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It’s anything but seventh heaven as Arsenal squander chances again

Bolton 0 Arsenal 0

Arsenal were left to rue a host of missed chances in the opening 20 minutes as they ended up clinging on for a point in a goalless draw at Bolton‘s Reebok Stadium. Instead of potentially closing the gap on fourth spot to three points, the Gunners found themselves slipping back to seventh on yet another frustrating night for their travelling fans. The trust that Arsene Wenger had placed in his squad after passing up the opportunity to add experienced quality in the transfer window looks horribly misplaced after this uninspired showing.

Wenger made three changes from the side which recovered from a 2-0 deficit to run out 3-2 winners against Aston Villa in the FA Cup on Sunday. Wojciech Szczesny resumed his place between the goalposts, while Bacary Sagna and Mikel Arteta both made their first post-injury starts after brief appearances off the bench against Villa.

Szczesny

Sagna – Mertesacker – Koscielny – Vermaelen

Song – Arteta

Ramsey

Walcott – van Persie – Oxlade-Chamberlain

In the reverse fixture at Emirates Stadium, after a goalless first half Arsenal eventually cruised to a 3-0 win – their joint-biggest home win of the season. Robin van Persie bagged a brace as David Wheater was shown a straight red for a tug on Theo Walcott.

Chances go begging

As usual, van Persie was at the heart of most of Arsenal's best moments (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Arsenal settled the quicker of the two teams, dominating possession and creating – and squandering – enough presentable chances in the first 20 minutes to put the game beyond Bolton’s reach. The home side struggled to contain a series of surging attacks as Arsenal threatened to overwhelm them down both flanks and through the middle.

Unsurprisingly Robin van Persie was at the heart of most of Arsenal’s good work. His downward header from a searching Thomas Vermaelen cross required David Wheater to boot the ball to safety off the line.

The captain subsequently set up first Aaron Ramsey, who fired tamely straight at Adam Bogdan, and then Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who first shot wide and then missed the target with his head from the Dutchman’s corner. In between van Persie’s radar was also off as his effort from inside the box flew over the bar.

Walcott had another night he will want to forget (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

With David N’Gog playing on his own up front, Bolton created nothing for 20 minutes, but the French striker then made two opportunities for himself in quick succession. First he showed his strength in shrugging off Laurent Koscielny as he chased down a ball over the top, drawing an alert save from Wojciech Szcezesny from a tight angle. Then he deftly chested down another pass before dragging a shot just wide of the far post from 10 yards.

Arsenal continued to create chances, however, and Theo Walcott wasted the most clear-cut of the lot after Oxlade-Chamberlain’s through ball left him one-on-one with Bogdan. But Walcott, who has been repeatedly stating his desire to play centrally, was hesitant with his finish, and although Bogdan did well to deflect the shot with his outstretched leg the England winger should really have scored.

Shortly after that, van Persie’s teasing cross was inches away from being turned in by Per Mertesacker, but the final 15 minutes of the half passed fairly uneventfully. The only notable incident saw Vermaelen receive a ludicrous booking after a blatant dive by Mark Davies.

More dropped points

Having quietened down towards the end of the first half, the second half was little better as all the incision that Arsenal had showed in the first 20 minutes quietly dissipated, along with the accuracy of their passing and, it seemed, any belief that they would score. They did create a handful of chances, with Oxlade-Chamberlain firing in one long-range effort which forced Bogdan into a smart save. And van Persie was twice denied by the woodwork. First he brushed the post with a close-range effort after a good run and cross by Bacary Sagna. Then, with ten minutes remaining, he received the ball with his back to goal, twisted his way into the box and then lofted a sumptuous chip from 16 yards over the stranded Bogdan and off the face of the crossbar. Walcott, following up, predictably screwed his shot wide.

Henry's arrival did not have the desired effect (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Overall, however, the momentum in the second half unmistakably shifted Bolton’s way, inexorably so after the 69th-minute arrival of Thierry Henry in place of Oxlade-Chamberlain. The youngster had made his share of poor decisions, but his pace and energy on the left had proved more than a handful for Gretar Steinsson. Without him, Arsenal suddenly lost all semblance of tempo and threat, and van Persie became increasingly isolated as a goal threat.

