Tuesday, April 12, 2016

West Ham 3 Arsenal 3

It was a captivating game for neutrals, but the result was no good for either side. West Ham's aspiration for a Champions League spot was dealt a blow, while Arsenal's faint title hopes all but ended. In normal circumstances, a draw would have not been a bad result against an in-form West Ham side, who went into the game atop of the London-derby mini-league with 14 points, including their opening day win at the Emirates and 1-0 defeat of Tottenham at Upton Park. However, what was most disheartening for us, Gooners, was the way our team threw away a 2-0 lead. The capitulation came after an encouraging few weeks and, in fact, a reassuring display in first 35 minutes of this game.

True to his words prior to the match, "I am reluctant to change anything that works", Arsene Wenger named the unchanged starting XI who started in impressive wins over Everton and Watford in the last 2 weeks. This meant that fit-again Petr Cech remained on the bench alongside Per Mertesacker. Other places on the bench were occupied by Aaron Ramsey, who has returned from a thigh injury that kept him on the sidelines for a month, Calum Chambers, Kieran Gibbs, Theo Walcott, and Olivier Giroud.

The team sheet raised a few eyebrows among us who were unaware of Wenger's pre-match comment. Against Andy Carroll's physical threat, Mertesacker seemed to have been a natural answer to us. The English striker is not known for his speed, so BFG's lack of pace is unlikely to be exposed. In the post-match interview, Wenger stated that he did not expect Carroll to feature in this game as he hadn't played for the last 5 or 6 games. It was Diafra Sakho who mainly led the line during the period and he was omitted from the matchday squad all together. The official reason for the absence was a minor injury, but rumours are rife that the Senegalese striker had fallen out with Slaven Bilic. So we don't know whether the West Ham coach's decision to play Carroll was a tactical or forced one, but the selection proved effective.

Another talking point prior to the match was whether Cech should replace Ospina. The Colombian keeper has put in an almost impeccable performance since deputising for the first-choice keeper during his injury lay-off. It would have been unfair to him if he had had to be dropped to the bench as soon as Cech had returned. On the other hand, some think that the first-choice keeper should play whenever he is available. Also, Ospina's relatively small build for a goalkeeper was always regarded disadvantageous against big strikers. Cech's commanding presence in goal and his ability to communicate with defenders and organise set-pieces might have been helpful in this game.

After feisty and eventful opening stages, Arsenal were 2-0 up thanks to goals from Özi and Alexis. Just when we thought we were going into half time with a two-goal lead and our team were totally in control, Carroll struck twice in 160 seconds just before the break. At Doolan's Bar, the buoyant mood was wiped off.

Carroll was a continuous menace after the break and completed a hat-trick (although this will be disputed at the Dubious Goal Committee without doubt) 7 minutes from the restart. Wenger made offensive changes, bringing on Ramsey and Giroud at the expense of Coquelin and Elneny. Laurent Koscielny restored the parity and both sides looked for a fourth goal, which wasn't to be.

A few decisions by the officials came under spotlights. After Lanzini's goal was chalked off as off-side at early stages, replays suggested that Hector Bellerin kept him just about on side. Some pundits and West Ham supporters claimed Slaven Bilic's side has been the victims of wrong decisions in recent weeks, including the eventually overturned suspension of Kouyate, but we also have a case here to complain about a decision. Andy Carroll was lucky to get away with his late and potentially dangerous challenge on Koscielny with only a yellow card and he was even luckier when his flailing arm caught Gabriel in the face early in the second half. On  balance, you may say West Ham were not as unlucky as they claimed as they could have Carroll suspended for Wednesday night's FA Cup quarter-final replay against Manchester United and of course, he scored their third goal after his challenge on Gabriel, when he shouldn't have been on the pitch.

We argued what Wenger could have done to prevent the defensive capitulation. Maybe another defender, perhaps Mertesacker, should have been brought on specifically to mark Carroll. But the Frenchman never makes early substitutions unless there is an injury. Especially, a defensive change is beyond his imagination. In contrast to Wenger's tactical rigidness, Bilic replaced Tomkins for Emenike at half time, when he had witnessed enough evidence for West Ham's 3-4-2-1 system being ineffectual, with both Ozil and Alexis exploiting space behind defenders through the left-hand channel for their goals.

After the match, Arsene Wenger pointed out his side's vulnerability against headers in the box since the start of the season. If he has identified the weakness, why hasn't he sorted it out yet? Leicester is not where they are for no reason. Ranieri successfully transformed an attacking side with a "you score, we score" approach (which was taken advantage of by Arsenal in their 5-2 win at King Power Stadium) into a solid defensive unit in the middle of the season, which was key to their sustained run of form during Vardy's goal drought.

