South Wales’ finest once again gave Arsenal a scare in our own back yard.
In many ways, it’s hard to find a reason why Swansea have been such a bogey team for Arsenal in recent years. We always finish miles ahead of them in the league. They turn up at the Emirates playing an attractive progressive passing game that we are normally desperate for inferior opponents to play against us. They have endured a very significant turnover of players year after year. They bleed managers at an alarming rate. And yet every season they find new ways and new personnel to cause us problems.
Admittedly, the first half’s goals on Saturday where a case of both teams having a slight ‘after you, Claude’ approach in defence.
Two sleepy moments of Swansea defending led to the two lovely (and somewhat unexpected) moments of goal-poaching from the still re-vitalised Theo Walcott, seemingly unaffected by his poor displays in a totally dysfunctional England side. The lead was probably a fair reflection of the game up to that point, and it looked like, for once, the Swans were going to give us an easy ride.
Sadly the first half of Xhaka’s bad day at the office opened up the game again, as his lack of concentration in a dangerous area was punished in remarkably nonchalant fashion by Gylfi Siggurdsson. The Icelander is, despite his Spurs connections, a lovely footballer who has always been just a yard or two of pace away from being a really top attacking midfielder, right since his days at Reading.
The second half showed an Arsenal determined to put the game to bed as soon as possible and a peach of birthday volley from Ozil seemed to have done the job. One of the impacts of our new false-nine-ish approach has been to create more opportunities for the German to ghost into the box, and three goals by this stage is pretty good for him. An interesting oddity is that Sanchez has taken over as our assist king, with six in all competitions so far, to Ozil’s none. It will be interesting to see how this evolves as the season progresses.
Swansea, however, are better and more resilient then their results to date would suggest. Their heaviest defeat was 3-1 at home against Manchester City, in which they gave the oil barons plenty of problems before an injury time sucker punch ended the contest. They have been in every game they have played and have had a rather unfriendly fixture list to date.
Accordingly, rather than retreating into damage limitation mode like many a visitor to North London, Bob Bradley’s new team showed both fight and adventure, spearheaded by a swift wide-man in form, as has been their greatest route for success in the past.
Speaking of form, Nacho Monreal is struggling to find his this year after a very consistent 2015-16, and as Helen has mentioned on the podcast, is still turning the wrong way against quicker opponents, and thus allowing crosses to come in too easily. He’s always found outright pace more of a challenge than skill, as evidenced by the fact that in La Liga he had a much better record of limiting the impact of Lionel Messi than against Jesus Navas.
Accordingly, as Jefferson Montero was for Callum Chambers a couple of years ago, so was Mo Barrow for the Nacho man. One such wing bamboozling was followed by a lovely pick out of Borja Baston, whose tidy finish was watched by a statuesque Mustafi. Our new German has been guilty of ball watching near post crosses more than once in his brief Arsenal career to date, and needs to sharpen this aspect of his game up if he wants to avoid more b*****kings from Koscielny.
The Gambian flyer was threatening to run riot down our left and the concern he caused ultimately led to the match’s controversial moment.
There seems to be a lack of consensus about Xhaka’s red card. The initial outrage at the sending off for what we’ve all seen only booked for a hundred times before seems to be tempered by details of a new FIFA rule for the sanctioning of players who make no attempt to play the ball. But even this is controversial, because apparently this was only specifically outlined as applying to incidents inside the penalty area.
On Sky Sports Dermot Gallagher said in almost the same breath that it was a correct decision but that the FA would be embarrassed if Arsenal appealed it. Why would they be embarrassed unless it was incorrect? We have also seen Wenger calling it a ‘dark yellow’, Oxlade-Chamberlain saying it WAS a red because of the new rules, only for ex ref Mark Halsey to say it was NOT a red, backed up by the BBC final score, minute by minute writers, and Gary Lineker. Even the fouled man Barrow admitted that he had no idea if it was a sending off or not.
A muddy area that needs clarification, but in the seemingly unlikely event that the generally useless Moss made the right call, is anyone surprised that the first such application of the rule is at Arsenal’s expense?
A pragmatic Wenger has looked at the positive outcome of the match, our upcoming fixtures and current rude health, and decided against an appeal. Not only does this avoid antagonising the FA over a clearly sensitive issue, but more importantly teaches Xhaka a lesson about discipline, the relatively unnecessary nature of the foul, and perhaps his lax error in the first half. His lack of recovery pace and occasional casualness is a concern, and the last couple of games have shown why that, for all the Swiss’s combative and distributional qualities, Coquelin may yet be a better partner for Cazorla in a balanced midfield.
Ultimately Arsenal withstood late Swansea pressure pretty well, with Cech’s positioning making light work of some Swansea headed chances and Walcott first very unlucky and then wasteful on the counter attack. The former was almost the perfect counter attack goal but for Theo’s shot being an inch off perfection, and the latter was a case of our road runner not recognising the opportunity to take a touch and sort his feet out.
It was heartening that Oxlade-Chamberlain, through a combination of persistence, pace and passing created both the chances when coming off the bench. His ability to impact late on in games can only help rebuild his confidence and help him present a more viable alternative for rotation then has been the case for a while.
All in all, we got away with that one a bit, but winning when not at your best is invariably a good sign, and it was important to not let the international break disrupt our momentum. As long as the result is positive, it is no bad thing to have the team reminded of the need to focus defensively and the importance of not underestimating opposition, particularly with Arsenal being clear favourites in their next five fixtures before having Spurs, Manchester United and PSG in succession.
On a final thought, Theo Walcott now has 92 goals for Arsenal. How good would it be if he can join the 100 club before Christmas?