Monday 18 November 2019

Jaded Gunners emerge from crisis - for now

For a long time at the Emirates yesterday, Arsenal fans saw no reason to be cheerful. Jack Wilshere was back after 17 months without a game and Bacary Sagna returned for his first appearance since May, but these good news stories weren't enough.

Arsenal are enduring one of those spells that is labelled a crisis even though it is now a familiar part of their season's story. "We lost two big games for us and you could see that the confidence was a bit jaded," Arsene Wenger said after the game.

The defeats to Norwich and Schalke had inspired the latest episode of soul-searching, which had replaced the early-season optimism. This initial hopefulness had been based on the form of Santi Cazorla and the belief that Steve Bould was now organising the defence.

Andre Santos has helped to undermine belief in the defence recently and when Cazorla blasted the ball over the bar 12 minutes from the end yesterday, everything that had happened earlier in the season looked like an illusion. When Mikel Arteta finally managed to tap in the winner six minutes from time, Arsenal's crisis was over before it had really begun.

They were left with not much more to contemplate than the awareness that this side doesn't have the trust of its supporters and, more importantly, the team might not have the trust of itself.

Wenger said the two defeats were an example of how quickly a team can lose confidence, but it may have been an example of how quickly an Arsenal team can lose confidence.

The supporters would argue that they have been burnt too often by this team, but Arsenal are still trying to work out what their ambitions are and if they are acceptable.

There would have been more unrest if QPR, who were down to 10 men by the time Arsenal scored, had managed to take one of the chances they created in injury-time. QPR discovered in those final minutes what could have happened if they had tried to expose Arsenal's vulnerabilities earlier or when they had 11 men.

Mark Hughes complained that Arteta was offside and generally deflected any suggestion that his side, who are bottom of the table, should be worrying abut anything except the unfair attempts of others to undermine them.

The truth was they paid for their lack of ambition. Arsenal had been too eager for much of the game and after that, they become too desperate until Mbia's sending-off.

For Wilshere, the eagerness was to be expected. Wenger didn't tell him he was starting until yesterday morning. "Sometimes it's better you don't have too much time to think about it." Wilshere was assured and Wenger spoke confidently of what was to come. "What's missing now, he will get in competition."

What Arsenal are missing may return with him. When Hughes' side did attack, they discovered there was very little to fear. If Shaun Wright-Phillips hadn't been giving a 90-minute synopsis of his career then they would have been able to exploit the fragile state of Andre Santos.

There were moments when Wright-Phillips looked like he would destroy all belief in Santos and other times when it seemed he was providing a service in boosting the Brazilian's self-confidence.

Aaron Ramsey was playing wide on the right to allow Wilshere's return and it didn't suit him. Yet he came close when his header landed on the top of the bar after a fine Sagna cross.

The first half served only to irritate the home support and give a glimpse of Julio Cesar's qualities.

Arsenal started the second half with some more purpose. Cesar saved well when Per Mertesacker headed an Arteta free-kick towards goal.

There were moments of alarm as well. Sagna had to recover and knock the ball off Junior Hoilett's foot in the box as he got ready to shoot.

But Cesar was keeping Arsenal out and with every save the exasperation grew louder.

When the ball fell to Cazorla, the crowd assumed the worst was over only to see him lean back and, from 12 yards, hit the ball over the bar.

The game changed when Thomas Vermaelen and Stephane Mbia chased a ball out to the QPR corner flag. Vermaelen barged Mbia who went down and a free-kick was awarded. This would have taken some pressure off the away side. Instead, Mbia kicked out at Vermaelen on the ground and when he got up was shown the red card.

QPR crumbled shortly afterwards. Cesar again saved, this time from an Olivier Giroud header. Ramsey charged in, the ball bounced up to Arteta who headed against the bar. But he reacted quickest to the rebound and poked the ball in.

Arsenal thought they had the game won and lost concentration. Adel Taarabt played in Esteban Granero but he shot wide; then substitute Jamie Mackie burst down the right, shrugged off four men but shot straight at Vito Mannone.

Arsenal may have emerged from their brief crisis but their lack of confidence means the next one is never far away.

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