Thursday, April 10, 2014

Everton 3 Arsenal 0

A good side cannot turn a poor side overnight, can they? Arsene Wenger named more or less the same starting line-up as the side that started in a 1-1 draw with Manchester City last weekend. The only change was a forced one after Kieran Gibbs was ruled out due to an ankle problem. Nacho Monreal recovered from a foot injury in time to replace the English left-back. In the absence of Koscielny, Vermaelen continued in the centre-back position alongside Mertesacker. The Flamini-Arteta partnership remained in central midfield. As Wenger explained his team selection against Swansea, he relied on experienced players once again in difficult times.

After another comprehensive defeat by the hands of a top-five team, the media have decided this was a pattern rather than an "accident", as which Arsene Wenger described the humiliation at Stamford Bridge. The media also tried to identify Arsenal's shortcomings commonly seen in those big matches, but it's difficult to blame the team selection. After the Chelsea match in question, fans and journalists alike questioned Arsene Wenger's decision to leave Mathieu Flamini out of the starting line-up, but the French midfielder started in this game. The same man was inspiration for Arsenal's spirited comeback (well, nearly) against Man City, too. Santi Cazorla pulled all the strings against the Manchester club last weekend, but unfortunately, he was the shadow of his old self in this match. It was not just Santi, but our players were slow and static in all departments, while Everton players were quick and energetic and seemed to know exactly what they were supposed to be doing. If the Arsenal players performed at their best and imposed their game like they did against Man City, they might have still got something out of this game.

Besides, we had little option in terms of team selection. Ramsey was no where near match fit enough to start as he only started full training on three days earlier after a 3-month lay-off. Källström would have been too big a gamble for the game of this magnitude. The Ox on the wing might have been the only viable option (Remember, the last time when he started in central midfield, he had a nightmare against Chelsea).

Most of criticisms go to Arsene Wenger's tactics or the lack of them. While Roberto Martinez earned plaudits for his flexible approach to tactics to exploit oppositions' weakness from a broader football observer base, Wenger's stubbornness to stick to his philosophy and lack of plan B became the centre of criticism from the fans. In Wenger's defence, we have to admit that he had a plan B in the shape of Theo Walcott, who offers something different to Arsenal brand of possession and passing football. However, we cannot deny the claim that the Frenchman lacks tactical flexibility to accommodate opponents' strengths and weakness in his gameplan and Arsenal's attack has become too predictable. He never changes his 4-2-3-1 formation depending on opponents or personnel available. When they cannot play their game, facing with opponents' high-pressing strategy or resolute defence, they struggle. Sometimes even experienced players are left without wits. Not only on the offensive side, but Arsenal's defensive vulnerability against counter-attacks have become obvious, too. If Wigan have sussed out by now how to stop us playing and snatch a goal, we expect the Gunners to have a tough, long evening on Saturday.

Another criticism was again about Arsenal's mental frailty. We thought Arsenal showed some grit or character, whatever you call it, in the last game against Man City. People have a very short memory and this accusation is likely to come back again and again every time we lose. We think that it is more down to confidence rather than mental strength, in particular, when they play away from home.

It was a disheartening loss, but there were a few positives. The biggest one was the return of Aaron Ramsey. He had been out for 3 months through a thigh injury since his 23rd birthday, but he played as if he had never missed a game. Probably it is too much to expect him to hit a form immediately, but in his 25-minute appearance, the energy and quality he demonstrated was encouraging. His drive through midfield, incisive passing, and runs into the Everton box certainly gave us something to cheer about. Whether he likes it or not, Wenger may have to start the Wales midfielder in the next two games as Flamini will be suspended for those games after picking up his 10th yellow card of this season.

Although Wenger's substitutions came too late, after we were already 3-0 down, substitutes made a difference. The introduction of the Ox injected much-needed pace to the side. He dribbled through Everton's midfield and had a powerful shot from just outside the box, which forced a superb save from Tim Howard before hitting the woodwork. Yaya Sanogo was also an upgrade from Olivier Giroud in this game. Although his goal, which was ruled out wrongly for off-side, would have only been consolation, what a boost it would have given to the confidence of the young French striker.

