By Liam Twomey
Like all things Arsenal, Sunday’s 2-2 FA Cup third round draw with Swansea effortlessly polarised opinion.
For some, the goals the Gunners conceded and the general pattern of the game provided merely the latest proof of the inherent vulnerabilities which stand between the current side and any tangible success. For others, the character they showed in coming back from a goal down hinted at the timely emergence of the kind of backbone and spirit Arsene Wenger’s teams invariably lack.
It was their season in microcosm, taking the supporters on an emotional journey through boredom, despair, relief, joy and disappointment, before finally ending with a cocktail of frustration, hope and bittersweet satisfaction. At the end of it all, Arsenal’s FA Cup hopes are still alive, but at the expense of another tough game being added to an already demanding fixture list.
Until Michu’s introduction on 56 minutes this was a desperately uninspired affair, all sterile possession and lethargic attacking. The prolific Spaniard quickly changed all that, however, dinking the ball over a comically immobile Per Mertesacker and calmly slotting his 15th goal of an incredible debut season past Wojciech Szczesny.
But against all intuition Arsenal responded. After wave upon wave of pressure substitute Lukas Podolski swivelled and rifled home the equaliser with nine minutes left, and moments later Kieran Gibbs raced into the area and powered a brilliant volley into the roof of the net.
Their stirring comeback completed, Arsenal promptly remembered they are Arsenal, and forgot to defend. Danny Graham was given the freedom of the penalty area to fire in an equaliser with three minutes to go, meaning both sides must do battle again.
Wenger will not be too downhearted, though. With that humiliating penalty shootout defeat to Bradford City in the Capital One Cup still painfully fresh in the collective memory, the Frenchman could not afford for his side’s last realistic hope of ending that infamous trophy drought to disappear so soon. A setback like that would have seen that ludicrous ‘crisis’ word being bandied around again.
Despite losing at home to the same opposition in December, the Gunners will fancy their chances of seeing off Swansea at the Emirates Stadium. But the New Year also brings bigger priorities – namely a run of Premier League matches which may make or break their fragile top four challenge.
January sees Arsenal take on champions Manchester City, West Ham and Liverpool at home, with a trip to Stamford Bridge to take on Chelsea in between. The competition will be fierce and the margin of error is small – Wenger’s men already lie four points adrift of the Blues in fourth, and cannot allow this gap to grow with Everton and Tottenham also better placed.
It is at times like these when the Gunners’ dramatic inconsistency is most troubling. At their best, this team can destroy teams with scintillating football – just ask Reading or Newcastle. But on a bad day, Wenger’s reliance on individual quality rather than tactical cohesion offers his players little means of masking a disjointed display or grinding out a result regardless.
Fatigue is another worry. Santi Cazorla’s sensational early season form has tailed off rather dramatically, while Podolski also appears to have entered a lull in his first season in England. The recent departures of Johan Djourou and Marouane Chamakh, combined with the long-term absence of injury-magnet Abou Diaby, have also left the squad looking a little short in most areas.
But Wenger’s signals on the possibility of bolstering his options in January have been decidedly mixed. As recently as Friday, he predicted a “very calm” transfer window. After the Swansea draw, however, he revealed he would be targeting “maybe one or two additions”. By the time you read this, he may have changed his mind again.
If he agonises too long, Arsenal may pay dearly, as their top four rivals have already shown a willingness to roll the dice in the winter market. Chelsea have signed Demba Ba, and may not be done yet. Tottenham could well resume their courtship of Porto playmaker Joao Moutinho, Shakhtar winger Willian and Internacional striker Leandro Damiao.
There is no such thing as treading water in football – if you content yourself with standing still, you invariably slide backwards – and a January of austerity could put the Gunners at a potentially decisive disadvantage. Tying Theo Walcott to a new long-term deal would be as good a start as any, but significantly more is needed if it is not to provide yet more bittersweet satisfaction.
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