Our target remains the same: to win all the remaining games. It is interesting to see if Wenger's "if it is not broken, don't fix it" approach will be forced to change now the frailty of his new unit has been exposed. In particular, will Koscielny-Gabriel pairing continue? Will Cech reclaim his place in the team? Can Ramsey return to the starting line-up, breaking up Coquelin-Elneny partnership? As Koscielny called for more help in defence from wingers in his post-match interview, defending is a collective responsibility. We allowed West Ham to cross too easily. We hope this game -both performance and result- did not undermine the team's confidence and spirit that had been built over the last few weeks. Hopefully, we will put things right before the next game and get back to winning ways quickly.

Players ratings

Ospina: 6
Could not do much about Carroll's goals.

Bellerin: 6
He should have closed down and stop crosses in.

Gabriel: 5

Struggled to cope with Carroll's aerial presence. For West Ham's second goal, he managed to block Carroll's initial scuffed attempt, but he should have reacted more quickly to the rebound and not allowed him to have another chance. West Ham's third goal was arguably his own goal.

Koscielny: 7

Captain on the day was our best defender, winning 5 aerial battles and scored an important equaliser.

Monreal: 6
Struggled to cope with Antonio's pace and allowed to him to run past him in the build-up to West Ham's third goal. Unlucky to not score when his fierce low shot was cleared off the line. The rebound fell for him, but he shot it high.

Coquelin: 6

Subbed in the 61st minute. He initiated moves leading to goals by finding Iwobi. 

Elneny: 6
Gave way to Giroud in the 68th minute. Making 64 passes with a 93.8 % accuracy was impressive, but failed to help defence more on the flank when needed.

Alexis: 7
Composed finish for his goal. In Arsenal's search for a fourth goal, he took wrong options.

Özil: 7
Scored his 8th goal of the season. Created 3 chances. Faded in the second half.

Iwobi: 8

Claimed assists for Arsenal's 2 goals in the first half with his through ball to Özi and lofted pass to Alexis, but he was anonymous in the second half.

Welbeck: 6

Claimed an assist for Koscielny's goal. Worked hard, but largely ineffectual.


Ramsey: 6
Replaced Coqulein in the 61st minutes. Showed some fine skills.

Giroud: 5
Came on for Elneny in the 68th minute. Had 1 attempt at goal, which was a header just wide.

Walcott: 5
Replaced Welbeck in the 81st minute. Little time to influence the game, having only 4 touches.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Arsenal 4 Watford 0

Revenge was sweet. Arsenal put four past a former Tottenham keeper, Heurelho Gomes, who said "When you see Arsenal playing against big teams, they look like a small team" after his side knocked out Arsene Wenger's men out of the FA Cup competition 3 weeks ago. The north London side brushed aside Watford with a convincing performance. Nyom's blatant foul on Özil, which should have seen him sent off, epitomised Watford's sheer frustration during the game.

Arsene Wenger named the same starting XI after his side's impressive 2-0 victory at Goodison Park 2 weeks ago. Petr Cech made a return from injury only to make the bench. It would have been cruel to David Ospina, who hadn't put his foot wrong since the Czech international's injury.

Stats indicated our indifferent starts at home in recent games, but in this game we didn't wait for long to see our team open the scoring. Iwobi's inch-perfect curling cross met Alexis' header, which drew a fine save from Gomes, but the Chile international was quick to pounce on the rebound and poked it into the top corner. It took the Gunners no more than 4 minutes from kick-off. They kept moving the ball around, dominating in possession, but Watford was slowly growing into the game. A one-goal lead is never enough to settle the nerves even when we are on top. A second goal finally arrived in the 38th minute in the form of Alex Iwobi's second goal in as many games.

This season we tend to shut up shop when we are 2-0 up, invite pressure and hold on the lead. As a result, we made struggling teams, such as Newcastle and even Aston Villa, look good. We lacked ruthlessness this season. However, this game was different. Arsenal came out with the same attacking intent after the break and was soon rewarded through Bellerin's fortuitous goal. We have been saying exactly what the 20-year-old Spaniard said about his goal after the match: You have to try, otherwise you won't score. Theo Walcott made it 4-0 with his close-range shot after some good work from a fellow substitute Joel Campbell. Who knows it may all come down to goal difference at the end of the season.

After the game, many questioned why Arsenal couldn't beat this side 3 weeks ago. In fact, we should have been 2-0 up in the first half on that day, but we were not clinical enough in front of goal. Today, we produced 12 shots on target from 19 goal attempts, in comparison with 4 shots on target from 20 attempts in the FA Cup quarter-final. We were more efficient in front of goal in this game.

Another factor is personnel. Since the defeat, Arsene Wenger seemed to have found better partnerships throughout the team: Welbeck and Iwobi up front with pace and mobility, Coquelin and Elneny in the midfield with the right attack-defence balance to protect the back four, and the pacey central defensive pair of Koscielny and Gabriel, who can play a high line to complement a high pressing game.

