Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Two very different draws

Away trips to Villa and Goodison Parks, respectively, have left the Gunners with two points from the last two games – not a great return. They were very different performances, but in truth Arsenal didn't play particularly well in either match.

The Villa game was a drab affair. Given the Villains' recent performances, and our own fairly decent recent form, I said in my last post that there were no excuses. Wenger didn't agree, however, and promptly made some in his post-match interview, blaming the poor performance on the classic go-to explain-away: 'We had a Champions League game on Wednesday night and we knew [that] when you play away from home after the Champions League, it’s a difficult game … after the Champions League game, when you play away from home, you can make a draw, it can happen. We could have won the game, we could have lost the game.'  He put our lack of cut and thrust down to the fact that 'we lacked sharpness … in the final third. You could see that physically we were a bit jaded.'

Even conceding that he had a point here, we were all hoping for a better performance on Wednesday night against Everton. The starting line-up was unchanged save for the surprise omission of Lukas Podolski – struck down by illness, apparently. This meant that Aaron Ramsey started out wide – a prospect that didn't fill me with confidence. However, I was almost immediately forced to eat those words when Ramsey's neat one-two with Theo Walcott led to a goal just 52 seconds in.

Walcott has now scored 9 goals in his last 11 games in all competitions – and we are still wrangling over his contract. It’s no surprise that the fans were chanting for Gazidis to ‘sign him up’ after he netted the opener. Let's hope the Chief Exec listens; Theo has now started to deliver on all that early promise and arguably carries more attacking threat than any other Arsenal player.

We held on to the lead for 27 minutes but the returning Marouane Fellaini proved to be our undoing, as Bacary Sagna was robbed in our own half and Fellaini picked up the ball before sending a low drive past Szczesny. Fellaini has been Everton's best player this season and he caused Arsenal big problems throughout the game. At his best the Belgian's play is as unruly and untameable as his hair, and Arsenal struggled to contain him.

We created few chances of our own. Santi Cazorla was subdued as Everton intentionally stifled him in midfield. He was well marshalled by Leon Osman and Darron Gibson despite the best efforts of Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta to compete in the middle of the pitch. Without Santi there was little in the way of service to to Olivier Giroud, who nevertheless struggled manfully, but after looking as though he was about to make a real breakthrough in his fledgling Premier League career, now seems to have stalled a bit. In itself that raises many questions about the predictability of our play and the lack of creative outlets when the central midfield players aren't ticking.

Only a solid defensive performance – and an excellent showing from Szczesny – saved us from conceding again. This was all the more commendable given the injury to Laurent Koscielny just four minutes into the game, which led to the introduction of Kieran Gibbs. It did mean, however, that Vermaelen was shunted from left back to centre half. Thomas went on to give probably his best performance of the season so far, emphasising the fact that he is wasted as a full back. The captain is far happier and much more effective in his natural position.

He had to be at his best, as Arsenal had their backs to the wall for much of the second half. The Toffees have played some scintillating football this season, and they had numerous opportunities to win the game. Given their uncharacteristically fine start to the season, they look to be in the mix and should be considered a real threat to our hopes of finishing in the top four. Depressingly, that made this match effectively a six-pointer – from which we could not capitalise.

I cannot be alone among Gooners in shooting envious glances at certain members of the Everton squad – they looked very good indeed. David Moyes has been quietly building a very effective unit on a well-publicised shoestring budget. Arsene Wenger seems to have built a decidedly average squad working within the same means – but his financial limitations seem largely self-imposed, rather than dictated by a parsimonious chairman like Bill Kenwright.

One Everton player in particular who has impressed is Kevin Mirallas. Although he didn't play last night (he's out for three weeks with a hamstring injury), he has looked a lively and skilful player. He was also one of the many supposed targets with whom Arsenal were repeatedly linked over the summer – who knows why we didn't end up signing him, but he definitely looks to be one who got away. Similarly, Nikica Jelavic, Marouane Fellaini and Leighton Baines would all be welcome additions to the Arsenal squad – and even young players like Seamus Coleman, Apostolos Vellios and new £5m signing Bryan Oviedo look like the sort of raw talents that Arsenal were once famed for finding.

Fortunately for us, on Wednesday night none of the Everton attack save for Fellaini found their range, and we managed to hold out for a point. We will need to improve on Saturday when we return to the Emirates for a tough home tie against Michael Laudrup's Swansea – another team with some fine players, including the two flamboyant Spaniards Michu and Pablo Hernandez. Spearheaded by those two, the Swan ripped a hitherto impressive West Brom apart at the Liberty last night, as the Gunners laboured to their tepid 1-1 draw.