Indeed, van Persie’s chip aside, Bolton looked the more likely scorers in the last 20 minutes. Ngog had a decent effort unwittingly blocked by Koscielny. And twice in the closing moments Davies nearly deprived Arsenal of even a single point. First he raced away from Mertesacker but was upended by Szczesny as he charged off his line. It looked a penalty all the way, but referee Chris Foy waved play on. You can’t relate the two incidents, but it did leave a sense of karma dishing out retribution for his earlier theatrical dive. Then, in injury time, he wasted a great opportunity by dragging a free shot wide from barely 12 yards out.

The full-time whistle was greeted with obvious relief by an Arsenal side which had long since run out of ideas. A first Premier League point of 2012 was not unwelcome, but this was of scant consolation in the knowledge that two vital points had been dropped. The race for a top-four finish looks like an increasingly tough contest in which all the momentum now resides with Newcastle and in particular Liverpool.

Post-match reaction and analysis

Arsene Wenger felt his side had had enough chances to win the game:

We feel we have dropped two points because we had chances to win the game. We took all of the risks and we were a bit unlucky as well because we hit the bar, the post and missed some great chances. But I cannot fault the effort, the commitment and desire to win the game.

However, he remained confident the team can still achieve a top-four finish:

There is a long way to go and I am confident that we can come back, yes. We have gone through a difficult period where we lost the three championship games, but we could have won them as well. For us, every game in the championship is a cup final now.

And he could not elaborate further on the extent of Jack Wilshere‘s new injury, amidst rumours that he could miss the rest of the season:

I don’t know really. We made a statement today and we stick to that. I can talk and talk but I do not know more than you.

Arsenal were relatively untroubled in defence, aided by Bolton’s relatively conservative approach, although Ngog proved a handful for Koscielny and Mertesacker’s lack of pace could well have been punished with a penalty late on. But Sagna’s return provided both defensive solidity and genuine width in attack, at least until he understandably tired in the last half-hour.

The team were uncharacteristically sloppy in midfield, however. Alex Song had an up-and-down game, and although Ramsey kept trying all game to provide a telling pass or get into good shooting positions, his final contribution was always lacking. Even Mikel Arteta, who showed for much of the game exactly how much Arsenal have missed his quiet efficiency and defensive watchfulness, was uncharacteristically sloppy in possession at times. As a trio, the midfield are looking more solid competitively, but lack consistent threat coming forward.

Up front van Persie was too often reduced to dropping deep in search of the ball, but whereas accusations of Arsenal being a one-man team were wide of the mark earlier in the season, they now appear more dependent than ever on him. Walcott did not lack for effort but certainly did for quality as his sharp decline in form continued, while on the other side Oxlade-Chamberlain betrayed his inexperience at times but was arguably the most consistent attacking threat. His removal for Henry certainly sapped the side of their ability to really stretch Bolton’s defence.

Overall, this ended up being a performance reminiscent of Sunday’s first half against Villa. Plenty of possession, but a lack of incisive movement from midfield and a litany of under-hit, over-hit or otherwise misplaced passes which ruined several promising positions. Arsenal fans are used to seeing better than this. And if the team are to drag themselves back into the fight for the Champions League places – a task of which they are more than capable, despite the current slump – they will need to do better than this.

Next up is a Saturday lunchtime match-up at home to Blackburn and an opportunity to gain revenge for the 4-3 embarrassment at Ewood Park in September. It goes without saying that this is now a must-win game.

Arsenal man of the match: Robin van Persie. Involved in virtually all of Arsenal’s best moves, and was unlucky to be denied twice by the frame of the goal.

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

12 Responses to It’s anything but seventh heaven as Arsenal squander chances again

  1. Shrek2be says:

    I have no idea why AW doesn’t want to take Walcott off instead of AOC.Koscielny was complacent and to be frank keeps getting beaten by the ball over his top when the opposition striker tries to pressure him . Chesney needs to stop faffing around the penalty box area and needs to start kicking better. We need one of our players to grab the match with both hands and turn it on its head. Yossi is being wasted as a sub,Should’ve been brought on instead if Henry.

    • Tim says:

      I would also rather have seen Benayoun come on as a sub. I do understand why Wenger keeps taking off Ox though. He is being careful – too careful, maybe, but I understand his caution – not to stress the youngster too much by playing him for a full 90 every game. We have seen first-hand what playing too many games in a row can do to a youngster – just look at Jack. Ox has the ability to turn any game, but we cannot expect him tod o it playing 90 minutes twice a week. It’s up to more senior players to do that.

