Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Arsenal 0 Chelsea 1

Arsenal went into the game, looking to end their winless run and goal drought against Chelsea. After Leicester's 3-0 win over Stoke and Manchester City's taking a point from a 2-2 draw with West Ham, the Gunners started this game third in the table. Nevertheless, there were still 11 league places separating the two London sides, with last season's champions sitting 14th and 19 points behind Arsenal. Although whether Guus Hiddink's side would park the bus away from home, just like under his predecessor, Mourinho, remained to see, we thought this could be the best opportunity in years to claim a victory against them. However, the potentially good derby game was yet again ruined by the same cheat and the referee's poor decision.

Arsene Wenger made just one change to the side that started in a 0-0 draw with Stoke City the week earlier. Mesut Ozil, who missed the trip to Britannia Stadium through a toe injury, regained his place at the expense of Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain who dropped to the bench. Among other substitutes, we welcomed Alexis back after missing 10 games since he suffered a hamstring injury in November. New signing, Mohammed Elneny continued to wait for his debut in an Arsenal shirt on the bench. David Ospina, Gabriel, Calum Chambers, Kieran Gibbs, and the Ox occupied the remaining places on the bench. Theo Walcott was awarded captain's armband in the week that marked his 10th anniversary at the Club.

The game started as a typical end-to-end derby game between these two sides at high tempo and once again, the officials' decision played a huge part in the game. This time around, it was Per Mertesacker that saw a red card only 18 minutes into the game. Maybe we shouldn't have played such a high line with the notoriously slow centre-back in the rear guard. The German defender's look at the linesman might have slowed his action even further. He probably should have pulled out of the tackle and left it for Cech to deal with onrushing Costa. With all his shortcomings aside, there was no contact with Diego Costa, who rolled over the ground after taking a big leap. With 72 minutes to play with 10 men, the sending-off gave us a mountainous task.

It got even worse for us 4 minutes later. Conceding such a soft goal was a killer blow. Monreal was too slow to close down Ivanovic, who was allowed to deliver a cross on the right wing. It was very disappointing that we allowed Costa to tap in the cross at near post, despite his obvious threat in front of goal.

At Doolan's bar, we were reasonably content with trailing only by a goal at half time, especially after Flamini just missing a glorious chance in the stoppage time. The French midfielder ghosted into the box between the two Chelsea centre-backs, trying to volley Ramsey's cross. This Chelsea defence was not faultless.

Arsenal came out strong in the second half. Alexis was introduced in the 57th minute in place of Campbell. You couldn't fault the Gunners' efforts. They never gave up. It was hard to tell which side was a man down. They could have nicked a point when Courtois flapped at a corner or when Flamini's flick was saved by the Belgian keeper. 5 minutes were added at the end of normal time. Cech came up for an Arsenal corner. However, it was Chelsea that came away with 3 points as the final ball did not just quite come off for us.

One of the big talking points of the game was Wenger's decision to take Giroud off. The French striker was sacrificed to accommodate Gabriel who replaced Mertesacker. It was clear in the home crowd's expressions on the camera that his call raised many people's eyebrows. In the post-match interview, Wenger explained his decision as a tactical one. Pace was key in counter-attacking after sending off as Arsenal were supposedly forced to drop deep. The Frenchman also admitted that the risk of injury to Giroud was on his mind. The France international missed training the day before through an ankle problem. If he had got injured during the match, the boss would have had to use one of the remaining valuable substitutions. As three of our best chances fell to Flamini, we wondered if Giroud could have converted some of those chances. But then, probably Terry and Zouma wouldn't have allowed Giroud to run past them. Giroud is a more obvious target and easier mark for them.

As it turned out, it was Chelsea who opted for counter-attacking after half time. Arsenal had more play than Wenger anticipated in and around the Chelsea box, where Giroud's presence would have been useful. But this is all hindsight.

2 points from difficult away games at Anfield and Britannia Stadium were creditable, but this loss dealt with a significant blow to our title credentials. Taking 2 points out of the last 3 games was damaging for our title challenge, but the race is a long way with 15 matches remaining, including games against our title rivals. We are still in the mix, 3 points behind Leicester City and level on points with 2nd-placed Manchester City. Hopefully, we can get back to winning ways on coming Saturday against Burnley in the FA Cup 4th Round to restore our confidence. We look forward to seeing our new signing on the pitch for the first time in an Arsenal shirt. Also, we have a few players coming back from injuries in the next couple of weeks. Rosicky had 45 minutes under his belt after playing in an U-21 game on Friday. Coqulin has already resumed full training, while Danny Welbeck is expected to be back in full training this week. Alexis Sanchez looked sharp, causing problems for Chelsea defence. He always has a potential to conjure up a goal out of nothing. By the time we face Southampton at home in the Premier League Tuesday week, hopefully our squad will be in the better shape.

