Monday, 9 February 2015

Derby blues

Tottenham 2-1 Arsenal

Arsenal came away from White Hart Lane on Saturday with feelings of great disappointment having failed to perform in the game which means the most to their supporters.

In the week leading up to the game, several players conducted interviews with the press and the club website in which they stressed their understanding of the importance of the North London derby, yet when it came to the match itself, Arsenal just did not turn up.

Wenger went into the game with the same tactics that had served him so well in the victory away to Manchester City. The Gunners would sit deep, invite Tottenham onto them and soak up the pressure before hitting their opponents on the counter attack. Yet these tactics rely upon the central midfield three doing a job for their team. Coquelin has to be at his most destructive best, breaking down attacks, winning back possession for the Gunners and ordering those around him into position. At the final whistle on Saturday, the Frenchman could still boast the highest number of interceptions of any man on the pitch, but did not appear to be at his best, as he had at the Etihad.

A large factor in Coquelin’s failure to meet the high standards he had set in that game away to City, were the poor performances of his two fellow central midfielders, Ramsey and Cazorla. Against City, these three worked together for the entire 90 minutes and bossed the midfield battle. Coquelin was never left exposed and won back possession time and time again with Ramsey or Cazorla carrying the ball forward, relieving the pressure on the Arsenal defence and moving his side up the pitch. Unfortunately on Saturday, both Ramsey and Cazorla were just not at the races.

Yes Tottenham were employing a high pressing game in the middle of the pitch, so that every time Arsenal played the ball into their midfielders, Tottenham players swarmed all around them to restrict their time and space, but Arsenal should be better than that. Cazorla has shown in recent weeks he possesses supreme skill and guile to keep the ball in even the tightest areas, wriggling his way past challenges with consummate ease. However on Saturday he just could not get himself into the game at all and in fact was replaced by Thomas Rosicky midway through the second half.

Ramsey also had a game to forget. The Welshman has struggled to hit the heights of last season, but was beginning to come into form following his recent return from injury. Unfortunately, as with Cazorla, he just did not seem able to cope with the pressure applied by the Tottenham midfield. The main problem with Ramsey is that when he is not having a good game, he does not seem to recognise it and still attempts long racking passes, or to thread the ball through the eye of a needle, rather than keeping it simple. Although this may show great confidence and strength of character, Ramsey needs to accept his limitations at times, as on Saturday he just ended up losing the ball time and time again, gifting possession to Tottenham and allowing further pressure on the Arsenal defence.

Wenger’s decision to deploy Ozil and Welbeck on the flanks seemed a masterstroke after only 11 minutes as the two were directly involved in the opening goal of the afternoon. Welbeck kicked the ball forward and surged past Danny Rose as if he wasn’t there, before cutting the ball back to Giroud, whose scuffed shot fell straight to Ozil. The German could not have been expecting the ball to come to him, but adjusted his body beautifully to guide a wonderful finish past Lloris and give Arsenal the lead. Unfortunately Welbeck and Ozil didn’t do much else for the rest of the game. Welbeck kept on drifting off his flank in the first half, into the middle of the pitch, leaving Bellerin horribly exposed with huge space for Rose to get forward. In fact Ospina had to make a number of saves in the first period, with the majority of Tottenham’s attacks coming from this side of the pitch. With his speed, strength and work ethic, Wenger would have been expecting Welbeck to help Arsenal get up the pitch, with powerful forward runs, forcing Tottenham into fouls and allowing the Gunners time to regroup, but this just never happened.

As a result, the Gunners were virtually penned inside their own half for the entire game, with no way out. Although Tottenham were enjoying greater possession and exerting pressure on the Arsenal defence, they weren’t creating any real goal scoring opportunities, with most of their shots on goal coming from outside the box. Unfortunately, the Gunners couldn’t resist the pressure for the entire game and their defensive frailties, which had appeared to have been resolved in recent weeks, came back to haunt them. First, poor defending from a corner allowed Tottenham a free header on goal, which Ospina did well to save, but the Colombian could only parry the ball straight to Harry Kane, who steered the ball into the net.

Then with only five minutes left, a cross into the Arsenal box, inexplicably caught Koscielny out. One of the key roles for a defender is to continually look around to identify potential danger, but on this occasion, the Frenchman just did not have any idea what was going on around him. As the ball came into the area Koscielny may have realised that he could not get his head to the ball, but should still have jumped and made an attempt to win it. With Kane stood right behind him, such an action could have put the Englishman off as he aimed to head the ball into the corner of the goal. But Koscielny allowed Kane a free header, for some reason completely turning around to face the Tottenham striker as he headed the ball. Monreal could also have affected Kane but equally made no attempt to challenge him and the game was up.

Arsenal should be extremely disappointed to have not even taken away a point from a game they were leading. Ozil’s goal set the game up perfectly for them to hit Tottenham on the break, but the Gunners just could not overcome the pressing game employed by Pochettino. They must now pick themselves up quickly for the home game against Leicester as the race for a top four finish really begins to heat up.

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