Arsenal’s makeshift forwards run Spurs ragged, as Walcott and Gnabry dazzle in FA Cup win

1 Comment

LONDON – With Arsenal’s two recognized strikers missing for Saturday’s FA Cup tie against North London rivals Tottenham, you would’ve expected an air of panic around the Emirates.

If there was an ounce of nervousness, that quickly dissipated.

From the start of Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Spurs, the Gunners new attack flourished as Theo Walcott was deployed as the lone forward with German teenager Serge Gnabry and Spaniard Santi Cazorla coming in off the wings.

On this showing, Arsenal should be fine if Olivier Giroud and Nicklas Bendtner are missing again in the future, as Walcott took the bull by the horns and put in a dominant forward display.

“I liked what he did today,” Arsene Wenger tole me after the game. “He has played before in that role, but today he added purpose, commitment and more decisiveness to his game. He had more of a fighting attitude. With that, he looks like he improves every time in that position. With that and the quality of the players behind him he can be dangerous in that position.”

Much has been made of Arsenal’s lack of depth this season, especially up front, but when it comes down to it they have a whole host of players who can interchange fluently between attack and midfield. Wenger was dubbed the ‘professor’ for a reason back when he arrived in England in the mid 90’s.

(MORE: FA Cup roundup – Plenty of upsets dot third-round slate)

Arsenal’s current team are set up to only need one central striker, who can run in behind or hold the ball up and Walcott did that marvelously well. He timed his runs patiently to give Spurs’ center half pairing of Michael Dawson and Vlad Chiriches a torrid time on Saturday.

While those two were in a spin over who was marking Walcott, Gnabry and Cazorla slid off the wings secretively and that’s how the first goal came about. In the 31st minute Gnabry fed Cazorla to finish, after Walcott’s run took two Spurs defenders away. Gnabry excelled in supporting the excellent Walcott and Wenger was especially pleased with the 18-year-old German.

Although Wenger was reluctant to heap too much praise on his shoulder, just yet.

“Today again he has shown that he’s quality,” Wenger said. “He had a very good game. He is a very young boy but is very bright. He has a really good football brain. I’m a strong believer in Serge Gnabry because I integrated him last year at the beginning of the season. But let’s not make superstars with one game.”

Going back to Gnabry’s partner in crime, Walcott is regularly described as being “too quick for his own good” as his electric pace sometimes sees his body move before his brain has time to react. But in the 11th minute Walcott latched onto a central ball superbly, took it in his stride and balanced himself before hitting a low shot towards goal that Spurs’ Hugo Lloris had to tip wide. He looked at home as center forward.

Next, again from a central area, Walcott’s sweeping effort from the edge of the box was deflected wide as his deft-touch and composure was again on show. Walcott is no stranger to the central role, after seeing him star in that position for Southampton as a 16-year-old when he first burst on the scene, I can vouch for that. Even going back to his days in the youth team at Saints, many believed he would flourish centrally in the future.

On Saturday against Spurs he certainly did.

To go alongside Walcott’s first half attempts Gnabry and Cazorla also went close as the German youngster smashed an effort over the bar, then Cazorla’s curler just went wide of Lloris’ left hand post. Arsenal were rampant early on, as they bamboozled Spurs with their inter-changing trio of attackers.

Pace, ingenuity and composure was shown in abundance by Gnabry, Cazorla and Walcott.

After the break Walcott popped up on the right and Gnabry drifted inside to play centrally and the killer second goal came courtesy of Tomas Rosicky’s pressing on Spurs left back Danny Rose. Game over.

source: Getty Images
Theo Walcott reacted to coins being thrown at him, as he used his fingers to make a 2-0 score line. Walcott excelled in Arsenal’s win.

But with only a 2-0 score line sealing the Gunners passage into the FA Cup Fourth Round, Walcott alone could have easily had a hat trick as Arsenal spurned several gilt-edged chances as the game closed out. Throughout the course of the season, that wastefulness may cost them but for now their defense is holding firm, so one or two goals is enough to win them a game.

Late on Walcott fell awkwardly and had to be stretchered off with what looked like an injury to his left knee. As he left the field, he reminded Spurs’ fans of the score line (pictured, left) and then as he passed them in the stands, bottles and coins rained down on the England international.

“The doctor said to me that the coins were coming down over Walcott’s head and they had to protect him, that’s maybe why he did that,” Wenger said. “After that, it was not offensive what he did.”

On a more serious note, that’s two central strikers and a converted one (depending on the diagnosis of Walcott’s injury) down for Arsenal before they face Aston Villa on January 13 in their next Premier League game. That leaves only Gnabry and Lukas Podolski left at the moment, both of whom aren’t too comfortable in central roles and are much better suited out wide.

So does Wenger have to buy a new striker in January?

