Thursday, January 24, 2013

W-L-W... Consistently Inconsistent

Arsenal 1-0 Swansea (FA Cup)
Chelsea 2-1 Arsenal
Arsenal 5-1 West Ham

The Man City game at the Emirates suggested a tendency to start slowly, very slowly, and then wake up at half time. Three games since have confirmed that tendency, and the result is that against good teams, Arsenal are giving themselves too much to do, while against less good teams, one good half is usually enough.

In the Swansea replay, it was bitty, lethargic, low-tempo stuff in a first half during which ex-Gunner Kyle Bartley came closest to scoring. A wicked inswinging free kick gave him a free, close range header, but his effort, as in the first tie, hit the crossbar. As in the rather chastening league game between the sides in North London, Swansea at times looked more Arsenal than Arsenal themselves, very assured in possession, and threatening despite Michu only occupying a place on the bench.

It was all change after the break. Jack Wilshere produced the kind of display that justifies his status as England's latest great white hope. He was all drive, subtle of touch and with a bewitching ability to just glide past opponents in midfield with a quick change of pace.

Arsenal battered Swansea, but Walcott was wasteful on at least three occasions, enduring one of his less efficient days in front of goal. A couple of goalmouth scrambles in which the ball stubbornly refused to cross the line made you wonder if this was to be one of those strange,unlucky matches, but with an unwelcome extra half hour looming Cazorla fired a pass to Giroud on the edge of the area, he produced a deft first time lay-off inside, and Wilshere advanced to whack the ball confidently past the keeper and in.

The goal and the passionate celebration were both quite Gerrardesque, but in my opinion, Arsenal have a player of more substance than the overhyped Liverpool captain.

The big game at Chelsea, like the big game against Manchester City, brought out the worst in Arsenal again. Another slow start punished, another second half improvement, but another mountain that proved just too high. The way things are going, the mountain analogy will soon apply to the battle for fourth aswell.

Arsenal actually crafted the first clear chance, but it proved to be their only flash of quality in an utterly abysmal first half display. Cazorla zipped a low, cross field ball to Walcott, who fashioned an uncharacteristically incisive through ball to Giroud. The angle seemed to favour the Frenchman but, on his stronger left foot, he drove disappointingly wide of Cech's far post. At moments like that, in tight games, Giroud suffers badly from the unavoidable comparisons with Van Persie. Nobody expects him to match possibly the world's foremost frontman, but the almost-ex-Arsenal player he most often reminds me of is in fact Bendtner! I think Giroud is a better player, but he lacks the Dane's much maligned self-belief, and against good teams, his lack of a clinical touch in front of goal is costing Arsenal.

Punishment was not long in waiting after his miss. It was a typical concession, infuriatingly soft, but not without a sizable dose of misfortune. Coquelin was caught painfully on the ankle in midfield by Ramires, but as the ball broke and the referee missed the foul, Chelsea launched a counter of devastating efficiency. The right back whose name I can't be bothered to try to write raked a long diagonal to Mata, racing in behind Sagna- who has, since I wrote in his praise on New Year's Day, continued to endure his worst run of form since coming to England. The Spaniard killed the pass immaculately and lifted a shot past Szczesny and high into the net.

Cazorla forced a decent save from Cech with a fine long distance try but Coquelin and Diaby were chasing shadows, confounded by Chelsea's enviable trio of attacking midfielders. Arsenal were so passive, apparently unwilling to put Chelsea's possession under any pressure; it all just looked so easy for the home side.

Abou Diaby's apologists most often suggest in his favour that, if and when he becomes fully fit, he will provide a dynamism that Arsenal's midfield otherwise lacks. The irony is that his playing style is in fact so languid and at times downright lazy- he is far more likely to dawdle on the ball than drive his team on. So it was in the build up to Chelsea's second. He was robbed in his own half, he couldn't really be arsed to chase back with conviction, Chelsea outnumbered Arsenal, the ball was worked to Ramires in acres inside the area. He stepped inside the onrushing Szczesny, then flopped to the ground. Spot kick, keeper booked (could have been red!), Lampard reliable as always, 2-0.

