Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Tottenham 2 Arsenal 1

Las Mimosas bar started filling up earlier than usual ahead of kick off of a north London derby with Gooners who didn't want to miss out on seats in the popular bar, including John and Karen, who turned up one hour earlier, thinking the kick-off was at 4 pm Spanish time. This north London derby had an extra significance with more than bragging rights at stake, as the two neighbouring clubs were only separated by four points, looking to push on for a Champions League spot. A win would move us up to only one point behind them, while a loss would open up the gap to seven points. This was a real six pointer.

The focus of our pre-match talks was on a reported £1.5 billion take-over bid for Arsenal FC by a Middle East consortium. The news seemed to have been generally received favourably among the Playa Flamenca Gooners, with expectations for cash injections and the prospect of drastic changes. However, with qualification for next season's Champions League thought to be a condition for the proposed take-over or the basis of the valuation of the Club's worth, the bid now looks less likely to take place.

Wenger only made one change to his side who started in a 2-1 win over Aston Villa last weekend. Abou Diaby, who hobbled off the pitch against Aston Villa, failed to pass late fitness tests and did not even make the bench. Bacary Sagna also failed to recover in time from his knee injury he sustained during the Bayern Munich game, which meant Carl Jenkinson continued deputising for the French defender at right back.

We thought Koscielny would get the nod for this game because of his pace, but Mertesacker continued in central defence alongside Vermaelen. If Arsenal were to play such a high defensive line, Koscielny may indeed have been a better choice. However, the defensive frailty exposed in this game did not necessarily stem from Mertesacker's lack of pace, but the whole defensive unit did not cope well with the pace of Tottenham's attack nor manage their own high line well. Besides, Koscielny has his own problem of error-proneness. Back in September, when he was selected ahead of Mertesacker against Torres, his two mistakes cost us three points. It seems that it always turns out to be a wrong decision, whichever is chosen, Koscielny or Mertesacker.

Santi Cazorla has been excellent on the left flank in recent weeks, which kept Lukas Podolski out of the starting line-up. Combined with Jack Wilshere excelling in a No. 10 role, which was played previously by Santi Cazorla, Poldi has rarely started of late. Although it is understandable for Wenger to continue playing Santi and Jack in these positions, we don't understand the Frenchman's reluctance to play Poldi, considering the fact that Wenger has been known as a long-term admirer of the German striker. We want to see him in a central striker role, especially now Giroud's form has dipped.

Santi's deployment on the flank again opened up another central midfielder position alongside Mikel Arteta, which was occupied by Aaron Ramsey in the absence of Abou Diaby.

The team selection was more or less in line with our expectations, but what baffled us was Wenger's substitutions. Rosicky came on for Jenkinson in the 60th minute, when we were pushing for an equaliser. The Frenchman's intention to add more attacking force was easy to understand, but not at the expense of one of our best players on the pitch. Jenks was a threat going forward, providing the width, putting in superb crosses all the time and even his cross-cum-shot tested Hugo Lloris. Jenkinson's withdrawal meant Aaron Ramsey was once again pushed to right back. Although Ramsey had a good game overall, surely a specialist right-back would have been a better choice for the position. A straightforwad swap, i.e., Rosicky for Ramsey, may have done just the job.

Another questionable substitution decision was the timing of Poldi's arrvival. Although he did not make as big an impact as we hoped, if he had come on earlier, he could have made a difference. During his 15-minute appearance, he had a goalbound shot deflected wide.

This game highlighted two big issues at the back and front. We allowed two easy goals. Although our defence is still the fourth best in the league statistically and had the best defensive record away from home before this game, the lapse of concentration (the second goal was conceded while Santi Cazorla was injured by Sigurdsson) and the lack of communication should be addressed before we embark on the crucial 10 remaining games.

