September 24, 2015

Gritty Joyful Performance A Welcome Distraction

By Michael Bedard

Throughout the last 15 years if there’s one thing being a fan of Arsenal meant it has been no matter the lowest of lows the recovery has never been far off.  After a Champions League debacle and a disappointing unjust result against Chelsea Wednesday’s Capital One Cup showdown provided a needed respite from our frustrations. 

Without question Arsenal and Tottenham fans share a genuine dislike that carries onto the pitch.  Nervy, gritty affairs have been the norm and while Arsenal has carried the upper hand the results have shown the upper hand going in means little.  With the relative importance of this match being low one could excuse a light performance going into a more important League game with Leicester on Saturday.  Arsene Wenger’s side featured a profoundly different look than what we’ve seen in recent weeks.  David Ospina starting at the back was to be expected but neither of the Gabriel/Koscielny duo appeared after a tumultuous week saw Gabriel’s red card overturned.  That neither was on the bench meant that centre defense was in short supply in reserve and Per Mertesacker and Calum Chambers would have to go the distance.  From a strategic standpoint Gabriel and Koscielny give the team more pace in the middle and give Arsenal the ability to play a higher line.  Against Spurs a high line today would have been potentially suicidal and thankfully a calm and collected defense was the order of the day.  Kieran Gibbs on the left was a somewhat expected move to give him more time in the lineup while Mathieu Debuchy on the right was a shot at redemption after last week’s debacle.  Despite BeIN’s ridiculously horrible lineup screens the layout of the team was Alex Oxlade Chamberlain paired with Gibbs and Joel Campbell outside with Debuchy.   Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini were placed to share the defensive mid positioning while Aaron Ramsey held the middle with Giroud in his standard position. 

Throughout the early game it was clear that this was not going to be the flowing Arsenal we’ve seen so many times.  Shape was critical on the night and largely the players executed on an alternate strategy with something we haven’t seen often – joy.  Throughout the early going the Gunners were largely content to allow Tottenham’s midfielders and wing to control the ball – its a strategy teams use against Arsenal and where we usually see Olivier Giroud caught by a strategy like this it was Harry Kane who found himself frustrated early and often.  It was intriguing to see Tottenham out-Arsenal the Gunners with plenty of passing, plenty of possession, but a lack of substance at the sharp end.  The Arsenal’s first chance came in the 13th minute from a smooth pass thru crowded space finding Kieran Gibbs who just missed a streaking Giroud in the box.  It was the type of opportunity we’ve seen much of in recent weeks but again just missing a bit of finishing touch.   

In the 25th minute Arsenal opened the scoring with the type of goal we’ve been waiting for.  Aaron Ramsey playing the ball deftly to Gibbs who deflected over to an inwardly moving Oxlade Chamberlain who put all of his gunpowder into the barrel for a shot  on Vorm that couldn’t be handled and the rebound top shelved by the surprising boot of Mathieu Flamini.  It was the type of smash we saw with frequency from Alexis last year and while the player may have been different it was a goal scorer’s goal.  The player reaction was what we’ve been wanting to see – a player energized by the moment.   The movement was much more seamless than what we’ve seen this year.  When Flamini went forward Giroud covered the spot and Campbell kept discipline on the right.  It was the type of move where if unsuccessful has led to counters in previous games.  

In the 30th minute Tottenham had one of their best opportunities and as often was the case when we did have defensive issues it was unfortunately Debuchy who opened the door.  Tottenham misfired but it was another indicator that Debuchy fancies himself something of a false 9/4/3/8/10 or 7 on the pitch improvising endlessly.  2 minutes later it was another Debuchy cock up that gave Danny Rose an opportunity he sent skywards.  Arteta picked up a yellow in the 33rd minute with a high late challenge.  He was fortunate only to have grazed the backside of Townsend but it was rightly earned a yellow.  Campbell gave Wenger and team a bit of a scare in the 37th minute when he took a nasty spill into the advert boards behind the Tottenham net.  Flamini quickly scored a takedown for 2 points and a yellow.  Whether it was protective of Campbell or not it was deserved.   Ox made a nice run taking a shot that landed wide when he had an opportunity to feed inside.  It was another solid run and a hijacking of passing lanes that I’d welcome more of.  Not surprisingly Debuchy was then caught out of position and made a late challenge on Danny Rose just outside of the box to earn Arsenal’s 3rd yellow.  2 minutes later Harry Kane mishandled a chance due to Debuchy wandering that Calum Chambers maturely cleared for a corner.   A strangely poor Aaron Ramsey pass set up a last minute rush that ended in another Harry Kane misfire.  After 45 minutes Arsenal held a slim lead with incisive smart play and by watching Spurs short circuit on their opportunities. 

