Rocky’s Round Up: February
At the end of last month’s blog, I said that if we were first or one or two points off the top at the start of March with 10 games left then we could anticipate an exciting end to the season.
Well after what can only be described as a disappointing month we find ourselves four points off Chelsea with our title hopes fading but still not completely dead.
The first big test of our gruelling February came at Anfield against the division’s in-form side. Our first real big assessment in the league since Chelsea in December. I think the first thing to say is Liverpool were absolutely brilliant, easily the best team we’ve faced this season and we simply couldn’t cope. It’s hard to admit but I can handle that. When Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho are on top form, that is some firepower to have to deal with.
What I can’t handle is the way we applied ourselves to the game. Having been very slow out of the blocks for almost every fixture in January we should have known that Anfield, of all places was, not the match to start at snail’s pace yet we were 2-0 down within 10 minutes. After that there was no fight, no trying to weather the storm, we simply crumbled and were lucky that Liverpool decided enough was enough at five.
I felt that the whole team had let themselves down. It’s not the first time we’ve completely collapsed in a big game but I thought that this group of players had more bottle and more heart than what they showed. There were many apologies from the players through social media after the game, but what we all wanted and expected to see was a reaction against the Premier League champions four days later.
Facing the poorest Manchester United team I can remember since I started following football, the boys simply had to respond. We had to show that Liverpool was a blip and, due to Chelsea drawing against West Brom, first place was once again up for grabs.
I wouldn’t say we completely failed against United. It was evident that the Liverpool defeat had knocked the confidence out of us and we knew it was vital that we couldn’t lose the game. We completely controlled the second half without creating too many clear -cut chances and the effort was certainly there. The game finished 0-0 and while it was frustrating I didn’t think the team deserved the chorus of boos that came at the final whistle. We were still in a good position and had a couple of more than winnable games in the league to look forward to.
But first there was a chance for revenge against Liverpool in the FA Cup. Yaya Sanogo came in for his debut and a few players were rotated but this was certainly a team capable of going through to the next round.
As we expected it was a tough contest. However, Liverpool weren’t so clinical this time and Lukasz Fabianski, who earlier announced that he would leave at the end of the season, was excellent. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and a lovely worked goal finished off by Lukas Podolski mean that we are one step closer to Wembley. However the draw really hasn’t been too kind to us this year and another tough match against Everton awaits.
With confidence somewhat restored and buoyed by the fact that we managed to beat them 2-0 in our last meeting a year or so ago, we welcomed Bayern Munich to the Emirates.
The first 30 minutes of that game were the best we’ve seen from the boys since Napoli at home in September. It was how we should start matches against all teams but certainly the big ones. Our passing was sharp, our pressing was quick and Bayern were simply stunned. When you are so on top against a team like that you have to score! We had our opportunities, most noticeably from the penalty spot but failed to convert.
If you read this blog regularly, then I think you will know I’m a massive Mesut Ozil fan. However it doesn’t take a genius to work out that he’s having a difficult time at the moment. Some have foolishly written him off but I still very much back him to come good, albeit accept that we might not see the best of him again until next season. He’s come in for a lot of criticism from the way he takes a penalty to his lack of work rate.
Regarding the penalty, of course it’s annoying when any player misses one but without wanting to sound to stereotypical it can happen to anyone. Obviously when a player misses one doing a run up like his then it looks even worse but he’s scored penalties like that for Germany and that’s his style of taking them.
Regarding work rate or lack of caring, I honestly it’s a lazy argument. Yes I’d prefer if he sprinted back after losing the ball but I don’t think that is enough to justify whether a player is trying hard enough. For some perspective I think I read that he covered the third or fourth highest amount of distance in the Bayern game. Going forward, he’s trying to make things happen, he’s certainly not hiding (remember he won the penalty with a great bit of skill) but yes he is struggling with his form and we can only hope it comes back for the last push of the season.
Once Wojciech Szczesny deservedly got sent off, realistically that was the game and most probably the tie over. Bayern went on to win 2-0 and while I hope we give it a good go in Germany, it’s the least likely trophy that we can win.
10 days since our last Premier League match against Manchester United, we had to try and get back to winning ways against Sunderland.
