsenal are continually struggling to impose themselves early in games. It happened at Bournemouth and, to a certain extent, against West Brom on Boxing Day. But what can’t be doubted is Arsenal’s response to adversity. It was weak last month against Everton and Manchester City, but since then, Arsenal have shown a determination to not meekly let games peter out. After half-time, the Gunners showed they meant business by zipping the ball around much quicker and playing with a desire for the fight to stay in the FA Cup. 
That was typified by Olivier Giroud, who in the absence of Mertesacker, Koscielny, Cazorla and Cech, was given the responsibility of wearing the captain’s armband. Unlike when some players get the armband, Giroud didn’t seem to view as just a nice reward for good service for the club, he took the leadership role on with relish. He was regularly in the ear of the referee, constantly tried to gee his team up and was the focal point for the team to play round up front. As I wrote after Bournemouth, Giroud cares about the club and that showed in how impressively he took on the captaincy for the day. 
After the break, Arsenal levelled up quickly as Aaron Ramsey found space on the edge of the box to hammer in his first goal of the season. He was under pressure so did well to sneak the ball inside the near post as the goalkeeper didn’t move as the shot flew past him. The goal seemed to reinvigorate Ramsey who, like most in yellow, stunk the place out with the first half performance. With all of the injuries in the centre of Arsenal’s midfield, Arsene Wenger needs a fit and firing Aaron Ramsey, and there were signs in the second half that he was getting back to somewhere near his best.
For the rest of the second half, Arsenal always looked the more likely team to score a winning goal. Giroud was denied by an offside flag and Shkodran Mustafi was denied by an excellent save. Preston also increasingly became tetchy with niggly fouls and players going down easily to try and break up play.
The pressure finally told though as Olivier Giroud bagged a fourth goal in as many games, and the third of those four to come inside the last seven minutes of the game. The ball into the area was flicked on by the Frenchman for Lucas Perez, who in turn back-heeled the ball back into the path of Giroud near the six-yard box. The shot was deflected, but found a way past the goalkeeper as Giroud showed his incredible sense of timing again. 
Along with Giroud bagging another goal, there was also a welcome return for Danny Welbeck. He appeared inside the final ten minutes and almost marked his comeback from injury with a curling effort that was well-saved when bound for the top corner. With Lucas and Giroud both in good form and making important contributions, Welbeck can be eased back into action without too much pressure, but he is a player that can make a big impact on the second half of Arsenal’s season. Even in the short appearance he made at Preston, he looked sharp and showed the pace and direct forward play that he can offer. 
Arsene Wenger has never lost in the 3rd round of the FA Cup, and although that record was in danger, Arsenal responded and managed to avoid an inconvenient replay. Not for the first time in recent weeks, it was thanks to Olivier Giroud.