The second half started nervier than the first with Tottenham carrying the challenge to Arsenal.  Harry Kane finished an opportunity in the 49th minute but was clearly offside.  Tottenham would get their equalizer a few moments later when Chadli’s attempted pass went right around Debuchy and was played past Ospina by Chambers.  It was the type of mistake one expects from a player gaining experience on the backline, but in no way acceptable.  Ospina had it all the way and in trying to do too much Chambers played the role of Owngoal.  More telling was the poor play of Debuchy though who shouldn’t be playing like a 20 year old.  With 10 years more experience I expect more intelligence from Debuchy than I do confident play from Chambers.   

In the 65th minute a Spurs corner was delightfully undefended allowing a spectacular effort from Kane that Kieran Gibbs cleared away at the post.  It was solid play from one defender but another abysmal display of Debuchy Defense.  Joel Campbell’s day came to an end with Alexis coming on.  For Campbell it was a capable game but there was nothing on display that showed he can be a solution up front.  This is the type of game Campbell needs to play though and he acclimated himself as well as can be expected with his lack of playing time.  Aaron Ramsey quickly fired an ill-advised adventure shot towards net allowing Spurs a bit of a reprieve.  

In the 70th minute Giroud had a wonderful opportunity clearly onside but Vorm made a slick save.   In the 71st minute another Debuchy adventure led to a Spurs chance but Kane was unable to outpace Oxlade Chamberlain who tracked back to cover.   In the 76th minute Dele Alli clipped Per leading to a card but nothing of any note, a foul, a card, but nothing to be made of it.  In the 77th minute the winner would come.  A poor clearing effort off a Sanchez pass from Fazio was volleyed brilliantly by Flamini.  Twice is divine and Flamini was at the top of his game showing the forwards how to put the ball on net to great effect.  After not playing until this point in the season and absorbing criticism for being too old,  too slow, and surplus to requirements Flamini effectively told everyone where to put their critique.  My goal for Flamini was not to “not shank anyone”.  2 goals and a strong take down of Danny Rose makes this a total success plus some.   The last 15 minutes were the standard fare of back and forth pace but chances were largely contained.  Bright spot in the 87th minute when Debuchy came back into his actual position and broke up an opportunity.  Walcott had an opportunity that he put just wide in keeping with the type of misses I expect from him.  All told though the team’s spirit and unity led to a win.  Overall this was a side we hadn’t seen and it was a side of players that came thru for one another and for the team.  A good win in a contest that is always difficult regardless of the relative meaning.

Looking over some of the post-match ratings I’m surprised that Oxlade Chamberlain is getting grief for his performance.  It was his shot that created the first goal.  It was his movement with Gibbs that led to Arsenal’s motion throughout the day.  I’d love to see a goal or two from him but on the day his performance was what I wanted to see.  The downside of this game was for the second game I’m forced to question whether Debuchy has a role to play beyond depth substitute.  There are players who find success on the pitch outside of their primary role but Debuchy isn’t fast enough, smart enough, or good enough to be one of those players.   That, by itself, isn’t a knock.  Per Mertesacker is the shining example of a player who plays one role well but heightens the impact by not daylighting as an attacking midfielder for giggles.  On at least 6 separate occasions Debuchy found himself out of position allowing Tottenham to attack down his side.  It was his lack of precision that led to their goal.  It was his poor position that sprung Kane free late.  It was his positioning that time and time again gave opportunity where it shouldn’t have existed.  Getting some additional poor coverage was the behavior of some Arsenal supporters doing some unappreciated redecorating of White Hart Lane.  Honestly I understand the actions but it isn’t the way I’d like to see a celebration go.  Eventually we will drop a game at the Emirates much to my chagrin and at that time I really can’t blame Tottenham fans for their corresponding stupidity to our fan’s stupidity.  Be classy.  We’re not Tottenham – let’s not act like it.

Overall though it was a little pick me up after 4 days of Costa/Gabriel/FA nonsense due to Mike Dean’s frustrating continuing career.   This weekend presents an opportunity to get well in the league against a Leicester team who has outperformed their talent level this season.  It’s a winnable game and a game where we can make a statement about our true intentions in the league.  I find it hard to imagine a team that plays as a team like we saw today with verve and joy  falling short – lets hope it translates on Saturday.