After basically watching 45 minutes of Bayern camp in our half, it was nice to be treated to some fantastic football as we comfortably beat the Capital One Cup finalists 4-1. We scored yet another Team Goal of the Season contender through Tomas Rosicky and I hoped that this would be the catalyst for a strong end to the league season.
After a seven-day gap until our next fixture, the players were given a few days rest. Our tough March would start with a trip to Stoke at the Britannia, where we have a very average record over the last few years.
Arsene Wenger decided to play the same team (apart from bringing in Kieran Gibbs for the injured Nacho Monreal) that beat Sunderland and I had no problem with that. We had comfortably beaten a team similar to Stoke’s level and, whatever you think about the tactics, those players were good enough to beat Stoke.
In pretty much every league, a title contender will have two or three games away from home against a mediocre opposition where things just don’t click. The contenders attacking game will often breakdown and the home side will then usually be spurred on by the crowd to get a winner. In our case they were gifted one by the referee, but the point is that Arsenal certainly did not play well enough to win the match.
If you look back on our season this is actually the first one of those games. The first time away from home against someone in the bottom half where we have played poorly and got nothing from it. The problem is our form against the bigger sides has so far been so poor that we are under pressure to basically win against all the other teams. The defeat was certainly damaging and has left many wondering where our season is going.
I’ve seen a few silly suggestions that losing to Stoke means we are now out of the title race. If our players had that attitude, you would all rightly be furious so let’s not do the same as fans. The reality is that with 10 league games left to go we are four points off the leaders, a far better situation then what we’ve been use to in the last few seasons.
The way I see it is we’ve had two periods of really difficult fixtures this season and ultimately we’ve failed in both. In December we drew at home to Everton (fourth at the time), lost away to Napoli (which had big consequences in the end), got battered by Manchester City and played out a dull draw with Chelsea.
Last month we got embarrassed by Liverpool, drew to a poor Manchester United side and lost to Bayern Munich.
Coming up this month we have probably our most difficult league games- Tottenham Hotspur away, Chelsea away and Manchester City at home. For me it’s pretty simple: At the minimum we must get seven points from those three games. Failure to do that and you would have to say the league would be very unrealistic.
I am actually going into these games very relaxed about the situation. That is simply because failure to get the points means that we don’t deserve to win the title. A good football team who has been very consistent and showed good signs of improvement- YES. Deserved Premier League Champions- NO. I think that would be justified by us failing to win almost all the “big” matches.
The problem is, we are going into the games with the squad in a rather unhealthy condition. We need heroes for the last part of the season, especially in attack, but where will they come from?
I think we’ve seen enough of Olivier Giroud over the last 20 months to suggest that he’s probably not going to be the man for it. I’d absolutely love for him to prove me wrong, but he’s choked in most of the big occasions that have come his way in his Arsenal career and after what was a brilliant start to the season, he’s got worse and worse.
As already discussed Mesut Ozil is out of form, Santi Cazorla has not hit the heights of last season, Jack Wilshere is really struggling for any kind of consistency, Lukas Podolski is not fancied by the manager and Yaya Sanogo is too raw.
Perhaps it might be Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who is one of few players to come out of last month with any real credit but you get the feeling him alone is not enough. You can’t help but think how different it could be with a fit Aaron Ramsey or Theo Walcott but we knew they would be out for long periods in January and we didn’t act in the market. No point in dwelling on that, it’s up to these players now, the manager has put his faith in them and they have to deliver.
I do also think something has to change with the way we are playing. Without Theo’s pace and Aaron’s goals added to the fact that we aren’t doing things as well as we were earlier in the season we are, on the whole, too predictable. Maybe we play Podolski off one of the target men, meaning that he is closer to goal and can use his clinical left foot more often. Perhaps bring Serge Gnabry back into the fold and go with direct pace with him and Chamberlain on both wings. Or drop Rosicky into centre midfield, which would allow him to increase the tempo of our play and speed up our attacks.
As I said before, we are not out of the title race but simply have to perform in this next month. But before all that commences, we have a very important quarter -final cup tie against Everton. We are not far from the Wembley cup final that we have desired for nearly 10 years now and can’t allow ourselves to fall so close to the final hurdle.