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Double Dutch trips Arsenal up as title challenge implodes

Arsenal 1 Liverpool 1

Van Persie 90+8 pen; Kuyt 90+12 pen

Just when you think Arsenal have run out of ways to embarrass themselves, they plumb new depths. In the last 12 months they have lost after leading 2-0 against both Wigan and Tottenham – in the case of the former, the turnaround occurring in the final 11 minutes – contrived to draw 4-4 at Newcastle having led 4-0 with less than 25 minutes remaining, and lost the Carling Cup final after a late defensive howler. But this result potentially trumps the lot of them. Having taken the lead in the 98th minute courtesy of a Robin van Persie penalty, a rush of blood by Emmanuel Eboué gave Dirk Kuyt the opportunity to snatch the latest of late equalisers for Liverpool with 101:48 on the clock. The result leaves Arsenal six points behind Manchester United with six games to play, their title hopes all but extinguished.

Wojciech Szczęsny and Johan Djourou both returned after lengthy layoffs to strengthen the defence, while Theo Walcott was also restored to the starting line-up at the expense of Andrey Arshavin as Arsenal fielded their strongest XI for several weeks:

Szczęsny

Eboué – Djourou– Koscielny – Clichy

Diaby– Wilshere

Fàbregas

Walcott – van Persie – Nasri

The two teams had previously met on the opening day of the season, when an injury-time own goal by Pepe Reina allowed Arsenal to escape with a point in a 1-1 draw in which both Joe Cole and Laurent Koscielny were sent off. Coming off the back of goalless home draws against Sunderland and Blackburn, Arsenal kicked off on a run of 262 minutes since their last goal at the Emirates (Sébastien Squillaci‘s 8th-minute winner against Stoke.)

90 minutes of normal time

Koscielny came closest to breaking the deadlock in the first half (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

After an immaculately observed silence for Danny Fiszman, the Arsenal director who sadly passed away earlier in the week, and for the victims of the Hillsborough tragedy (the 22nd anniversary of which was on Friday), the 90 minutes which followed were absorbing but lacking in terms of genuine action. Both sides started by looking to play with purpose, but it was Arsenal who gradually gained the upper hand without creating many clear chances against a stubborn Liverpool defence.

It was a defence which by the mid-point of the first half was forced to field two inexperienced teenagers at full-back. 18-year old John Flanagan started on the right side, and when Fabio Aurelio limped off with a hamstring problem he was replaced at left back by 17-year old Jack Robinson. By then, Arsenal had already wasted a handful of decent opportunities. Abou Diaby glanced an early Samir Nasri free kick just wide. Walcott fizzed in a swerving long-range shot which Reina struggled to parry. And Laurent Koscielny headed a van Persie corner against the bar.

In those early stages, Walcott and Eboué combined well down the right flank, but the arrival of the youthful but pacy Robinson actually helped steady the Liverpool defence and the Arsenal pair were largely kept in check thereafter.

The visitors themselves had started the game fairly brightly. Jay Spearing tumbled under a challenge from Djourou early on which could easily have been given as a penalty, and a Luis Suárez free kick deflected straight to Szczęsny. But the Arsenal back four generally dealt well with the combination of the Uruguyan striker and Andy Carroll, and as the half wore on the game flowed increasingly towards Reina’s penalty area. But 0-0 at half-time was a fair reflection of a half in which Arsenal had spent a lot of time knocking on the door without really threatening to batter it down.

Van Persies 98th-minute penalty looked to have secured the win (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

The second half was even less eventful, at least until injury time. Suárez had three reasonable openings, but did not overly stretch Szczęsny with any of them. Jamie Carragher suffered a head injury which required lengthy treatment before he was stretchered off. Arsenal continued to press forward, but with Walcott fading and Fàbregas, Nasri and Jack Wilshere misfiring in a midfield where Lucas Leiva was outstanding, too much of their play was disjointed and lacked even a hint of unpredictability. Even the arrival of reinforcements – Arshavin, Nicklas Bendtner and Alex Song for Wilshere, Walcott and Diaby – did little to provide additional impetus.

Aside from a near post header which van Persie nodded wide, the hosts barely created a meaningful chance until the 85th minute, when Fàbregas and Nasri combined to play van Persie in. However, Reina stood up strong and threw out a giant left paw to beat the Dutchman’s shot away.

12 minutes of abnormal time

Indeed, it was only once the game entered eight minutes of added-on time – most of it due to Carragher’s injury – that the game finally came to life. Arsenal, pressing with ever greater urgency, finally started to apply some consistent pressure, but had only a Song header which bounced harmlessly high and wide to show for it. That is, until with just one minute of the eight remaining Fàbregas played a slick one-two with Nasri and was upended from behind by Spearing. Referee Andre Marriner had no hesitation in pointing to the spot, and van Persie stepped up to coolly steer the spot kick low to Reina’s right as the keeper dived the other way.