“We still had Podolski and Ozil on the bench today,” Wenger said. “Giroud was sick, he was not injured but was available if he wasn’t sick. So for the next game he should be available. Of course if you lose Theo for a longer period it is a problem. While Nicklas Bendtner is out for a month, but it could’ve been more so we got some good news on him. I am waiting to see who walks out there [new signings] and wants to knock at the door and come in, but honestly it is hard to find better than the players we have.”

MLS Snapshot: Sounders in firm control after Leg 1

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The game in 100 words (or less): The Seattle Sounders took full control of the Western Conference finals with a resounding 2-0 win over ten-man Houston. The Sounders already had hit first in the 11th minute through Gustav Svensson but the red card to Jalil Anibaba changed the game. Houston had some chances later but fatigue meant the focus and control was off. Former Dynamo striker Will Bruin’s goal may have put the tie to bed.

Three moments that mattered

11′ — Gustav Svensson Goal — The Sounders wanted to set the tone early and they picked up an early goal off a corner kick, as Svensson redirected a header past Dynamo goalkeeper Joe Willis. The goal changed the complexion of the game to that point, until our next big moment.

28′ — Jalil Anibaba red card — Joevin Jones was a menace to deal with tonight and after getting past Anibaba, the latter pulled Jones down and as it appeared to be denial of a goal-scoring opportunity, Anibaba was given his marching orders. Suddenly, Houston, down a goal and down a man, had a lot more to do to stay in the tie. Nicolas Lodeiro missed the subsequent penalty kick but Will Bruin picked Lodeiro up later.

42′ — Will Bruin goal — The former Dynamo man scored a massive goal against his former club on a great cross from Jones on the left wing. While the tie isn’t over, the Sounders are in firm control and look set to repeat as Western Conference playoffs champions.

Man of the Match: Joevin Jones

Three things: Sounders cruise after (and before) early red

Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Seattle Sounders all but booked a return appearance in the 2017 MLS Cup final on Tuesday, doing so by beating the Houston Dynamo 2-0 in the first (away) leg of the Western Conference finals on Tuesday. The game wasn’t as close at the final score might appear to indicate.

[ RECAP: Sounders take 2-0 lead over Dynamo ]

We learned the following three things over the course of the 90 minutes…


The red card hurt Houston

No way, you’re kidding, right? Clearly a 28th-minute red card (shown to Jalil Anibaba for the denial of an obvious goal-scoring opportunity) is going to have a massive impact on the outcome of a game. But, it really crippled Houston, given the way they play — having a numerical advantage in the center of midfield is so important to Wilmer Cabrera’s side, in the name of frantically winning the ball back after conceding half or even two-thirds of the field.

MLSsoccer.com

When you have to haul off one of three central midfielders, in hopes of still being about to force-create chances on the rare occasion you recover the ball and move it forward, three things are bound to happen: 1) legs are going to get very heavy, very quickly; 2) the clock appears to be counting up in double-speed; 3) you begin to concede two-thirds and three-quarters of the field instead — every move Seattle worked during the second half came after a waltz in the final third before finally meeting resistance.

At right, you can see every Sounders pass originating in Houston’s half of the field — remember, Seattle are the away team here. Playoff games rarely, if ever, come much easier than that.


Addition by subtraction… again?

This one isn’t so much a lesson from Tuesday’s game, as much as it’s a trend played out over the course of an entire season: much like they wound up being in 2016 following Clint Dempsey‘s heart condition robbing him of the final four months of the season, the Sounders are once again, dare I say it, better without another indomitable figure: Osvaldo Alonso.

Here’s the numbers to back it up: without Alsono in the starting lineup this year, Seattle went 6W-2D-2L. In those 10 regular-season games, they scored 20 goals (2.0 per game, versus 1.3 with him in the lineup) and conceded 12 (1.1 per game, same when he played).

The central midfield pairing of Cristian Roldan (7) and Gustav Svensson (4) has proven a formidable foe for anyone and everyone during the second half of the season. On Tuesday — granted, against 10 men for more than an hour — they could do no wrong. (Passes attempted on the right; defensive actions on the left — green triangles are tackles won, orange are recoveries, blue are interceptions, purple are clearances, red are tackles lost.)

MLSsoccer.com

Alonso has been an unbelievable servant for nine MLS seasons, he’s an MLS Cup champions, a four-time U.S. Open Cup winner, a Supporters’ Shield winner and one of the best defensive midfielders in MLS history. He’s also 32 years old with a growing history of lower-body injuries that seem to never fully heal, and he’s now clearly third in the pecking order behind Roldan and Svensson. It’s clearly an oversimplification to say that soccer is a young, mobile man’s game these days, but it’s certainly true of MLS, and the results are in near total agreement.


May I have some hope, please?

Here’s a not-so-fun fact if you’re a Dynamo fan: your team won one — singular — game on the road in 17 tries this season. Not a dark enough outlook? OK, have this: that lone away win came against D.C. United, who finished 21st out of 22 teams if you put MLS into a single table.

