Ive got to be honest and say that when the teams were announced yesterday, I did indeed fear the worst, given the week that we’ve had.
Iwobi punished for his breaking of club rules last week by getting a start against Chelski in a semi final, no Özil, Alexis on the bench, injuries racking up. It just felt like we might be in for a bit of a hiding. Indeed, when the first five minutes had played out and Chelski had the lions share of possession, I wondered if this night was going to get any longer. After all my pre-match build up was hampered by a trip to the dentist; could this evening get any worse?
Well I guess that depends on your definition of ‘worse’. The game itself in its entirety felt like quite a drab affair. Arsenal set up to be difficult to break down, to close down from the wide forwards but also – with Welbeck and Iwobi in the team to tuck in and press their full backs so they stopped them from getting those deep crosses in to Morata – the game plan was clearly of containment rather than a goal glut.
And wouldn’t you know it those Arsenal players executed the game plan for the whole match. Just.
Chambers, Mustafi and Holding May have worried a few people when the team was announced, but what is becoming more clear is just how much better it is for them when operating in a three with two quick full backs on their side. Chelski tried to get in behind with Moses and Alonso and sometimes they did, but when they were most efficient was down by the corner flag and by the time the players got there you have to say that our back three were organised and headed everything away.
I’m not going to go too overboard defensively because let’s be honest, Chelski do look a little profligate in front of goal when Hazard isn’t banging them in or diving, but the back line did well. No mistakes that I can remember from Chambers and Holding and Mustafi won a fair duels (even if he scares the bejesus out of us all with his diving in on attackers) so all-in-all you have to say it was an infinitely better performance with a back three given our defensive personnel.
Midfield was looking its usual open and expansive self – for the opposition – but up until Jack got his trademark leg injury, he was looking rather sound. Everybody: cross literally everything that he’s out for maybe one game and that’s it. He was very good last night and that burst, that ability to let the ball roll across his body and delay his decision making on releasing the ball which makes him such a mercurial talent, looked to be back. Come back jack, soon please.
The forward line had a difficult evening though. Nothing really paid off for them and whilst I can applaud Welbeck for his closing down and Iwobi occasionally tucking in, Lacazette was isolated throughout and the second that Jack went off injured you just knew that his game was done. Jack seemed like the only person who could find the Frenchman in the team and so when he trudged off Lacazette was effectively rendered redundant.
The narrowness of the two wide men was also a problem for us in the second half too, because as Chelski squeezed and suffocated us by winning the ball back higher up the pitch, we didn’t counter with at least one wide man occupying space. So everything got compact and we kept turning over the ball in quick succession. Which then, in turn, put us under more pressure.
That’s where you need a wide outlet and if you’re going to get a win by ‘rope-a-dope’ tactics then you need to have at least one of Iwobi or Welbeck occupying a wide position. We didn’t and it’s why what felt like a more even first half turned into a one-sided second half with Chelski being the only ones who looked like winning.
The lack of communication on the defensive third is also something that is starting to look obvious. On one occasion Maitland-Niles was on his own and instead of bringing the ball down he headed it – unchallenged – straight in to Moses’ path. On another occasions the play had broken down for Chelski and you could see Ospina come to collect it unchallenged, but Chambers lumped it clear. There was another occasion towards the end where Elneny, on the edge of the box and with at least 20 feet of space around him, hooked the ball up field when he could have taken a touch and picked a red shirt.
These are all examples where a simple shout, or instruction, could ensure we build from the back. But we don’t and it’s that sort of stuff that hampers teams. Especially ours.
And finally, before I clock off for the day, a word on VAR. what a waste of time that was. It reaffirmed the correct decision not to give Chelski a penalty for the touch that Welbeck got on the ball when challenging Fabregas in the box, but up the other end, when there was a clear touch on Maitland-Niles’ foot, Atkinson consulted somebody and still said carry on.
Clearly that person wasn’t Dermot Gallagher or any of the referees union, because they were all telling us this time last week that Bellerin made the slightest of contact on Hazard and therefore because of the contact the penalty was the correct call. Maitland-Niles has the bottom of his boot kicked. Not the ball. He took a second to go down. So why is there a difference other than the fact that Hazard made a loud scream and fell down instantly?
If VAR is going to be applied as inconsistently as the referees themselves then there’s absolutely no point in it.
So there we have it. It’s ‘game-on’ for a fortnights time. I’m sure we’re all pleased we’re still in it because that was clearly the plan, so now we need to take home advantage and settle the deadlock between the teams this season, because a score draw won’t help us at all.
Catch you all tomorrow.