After the positivity of last weekend’s draw with Liverpool, yesterday’s 1-1 with Wolves feels very much like two points dropped, even if Arsenal might consider themselves lucky to have taken anything from the game at all. But for some fantastic saves by Bernd Leno, the visitors could have taken all three points – and in injury time they hit the crossbar, it was that close to being a really, really bad day at the office.
As it was, it was just a bad day in terms of performance. We’re used to Unai Emery’s side not performing in the first half, something that until now has been seen as something of an endearing quirk rather than the actual problem it is, but usually we find something in our half-time oranges and do better in the second period. Yesterday we were slightly better after the break but we’d set the bar so low in the first 45 minutes that it wasn’t really enough to cause Wolves problems.
They had taken the lead early in the first half when Granit Xhaka inexplicably left the ball, they drove forward, the Swiss international got taken to the cleaners by a simple give and go and Ivan Cavaleiro finished smartly to make it 1-0. When you know you’re a team who finds it difficult to get going, the last thing you need to do is give the opposition gifts, and that’s exactly what their goal was.
We had plenty of the ball but could do little with it. Lacazette and Bellerin had shots blocked but Wolves looked more dangerous. We were particularly vulnerable down the left hand side where Sead Kolasinac was having an absolute stinker and getting little support from Aubameyang in front of him. At one point the effervescent Lucas Torreira was the man defending in that position because nobody else was.
Leno made a good stop then a brave save at the feet of a striker as they created a chance they really should have scored from. The German tipped another around the post, looking exasperated at his defence for allowing the shot, and a Kolasinac error in our box saw them shoot wide thankfully. We huffed and puffed but fashioned very little, and not for the first time Emery attempted to change the dynamic of a poor first half with a half-time substitution.
Although Alex Iwobi had given the ball away notably a couple of times, I thought he was at least trying to give us something going forward, unlike the others in that front four, but he’s the most easily expendable member of that quartet and he made way for Matteo Guendouzi. The change made little difference to our overall performance, lots of the ball, very little incisiveness, but Xhaka did make a chance for Bellerin which he put over with his left foot.
Increasingly it felt like the manager was hoping we’d just click but we showed no real sign of doing that as the game reached the 70 minute mark. I was surprised he was doing nothing to change it at that point, and then we got the Aubameyang miss. Bellerin fizzed in a great low ball for one of the game’s most clinical strikers, but somehow he contrived to miss from 6 yards out, the ball clipping the outside of the post. I know the ‘He’s got to score from there’ is overdone sometimes but holy crap he’s got to score from there.
That would almost certainly have given us a chance to really push in the last 20 minutes or so to try and win it, as it was we were still in search of an equaliser. Aaron Ramsey and Henrikh Mkhitaryan came on for Kolasinac and the ineffective Ozil, and the goal came rather fortuitously after a Ramsey effort had been saved for an Arsenal corner. It was taken quickly, Mkhitaryan’s cross skimmed over everyone’s head and went straight into the far corner of the net. A very welcome goal, but we got lucky there.
At the other end Leno again saved our bacon with a couple of really good saves as Wolves threatened on the break with the pace of Adama Traore. At one point Bellerin was haring back with two men to contend with, the rest of our defence nowhere to be seen, and but for the keeper we’d have lost this game. When the German was actually beaten in the dying moments of a bizarre 5 minutes of injury time that were decided when they had a player down still receiving treatment on the pitch, the crossbar came to our rescue and we came away with a point that despite how poorly we played feels disappointing because this was the kind of game you’d expect us to win.
Credit to Wolves for the way they worked, and we ended up playing the game in increasingly tight spaces, corralled in there by their organisation. Nevertheless, there’s a balance between how good their game plan was and how poor ours was, and I think the balance tips more towards the latter than the former.
Speaking afterwards, Unai Emery said:
I think the team played with character and we had chances to draw before our goal. We also continued to look for ways to create and to win the game but then we drew. In the last five or 10 minutes, we had the same idea with the risk but also thinking to win. At the end of the game we could say, ‘OK, the two teams both deserved it’.
I suspect Wolves, when they look back on the chances they had, will feel quite strongly they should have taken all three points yesterday. It’s not the first time this season that Arsenal have had their goalkeeper to thank for getting something from the game and Leno deserves a lot of credit for his performance yesterday – as Cech did before his injury (his odd kicking issue aside).
It goes back to something I’ve written about here throughout the season, and spoken about on the podcast, and it’s the amount of chances we give to the opposition. I think you can separate what has been a pretty positive run of results from the performances themselves, few of which have been really convincing from a defensive point of view. When you fail to address that key issue and it coincides with a day when your very expensive attack fails to turn up, then you run the risk of dropping points and that’s what happened yesterday.
It shouldn’t have come as any surprise, I think it was always going to catch up to us and I suppose the positive is we got a point. All the same, Emery is 18 games in and has some real thinking about what to do now as we head into an Interlull. He needs to find balance in his team from an attacking point of view. Aubameyang on the left isn’t working, he’s getting sporadic contributions from Ozil, Iwobi looks a different player on the left than the right, and let’s not overlook our first half problems.
What is wrong with our preparation, be it tactical, physical, motivational or whatever, that makes us start matches so poorly? Because there has to be something wrong. If it happened now and again you could rationalise it but this is every game, every week, and along with Cardiff we’re the only team in the Premier League not to have led a game at half-time this season, which is not particularly great company to be in when you look at the table.
As I said though, this was always going to happen and if we’re maintaining our unbeaten run while it does then that can be deemed a positive. Emery has to got some tricky decisions to make now though, ones that might well prick a few egos, but for the sake of the team rather than the individuals in question he’s got to find a way make things work better from back to front.
It’s something James and I discuss in greater detail in the new Arsecast Extra, recorded last night not long after the game. Listen and subscribe below, and we’ll have more reaction and news on Arseblog News throughout the day. Have a good one.