The second half onslaught was exhilarating but not quite enough to regain the two points that another freakish goal had taken away.
Arsene did rotate some of the players. Djourou came in for Coquelin, Rosicky for Ramsey, and Benayoun for Walcott. It was a strong team and one that should have secured the win with relative ease.
The first half was disappointing to say the least. Arsenal virtually had monopoly over the ball but most of the possession was ten yards either side of the centre line as Wolves got into a good defensive shape to cover the passing channels while marking the players getting into attacking positions.
Nevertheless, the Gunners had enough opportunities to score two or three goals. The fact that most of these chances didn’t even result in a shot on target said a lot. Arsenal lacked cohesion and understanding in the attacking areas. Part of it was down to the fact that two players hadn’t played often enough, then there was Van Persie who seemed a little too selfish in this game – uncharacteristically one must add, and the decision making from the man in position to play the final ball was either slow or just poor.
The early goal might also have worked against Arsenal in this case as the players became a touch casual, losing balls in midfield and allowing Wolves sufficient opportunities to get to the final third. There is a fine line between a patient yet probing possession game and a laid-back, toothless tippy-tappy approach. The Gunners were on the wrong side of that line, only just but it proved decisive.
Arsenal’s goal came in the 8th minute from a quick counter attack. Rosicky controlled a looping ball just outside the box and did well to accelerate across the halfway line. At that point, lacking the pace of Walcott or Gervinho, Little Mozart turned around to shrug off the attentions of two Wolves. Benayoun received a square pass from Rosicky and quickly thread one through to Gervinho who’d sped down the middle. The Ivorian beat the keeper by flicking the ball to his left in a somewhat unorthodox manner but that allowed him the chance to roll the ball into an open net so it should be considered a neat trick.
Apart from the goal, the only other noteworthy save came in the 30th minute from a Van Persie strike at the near post. Arteta’s tame free-kick, Rosicky chancing his luck from distance, and Vermaelen’s blocked attempt can’t really be classed as good chances.
The trouble for Arsenal in the first half was that Wolves were able to get to the final third with ease almost every time they regained possession. The midfield pressing wasn’t very good and the team couldn’t regain the right shape soon enough after losing the ball. For the visitors it was mostly about putting the ball in the box and hoping for a lucky break. Arsenal’s defence-by-crowd tactic was working for most parts – as indeed it did for Wolves at the end – but there was always the chance of one freakish goal.
Interestingly, the equalizer too came from a player controlling a falling ball on the edge of the Arsenal box. This time it was Hunt who brought it under control and unleashed a hopeful shot that was deflected towards Fletcher by a charging defender. On almost every other occasion this ball would have deflected to safety or for a corner that Arsenal could defend. in this case though, it fell invitingly on the head of the Wolves striker who deserves credit for calmly guiding it into the corner. Questions can be asked about Mertesacker’s positioning as he was marking the goal-scorer but I think it’s hard for defenders to read such deflections. The German was tucking in and keeping things compact in front of the goal, which seems to be the tactical approach anyway.
The second half was a different story as Arsenal slowly but surely showed more purpose. The Gunners had 19 shots in the second half compared to 7 in the first with 12 of those coming in the final fifteen minutes plus added time.
There were a number of positives for those taking an optimistic viewpoint. Arsenal got sufficient bodies into the box. The crosses weren’t all completely meaningless as they did lead to chances and occasionally caused havoc in the penalty area. The substitutes made an impact. The overall tempo of the game was raised and the players also showed a lot better coordination. A number of accurate chipped passes were very encouraging from a technical and understanding point of view. Corners had some variations and weren’t easily cleared away. Hennessey was forced into action regularly and might just walk away with the MotM.
There is usually some consolation when the opposition Keeper looks like their best player on the pitch but it is rarely enough to mask the frustration of the result. On the negative side, apart from the obvious issues in the first half, I thought Arsenal lacked a bit of maturity in the attacking areas towards the end. There were really no attempts to play combinations in the box from the crosses. The crosses were being put in and any player getting on the end of it was trying to direct it towards goal. While the general crossing and attacking the ball was an improvement over many past efforts, one gets the feeling there was a goal to be had if the Gunners had shown better awareness inside the box.
Given the fact that Arsenal got a man advantage after the red card in the 75th minute, the number of chances was understandable but more is expected from a team looking to capitalize on the points dropped by their rivals.
In my opinion, an interesting, crucial and somewhat worrying factor was that too many players had a mixed bag in this game. More on this in the player analysis.
The stats show Arsenal had complete dominance over this game. Possession 73-27, Shots 26-6, On Target 11 – 1, Clearances 15-49, Tackles 34/47 – 17/38. But the only figure that mattered at the end was 1-1 on the score-sheet and consequently, the points table.
Szczesny: Didn’t have much to do. Couldn’t really have done much for the goal. Those talking about communication and organization skills of the Keeper might want to explain why the freak goals keep on coming.