Replays were disturbing on a couple of levels. Firstly, there was again an element of misfortune, as Szczesny actually barely made any contact with Ramires. It was a top drawer piece of "simulation"- so good the Arsenal netminder didn't even bother complaining after the penalty was awarded. More worryingly, one angle on the replay showed the incredible fact that when the ball was passed to Ramires, more than one Arsenal player went from a jog to a stroll- walking back towards their own goal. If that's the level of commitment the team exhibits in what was, table standings considered, the biggest game of the season, Arsene Wenger has even more serious problems on his hands than I'd previously thought.

Arsenal continued in abject fashion until the break. If Ba and not Torres had started as Chelsea's striker, the scoreline would probably have been more decisive at half time. As it was, Arsenal still had a chance, especially because Chelsea had, in midweek, thrown away a two goal lead at home to Southampton.

This undoubtedly played a part in the home side's tentative play after the interval, but I was also led to ponder the highly hypothetical question of how the game would have progressed if Chelsea had no manager at all. Rafa Benitez is an absolute control freak who seems to derive no enjoyment from open, attacking football even if his own team are producing it. It would have seemed natural to most that Oscar, Mata and Hazard should simply continue as they had started but it was clear from the outset of the second half that the Blues had containment on their minds. That worked in favour of a Gunners team who had benefited no doubt from some choice words from their manager.

There was energy, purpose, pressure applied to Chelsea players. Why it didn't happen from the start, nobody knows. Arsenal threatened for a long spell to score and finally did when Cazorla slid a delicious through ball to Walcott, and the wingstriker floated a side foot over Cech's dive and into the corner. This definitely set Chelsea nerves a-janglin' and Arsenal found a sudden sense of swagger; a thrilling counter attack instigated by Cazorla ended with Walcott stepping inside onto his usually useless left peg and dribbling an anti-climatic shot hopelessly wide.

Benitez reacted shrewdly enough, though why he waited until Arsenal finally found the net I'm not quite sure. Bertrand came on for Oscar, shoring up Chelsea's midfield, denying Arsenal the space they had enjoyed going forward since the break. Arsenal, on the other hand, had no hands to play, no change from the bench to change matters on the pitch. The fact that Arshavin, overweight and unwanted, was sent on to try and produce something from distant memory rather summed up the ludicrous situation with Arsenal's lack of further signings both in the summer and in the past few weeks.

In the closing stages Arsenal had pressure but only half chances, while Chelsea occasionally broke explosively but failed to make the game safe. At one point, Torres produced a jet-heeled burst that evoked the Torres of old, to leave Vermaelen trailing in his slipstream, but then produced a touch that was very much the Torres of today, sending the ball harmlessly rolling into Szczesny's arms. Ba came on soon after and won his own battle with the Arsenal keeper, dancing around him on the edge of the area, but Vermaelen had sprinted back and managed to block the striker's ensuing effort.

In the end, a damaging defeat, a dispiriting day.

This left Arsenal seven points behind Spurs, and with the game in hand on the horizon against West Ham, truly a must-win game. Things didn't start too well here either, as Collinson smashed home from a corner kick that Giroud had weakly cleared. Soon after, Podolski conjured some much-needed inspiration, collecting Wilshere's cute dink infield and dispatching a thriker past Jaaskelainen, the ball arrowing into the corner of the net from fully 25 yards.

West Ham could have led at half time. Again, after the break, huge improvement. Arsenal blew them away in a whirlwind spell,four goals in about ten minutes. Walcott found Giroud with a near post corner, and the Frenchman volleyed home for 2-1. It looked suspiciously like a rehearsed routine from the training ground, with Mertesacker making a run to create the space for Giroud. That's right- an innovative set piece! From Wenger's Arsenal! Against an Allardyce team!

The flurry that followed was more classically Wenger's Arsenal. A lovely move ended with Giroud flipping a first time pass throught to Podolski, who squared to Cazorla, who sent a cheekly back flick rolling over the line. Then Arsenal broke at pace, Podolski tore down the left and slid a great cross to Walcott at the back stick for 4-1. Then Arsenal broke at pace again, Wilshere sent Podolski racing down the left again, and again he found the right pass, this time low to the near post, where Giroud notched his second and Arsenal's fifth.

Arsenal remain unable to control a match, so they will need more productive flurries like this to stay in touch with the top four. And they still need signings too. But we have learned not to hold our breath waiting for that.

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