Post-Everton thoughts on Ospina, Gabriel, Walcott and more

Give David Ospina his dues…
Would I pick him over Wojciech Szczesny? No. Am I convinced he’ll be Arsenal’s long-term number one? Not even nearly. However, credit where credit is due: he was excellent against Everton.

As anticipated, Arsene Wenger dropped Per Mertesacker for Gabriel. However, what was arguably more intriguing about his team selection was the players who retained his trust. Ospina and Olivier Giroud, both disappointing in midweek, kept their spots.

In Giroud’s case, that wasn’t a huge surprise. Arsene has a longstanding admiration for the striker, who has established himself as the club’s undisputed first-choice centre-forward at the club.

Ospina is a different case. Although he has been a regular in the team since January, Arsene has never publicly declared him the new “No. 1”. There has been a lingering suspicion that the manager was simply waiting for Ospina’s first substandard display to reintroduce Szczesny.

The Monaco debacle made this an easy time to justify a change, yet Wenger stuck with the Colombian. That’s a significant show of faith. It begs the question: if the boss didn’t see fit to change after Monaco, does that suggest Ospina is likely to retain his place until May? And if so, what does that mean for Szczesny’s future?

Gabriel had a decent game…
I think there’s a danger that assessment of his performance falls victim to hyperbole. He made a couple of outstanding tackles, but those eye-catching contributions were balanced out by some glaring errors.

His decision to let the ball bounce in the first half, allowing Romelu Lukaku to steal in and run at David Ospina, was particularly bizarre. There was also a wildly misplaced pass and a couple of mistimed jumps for headers. Perhaps nerves were a factor for a guy making his first start in the Premier League.

There’s a lot to like about Gabriel, but he looks very much like a player still adapting to the demands of a new league. Koscielny suffered from plenty of teething problems; Mertesacker too. It may be next season before the begin to see the best of the Brazilian. His adaptation will certainly be accelerated if he retains his place ahead of the jaded German.

Theo Walcott must be worried…
If he can’t get off the bench in a game like this, when the manager has made a definitive decision to rotate his squad, he’s in trouble.

For weeks debate has raged about which of he or Danny Welbeck is more deserving of a first-team place. That dichotomy was a disservice to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who was one of few bright spots in the first half of the campaign.

It now feels as if both Welbeck and Chamberlain are more prominent in Wenger’s thoughts. Some have suggested a connection with Walcott’s contract situation — when he stalled on a new deal in the Autumn of 2012, Walcott was excluded from the XI until form and fitness forced Wenger’s hand.

However, I believe it’s more to do with Walcott’s lack of defensive contribution. Speaking before the Everton match, Wenger said:

Offensively we have lots of solutions. We have to find a team balance. It is more about team balance than any individual.

When you have the ball in the modern game you have to attack, when you don’t have the ball you have to defend. All the players who can’t do that, cannot play.”

Until Walcott’s all-round contribution improves, it seems he will be confined to the sidelines.

Everton 3 – 0 Arsenal: Is it over?

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Is it over?

Not the title race. That’s been over for a while. Not the “race for fourth”, either. That’s got a good way to go, and looking at the respective fixture lists, I still fancy us to come out on top of Everton.

No: the operative *it* in this instance is the reign of Arsene Wenger. After this latest capitulation, serious questions have to be asked about his suitability to take the team in to next season — regardless of what happens between now and May. Truth be told, I happen to think we’ll make the top four. Call me crazy, but I still think we’ll win the FA Cup too. But that doesn’t assuage all my fears about the manager.

Wenger was comprehensively outmaneuvered by Roberto Martinez at Goodison Park. It started with the team-sheets. We persisted with a midfield that hasn’t really functioned properly for several weeks now. All the evidence suggests we’re better when we employ the pace of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the flank, yet Wenger continued with his bizarre policy of selecting both Santi Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky, with neither player seemingly asked to do any defensive work on the right-hand side. In a game in which a point would have been a good result for Arsenal, it’s tempting to call Wenger’s tactics naive. However, considering how long he’s been in the game, one has to revert to an altogether more damning adjective: negligent.

By contrast, Martinez made some bold selections, starting Steven Naismith as a false nine and Romelu Lukaku wide on the right. Naismith frequently dropped in to the area between Arsenal’s defence and midfield, becoming a natural pivot around whom the Belgian pair of Mirallas and Lukaku could buzz effectively. Arsenal didn’t have an answer.

At half-time, Arsenal were 2-0 down and not even in the contest, and yet Arsene Wenger didn’t make a single change. Arsenal needed an act of decisive leadership. Instead, inaction felt like surrender.

My mind cast back to the January transfer window. That was another time when Wenger needed to make a bold decision, and dithered. The consequences have been disastrous.

