Like a New Year’s diet, we failed to get any points at the very start of 2019. The effort was there, the performance was commendable, but we did not take advantage of our chances created against a quality side in Arsenal. Rightfully, we were punished.
The quality from Arsenal was not always evident, however. They were downright sloppy in many parts of the first half. Our three up front in Schurrle, Mitro and Sessegnon gave the Gunners plenty of headaches. Pair that up with Cisse’s tenacity and Cairney’s ability to hold onto the ball, I would say there was a sense that we could even bag all three points away from home. I enjoyed seeing Schurrle and Mitro continue to work as seamlessly as they did versus Wolves, and Sessegnon did not miss a beat as he was a consistent outlet on the right wing. Arsenal’s tendency to push high, and commit numbers, was almost their undoing as a quick flick from Schurrle to Cairney gave our captain to turn and thread a perfect pass into the path of Sessegnon. Unfortunately, the strike didn’t curl in and went well wide. Promising signs though – and we would surely have another go.
That chance came again this time when Arsenal failed to clear their lines and Cairney found Schurrle wide left. Schurrle opted not to shoot and instead cut back to his left and sent in an early cross to the back post to an unmarked Sessegnon, who somehow completely missed the ball with his trusty left foot. It was at this moment I knew the day was not going to be ours.
Sure enough, Arsenal attacked down our right-hand side again and again – until finally, an early cross found Xhaka unmarked to trap the ball, then nudge it past Rico to give the home fans a sigh of relief, 1-0 Gunners. If I was the opponent’s manager, I would say the best way to beat us is down our right-hand side and multiple runs from centre midfielders into the box. Our inability to contain the right-hand side, and lapse in concentration to follow runs into the box, are what cost us in the first goal. It was clear that Cairney allowed Xhaka to run past him, while both Ream and Le Marchand were already marking Lacazette and Aubameyang.
The second half forced Unai Emery’s hand to change the system to a back four, and Torreira come in for Mustafi. This worked well for Arsenal because it meant Schurrle could no longer tuck in to feed into Mitrovic and found himself facing Cairney behind him instead. With a little less bite to our attack, it was fitting that Arsenal looked like the Gunners of old where Aubameyang picks up the pass on our right-hand side, connects with Iwobi, back to the striker, then a nutmeg on Le Marchand trying to help Odoi, before a cool pass to Lacazette who finishes the move with the second goal.
Our struggle down the right-hand side was clear, and it meant an opportunity for Timothy Fosu-Mensah to get a run out over an indecisive Cyrus Christie. Shortly after, a double change with Kamara coming in for Schurrle and Seri in for Cisse. We needed to stretch the field due to Torreira’s insertion, so what better than a creative midfielder and a pacey, strong, winger – who was desperate to prove himself after the penalty debacle over the weekend. The rust from Fosu-Mensah was clear, but Seri showed how his improved tenacity benefits all when he ruthlessly dispossessed Torreira, eventually the move ending with a perfectly placed pass by Sessegnon to the oncoming Kamara to make it 2-1. The relief was seen by AK, and it was great to see there was no pride, no look of “Why always me” ala Balotelli, none – he was gracious and kissed the ground. Lovely. I could feel the comeback brewing, it was 2-1 in the 70th minute. Kamara even had another chance to play in Mitro but underhit the pass, how unfortunate because shortly after, Aaron Ramsey came into the match.
The next goal is what would matter the most for the match. We either go down 2 goals or equalize to provide late match drama. Unfortunately, Aaron Ramsey came in, and Aaron Ramsey scores goals. As a result, it was no surprise it was the Welshman who put the dagger in, benefiting after another attack down our right-hand side. This time, Seri falling asleep on the late run by Kolasinac, who sent in a drilled pass to Aubameyang, pops off the post, and Ramsey collects softly, before a flick into the far right netting, 3-1 Arsenal.
It was done and dusted then. Rico made a brilliant save against Aubameyang, but the striker would not be denied to make it a 4th goal conceded. Guess what side the calamity started? The right-hand side where Seri and Odoi are having a moment, and the ball bounces in front of Odoi, eventually deflects off Mitro’s heel, before Aubameyang shoots and the ball is deflected off Ream unluckily over the head of Rico.
I would say our biggest weakness defensively is on that right-hand side. Not only against Arsenal but the last 4 matches, we have played, that right-hand side has been found out. Is it a right back or right centre-back issue? Or both? If I had to choose between the two, it would be right centre-back. Odoi gets sucked out of position, which forces our covering centre-back to push wide, causing our defensive shape to break completely. Against Huddersfield, no goals will happen, against Arsenal or Man United, it’s 4 conceded. That is the difference – and it’s cost us badly. Arsenal were there for the taking, and we left them off the hook. In the Premier League, there’s no hope of survival if we don’t take our chances, especially away from home against a top 6 team.
Overall, regardless of how many goals, it’s a loss. We did not expect to get points, but the fact that we had those chances to possibly come away with one was enough to question players and positions. In perfect harmony, it is indeed January, and the window is open. Who wants to join a relegation battle? How many clauses and wage adjustments do we have to give up to bring a Premier League experienced right centre-back, right back, right winger, and backup striker? How good are the chances of that actually happening? As good as New Year’s resolution being fulfilled?
Looking at the league table, and we’re still within touching distance to get out of the bottom three, but it will have to be an agonizing wait to see the result of Huddersfield v Burnley and Southampton v Chelsea. Hopefully a distraction via the FA Cup will come in the form of victory against Oldham this Sunday, but afterwards, all eyes will be on the transfer rumours and the required patience to create our best lineups on who can get all three points against Burnley in just under two weeks.