Kuyt made no mistake fromn the spot to secure a dramatic late equaliser

That really should have been that. But this is Arsenal, masters of the dramatic cock-up. As Liverpool surged desperately forward, a clumsy foul by Song on Lucas on the very edge of the area gave the visitors a last gasp free kick. Suárez’s shot cannoned off the wall, and as Lucas collected the loose ball he was bundled over by Eboué. The Liverpool player appeared to have slowed up looking to initiate contact, but equally the experienced Ivorian defender should have known that all he had to do was shepherd Lucas harmlessly away from goal and the final whistle would have been blown. It was brainless defending of the lowest order.

Like his compatriot, Kuyt showed nerves of steel to hammer a fine penalty beyond Szczęsny’s despairing dive. It was the final kick of the game – a draw was a fair result, in truth – and with it one suspects the final nail in the coffin of Arsenal’s Premier League aspirations.

Post-match reaction and analysis

In his post-match press conference, Arsène Wenger complained about both the lateness of Liverpool’s penalty and the award itself.

We conceded the penalty after 11 minutes [of stoppage time] and the injury time was [supposed to be] eight minutes. It was no penalty and I don’t see where the three minutes came from.

There was no intervention from [Emmanuel] Eboué. It was Lucas who stood in his way and stopped his run to the ball. Eboué went for the ball and not for the player.

He also blamed recent setbacks on the actions of others rather than his players:

We will have to give everything until the last game of the season and see if it is our year or not. We have been badly done, that’s what you can say, in the last three home games. Against Sunderland we scored a regular goal and we didn’t get a penalty that was 100 per cent [a penalty]. It’s a period where we have not had the biggest luck, that is for sure.

While one would expect Wenger to defend his players publicly and there is an element of truth in Arsenal not always having the best of luck, that is only a small part of the story. They benefitted from an outrageously poor decision last week at Blackpool (Koscielny’s foul in the box on Gary Taylor-Fletcher when Arsenal were wobbling at 2-1). And it is their continued inability to put consistent pressure on packed defences which has cost them dear in recent weeks. If you cannot beat your opponents in 90 minutes, there is little point bemoaning what happens in injury time.

And I also have to disagree with Wenger’s assessment of the equaliser. The referee was entitled to add on time lost in the taking of Arsenal’s penalty and the subsequent celebrations. Mere seconds elapsed between the restart and the award of the free kick that preceded the penalty, and Eboué’s foul was the first thing that occurred after the shot was blocked. Sure, Lucas needed little excuse to invite a silly challenge, but it was completely Eboué’s fault that he obliged.

It goes without saying that few Arsenal players had a good game. The defence did well as a unit but the entire midfield, Diaby aside, was fairly subdued. But the team lacked fresh ideas after becoming bogged down in the second half, and a lack of on-field leadership to take the game by the scruff of the neck. I have written previously that Arsenal’s biggest problem is not a lack of character or effort, but more an underlying weakness to switch to plan B when things aren’t working and a tendency to panic when put under pressure. Something needs to change, that is for sure. It is a sure sign of madness to keep on doing the same thing while expecting a different result, and Wenger will need to carefully consider what changes need to be made this summer. Wholesale surgery is not necessary – let us not forget the team still lies second in the league – but certainly three or four players need to be moved on, with a similar number of physically and mentally tougher replacements being brought in.

Sadly, the Emirates is no longer a fortress – Arsenal have dropped fewer points on their travels (16) than at home (17) – and teams no longer fear being one or even two goals down against Wenger’s side. The days of “one nil to the Arsenal” being a mantra for certain victory are now long gone.

There have been great moments this season – Chelsea and Barcelona in particular – but there have been too few occasions when Arsenal have ground out a better result than they deserved in the manner which United have perfected over the years (Wolves away and Barcelona being rare exceptions). And it is hard to escape the feeling that Arsenal are turning into the biggest of all giant-killers – capable of overturning the biggest names in the game once or twice a season, but unable to maintain a sustained challenge on any front. In other words, they are turning into Spurs.

Is it time for Wenger to go? I think it is too easy to say yes, but equally it is now crucial for this most stubborn of managers to show that he can adapt to this situation and change with the times. There is great honour – if no actual honours – in what Wenger has achieved over the past few years with limited resources. But this season has demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt that Arsenal remain a fraction short of the level required to consistently win trophies, and that means significant changes must be made. If Wenger proves unable or unwilling to make those changes, then sadly it may be time to seek a fresh hand at the tiller.

Arsenal now face two tough away trips in the next seven days. First there is Wednesday’s North London derby, where they will seek to avenge November’s embarrassing 3-2 capitulation. Then next Sunday they travel to the Reebok Stadium to take on Bolton. Of course, the title is still a mathematical possibility, but a miracle on two fronts is required now. And while the first part of that equation – United dropping points – is certainly possible, the second, which requires Arsenal to execute a dramatic about-turn in form, seems increasingly improbable to even the most optimistic of fans. Normally I would class myself in that category. Not today, though.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

5 Responses to Double Dutch trips Arsenal up as title challenge implodes

  1. British says:

    I wouldn’t blame Wenger for Arsenal’s lack of consistency this season. Maybe the young Gunners lack experience and this could explain the poor results in their home games. Fighting spirit and determination were also absent in Arsenal’s last matches.

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