Swansea frustrate Arsenal’s quest for second place in the Premier League
Almost everything may have been resolved in terms of the title and European qualification, but Arsene Wenger spoke earlier in the week of the importance of claiming second, which would represent his side’s best finish since 2004-05. It felt even at the time that he was trying to convince himself and those around him that the final two weeks of the season have a purpose, and that sense was only enhanced by a half-paced game that was eventually settled in a 1-0 loss to Swansea City, with Bafetimbi Gomis’s 85th-minute header.
The worry for Arsenal fans, as Wenger named an unchanged line-up for the fifth successive league game — something the club hasn’t done since 1994 — is that too great a sense of momentum may lead Wenger to recalibrate his transfer spending downwards. In that sense, there was perhaps something to be savoured by home fans from an otherwise drab game. Arsenal was never really threatened, but it lacked spark in a match that looked and felt exactly what it was: an end of season game in which neither side had enough to play for to give it an edge.
One of the areas in which Arsenal is most obviously in need of fresh blood is at center-forward where Olivier Giroud, who is perhaps not a forward of the very highest class, needs somebody to share the burden. Wenger insisted last week that he doesn’t need a new center-forward because he has Theo Walcott, a play who keeps insisting he wants to play centrally but who Wenger habitually uses on the right. On Monday he came on for Giroud with 21 minutes to go and was broadly ineffective — still somehow, at 26, carrying the air of a bright young prospect.
If Arsenal really is keen to finish second, this was a set-back. It remains three points behind last season’s champion, Manchester City, although it has played a game fewer. The real aim, though, is surely to finish third and so avoid a potentially awkward play-off for qualification to the Champions League group stage. The likes of Lazio, Bayer Leverkusen or Ajax could lie in wait for whoever finishes fourth in the Premier League; Arsenal has a two-point advantage over United, with a game in hand.
Swansea, meanwhile, now harbors vague European ambitions of its own. If Arsenal beats Aston Villa in the FA Cup final, seventh place in the league will take a place in the Europa League and Swansea, in eighth, is now just a point behind Southampton and two adrift of Tottenham Hotspur.
Garry Monk is one of the season’s quiet success stories having, almost unnoticed, led Swansea to its highest ever points tally in the Premier League — and that despite losing Wilfried Bony to Manchester City in the January window. Gylfi Sigurdsson was used as a false nine on Monday, with Gomis starting from the bench, but the Icelander was only fleetingly involved in a first half that consisted of a lot of neat passing in midfield, a little bit of Giroud falling over, and not a huge amount else.
Swansea sat deep, closed the space and was broadly successful in frustrating Arsenal. Jefferson Montero, who destroyed Callum Chambers in the fixture at the Liberty Stadium to the point that the full-back left the pitch in tears, diligently tracked the forward sorties of Hector Bellerin. It was all very impressive frim a tactical point of view, but it didn’t exactly make for thrilling football.
There has been a greater sharpness and a greater variety in Arsenal’s play this season, but too often in the first half it well into the trap that has blighted it so often over the past decade: everything was too tight, too intricate and with Swansea packing men behind the ball, there was no way through. Arsenal does have the option of going long to Giroud, but he never looked like getting the better of Ashley Williams in the air.
The previous seven games between Arsenal and Swansea had yielded only one first-half goal but 18 in the second. As Alexis Sanchez got in behind Federico Fernandez after 54 minutes it briefly seemed this game might follow a similar pattern, but Williams, the one outfield player who really stood out, got back to thwart him with a magnificent sliding challenge. Santi Cazorla, seizing on a clearing header from Neil Taylor, drew a sharp save from the former Arsenal keeper Lukasz Fabianksi. The Poland international is prospering in Wales after leaving London last summer and made another fine block from Cazorla before a double save in which he denied first Alexis Sanchez and then Walcott.
Just as Swansea seemed to be rocking, Montero broke down the left and crossed for Gomis. His downward header was clawed away by David Ospina, but not before it had crossed the line, goal-line technology confirming the end of Arsenal’s 10-game unbeaten run.