Thursday, 31 January 2013

A Point Earned Is Two Points Dropped

Arsenal battled back from two goals down last night at The Emirates to draw 2-2 with Liverpool in a game that was end to end and could have gone either way. Both teams had numerous chances to finish the other off and claim all three points but a draw was all they could muster.

This was a game I felt Arsenal had to win. Arsene Wenger has been 100% correct lately when he's said we cannot afford to drop any more points from now on and I personally feel last night's game was a missed opportunity. With Everton and Spurs above us and Liverpool and Swansea not far behind, we really need to win every game left on the schedule. No disrespect to Liverpool, who have a superstar in Luis Suarez (even if he is a little twat), but I believe Arsenal should have the quality to beat this current Liverpool team.

However in typical Arsenal fashion they decided to let Liverpool score before they decided they'd like to participate in this match. A harmless pass by Suarez wasn't dealt with by Sagna because the French defender slipped on his arse, allowing Glen Johnson to collect the ball and drive into the box. The moment Sagna fell I could tell we were about to go 1-0 down because I don't know what it is, but I always feel like other teams punish us for these stupid little mistakes every single time. Johnson swung the ball across goal to Daniel Sturridge and yet again we fans are gifted the sight of another defensive mistake. As Johnson's ball is put in, Vermaelen has all day to get a leg on it and clear the ball. Instead he air kicks it and the ball passes right under him and straight to Sturridge. The Englishman's decent attempt was well saved by Szczesny but the rebound was only flicked away by Ramsey (who I don't really blame because the ball ricocheted into his path and he didn't seem to know it hit him). Jordan Henderson then played the ball to Suarez whose first time shot deflected in and Liverpool were 1-0 up within 5 minutes. Sloppy, horrible defending that just makes you want to cry.

At least we didn't have to wait long for Arsenal to show some fight. Immediately after giving away the first goal Walcott nearly equalised. A beautiful pass from Wilshere was brought under control superbly by Walcott (an excellent first touch) who forced an instinctive save from Pepe Reina in the Liverpool goal. But not long after that chance, Arsenal decided to make life difficult for themselves again. Liverpool pushed forward on the counter and a brilliant Suarez pass put Sturridge in on goal but his effort went just wide of Szczensy's goal. If allowing that glorious chance wasn't enough, our Polish keeper decided to offer Strurridge one more chance. From the goal kick Szczesny played it short to Mertesacker who was immediately put under pressure by Suarez. Understandably the German defender played the ball back to his goalkeeper but Szczesny had Sturridge coming after him. So instead of Szczesny putting his foot through it and getting ball away from danger by any means necessary, what does he decide to do? He tries a ridiculous back heel turn in an attempt to fool Sturridge, who was having none of it and if the striker got one more toe to the ball it would have easily found itself in the back of the Arsenal net. It was a complete joke and I cannot believe, at 1-0 down, Szczesny had the audacity to attempt such a stupid move. I really like our Polish stopper but he has that side to him, that showboating arrogance that I really don't like. You have one job to do as a goalkeeper, to minimise the risk of the ball going past you and when he tries stupid stunts like that it just makes me despair. The team has a bad enough defensive reputation as it is so we don't need any more sloppy mistakes.

Arsenal pushed for an equaliser in the first half but it didn't come, despite Giroud and Walcott both having good chances. Liverpool could have gone 2-0 up from a corner (which came from a careless Mertesacker mistake) as a Daniel Agger header was cleared off the line by Podolski. Szczesny came out for the ball and got nowhere near it, allowing Agger a free header on target. Things got worse for the home side when Gibbs had to come off with an injured thigh after 32 minutes (he'll be out for 3 weeks) and Andre Santos had to come on in his place. If there was ever a substitution that inspired less confidence amongst the Arsenal faithful, this was it (although a Squillaci sighting might run it close). To cap off an embarrassing defensive first half we almost let Jordan Henderson score. Yeah I know, Jordan Henderson! With only a couple of minutes to go before half time Stewart Downing took the ball into our half and fed the ball in behind our defenders (Mertesacker caught ball watching again, completely failing to see Henderson running in behind him) into the path of Henderson. Szczesny rushed out to intercept but wasn't fast enough, stranded now on the edge of his box trying to make himself opposing to Henderson. The Liverpool midfielder paused, watched our keeper finally scramble back to goal and then tried to chip Szczesny. Luckily the ball landed safely on top of the Arsenal goal and not in the back of the net. By now Liverpool should have been well in the lead and we'd almost let Henderson score against us. Things couldn't get much worse.