Up front, we didn't take advantage of our possession and chances when we were on top in the first 35 minutes. This problem has been apparent for some time, but against bottom- to mid-table teams, we have managed to scrape wins, where we could have beaten them comprehensively. To start with, poor finishing is to blame. If Giroud buried that clear-cut chance early in the first half, it could have been a different game. We also lacked accuracy in the final ball and crosses. Secondly, we want to see a change in approaches to our game. Our usual probing passes around the edge of the box didn't find a breakthrough to Tottenham's resolute defence. Predictable crosses from wide positions were easy for them to defend as well. Our attack has to be more direct in order to find penetration into the box.

At Las Mimosas bar, we were critical about Walcott's ineffectiveness, complaining that he should have used his pace like Aaron Lennon did. Therefore, when we watched the Match of the Day 2 on that night, Walcott's movement off the ball was a revelation to us. Contrary to our perception, Theo was making quite a few good runs, when he did not have the ball, but unfortunately most of them were not picked out by Jack Wilshere. In those cases, Jack dribbled sideways instead of pushing the ball forward to release Theo behind the Tottenham defenders. Hopefully Jack will learn lessons and improve his game. If those clever runs of Theo's had been used, we could have found the net more than once.

The result was obviously very disappointing. We saw the same result with the same scoreline for the corresponding fixture last season, but there is no denying this one dealt a severe blow to our Champions League qualification aspiration and the hopes of finishing above our old archrivals. However, our players' general performance showed some encouraging signs. Despite the reputation as a second-half team, we started the game very well. The tempo was high. Passing was crisp. No one can say that we were outplayed or outclassed like we were in the Bayern Munich game. Stats showed that we had a majority (61%) of possession and our passing success rate was right up to our standards (83% vs Tottenham's 73%). Our midfield pressed well (perhaps they could have done better to put pressure on assist providers, Sigurdsson and Parker, on the two particular occasions, though). We mounted heavy pressure in the second half with desire and determination to win the game only to be disrupted by injuries to Tottenham players. Overall, we didn't play badly, but the lapse of concentration cost us dearly. We had enough quality in the team and produced good enough performance to win a match on another day, but it wasn't to be.

I have to admit that even within our Supporters Club, quite a few members hope we will not finish in the top four so that it will serve as a wake-up call and trigger major changes within Arsenal FC. However, Champions League qualification is imperative for the Club to attract world-class players in order to reinforce the squad next summer. A top-four finish now looks increasingly difficult, but keep fingers crossed that Tottenham and Chelsea will slip up and drop more points. But before that, we have to be consistent and win the remaining games.

Player ratings

Szczesny: 6
Made some good stops.

Jenkinson: 7
Good going forward. He has better crossing than Sagna does.

Mertesacker: 7
Scored with a towering header (hope the dubious goal committee won't rule it as Bale's own goal). His two goals in an Arsenal shirt both came from this season's north London derbies.

Vermaelen: 6
He lacked leadership in defence and should have been more aware of the positioning of him and his central defensive partner.

Monreal: 5
He was guilty of Tottenham's second goal. He should have picked out Lennon's run and stopped it. It was a disappointing mistake as he looked like a good defensive addition.

Ramsey: 7
Lively, but he slowed down our quick counter-attacks. Fired a shot inches past far post.

Arteta: 6
Did his job, but made significantly fewer touches (66) than usual. (Actually, other Arsenal players also had fewer touches than usual).

Wilshere: 7
Influential in Arsenal's attacking play.

Cazorla: 6
Did not provide his usual creative spark, but worked hard defensively, doubling up on Tottenham's wide players on the left flank with Monreal. His pass sent Giroud into a great position only for the French striker to have his shot blocked.

Walcott: 6
His free-kick led to Mertesacker's goal.

Giroud: 5
Won most of aerial duels (12), but his holding-up of the ball on this day left something to be desired. He also lacked composure in front of goal. Doesn't seem to have any close control especially if it involves his right foot.


Rosicky: 7
60th-minute substitute for Carl Jenkinson. According to Arsenal.com's poll, he was Arsenal fans' chosen Man of the Match with 18% of total votes, followed by Jenkinson and Ramsey, who collected 17% of total votes, respectively.

Podolski: 6
Came on in the 77th minute to replace Mikel Arteta. Too late to make a difference.

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