Players ratings

Cech: 8
He was at no fault for the goal and made some smart saves. His decisions were spot-on as well.

Bellerin: 7

Made a tackle, 5 interceptions and 3 clearances. His pace made the difference in defence and attack.

Mertesacker: 5

Costa dived, but he has his own faults as well. 

Koscielny: 6

Perhaps he could have done better in the first goal. With captain's armband handed over by Theo around his arm, he looked distraught after the final whistle, helped up by Cech.

Monreal: 6
His slow reaction to the loose ball ultimately cost us a goal. That said, he combined well with Alexis going forward but took a touch too many when he received the ball in a great position from the Chilean. Cleared a short off the line.  

Flamini: 6

Left the back four exposed at times.

Ramsey: 6
His passing was wayward, although his passing success rate does not read too bad at 87.9%. As Flamini bombed forward on every occasion, he had to take a defensive responsibility. Made 5 tackles, 2 interceptions and 2 clearances. 

Campbell: 6
He always works hard, making 3 tackles in this game but his finishing lacked quality. 68.8% passing success was poor. Replaced by Alexis in the 57th minute.

Özil: 6
Struggled to find space. Created only 1 chance, made 64 passes with a 76.% accuracy, which speaks volumes for his under-par display. Hopefully, he will rediscover his form soon. 

Walcott: 6

Made some clever runs, but adjudged off-side often (and missed the target anyway in one of those occasions). It was a disappointing display from the man who celebrated his 10th year at the Club this week.

Giroud: 6
His link-up play looked good before he was taken off in the 21st minute. 


Gabriel: 6
Replaced Giroud in the 21st minute after the sending-off of Mertesacker. He failed to deal with Costa in the only goal of the game, although other defenders, including Flamini, may be to blame, too. Made 2 tackles, 2 interceptions and 1 clearance.

Alexis: 7
Replaced Campbell in the 57th minutes. He looked dangerous going forward and even made a crucial tackle after tracking back. Made a big difference to the game.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 6

Came on in the 74th minute for Walcott. He had a half-chance towards the end of the chance, but failed to connect. But used his pace well.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Liverpool 3 Arsenal 3

Going into the midweek match, Arsenal were slight favourites to win it despite playing away from home. The table told us there were 7 league positions and 12 points between the two sides. We were confident that this team had enough quality to beat an injury-ravaged Liverpool side especially after a convincing performance from our young team against Sunderland in the FA Cup 3rd round. As it turned out, a number of Liverpool players became available in 48 hours prior to the game, recovering from injuries just in time for the big match (just as Arsene Wenger predicted, citing "Arsene is a very good doctor - they always heal when they play against us!"). There were suggestions that injuries were Jurgen Klopp's excuse to field a weakened side against a League 2 outfit, Exeter City, last Friday. Although they were still missing key players, likes of Skrtel and Coutinho, Liverpool were able to field a much stronger side widely anticipated.

On Arsene Wenger's side, the Frenchman made 5 changes to the side that started in a 3-1 victory over Sunderland. Per Mertesacker was recalled at the expense of Gabriel, after having a breather. Nacho Monreal replaced Kieran Gibbs at left-back. Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey came in for the central midfield partnership of Calum Chambers and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who both shone on Sunday. After rested against Sunerland, Mesut Ozil replaced Alex Iwobi, who also impressed in the three-man midfield alongside Chambers and the Ox. David Opsina failed to pass late fitness tests again after missing the FA Cup match through a groin problem. 21-year-old Matt Macey travelled instead. Among other substitutes were Gabriel, Chambers, Gibbs, the Ox, Iowabi and Mikel Arteta. Amid rumours about his loan move away from the north London club during the January transfer window, Debuchy was not on the bench.

It was a fantastic game to watch, played at high tempo and with intensity from the first whistle to the last. There were some great team movements as well as individual brilliance. Four goals were scored within frantic 25 minutes of kick-off, with Ramsey's shot cleared off the line and Giroud missing a sitter. After Giroud's sublime goal in the 55th minute, the Gunners held on the lead for a long spell, weathering Liverpool's attack. It was very frustrating to concede an equaliser at the final minute of normal time. However, we take heart from the way Arsenal came back from a goal down twice to take the lead. They were cagey at the beginning of the game. We feared the repeat of the 5-1 loss 2 years ago and Wenger cited that game as a factor behind their initial nervousness. But Arsenal turned the match on its head by continuing to play their game.

It was a good night for all football fans. The officials did not have a great night, though. Campbell should have been given a penalty when he was pulled back in the box in the first half. Nathaniel Clyne was lucky to stay on the pitch when he kicked Campbell. It was a bookable offence and the ref would have shown a yellow card without doubt if he had not already done so.