In the Cup game against Watford, Wenger recognised the lack of penetration and tried to bring on the triple substitutions of Welbeck, Walcott and Iwobi before we went 2-0 down. The effect of changes was obvious with Welbeck reducing the deficit but he could not convert the chance to earn a replay. With Watford defence compact and organised, full-backs' involvement in attack was also essential to stretch their defence. Bellerin and Monreal did this job well today.

Deployed on the right wing, it seemed to have drawn the best out of Alexis, too. He was successful on the left wing last season, stating that it is his best position because he can cut inside with his preferred right foot. This season, however, he tended to dribble into the center and try to beat every player until he got dispossessed. He has more opportunities to make runs without the ball and crosses on the right wing.

Pundits and journalists have sniffed at Arsenal's back-to-back victory, regarding it as an "annual late run after the pressure is off", but is the pressure really off? The win at Goodison Park came when we had our back against the wall and the situation was the same prior to this game. This "late run" is attributed to finding the right formula rather than mental elements. Wenger has been keeping the faith in the same starting XI for the last 3 games. Before the Barcelona game Welbeck had to be eased into games after a long lay-off, while Iwobi's emergence was a revelation even to Wenger. The Coquelin-Elneny partnership has flourished as both equally share offensive/defensive responsibilities. Although Santi's delayed return is bad news for us, Elneny's rise softens the blow.

If mental factors have anything to do with the late surge, it's the team's focus. As Mesut Özil pointed out, the team seemed to have gone into some of the games, thinking just turning up was enough to earn points. In the run-in, they will have enough time to prepare themselves for the next game, playing only one game a week, except for the rescheduled match against West Brom. Hopefully, the boys will keep the same focus they showed in this game till the end of the season.

Players ratings

Ospina: 7
With Watford registering only 2 shots on target, he had little to do, but when he was called upon, he produced a fine save to keep a clean sheet.

Bellerin: 8

He didn't go forward often enough for our liking in the first half, but got more involved in attack as the game went on. Scored his third goal in an Arsenal shirt with his weaker left foot.

Gabriel: 7

Made 6 interceptions and 7 clearances. Largely untroubled, but his slip nearly gave us a heart attack. Fortunately, Bellerin came to a rescue.

Koscielny: 7

Made 6 interceptions and 6 clearances. Kept Ighalo quiet. So much so, the Nigeria international was taken off at half time. He dithered after having won the ball and nearly lost possession under pressure from 2 Watford players. He needs to eradicate this bad habit. 

Monreal: 7
He was always available on the left flank. Made 2 tackles, 3 interceptions 5 clearances and 1 block. His heading clearance off the line helped a clean sheet.

Coquelin: 8

Made 4 tackles, 4 interceptions, and 1 clearance. He also initiated a slick move leading to Iwobi's goal by releasing Alexis up the right wing.

Elneny: 8
Put in a tireless shift in his 8th game, including AFCON qualifiers for Egypt, in the space of 4 weeks, constantly covering 12 km or more per game. His energy and work rate have made a big difference in recent weeks.  Made more passes (127) than any other players on the pitch with an impressive 96.1% accuracy, which meant he completed more passes (122) than any player in a Premier League game this season. He rarely loses  the ball. 

Alexis: 9
Had 4 shots, all of which were on target. Made 5 key passes. Scored Arsenal's first goal and set up the second. Replaced by Campbell in the 78th minute after he was seen holding his hamstring. Hope he is OK. Whoscored.com's Man of the Match with a 9 rating.

Özil: 7
4 goals and he didn't claim assists for any of them. However, he was still pulling the strings for Arsenal's attack. His perfectly-weighed long pass to Campbell led to Arsenal's fourth goal. Had 2 shots, 1 of which was on target, creating 3 chances for his team-mates. Made 111 passes with a 90.1 % passing success rate.

Iwobi: 9

Arsenal fans' and Barclays Man of the Match. Set up Alexis's goal and got on a scoresheet himself. Had 4 shots, 3 of which were on target, making 3 key passes. He is one of bright spots of a disappointing season. 

Welbeck: 7

Had 3 shots, 1 of which was on target. He should have done better when he had a chance to put a shot away in the box. Replaced by Giroud in the 63rd minutes. Wise decision as he does not seem to have completely recovered from the knee injury that kept him on the sidelines for 10 months.


Giroud: 6
Replaced Welbeck in the 63rd minutes. Had 1 shot, which was on target. 

Walcott: 7
Came on for Iwobi in the 68th minute. The lack of eagerness was clear on his face when he came on, in contrast to an enthusiastic reception from the home crowd for out-going Alex Iwobi. A low-key celebration of his goal also suggested that he might be on his way out.

Campbell: 7
Replaced Alexis in the 78th minute to play on the right wing. Set up Walcott's goal.