Arsenal were gutless against Everton. More worryingly, they were rudderless. Never mind a back-up plan — there didn’t appear to be any plan whatsoever.

I don’t want to diminish the achievements of the first half of the season. However, it could be argued we’ve only been able to stave off this kind of collapse due to vagaries of the fixture-generating system

Much has been made of our improvement. However, the stats show we’re now just four points better off than we were at this stage last season. The back-loaded nature of our fixture list has evened out our points tally, and the relative progress compares poorly with that made by the likes of Liverpool.

We’re fourth in the league, and that’s a pretty fair reflection of our ability. We’re good enough to beat pretty much everyone below us, and not really good enough to beat those above us. Your contentment with the manager largely depends on your acceptance of that status quo.

I’m in the camp that believes another manager could improve upon some of our existing issues. What worries me is that the team’s faults appear to be Arsene’s faults. There is a lack of attention to tactical detail, a chronic absence of depth in key positions, and a question of motivation. Those are all ultimately the manager’s responsibility.

Wenger’s contemporary failings don’t diminish his previous greatness. However, you’re only a revolutionary once, and Le Boss has never felt more replaceable than now.

Whichever way you slice it, he’s going sooner rather than later. Wenger doesn’t have another decade in him. Those who advocate stability have to face the fact that eventually, a change is going to come. With the manager’s contract at the point of expiry, now seems as good a time as any.

Looking back, his stalling tactics on his contract felt like a calculated game of brinkmanship with the fans. If the jeopardy of losing him increased, we might draw him closer to our collective bosom. Around Christmas, it seemed to be working. However, on the back of our recent collapse, the adverse effect has occurred. As the prospect of losing Arsene has moved closer, the idea has become increasingly palatable. Few fans are eager to sign up for three more years of this.

I’ve backed Wenger for a long time. If he chooses to stay on, he’ll retain my support. However, he must be wondering whether it’s time to hang up the sleeping bag/coat that has adorned him in recent years.

If Wenger loses the FA Cup semi-final next week, it’s indisputably over. Even if he wins the competition, it may be more of a celebratory send-off than cause for a new contract. It’s not over yet, but it feels like it’s accelerating towards a gloomy conclusion.

I don’t like it. But I’m not as scared of it as some.

Everton Preview: My glass needs refilling

I’ve seen our draw with Manchester City cited as vindication of our abilities against the top teams. I can see why one might think that: it was a valiant fight-back against a team in rampant form who are still in the thick of the title race.

My glass, however, is half-drained. I’m more inclined to observe that we haven’t beaten either of Manchester City or Chelsea, home or away, all season. The aggregate scores aren’t pretty. We secured draws in the home games, but they were draws the opposition were more than happy to take. The point suited them far more than us.

Those results are ultimately what have knocked us out of title contention and in to a customary battle for a top four finish. Today we face Everton in what is being called a “six pointer”. Arsenal hope to have an FA Cup Final to look forward to, but this is undoubtedly Everton’s cup final. Lose, and they face an unexciting trudge towards the Europa League. Win, and they will believe they can overhaul us and reach the Champions League.

This is undoubtedly a huge game. However, it’s only become a huge game because we failed to win any of the other huge games. Everton are striving to climb the mountain; Arsenal to arrest the slide.

Given Everton’s challenging fixture list, a point would be fine. I think Arsenal might set up more conservatively than usual. If we avoid defeat today, our run-in looks manageable.

Come on you Gunners.

Arsenal 4-1 Everton: Giroud is comfortably our best striker

Arsenal 4-1 Everton
Match report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Arsene gambled with his team at either end of the pitch…
When it came to selecting his team, Arsene Wenger made two big calls at the extremities of the pitch. First off, he allowed Lukasz Fabianski to continue in his role as Arsenal’s cup goalkeeper. At the opposite end, he selected Yaya Sanogo to start ahead of Olivier Giroud.

Given the result, Wenger will feel justified in his decisions. However, if Arsenal ultimately reach the FA Cup Final, I’ll be screaming for Szczesny to start. There is little room for sentiment when there is silverware at stake.

The goal was an important moment for Mesut Ozil…
The fist pump he gave when the ball hit the net was as expressive a show of emotion as we’ve seen from Ozil since he arrived on these shores. The fact that every single outfield Arsenal player joined him in celebration seemed significant, too: this was a clear show of support for a player who has been under fire.

This was Ozil’s first goal for three months, and his best performance in a while too. Afterwards, Wenger described him as “regenerated” after a recent rest.

He’s certainly found the season hard going. I’ve heard that Arsene believes this is a particularly difficult year for Ozil to have moved to the Premier League. Six teams are battling for Champions League qualification. Another 10 face the possibility of relegation. Every time you face one of those teams, you’re engaged in a high-intensity battle. At Madrid, Ozil simply didn’t encounter that ferocious level of competition on such a regular basis.