Maybe Seattle weren’t so good at home this year… I’m really just searching for anything at this point, you’re thinking. OK, it’s possible, I suppose. They lost once at home all season, to Toronto FC, the best regular-season team in MLS history, by the final score of 1-0, in the month of May.

We’ll see you in Toronto or Columbus for MLS Cup, Seattle Sounders.

MLS Snapshot: Toronto FC hold Crew on the road

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The game in 100 words (or less): Without two of its stars, Toronto FC set out to play compact and hold on for a draw on the road, and that’s exactly what they did. Michael Bradley recorded 17 recoveries and a trio of interceptions as TFC broke up play and covered the passing lanes, frustrating the Columbus Crew all night. The best chance fell to Harrison Afful late, but TFC goalkeeper Alex Bono made a crucial save to keep it at 0-0.

Three moments that mattered

0′ — The starting lineup — In a game with chances few and far between, the tactical set-up by Greg Vanney – in which his side without Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore came out in a 4-1-4-1 formation – proved to be the difference in the game, frustrating the Crew all night.

52′ — Pedro Santos penalty kick no-call — Justin Meram plays a neat pass through the TFC backline that Santos runs on to, and he appears to be taken down in the box by Bono. Referee Robert Sbiga doesn’t blow the whistle and lets play continue, where Ola Kamara takes a shot that’s deflected away. Santos appeals for video review, and receives a yellow card for his efforts.

85′ — Big Save Bono — Gregg Berhalter’s 77th minute substitution to bring on Kekutah Manneh helped to push Afful higher up the field, which led to this late-game chance. Bono, who hadn’t had a whole lot to do, came up with a massive stop to keep the tie level.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the Match: Alex Bono, Toronto FC

Three things: Being happy with 0-0, and sabotage by Precourt

AP Photo/Jay LaPrete
Leave a comment

On what felt sure to be a seminal night in franchise history, Columbus Crew SC were held by Toronto FC to a 0-0 draw in the first leg of the 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday. Leg 2 will be played next Wednesday, Nov. 29.

[ RECAP: TFC hold Crew SC to scoreless draw in leg 1 of East finals ]

We learned (roughly) three things over the course of the 90 minutes…


Who’s happiest with 0-0?

There’s a case to be made that both sides will be quite happy with Tuesday’s result — Crew SC for the fact they conceded no away goals, and TFC facing no deficit whatsoever before their home leg — but it’s quite clear that TFC should be the happier of the two, given 1) they were the best regular-season team in MLS history, this season; and, more importantly, 2) Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore were suspended for leg 1 (they’ll both be back for leg 2) and Crew SC failed to capitalize anywhere meaningful.

TFC lost once at BMO Field all season, while Columbus managed just four victories away from home. Granted, any draw where both sides score would see Crew SC through to MLS Cup, which they would host no matter the opponent (54 points in the regular season; Seattle Sounders and Houston Dynamo finished on 54 and 50, respectively).


TFC’s tactical adjustment pays off

For all of the regular season, TFC head coach Greg Vanney deployed a back-three, with great success — 69 points, an all-time regular-season record. Nov. 21, three games from lifting (or losing) MLS Cup, is hardly the ideal time to deviate from the only path you’ve known.

MLSsoccer.com

Alas, the absences of Giovinco and Altidore, TFC’s permanent strike partnership in the 3-5-2, changed everything. Without Altidore’s hold-up play bringing the best player to ever grace the league into attacking moves, the 3-5-2 would have quickly devolved into a 5-3-2, followed in short order by a 5-4-1. Columbus need no invitation to hold north of 60 percent of possession in a given game, which is exactly what would have happened. Not just meaningless possession, either, but camping-inside-TFC’s-defensive-third possession; 50-crosses-into-the-box possession; get-the-center-backs-forward-too possession.

Vanney was proactive with his starting lineup, putting another body in midfield by sacrificing a striker for another man in the middle, and it paid off. At right, you’ll see Crew SC’s attempted passes into/from TFC’s defensive third. Woof.


Anthony Precourt sinks to a new low

How low is Anthony Precourt willing to go in order to sabotage Crew SC, the club he owns and efforts to move to Austin, Tex., without so much as a phony attempt at a non-relocation resolution, and alienate the fans that have supported the franchise since MLS’s debut season in 1996? Tuesday night saw Precourt and Co. up the ante as they intentionally restricted entry (two gates for the entire stadium, causing thousands to miss the game’s opening minutes) into MAPFRE Stadium with the presumed intent of a half-empty venue when the television broadcast kicked off and panned left to right.

You pay good money for a ticket so you can see your team play, which ultimately results in filling the pockets of the villain whose no. 1 goal it is to steal your team, and this is how you’re treated on gameday.

This is shameful stuff from all parties involved — Crew SC, under the leadership and direction of Precourt, and MLS, who have allowed this entire saga to be played out in a public forum and enabling Precourt every step of the way.