Arsenal's performance on Tuesday night was predictable for the most part. They showed themselves to be irresistible—albeit briefly—in two moves of fluidity and brilliance in the second half. And finally, they revealed themselves to be little more than laughable, as Swansea finally wreaked havoc and earned their just desserts through Mathieu Flamini's calamitous own goal.
The scoreline at the Emirates was 2-2 in a match that made painful viewing for Gunners' fans and talking points are aplenty after such an encounter.
It was a match that held so much promise for the hosts; after the Chelsea fracas on Saturday, talk of redemption was on everybody's lips. Swansea, a side with only one win in nine, were surely beatable and Tuesday night was an opportunity for Arsenal's title train to get back on track—however slim hopes of clinching the league title were.
Yet Arsene Wenger and his team thoroughly disappointed the Emirates crowd with a showing not worthy of title contenders—not worthy of such a label by the longest of shots.
It started badly enough, as Arsenal's back four, untroubled for the first 10 minutes, wilted at the first sign of pressure. A tame ball into Wilfried Bony saw the Ivorian, nigh on uncontested, levy a powerful header goal-bound past a stock-still Wojciech Szczesny.
And the Gunners simply failed to provide an immediate response.
Until a bizarre couple of minutes deep in the second half, Arsenal were predictable.
Without fail, every attack would take the same origins: passes between Tomas Rosicky, Santi Cazorla and Kieran Gibbs (who was actually one of Arsenal's best players) around the edge of the 18-yard box, until a tame ball would be whipped into Olivier Giroud—oft surrounded by at least three or four men in purple and yellow—who either had not the appetite to attack the ball, or was overpowered by numbers.
Swansea time and again had the right answer to Arsenal's forays, and the Gunners made City look very good indeed. Ashley Williams led by example, putting in a solid shift deterring any Arsenal hopes of a goal until 73 minutes had gone.
Unimaginative and ignorant, these tactics carried on well into the second half. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was the first of the starting XI to depart after a thoroughly uninspiring display. His replacement, impact substitute Lukas Podolski, featured alongside Gibbs in the short list of Arsenal's best players on the night, taking credit for an equaliser and a sublime assist for his side's second.
Scorer of that second goal was Olivier Giroud, who aside from that finish was frankly woeful. Lazy, disengaged and devoid of hunger (and, for large periods of the game, a first touch it would seem), Giroud turned in one of the poorest performances from an Arsenal forward not seen since the days of the fox in the box himself, the perennially underwhelming Francis Jeffers. A hopeless attempt at a bicycle kick on the eve of half-time summed up his evening rather well.
Although his hold-up play didn't seem to completely desert him, the Frenchman's trademark movement certainly did. Statuesque for various important segments of build-up play, he looked uninterested in getting into dangerous positions, as cross after cross and chance after chance went begging without any sign of Giroud being able to convert.
Question marks over the Gunners' performance were not just limited to their indecisive action in the final third, and the near-complete absence of a perfect final ball, but they never looked completely comfortable at the back.
Even after Bony's relatively painless attempt on goal resulted in Swansea's opener, Arsenal seemed unable to learn their lesson—the mind recalls a similar attempt early in the second half from Michu. Despite the Spaniard, lacking in match fitness, it throws up worrying signs for Arsenal. A more complete attacking side would have taken advantage of the wealth of chances that the Gunners gave to their foes—as was witnessed at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.
So when Arsenal—in the 73rd and 74th minutes, at their irresistible best—came from behind in two moves of real style, panache and killer instinct, it was utterly bemusing. They had been wholly unimpressive at home to a real relegation candidate—and when Flamini's almost comical, calamitous own goal sidled in past Szczesny, it almost seemed fair.
Arsenal were nowhere near their best on Tuesday night against Swansea, looking toothless for the most part. It's difficult to establish what's worse; that this sort of performance occurred at home, that the side failed to truly bounce back from their worst result and performance of the season, or that it truly seals the demise of Arsenal's Premier League title challenge in 2014.
The team's performance, poor as it was, cannot explain everything. Wenger could have done an awful lot of things differently—but the vital elements are in team selection and tactics, especially with regards to creating opportunities and putting teams to the sword.
"What ifs" are largely pointless at this point, but Wenger certainly could have given a nod to Serge Gnabry, the German youth international who has regularly impressed and displayed a maturity to his game that belies his years.
Even Kim Kallstrom—who in his limited cameo, looked a composed and intelligent footballer (as expected, given his wealth of experience)—with his keen eye for an incisive ball, could have had a stronger impact had he started. All conjecture but worth noting.
With a monumentally challenging fixture ahead—the visit of fearsome, free-scoring Manchester City in Saturday's late afternoon kick-off—Arsenal and their manager must search long and hard for the keys to unlocking his side's true potential.
Blaming a lengthy injury list and calamitous bad luck can only get you so far.
Wenger must find the solutions in both footballing strategy and personnel. He cannot afford his gambits not paying off come Saturday.
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