It’s been a steep learning curve. Hopefully this match represents something of a turning point.

Flamini’s booking made life hard…
Mathieu Flamini was booked after 23 minutes. It’s no coincidence that it was around that time that Everton began to pose a consistent threat on the counter-attack. His ability to break up the play was severely hampered. On Everton’s equaliser, there was a clear moment of indecision where Flamini was reluctant to put in a tackle and face a red card.

Giroud is the best striker we have…
I must confess I find Arsene Wenger’s faith in Yaya Sanogo somewhat baffling. He’s big, strong and willing, but miles away from Olivier Giroud. I’m not even convinced that he’s better than Nicklas Bendtner.

Giroud’s two goals showed he’s still the top man. He now has 18 in all competitions — one more than he managed in the entirety of last season. He’s far from perfect, but he’s also comfortably the best striker we have.

Two wins from glory…
I’m not a fan of hosting the FA Cup semi-finals at Wembley, but it ensures a good day out and a sense of occasion. If we can win there and book a place in the final it will ensure a dramatic end to what’s been, on the whole, a positive season.

It was great to see some familiar faces at the Emirates…
Before the game, Theo Walcott was out on the pitch. It was encouraging to see him walking unaided – I’m told he’s begun doing rehab on a zero-gravity treadmill. Disappointingly, this does not teach him how to fly, but instead allows him to run without putting significant weight on his joints.

Then, at half-time, Pat Rice came out to thank the fans for their support in his battle with cancer. Pat’s a real fighter and a true Arsenal man, and it was genuinely heartwarming to see him looking so well.

All in all, a very good day.

 

Arsenal 1 – 1 Everton: You can’t win them all, annoyingly

Match report | Arsene’s reaction | Highlights

In the end, this was a fair result…
It was a pretty extraordinary game, too. Both sides absolutely went for it: Arsenal because we had the carrot of a seven-point lead before us; Everton because their confidence was buoyed by a win at Old Trafford and they had almost nothing to lose. I was hugely impressed by Roberto Martinez’s side. Granted, we have a couple of big tests coming up in the next fortnight, but Everton are certainly the best team we’ve faced in the Premier League to date.

Everton bossed the first half…

They went for the jugular right from kick-off, and it seemed to catch our team by surprise. Indeed, it took us the best part of 40 minutes to get over our shock and actually start to take the game to the Toffees.

We had two outstanding centre-back performances to thank for being at 0-0 at half-time…

Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny were both every bit as good as we’ve come to expect. Romelu Lukaku presented an awkward challenge, and one feared a repeat of the roastings we were regularly given by Didier Drogba – a similarly athletic forward in a blue shirt.
However, both centre-halves were at the top of their game. Koscielny in particular seemed to grow in stature as the game wore on, regularly nipping in to win the ball cleanly before bursting upfield to join the attack. The Frenchman was Arsenal’s best player on the day.

Despite Everton’s first-half dominance, we still had the better chances…
Tim Howard was in good form to deny both Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud. Had our finishing been a touch better, we could have had an unlikely half-time lead.

In the second half, Arsenal looked sharper…

Our punch-drunk opening was banished to memory as we set about imposing ourselves on the game. The balance of possession was significant redressed, and we won plenty more second balls – especially after the introduction of the busy Tomas Rosicky and Mathieu Flamini.

Aaron Ramsey had his poorest game for a while…

The Welshman was not at his best, and it’s tempting to put it down to tired legs: this was, after all, his 22nd start of the season.
There were signs of a performance like this coming his way in midweek against Hull. Aside from his delicious assist for Mesut Ozil, Ramsey was unusually wasteful in possession. In the past week, some of his bad habits have crept back in: overly-ambitious passes and unnecessary flicks. He needs to remember that simplicity has been the key to the revival in his game. I’d be tempted to rest him in midweek.

Mesut Ozil, the man for the big occasion, delivered…
If anyone looked likely to make the breakthrough for Arsenal it was Ozil. His last three performances have all been right out of the top drawer of football’s tallest cabinet. When he smartly lifted the ball over Tim Howard and in to the roof of the net, it really felt like we might be watching a defining goal in the Premier League season.

The equaliser was gutting…

A buoyant stadium was silenced by a smashing strike from Gerard Deulofeu. Some have criticised Szczesny for failing to stop the shot, but it really was an excellent hit. It flashed past the Pole and evaporated our hopes of that seven-point lead. Gutting, but probably fair.

The next three games are all massive…

Travelling to the Etihad just days days after a crucial Champions League tie against Napoli does look like a daunting task, but if we are to be champions then these are the kinds of challenges we have to overcome. Beyond that, there’s the home tie with Chelsea, and a chance for Arsene Wenger to finally get one over on Jose Mourinho.
All Arsenal can do is take it one game at a time. Next stop: Naples.