The busy weekend turned out to be busier than I’d imagined forcing me to miss the game and I wasn’t able to catch it till late on Sunday night. Apologies for the delay in this report but as you understand sometimes personal issues have to be prioritized.
Watching such a crunch game after knowing the gut-wrenching result is not a good thing. When you watch it live there is always some hope. Every good move brings forth a wave of positive emotions. Once you know the result you just wait for the chances to come and go. It’s heart-breaking in more ways than one.
Like midweek, I thought this was quite an open and entertaining game. The first half was evenly fought. Bolton had three decent chances and took one. Arsenal hit the bar, were denied what looked like a penalty, and wasted some opportunities by taking shots from distance.
The goal was conceded from a set-piece. It is difficult to pin-point the blame for this one. I wasn’t sure whether the team was marking man or space. Some players like Koscielny were marking their man while others like Van Persie were marking space (near post). Unfortunately, no one was marking Cahill or the area right in the middle of the box on the six yard line. The defender was able to get an unchallenged header on target and Nasri’s clearance was headed in by an alert Sturridge.
I have discussed Arsenal’s problems in defending set-pieces at length. It seems like a problem with the set-up that can only be improved by a fresh pair of eyes and a specialist coach. Earlier it was easy to blame the likes of Almunia, Squillaci, Sylvestre, or others for the defensive woes on set-pieces but I wonder how many fans now blame the likes of Szczesny and Djourou.
The second half was extremely encouraging from Arsenal’s point of view but that also made it that much more painful at the end.
It started with a horror moment when a Sturridge dive resulted in a soft penalty. Davies bottled it and Szczesny was able to save after guessing right. After that it was all Arsenal. The equalizer came moments later after some excellent work by Van Persie on the edge of the box. His one-two with Cesc and the finish were sublime.
For rest of the game the Gunners were camped in the Bolton half and created some excellent chances. The most notable ones all fell to Nasri who couldn’t score due to some good goalkeeping and poor finishes. I wonder how long before the misery brigade starts shouting Nasri is useless and should be sold!
The sucker punch came in the final minute of regular time. Djourou misjudged a header and that set Elmander through on goal. His strike at the near post was saved by Szczesny. From the resulting corner Djourou again missed his man who attacked the ball better.
A few weeks ago many fans claimed that Arsenal’s season was over because of an injury to Djourou who was supposed to be the best defender in the team. Now I have no doubt some of the same fans will change their tune.
Similarly, these fans were talking about Szczesny being a good organizer and a Keeper who talked to his defenders. Why didn’t he do it in this game?
I’m convinced the real problem lies in Arsenal’s approach to defending set-pieces. Wenger has a blind-spot here, and while his tactic of overloading the box might work on most occasions, it will leave the team open to such critical losses. I don’t buy the argument that buying a goalkeeper or defenders will change this because the new signings will still train the way Arsene wants them to and it will affect their performances. The only solution seems to be a change in the staff. The Gunners need a man who can bring in a different/better approach to defending free-kicks. It’s not guaranteed to work but it is well worth a try.
The title hopes are well and truly over now, whether it affects the players in any way remains to be seen. They can play without fear and truly express themselves in the coming games or they can fold and crumble. In that regard there is nothing better than a game against United to see the response.
I do want to make a note of a couple of interesting and relevant points. The ref was not to blame for this result in any way but some of the decisions are worth discussing. Walcott didn’t get a penalty in the sixth minute when he was fouled by Taylor (not sure it was Taylor). Sturridge got one from a nothing foul. Muamba wasn’t booked for a shocking foul on Cesc just before the end of the first half but we have seen Arsenal players get a second booking for much lesser offences. For a supposedly big, strong man, Kevin Davies went down far too often at the half-way line and won a number of free-kicks. Van Persie and co get kicked and fouled from behind in each game without getting a call in their favour. Wilshere was booked for an intelligent tackle where he won the ball and kept his feet folded whereas Steinsson got away with a tackle from behind where he won the ball but caught Nasri.
To reiterate, I’m not saying the ref was particularly biased or poor in this game, or that he was the cause of the result, or that Bolton didn’t deserve their win. But one has to acknowledge that the Gunners have to work/achieve a lot more than some other teams have to. If someone is able to do an honest analysis of decisions over the season, I’m convinced Arsenal will have lost at least 8-9 points due to the refereeing decisions when compared to the eventual winners.
Szczesny: Looked shaky on occasions and dropped a couple of easy catches. Made two or three decent saves including the penalty. Can’t be blamed for either goal.
Sagna: Usual effort on the right.
Djourou: Very disappointing. Made a number of mistakes. Lacked concentration at key moments. Unlucky to concede the penalty.
Koscielny: Can’t blame him for the goals. Was pretty decent for most of the game.
Clichy: Mirror image of Sagna.
I thought Djourou had a poor day by his standards. The others were not so bad.
Song: Not a great game but wasn’t very poor either.
Cesc: Has been off his game ever since the Champions League tie. Hit the bar, drew a good save, picked up an assist. For others it might be a good return but from El Capitan it isn’t enough.
Wilshere: Pretty much like Song. Should learn from the chip passes played by RvP for Nasri. If he can provide that from deep on a consistent basis it will add a lot to this team’s attacking potency.
The midfield dominated the ball but could have offered a lot more.
Walcott: Was very effective in the first half. Unlucky not to win a penalty. Put in a couple of good crosses. Bolton virtually played two left-backs to stop him.
RvP: Excellent game. Wonderful goal. Lovely passes for Nasri. Superb movement and work rate. Not sure why his free-kicks and corners have lost some quality.
Nasri: Can’t blame his for his effort. Could have done with better finishing.
I was happy that Walcott and Nasri tried to swap positions. The front three were moving well and that led to a lot of gaps but the finishing let them down.
Subs: Not sure why Chamakh was introduced after being on the sidelines for so long. Arshavin offered some threat down the left but most of the corners he won were ineffective. Ramsey hardly got any time to make an impact.
Wenger: Really has to find a way of defending set-pieces that is better than just crowding out the area.