Djourou: I liked his desire to do something with the ball but he didn’t really know what to do with it once he got into advanced areas. Fairly stable defensively and made a couple of good tackles. Also won 7 of his 11 ground duels and both his aerial duels. Made the most clearances.
Mertesacker: A harsh critic might blame him partially for the goal. I thought he had an excellent game starting with a big block early on. His positioning was excellent as was his reading of the game. Won all his duels, 5 on the ground and 3 in the air, apart from winning a number of headers that contributed to the 5 times he won back possession in the defensive third and thrice in the middle third. Forced a good save from a header at the back post, could have done better to attack a Gervinho cross.
Koscielny: Once again made the most passes and most accurate ones, with the second highest touches as Arsenal played around at the back quite often. Was involved in fewer duels and tackles – four in total with a 50 percent success rate. Made a couple of promising attacking runs. Won back possession six times – most often – in the defensive third.
Vermaelen: Produced a battling display on the left with a vastly improved attacking effort. Had a couple of shots at goal – one blocked and one saved late in the game. Won 5 of his 8 duels and the only tackle he made.
The defenders had a good game despite not keeping a clean sheet. The number of freakish goals conceded by Arsenal is a clear indication of structural issues that lead to more opportunities for the opponents. As I have said for close to two years now, personnel changes on the field is not enough for solving this.
Song: I got a feeling he was a touch casual with his passing and movement in the first half. Had the most unsuccessful touches in the side, which looks even worse when seen as a proportion of total touches (5/69). Lost the only ground duel he contested and didn’t have any aerial duels or tackles, which was surprising. He did win possession back in midfield thrice. Could easily have seen two yellow cards for successive rash tackles within a moment of each other. Disappointing on the whole.
Rosicky: Played a key part in the first goal. Also created 4 chances. Was third highest in terms of passes but also lost possession most often, largely due to the fact that majority of his passes came in the attacking half/final third. Rosicky’s 43 attempted passes in the FT was almost double the next best 26 by Arteta. He also put in a good defensive shift. Little Mozart had a very good game but there were moments when he could have done much more in or around the box, especially in the first half.
Arteta: Once again had the highest number of touches (0 out of 102 unsuccessful!) and was instrumental in keeping the ball when under pressure. Got back into defensive positions whenever needed. Also won possession back most often – 4 – in midfield. Won all three tackles and four of his five ground duels. Created 4 chances – 2 from open play and 2 from set-pieces.
The midfield saw a lot of the ball and was generally comfortable in possession but one would expect more when a win is a must. Song had a mixed bag as he seemed a fraction off pace. Rosicky was very, very good for most of the game but there were moments when he could have played a better ball, shown greater control, or been more decisive. It’s unfair to nit-pick but the difference between one point and three in such games is usually in the little details.
Benayoun: Excellent assist, and made a number of intelligent runs but lacked pace or control at vital moment in the attacking third. Drifted in regularly but wasn’t able to shrug off his marker. That meant he had the lowest touches/min ratio of all the outfield players except Chamakh. Should have been more involved and done better on the ball in the final third.
Van Persie: Forced 5 good saves but the 12 total shots indicate a degree of selfishness. He also missed a couple of glorious chances when his touch let him down after being put through by delightful chipped passes. Work rate was excellent as usual and took a number of rough challenges in his stride. Could very well be that the record was playing on his mind and ended up putting De Kapitein off his game by his standards.
Gervinho: Took his goal really well. Made a number of good runs with the ball but wasn’t able to beat his man effectively and was successful with only 1 out of 4 dribble attempts. Wasn’t really getting into the right positions often enough either.
All three attacking players had an on and off game. Benayoun got the assist and Gervinho the goal but both should have offered a lot more in terms of movement, availability to receive passes, and quality on the ball. Van Persie was probably trying too hard.
Subs: Arshavin had a very good game and contributed creatively in the limited time he got. Created the chance for Vermaelen, could have had the pre-assist with his quick thinking for the Mertesacker header as he found Rosicky with an early pass, played Ramsey through, and almost scored from a wonder-strike that went inches wide. Chamakh didn’t see much of the ball, which was disappointing. More crosses should have been aimed at him. Ramsey completed all passes from open play and only failed with a couple of crosses out of six attempts. Rambo also created the game high 6 chances in the limited minutes that he got!
Wenger: Team selection was justified. The decision to bring on Arshavin was probably not the popular one but was the correct one. Did well to take Song off as the Cameroonian was losing his cool. Should he have introduced Chamakh the moment Arsenal went a man up? Crossing and set-piece routines have improved and Arsenal did get a lot of bodies into the box but a lot more needs to be done. Largely at fault for the goal as his defence-by-crowd tactic doesn’t always work. It would be harsh to ignore the positives but Arsenal do drop more points in such games than teams that are genuinely challenging for the title.