Well of course they could, and would, because Henderson actually DID score against us. The Englishman picked up the ball just outside our penalty area and went right at Mertesacker, passing him by with ease. Santos came to help but he was typically too late and the wrong side of goal. Henderson's first shot was weak and blocked by a flying Aaron Ramsey but unfortunately the ball deflected back to Henderson. By this time Szczesny had already prepared himself to save the initial shot so was down and out of position to stop Henderson's second attempt, which he duly tapped into an uncontested net. It's a sign of how bad this defence has become when we make bloody Jordan Henderson look like Lionel Messi. 2-0 down at home and heads certainly dropped.

Of course, only this bizarre and backwards Arsenal team could play better 0-2 down than 2-0 up. Within minutes of looking like Liverpool had wrapped this one up Arsenal came to life and played their best football of the night. Podolski narrowly missed with a long range shot before the Gunners finally got back in the game. A free kick was beautifully swung in from the right flank by Wilshere and Giroud was there to head home past a helpless Reina. It ignited the crowd and the team had their tails up now. Three minutes later and Arsenal were level and had turned the game around. Santi Cazorla played a perfect pass into Giroud who had his back to goal. The French striker cushioned an instant pass to an unmarked Walcott who smashed it first time from a tight angle to equalise. The ball was hit so perfectly and so fast that Reina didn't even have time to get down for the save, he was just left stranded and stood alone. It really was a beautiful hit from the in-form Walcott and just an example of what he's capable of. From 0-2 down to 2-2 in under four minutes, only this Arsenal team would make fans suffer and celebrate in such fashion.

Unfortunately that's as far as Arsenal could go. Despite their persistence the home side could not find the winning goal. Walcott narrowly missed with his left foot not long after his equalising goal and an Arsenal counter attack with ten minutes left almost brought a winner. Giroud got in on the act too, with three decent opportunities in the last ten minutes but it wasn't to be. Naturally Arsenal still had time left to torture their fans a bit more. With one minute left in injury time Santos played a stupid ball into a dangerous area around the centre circle. To be fair to the Brazilian it was partly Vermaelen's fault that Liverpool stole Santos's pass so easily; our captain took his eye off the ball at the worst possible time and I don't think he even knew Santos had attempted a pass to him. Nevertheless Santos should never be putting the ball into a dangerous area like that and Liverpool were quickly away and looking for a late winner. Suarez got the ball out on the left flank and drove into the box and it was only thanks to a great Szczesny save down low that the score remained 2-2.

I had mixed feelings after the final whistle and I still do this morning. I'm pleased that Arsenal can show resilience to come back from two goals down and fight their way back into the game but at the same time I'm pissed off we still get ourselves into these situations. It's all well and good saying how great our spirit is to come back but I'd prefer if we could play like we did when we were 0-2 down right from the beginning. It was an amazing sight to behold. The minute after Henderson put Liverpool up by two, Arsenal played with such pace and force you had to wonder why it took so long for them to play with such eagerness.

It's reassuring to see our attackers are in form and scoring important goals but the defensive problems only seem to be getting worse. With the news that Gibbs will be out for at least three weeks, I can't bear to watch Santos at left back against Bayern Munich in just over two weeks time. I don't like to single out individuals but he is not nearly good enough to be successful at this level. Brighton made him look like an amateur and I couldn't believe how slow and unfit he was in the final minutes last night. He'd only been on the pitch for 60 minutes, it wasn't like he'd struggled through the entire 90. I am praying Wenger springs a late deal today before the transfer deadline shuts to bring in a new left back, but I can almost guarantee the boss will never do that. We'll see eh?