      On the encouraging side, even though Arteta and Sagna looked a bit rusty in their first starts after injury, both of them immediately showed what we have been missing. Arteta knits midfield together and is surprisingly good defensively (in a quiet way). Sagna gives us width and defensive solidity, but he looked knackered by the end. I hope he is OK for Saturday, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he was rested.

      Overall though, this was terribly disappointing. It’s not terminal yet, but we are now very close to the point where every game becomes a must-win, and that is not a good place to be.

  2. Northbanksy says:

    We need some creativity in mid field & someone in addition to Van Persie to score goals…any sugestions Arsene?? We still may secure 4th place, but 6th or 7th is looking equally likely.
    Sadly Arsenal have become a very average side.

    • Tim says:

      I still think we’re a good side, but one which is in horrible form just now. Walcott is playing poorly. Ramsey is not at his best, but whenever he looks up his options ahead of him are limited so it is not all his fault. Sagna and to a lesser extent Arteta faded as the game went on – not surprising given they have just returned from injury.

      The one glaring gap in this side remains up front. With Robin we are still a very good team. Without him? Then we’re average. Stay fit, Robin!

  3. terenggunner says:

    It is clear that Wenger has got a blind spot in Walcott. If his blindness and stubborness continues, then we will surely continue with our free-fall. Walcott is too one-dimensional that each and every of his next move is predictable…but then Arsene knows best I guess….sighhhh.

    • Tim says:

      It’s not as simplistic as that. For sure, Walcott is in terrible form right now, and has been for several weeks. But he is not the only one out of form, and although he is a significant part of our current slump it is too easy to turn him into a scapegoat. (The same goes for Ramsey, who is again the subject of much abuse on Twitter, I see.)

      Until Gervinho comes back, what are our options? Walcott’s pace stretches defenders and stops opposing full backs from venturing too far forward. Without him, who would we play? Benayoun and Rosicky are skilful players, but lack pace. If we think it’s difficult unlocking defences with Theo in the side, it will be doubly do without.

      The key for me is how we line up after ACoN. Gervinho slots back in on the left, for sure. But will Wenger then rest Theo for a game or two and play Ox on the right? For all his qualities, the youngster is not yet the complete solution either, but I do think Theo needs a rest and a chance to get angry and hungry again.

  4. Shrek2be says:

    Have you ever noticed that every time Theo scores a goal one on one, 90% of the time he has always taken the early shot and surprised the keeper?He IMHO doesn’t have the ability to go around the keeper and score and is a very limited player. Whats your honest opinion TIM? Fans as always are calling for Wenger’s head. Could I also ask your opinion about the AST?

    • Tim says:

      Theo is definitely better when an instinctive finish is required. In general, I’d also say he’s better when required to finish from an angle rather than when he is head-on to goal. It’s almost as if he can’t make his mind up sometimes. Theo without his pace would be a pretty mediocre player, but that’s hypothetical. The fact is his extreme pace makes him a weapon, albeit one with a limited bag of tricks. But there have been plenty of wingers like that in the past: remember Jesper Gronkjaer, or even our very own Perry Groves.

      I don’t have one particular view about the AST, or its more vocal spokespeople. I agree with some of their views on certain things, less so with others.

      • Shrek2be says:

        I feel the leader of the AST is a self righteous type .Some feel he pushes his own agenda. There is a movement known as BlackscarfAFC and their tagline is “Where has our Arsenal gone ?”. Any opinion on that?

        The biggest problem with Walcott has been that he was extremely over hyped ever since Eriksson picked him for the 2006 WC. The English media went gaga feeling he would be the next Brazilian Ronaldo who was picked for the 94 WC but did nothing but became the world’s best by the time the 98 WC arrived. Of course it goes without saying that the 17 yr old Ronaldo was miles better than half the strikers 10 years above his age..Perhaps Arsenal fans were expecting the same

        .The question remains whether Walcott continues to believe in this hype I don;t know why English footballers especially feel the need to start having official biographies even before they have achieved something in their careers.

        Cesc Fabregas could get the best out of Theo because he could pick out an empty space and simply deliver a great ball for Theo to cross. Ramsey will take time to get there . The problem is Walcott has some qualities required to be a striker: Pace,ok finishing. He severely lacks composure which is a must for any great striker as well as the long distance shot .

        .

  5. Raman says:

    walcott shld nt start on sat..he’s been horrible
    Give yossi,rosicky a chance..or even hand henry his 1st start..
    Hope our injrd players return soon

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