Although the big prizes have all gone for about half the teams in the Premier League, the last game of the season matters. Even for Arsenal, despite the feeling of slow drift over the last month.
In my column last week I suggested that Arsenal had much to play for looking both behind and ahead. A week later, my suspicion has been borne out.
With Manchester United stringing together a succession of deeply unconvincing narrow victories and Man City boasting a superior goal difference, a top four finish still hasn’t been secured. A point against a de-mob happy Villa will guarantee us third. A defeat could see us fifth if other results go against us.
However, thanks to a week where our noisy neighbours gained as many points in two games as we did in one, there is still an incentive beyond the usual end of season send-off to go all-out for a win on Sunday.
Given their respective forms this season, it should be a forgone conclusion that Spurs will collect three points at 18th placed Newcastle, but the Geordies’ need for points (assuming Sunderland don’t beat Everton on Wednesday, which is a big assumption at present) and Spurs now only having bragging rights to lose rather than a trophy to win, should make it an interesting game. Rafa has instilled some long overdue backbone in a Newcastle side with more talent at its disposal than results would indicate, so they might yet do us a favour. That said, we’d need a Newcastle win as, although Spurs are only two points ahead, their goal difference is the best in the division by a distance.
As such, I couldn’t help feeling a tinge of disappointment at the result at the Etihad on Sunday, despite the fact that a draw there is normally a good result. Of course, a win would have had us level on points with Spurs and left the Lilywhites potentially Lilly-livered in needing three points on Tyneside.
Part of the disappointment was the anticipation of a win by myself on last week’s podcast. If the week had played out as I had anticipated, I’m fairly confident that my prediction would have been more accurate. From an Arsenal perspective, the absence of Ozil was deeply significant, particularly as it led to Welbeck’s selection and subsequent potentially serious injury.
What was of greater significance was what happened in the City camp. I, like many others, thought that their trip to the Bernabeu would have taken a lot out of them emotionally and physically and that we would see a weakened side for the hosts. The reality was quite different.
Post-match, Wenger said the game at the weekend was the “most intense we have played in a while” and Pellegrini said that it was Man City’s “best first half of the season at home this year”. Having expected the likes of Delph and Demichelis, this came as a disappointing surprise.
Sure, it made sense that following Man United’s late winner at Norwich putting pressure on City for Champions League qualification, that the hosts would turn up and fight. What was harder to understand was how pathetically defensive and under-energised they had been against a Real Madrid team known for its defensive insecurity, despite all the brilliance they have going forward.
Although last years self-destruct against Monaco was a naive defensive disgrace, at least Arsenal have never lost a Champions League knockout tie simply due to a lack of effort or courage.
So Arsenal found themselves against a highly motivated City first choice eleven, and for all their inconsistency and defensive frailty, City have some players that would transform the current Arsenal side. The goalscorers Aguero and De Bruyne, and official Man of the Match Fernandinho, would make us the most dynamic attacking team in the country by a distance. Although the latter, along with fellow midfield minder Fernando, was given fairly free reign by Anthony Taylor to repeatedly cynically break up Arsenal counter-attacks and commit late body-checks, the longer named Brazilian is a truly dynamic box to box presence of surprising technical ability.
As such, and after falling behind earlier to another lethal Aguero finish, Arsenal did pretty well to rally and escape with a draw, particularly when Welbeck’s injury somewhat neutered our ability to counter at pace.
Overall, the performance was simultaneously pleasing and unconvincing.
Defensively, we looked a little nervy, with Gabriel still alternating between excellent and potentially catastrophic from minute to minute, and Elneny failing to cope with the aforementioned Fernandinho’s powerful late runs. Both really could have done more to stop Kevin De Bruyne’s excellently taken second for City.
Indeed it was a game that illustrated the cyclical nature of form within a team that isn’t quite firing on all cylinders. As recent bright sparks Elneny and Iwobi looked a little off the pace, if still full of endeavour, and Welbeck’s European Championship hopes are probably over, it was time for others to step up.
Having been thrown into the fray about 45 minutes before he would have expected, Jack Wilshere slowly managed to play himself into the game having initially looked well off the pace. He is still looking for that ‘burst’ that allows him to beat players over five yards, and as such him, Rambo and Elneny often struggled for pace against more athletic opponents.
However, he is back, and played a significant part in our second equaliser, and showed moments of his ability to bring continuity to the play that the team has badly missed since Cazorla’s injury.
Despite picking up neither a goal or an assist, Theo’s introduction definitely changed the game, with his pace and movement (which remains excellent despite his appalling form) pushing City back five yards, and creating nerves when he got in behind twice in quick succession. He probably should have scored when he ran inside Clichy, but given that it seemed to be his first chance on goal in weeks, it seems harsh to be too critical, particularly given how quickly Hart got off his line.
The real story from an Arsenal perspective in the plus column, however, was the return to form of Olivier Giroud. Having started the game looking a little like a pub player, his early cross to no-one was nearly headed into his own net by Clichy. That bit of luck proved crucial, as from the subsequent corner he lost his man and powered a header past Hart.
As a result, not only did he reclaim his record of the most Premier League headed goals since his signing, but, more importantly, a massive weight lifted from his shoulders. Having finally broken his 16 game drought, his confidence slowly flowed back, and in the second half his hold up play and link play was titanic at times.
His lay off for Sanchez’s excellently taken equaliser was brilliant, as was the one that created the chance for Theo, and it was great to see him bullying Otamendi and Mangala late on, as both are tough cookies.
It was a potent reminder that although he shouldn’t be a season-long first choice striker at the club, he is still a valuable asset that should be retained even if the superior striker we all crave does arrive in the summer.
On the negative side, tactically, the more compact rotating midfield three utilised in the absence of Ozil and Coquelin didn’t really work for most of the first hour or so. There seemed to be an absence of understanding of individual roles, and all three were too guilty of being caught ahead of the ball. Pre-match I was surprised by Coquelin being left on the bench, and that didn’t change during the game itself. Still the central balance of the team’s configuration isn’t quite right without the Coq-Zorla axis.
There was also a clear lack of creativity in the final third in Ozil and Cazorla’s absence, with a lack of quality combination play and chances created remaining a concern. And of course, Welbeck’s potentially serious knee injury.
Overall, it was a performance that reflected much of our season. This team is a collection of players that want to work hard for each other (for the most part) and have a great ability to keep going in games, but there is a still a little lack of talent and a massive lack of cohesion in defence and transition, and non-Ozil creativity.
Of course, securing second or third is vital for the club’s summer recruitment policy, and if the manager wants to stay beyond next year, there are still plenty of signs that an increase in quality of both playing staff and team structure is needed.