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Jack Of Hearts

It nearly took all night but Arsenal finally dispatched Swansea yesterday, beating them 1-0 in the 3rd round replay of the FA Cup, setting up a 4th round matchup against Brighton on the 26th January. The man responsible for Arsenal's victory is the young Englishman Jack Wilshere, whose drive and effort shone throughout the entire match and was finally rewarded in the 86th minute with a blistering shot that Swansea keeper Michel Vorm had no chance of stopping. 

The Gunners really should have held on to their 2-1 lead at Swansea on the 6th January but it wasn't to be, as a Danny Graham goal in the final minutes tied the game and forced last night's unwanted replay. Arsene Wenger knows the squad is tired enough as it is and an FA Cup replay was the last thing he would have wanted during this busy fixture period. However I'm sure he was grateful that the team were at least still in the competition and had another chance to progress. That being said, last night's game was possibly the most important of this season to date; a loss would have seen us exit the FA Cup and almost certainly put to bed any thoughts of this Gunners side winning any silverware this season (Champions League excluded... but come on...)

I felt the manager picked probably the strongest side he could field at the moment but, as we have seen far too often recently, the team never really got going in the first half. For much of the opening 45 minutes Swansea kept control of the possession and were unlucky not to take the lead from a header hitting the bar, courtesy of ex-Arsenal man Kyle Bartley. At least that seemed to wake Arsenal up a bit as they started to play a lot better towards the end of the first half. In fact I'm sure the players were probably disappointed to hear the half time whistle, as the home side were beginning to finally take hold of the game.

Thankfully Arsenal carried that momentum and energy into the second half and really put this Swansea City team to the sword. The Gunners had chance after chance and it started to look like we'd never score and the game would go into extra-time. Twice Arsenal had the ball cleared off the Swansea goal-line and the pressure kept mounting, with Vorm making save after save. Wilshere, Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud all had efforts blocked by the Dutch keeper. Swansea looked quite content to soak up the pressure and hold on for extra-time, maybe fancying their chances at a penalty shoot-out.

But it wasn't to be. With less than 5 minutes to go and the home crowd growing more frustrated and anxious as the seconds ticked by, they were rewarded with as good a goal as you are likely to see. Kieran Gibbs drove the ball into Swansea's half and played it to Santi Cazorla, whose expert pass found the feet of Giroud just outside the penalty area. The French striker played a cute first-time ball off the outside of his boot into the path of Wilshere, who smashed it on the half-volley and straight into the back of the net. It was a real peach of a goal, a shot that flashed past Vorm so quickly it could have burst through the goalkeeper's net. Arsenal's pressure was finally rewarded and there were no repeats of Swansea's late heroics in the first game on the 6th January. This time Arsenal held on for the clean sheet and the win, guaranteeing us a trip to Brighton in the 4th round.

Arsenal owe this win to just one man in particular, the heart of our midfield, Jack Wilshere. For me, he played his finest game in an Arsenal shirt since that memorable night against Barcelona a couple of years ago. He was everywhere last night, literally dragging this jaded and tired Arsenal side into attacking Swansea's stubborn defence. The Englishman wouldn't give in and his zig-zagging runs at the opposition were a sight to behold; this small bulldog terrier-like player fending off defenders as he consistently tried to create goal scoring chances for his team-mates. Finally he'd had enough of their wastefulness and took it upon himself to break the deadlock. His goal would be the envy of most strikers in the Premier League, a really fine hit. Last night definitely proved young Jack is worthy of wearing that number 10 shirt. It is obvious for all to see the immense pride he has in possessing the iconic number and he has certainly earned it. 

Let's hope there are many more Wilshere goals to come in Arsenal's future. I'm a big fan of that celebration he does, the knee slider with the badge-thump. I feel that for once we have a player who really means it when he says he loves the club. Long may that continue, I think he'd make a fine captain one day.

Thanks for reading.