Posted by nana saina Posted on 4:21 AM
en seconds before the grandstand finale, Arsène Wenger stood in his technical area wearing the expression of a man almost too desperate to clutch at the last straw. His drawn features seemed to tell the story of a season’s travails that felt typical Arsenal of the Emirates era. The pain of opportunities untaken closed in.
It is hard to think with too much clarity in the centre of the maelstrom. Wenger admitted as much afterwards. But when he looked over to see the shape of his team in those final seconds of stoppage time as Mesut Özil eyed up a free-kick something gave him a sliver of faith. “When we had the free-kick on that side, and I saw Mesut taking it, I thought we had a chance there. Because his balls are top quality, and we had tall players in the centre then – Welbeck, Chambers, Mertesacker and Giroud. I had hope,” the Arsenal manager reflected. “It did smell goal.”
Even so, Leicester’s dogged resilience until that point had almost taken them over the line with their momentum intact. The evidence of the match until its denouement gave off an equally strong scent of Foxes defiance. Between Kasper Schmeichel, Robert Huth, Wes Morgan and the rest of their 10-man band after the sending off of Danny Simpson, they had collectively dealt with most of what Arsenal could summon. Theo Walcott’s equalising strike was the only breach, but both teams knew full well that only a win for Wenger’s side would suffice to genuinely tilt the dynamics between these title chasers.
Wenger watched. Özil arced the ball into the thick of it all. And there, after all the months of absence and rehabilitation in the background, arrived Danny Welbeck to seize the Premier League’s centre stage. The touch of his glancing header was subtly soft, but just enough to appear absolutely transformative to Wenger and his team. “It was …” the Arsenal manager concluded, “happiness.”
In the immediate aftermath, Leicester’s emotions felt crushing. Claudio Ranieri admitted he and his players were very sad and also angry. His own frustration that a contest with a full quota of players could have allowed his team to attack was compounded by the last-gasp wound.
The Italian became animated as he announced that when he was a player himself he would have more or less wanted to rip the faces off any opponent trying to score in the dying seconds. At the worst time, his defenders were too passive as Welbeck found space to make the difference.
Leicester go off to rest, to take stock, for a week, before resetting themselves to take on the remaining games in the title race in voracious fashion. Still two points clear, still playing with unremitting energy, still ambitious.
But that Welbeck goal has the potential to significantly alter Arsenal’s own approach to the run-in. Pivotal moments sometimes come in unexpected ways, and Wenger was not even planning to include the forward in his squad until the strength of his performances in training over the past couple of days made him change his mind and include him as a substitute.
It may not be such a coincidence that both Arsenal’s scorers came off the bench during the second half. One of the telling problems Wenger has had to contend with over the winter has been the lack of experienced options to delve into when a game needs fresh impetus. That was especially felt in attack, during the months that Alexis Sánchez was out as well as Welbeck, and goals dried up for Olivier Giroud and Walcott.
Compare Arsenal’s bench when they visited Stoke for a goalless draw a month ago to now. At the Britannia, in need of a spark to turn one point into three, Wenger’s scoring options were limited to goalkeeper David Ospina, defenders Gabriel, Calum Chambers and Kieran Gibbs, defensive midfielders Mikel Arteta and Mohamed Elneny and the teenager Alex Iwobi. Against Leicester, Wenger could bring on Walcott and Welbeck, two England internationals with many collective years of Premier League experience. They were decisive.
After Simpson’s red card, once the second-half pattern established itself, there was a stark visual contrast between Jamie Vardy, isolated in one half with at least two Arsenal defenders at all times for company, and Arsenal’s expensively assembled cavalry once Walcott and Welbeck came on to augment the efforts of Giroud, Sánchez and Özil. “That shows you, at that level, the bench plays a big part,” said Wenger. “When you dominate games, you can bring on strikers like Walcott or Welbeck, it changes your opportunities completely.”
Goals have been an issue for Arsenal this term. Of the top four who still have the title in their sights, Wenger’s team have been the least productive in front of goal. They have eight fewer goals in the Premier League after 26 games than last season, and 15 fewer than eventual title winners Chelsea at the same stage.
But Wenger is hopeful that he can get his attack clicking again – and he certainly needs to. Giroud has scored in only one of his past nine Premier League appearances. Walcott’s influential strike to finish crisply past Schmeichel came after a confidence-sapping dry period. Sánchez is still finding his rhythm having come back after two months on the sidelines.
More game-time, more variety, more freshness and more options can only help with the challenges ahead.