12 May 2015

Arsenal 0-1 Swansea: Finishing School 101

Stop me if you've heard this one before: an Arsenal side, dominating possession and getting forward in relentless fashion, fail to finish, and emerge empty-handed despite facing an overmatched squad. It was all there: the deft flicks, the incisive through-balls, the well-timed runs. However, when we weren't sending shots harmlessly wide, we were putting them straight at Łukasz Fabiański, lionizing him when in reality we were rendering ourselves toothless. By the time Gomis headed home—to the far-post, of course—we had only ourselves to blame for squandering the chance. Still, all is not lost—yet. We still do have a game in hand over Man City...but it might be Man U that we have to pay closer attention to.

Credit Swansea for a job well-done. They came in and fought hard. Even if we have to blame ourselves for wasting our chances, we have to admit that our opponents came in with a game plan and executed it well. They defended deep and in numbers but hit hard on run-outs and counters. For long stretches, it looked like they were the hungrier side, and this in a match in which we dominated possession to the tune of 68%. If not for some wasteful finishing of their own (and a few brave saves from Ospina, we might have gone into halftime down a goal, if not worse.

In a sense then, we were outplayed despite knowing that a positive result would go a long way towards securing our best finish in a decade. Man City's thrashing of QPR should have served notice: they intend to finish second. Scoring six goals, even against a side that has thrown in every single towel it can find, is a signal of intent. City threw down a gauntlet; we responded by dropping a handkerchief. As it not stands, Man City's superior goal difference (+41 to our +32) stands as a trump-card because the best we can now do is to finish on 79 points—the same as City. Going into the Swansea match, we had to know that three wins and a draw would be enough to secure second place. Looking ahead, we perhaps figured that the draw might come at Old Trafford on Saturday. We bid those halcyon days adieu.

If there's any silver-lining to this debacle, it's this: Swansea now have a legitimate chance at qualifying for Europa League play, and they host Man City on Sunday. Maybe they'll fight tooth and nail to earn a point, if not all three, to leap-frog Southampton or Tottenham, each of whom seems to be daring the other to qualify. Chelsea, having won the League Cup, will pass the accompanying Europa League spot to the Prem's sixth-place finisher. If we win the FA Cup, the accompanying Europa League spot would pass to the Prem's seventh-place finisher.

In other words, instead of a glorious promenade, we now face a grubbier march. The trip to Old Trafford is now pregnant with uncertainty; rather than pin our hopes to a draw, we now have to wonder whether we can get the smash-and-grab, not just to resuscitate our hopes of finishing second, but to solidify our chances of finishing third.

All is not lost, despite how it feels. Yes, securing second place would symbolise significant progress. Even if that's slipping through our fingers, that war is not yet over. Their thrashing of QPR aside, Man City have looked every bit as wobbly in their last five matches (if not more) as we did on Monday. Between their matches against Swansea and Southampton, I wouldn't be surprised if City dropped points. At our end, we know that we have our work cut out for us. Sunday's trip to Old Trafford has taken on new urgency. I don't know about you, but I like us when our backs are against the wall.  We're not accustomed to defending an advantage.

Instead, we seem more comfortable fighting our way out of a corner, even if—especially if—we've painted ourselves into that corner in the first place. We've backed ourselves into that corner. Can we come out swinging on Sunday?