As Wenger stated in the post-match interview, we, too, were frustrated with the result, but content with the performance. Some fans argue this was our best performance of this season so far, even better than the one against Man City or Olympiacos. Given the opponents' performance on the night, this was certainly the best game we have played in this season. But is this two points dropped or a point gained? At Arsenal Playa Flamenca Supporters Club, we were split on that point. We had enough chances to win the game. Had it not been for defensive mistakes, we should have seen out a 3-2 victory. Draws are only useful when it is against your title rivals. On the other hand, Liverpool dominated in possession at 59% to our 41% and were also superior in other stats (i.e., number of goal attempts, shots on target, passing success rates, aerial success, number of tackles). Furthermore, Anfield is always a difficult place to go. Besides, Liverpool always raise their games against big teams. Man City and Chelsea were already beaten by them this season even on home soil. Some journalists talk up the lost points as a vital blow to the Gunners' title challenge. However, we would like to think that our strong position in the title race has been intact, with players like Alexis Sanchez coming back from injury and reinforcement to the squad arriving in January.  

How costly these points dropped are is yet to be seen, but for now, at least we didn't lose ground to Manchester City, who only drew with Everton at home on the same night, while we slightly extended the lead over Tottenham, who was beaten at home by Leicester. A point saw us maintain the top spot, although we let second-placed Leicester City close the gap to  mere goal difference. The tough run of games continue with a Stoke away on Sunday, arguably the most difficult of the three fixtures.

Players ratings

Cech: 7
For the first goal, perhaps he should have done better than only parrying Emre Can's effort straight to Firmino. He could have nothing to stop the Brazilian's second. On the other hand, he got his hand to Joe Allen's shot, but was not able to keep it away from his goal.

Bellerin: 7

Quiet display after the-man-of-the-match performance against Sunderland. He could have done better to stop Liverpool's late equaliser as he wasn't aware of Allen's run till it was too late.

Mertesacker: 7

Pulled off two crucial interventions at the latter stage of the game. 

Koscielny: 8

Assured performance after letting Firmino fire through his legs for the opener.

Monreal: 8

Kept Ibe in his pocket all through the game. Made 3 tackles, 3 interceptions and 7 clearances. 

Flamini: 7

Did a dirty job quietly, but we missed Coqulin, who could have broken up the play more efficiently. Made 3 tackles, 2 interceptions, and 7 clearances. Blocked 3 shots.

Ramsey: 8
Did what he is good at, when arriving in the box late to score an equaliser. Provided an assist by taking a corner for Giroud's first goal.

Campbell: 8
Worked his socks off. Did a lot of defensive work for the team, as well as offensive jobs, including delivering a perfect through ball for Ramsey. 
Made more tackles (5) than any other Arsenal player. He was involved in Giroud's second goal as well, but he could not direct his half-volley on target when Ozil's clever lofted pass found his run on the right-hand channel. However, he is getting stronger every game. He should keep his place even when Alexis gets fit again.

Özil: 7
Although he was kept quiet most of the first half and couldn't make a telling impact, he was still joy to watch. His touches were excellent. One minute he was surrounded by a couple of Liverpool players with the ball, next second he had an acre of space without the ball. Magic. He still made 3 key passes.

Walcott: 6 

Made an error leading to the first goal, by losing possession outside the box. He did well to make a run through the right-hand channel into the box and square the ball, which Giroud failed to tuck in. He was largely anonymous in the first 20 minutes.

Giroud: 8
Barclays and Arsenal fans' Man of the Match. Scored two goals. Especially, his second goal showcased his excellent skill set. Arsenal's first equaliser started from his header, after which he was left on the floor and then with stitches on the head. His second goal was 11th in his last 11 away games, a remarkable progress for a striker who did not manage to score a goal outside London in his first season. However, he should have scored from 2 yards out. Ironically, the much-maligned striker for his pace or lack of it arrived too soon. Had he not slid in, he might have had a chance to put it away. That said, you cannot fault his tireless efforts. 


Gibbs: 6
Replaced Walcott on the left wing in the 75th minutes. Standard substitution in Wenger's tactics at this stage of the game, but he failed to keep the ball.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 6
Replaced Campbell in the 75th minutes. Some fans questioned this substitution as Campbell was playing a vital role in this team, while the Ox was never good defensively. The fear materialised when Liverpool scored in the death, but Campbell was clearly tired, leaving Wenger with no choice to replace him.

Arteta: 6

Came on in the 87th minute for Özil. This was another controversial substitution among supporters. Wenger's intention seemed to be stabilising Arsenal's possession by fielding an experienced fine distributor of the ball as we kept losing balls in the final 20 minutes. The result left us wondering if Chambers might have been able to help see out a 3-2 victory.