This was a six-pointer for the top-four race. Everton had to win it, while Arsenal must not lose it. The defeat against fifth-placed Everton put a top-four finish out of our hands. They are a point behind us, having played one game fewer. However, Everton have a more difficult-looking run-in, including Man U and Man City at home and Southampton away. In light of our current form, our fixtures are not necessarily easier, but if we can beat Wigan this weekend, the win and the prospect of the FA Cup final could serve as a springboard for the remainder of the season. Keep fingers crossed that Everton will drop points and we will get maximum points out of the remaining games. It looks like we are heading for the very familiar ending of the season, a nervy scrap for the last Champions League berth. It is a disappointing end to the season which has looked so promising until mid-March.

Wenger is hoping a change of competition will help Arsenal rediscover their confidence. We wouldn't be surprised if he made a few changes to his side this weekend. He has fielded different attacking units to his conventional starting XI so far this season in this competition. Walcott was excellent in leading the line with Gnabry on the right wing against Tottenham in the 3rd round, while Bendtner, Poldi, Gnabry, Özil were the attacking quartet against Coventry City in the 4th round. The counter-attacking trio, Sanogo, Poldi, and the Ox, shone in a tough 5th-round tie against Liverpool. Sanogo, the Ox, Cazorla and Özil started in a 4-1 victory against Everton in the quarter-finals (Sanogo was in fact ineffectual in this game and it was Giroud who made a difference when he came off the bench).

With our current form, lack of confidence is likely to be more of a problem than complacency against Wigan. We should have Koscielny back from a calf injury this weekend. The game will come too soon for Özil, but his return is imminent, could be as early as next week.  Hopefully, Arsene Wenger will lift his players and make them believe in themselves once again before Saturday. A win at the Wembley this weekend could kickstart our run-in. At least, the semi-final is not a lunch-time kickoff, so we have a half chance for our players to turn up with a decent performance this time around.

Players ratings

Szczesny: 6
For the first goal, he did well to block Lukaku's effort only for the rebound to fall for Naismith. Probably he could have done better. On the other hand, he couldn't do much about the second goal largely because his sight of the ball was blocked by Naismith who was in an off-side position. For the third goal, he beat Naismith to the ball, but our defenders were slow to deal with the rebound. Only Arteta just beat Mirallas to put the ball into the back of the own net.

Sagna: 6
His dithering on the ball and subsequently being robbed of the ball by Mirallas led to the third goal. He had a tough game without a right winger to help him out offensively or defensively on that flank.

Mertesacker: 6
He was exposed so often in this game for his lack of pace, but the team should have played better to cover his well-known weakness. He must have missed Koscielny sorely alongside him.  

Vermaelen: 7
He was arguably our best defender, having made 2 tackles, including a last-man tackle, 4 interceptions and 3 clearances and won 5 aerial duels. He also showed his determination in some of his solid challenges, but his positional awareness was questionable for the first and third goals. Easily beaten by Lukaku for the second goal.

Monreal: 5
Had a torrid time defensively, outmuscled and outplayed by Lukaku, who were moved to the right flank from his familiar centre-forward position. We don't know if Martinez saw our weakness in this position or simply because Lukaku didn't have much joy against Koscielny in the previous two encounters, but the Spaniard's tactics to play the Belgian striker on the right wing worked. Offensively, Monreal did not do too badly, creating 2 chances.

Areta: 6
He cut a frustrated figure, booed by a section of home fans and scoring an own goal against his old club. Not his best game.

Flamini: 6
He had a fierce shot from 20 yards to draw a fine save from Howard. But this game exposed his technical weakness. His touches let him down a few times and one of those occasions resulted in his committing a foul, which earned him a yellow card. But at least he showed some steel.

Rosicky: 6
Didn't create very much.

Cazorla: 6
He still created 4 chances, but he didn't look up for it until the latter stages of the game.  

Podolski: 6
Had 5 shots, one of which were on target. We loved his direct approach, which was one of brighter sparks in this game.

Giroud: 6
When Coleman made a sloppy backpass to the keeper, the French striker was too slow to react to capitalise on the mistake. When Sagna made a great run on the right flank and delivered a perfect cross for Giroud to beat his marker, the French striker shot it wide.


Oxlade-Chamberlain: 7
Replaced Poldi in the 66th minute. Made a positive impact. 

Ramsey: 6
Came on for Flamini in the 66th minute. Encouraging performance on his comeback.

Sanogo: 6
Replaced Giroud in the 71st minute.

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