Talking Points: A familiar face helps sink Arsenal’s FA Cup dreams
A Familiar Script
We’ve been here before, haven’t we? In December 2017, before the wheels had well and truly fallen off of Arsene Wenger’s last season in charge, Arsenal welcomed Manchester United to the Emirates Stadium. Despite ultimately losing 3-1, that match paradoxically saw perhaps the best attacking performance of the season between the boxes, and the Gunners well and truly dominated proceedings. Winning the Expected Goals (xG) battle 4.24 to United’s 2.07, Arsenal were at times wasteful in front of goal, but it was goalkeeper David DeGea who stole the show as he stopped 14 of 15 shots on target to steal the victory for United, who gashed the Arsenal defence on the counter for their three goals.
While Arsenal were not nearly as dominant on Friday, they still managed to control much of the first half, and for a while looked likely to overwhelm the United defence and return the favour for last season’s disappointment. The Gunners held 63% possession for the match, outshooting United 13-8 in the process. However, the untimely injury to Sokratis Papastathopoulos in just the 20’ sent the Arsenal defence reeling, and two soft United goals in rapid succession before the end of the half ensured Ole Gunnar Solskær would be in control of proceedings for the second half. Chasing the lead, Arsenal played directly into the interim manager’s hands, as the Norwegian switched to a counter attacking style in the second half with 3 pacey forwards ready to break with numbers against an increasingly imbalanced Arsenal side. Unai Emery was forced to use two of his substitutions due to injuries, and bringing Mesut Ozil on after the hour mark was too little too late for the Gunners, and their FA Cup run slowly slipped away from them with little resistance.
Injuries Rapidly Reaching Critical Mass
For years now, Arsenal have been rather derisively labeled “Injury FC” by fans, but this season has been one the worst in quite some time. Already suffering from crippling long term injuries to Hector Bellerin, Rob Holding and Danny Welbeck, the Gunners could hardly afford to lose any more able bodies. Unfortunately, the attrition reached new heights on a Friday as both Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Laurent Koscielny were felled to injury. While Koscielny appears to face little if any time out from a painful but errant foot to the side of the head, Sokratis is facing a lengthier spell on the treatment table. The Greek defender is reported to be out until the end of February with an ankle injury, one that will see him miss several vital fixtures in the team’s quest for a top four place.
Unai Emery will once again be forced to get creative in his solutions, and the Gunners will likely be forced to use players out of position to cope with the loss. Mercifully, highly rated young defender Konstantinos Mavropanos has returned to action after a long-term hip injury, but Emery will be loathe to overuse the young Greek, despite facing little choice in the matter. If Koscielny is unavailable for Tuesday’s clash with Cardiff City, fullbacks Nacho Monreal and Stephan Lichtsteiner could be called upon to fill in, with midfielders Granit Xhaka and Mohammed Elneny also factoring into the mix.
While fans keep hoping relief will come in the form of reinforcements from the transfer market, the club’s tight budget and a lack of players of the requisite quality available on loan could see the search restricted to internal solutions. If he must, Emery could also turn to the u23s, where Julio Pleguezelo and Zech Medley have been impressing. Given the importance of every point from now until the end of the season, throwing inexperienced youngsters off the deep end for a baptism by fire could create yet more problems. However, both players possess plenty of talent and could be given the opportunity to impress in a first team role. It was an injury crisis that first handed Hector Bellerin a path into the first team, and he has scarcely looked back since. Perhaps fans will be treated to a repeat performance, in which a youngster shows enough to earn a permanent place, but whatever Emery decides, how he constructs the defence in the coming weeks could go a long way toward determining how successful his first season in England will ultimately be.
As Painful As They Come
In a rivalry as fierce as the one between Arsenal and Manchester United, any goals conceded are going to be painful. When those goals happen to be scored by a hated former player and a smug attacking midfielder who never passes up a chance to dance on your pitch and troll the fans afterwards, it is downright miserable.
But such was the luck of the Gunners on Friday, who witnessed goals from Alexis Sanchez and Jesse Lingard ultimately sink their FA Cup dreams. Unsurprisingly, Alexis Sanchez wasted no time celebrating with his new teammates following his cheeky goal to open the scoring, with the anguished yowls from the stands echoing around the stadium. Given the acrimony surrounding his departure, and the residual bitterness still felt by many in North London, the sight was deflating.
Though it would be hard to match the anger toward Sanchez, Jesse Lingard did his best to share in the fun, and his impish dancing following his easy goal just minutes later sparked a vitriolic response from Arsenal supporters at the match and on social media. The United man wasted little time stoking the fires even more following the match, posting a video of himself dancing back home at Old Trafford with a horrible grin on his face. He has been a thorn in the side of this Arsenal team of late, and his antics combined with the sight of Alexis Sanchez scoring against his former club to make the loss that much harder to swallow.
The Problem With The Ozil Substitution…
Mesut Ozil’s trials and tribulations this season at Arsenal have been well documented. Whether through injury or “tactical reasons”, the German playmaker has seen little time on the pitch since he went the distance against Burnley three days before Christmas. Having been left out despite being fit the previous three matches, the situation, down 2-1 in the second half, finally prompted Unai Emery to call on his number 10. Coming on just after the hour mark, Ozil was injected into a tiring team just as United switched to a counter attacking approach that saw them defending deep and tight. Coming on cold, Ozil showed a bit of the movement and passing ability that has been lacking for large stretches of the season, but United’s defence was too sturdy for him to ultimately make much of a difference in the end. To his detractors, it was yet more evidence of him being unsuited to the demands placed on him by Emery.
The problem with turning to Ozil as an impact substitution is that it is simply a role to which he is ill-suited. As a player who grows into matches, taking time to find the gaps in the opponent’s shape and requiring intelligent movement from his teammates off the ball, he is far from the energetic super sub that Aaron Ramsey has been at times this season. With United taking away much of the space the Gunners found so easily in the first half as both teams tried to play on the front foot, and the tiring Arsenal players no longer showing for the ball and moving into space with the same intensity, it was a move that was never likely to bear much fruit.
Whether or not Ozil can succeed under Unai Emery will remain a hot button issue for Arsenal fans right up until the moment one of the, departs the club, it could and should be argued that Emery could do more to play to his playmaker’s strengths. Giving him brief cameos in matches that are quickly getting away from them is hardly going to inspire renewed confidence and a run of good form. The only way for Emery to truly test whether Ozil can perform in his system is to give him a run of starts, allowing him time to rediscover his best form. While far from ideal, certain players require different approaches to man management, and even Jose Mourinho (an inflexible pragmatist in his own right) understood that to get the best out of Ozil, one needs to give him a bit of freedom and encouragement to fail.
Yes, he is far from the ideal, defensively sturdy attacking midfielder that Emery prefers, but when seeing how often his team struggles to create chances with any sort of frequency, and how the defence has failed to noticeably improve in Ozil’s absence, the team would benefit from the coach and player finding common ground in their relationship. Despite his external reputation, Ozil is well liked by his teammates, and continuing to leave him out while failing to consistently win matches could cause others to start questioning the logic of his decision. Whatever happens, a better solution must be reached, and quickly. The team is badly in need of a spark, and as we may soon see, relying on the transfer market to provide it could be an exercise in futility.
Optimism Proves Fleeting
The life of an Arsenal supporter is a roller coaster ride of emotions. Last weekend’s thoroughly convincing victory against Chelsea offered an unexpected jolt of optimism to fans in dire need of it. The match was by far the best defensive performance of the season, and coming right on the heels of some of their worst, some were given the hope that this team had finally turned a corner. After getting embarrassed once again on their home pitch, that positivity has all but evaporated again, and fans have turned toward the transfer market in desperation, hoping for any sort of good news.
However, with just 3 days left in the January transfer window, even those hopes have started to fade. Loan deals with an option to buy for players like Barcelona’s Denis Suarez and Internazionale’s Ivan Perisic have been bandied about for much of the month, but the Gunners are yet to get any over the line. Restricted to minuscule fees or loans, the club is desperate to find reinforcements but unwilling to forfeit too much of their hard won financial flexibility in the coming summer with mandatory purchase clauses in these loan deals. Barcelona in particular are keen to see Suarez’ purchase either become obligatory, or else see the player sign a new contract before departing on loan to prevent losing him for nothing.
The longer these negotiations have dragged on, the more worry has crept into the minds of fans, and many have wasted little time in turning their angry gaze at owner Stan Kroenke. The implausibility of his financial assistance has been well documented, but that hasn’t stopped many from redirecting their anger towards the most popular target in the post-Wenger world. Should the club reach the end of January without signing a single new player, expect to see even more disgruntled fans, and sadly, an atmosphere that resembles the dejection witnessed during much of Arsene Wenger’s final season.