Arsenal are still slow starters in the big games

Posted by James McNicholas

It might seem absurd to accuse the early Premier League leaders of being slow starters. However, when it comes to the biggest games, Arsenal are often hesitant in the preliminary stages.

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- McNicholas: Missed opportunity at Old Trafford

It's a trait that has proved costly -- most recently in Sunday's Premier League clash with Manchester United at Old Trafford. Arsenal were cautious at the outset, and United were able to take both the initiative and the lead.

Although the Gunners fought back valiantly in the second half, they were not able to reverse the scoreline, and United emerged victorious. Speaking to Arsenal's official website after the game, Bacary Sagna observed that Arsenal simply "started playing too late."

Arsene Wenger went further, diagnosing Arsenal's uncertain opening as a consequence of being "too nervous" in the first half. As he made the observation in his post-match news conference, there was an irritation in the French manager's voice. It is a problem that has become all too familiar.

Last season, Arsenal frequently sabotaged matches against their rivals by starting poorly.

Almost exactly a year ago, Arsenal travelled to Old Trafford to face Manchester United. After just three minutes, a Thomas Vermaelen error had gifted United a goal. Buoyed by the early bonus, the Red Devils cruised to victory, with Arsenal grabbing a late consolation to make the final score 2-1.

In January 2013, Arsenal conceded two first-half goals to give themselves an uphill climb against Manchester City. Not content with that, they repeated the error in their very next game. Arsenal faced Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and within 16 minutes managed to find themselves 2-0 down.

In each of these games Arsenal launched a late rally, but it was always too little too late. Arsenal seemed to consistently handicap themselves by offering their biggest rivals a half-time lead.

The pattern appears to have continued this season. Against United, Arsenal were listless for the first 45 minutes, only springing in to life once David Moyes' side were already a goal to the good.

It was much the same against Dortmund. Arsenal have faced the German side twice in this season's Champions League, and on both occasions allowed them to dominate the first half.

In the first game at the Emirates Stadium, Arsenal lost 2-1 and Wenger was forced to admit that his side "started a bit hesitantly." The pattern recurred in the away fixture although fortunately for Arsenal, Dortmund were not able to grab an early goal. When the Gunners produced their traditional second-half revival, it was enough to win the game. That will not always be the case, as Sunday's match at Old Trafford proved.

It's difficult to understand why Arsenal struggle to get an early foothold in big games. The cause would appear to be psychological. There are not many players in this current team who have experienced what it requires to beat the likes of United. Subsequently, there can be a lack of conviction about Arsenal on the biggest stage. They wait for the game to come to them, rather than asserting themselves early on.

That is a risky strategy and an unnecessary one too. Arsenal have the talent to impose themselves upon a game right from the kickoff -- they just need to believe. At elite level, the opening goal is so often decisive. Arsenal need to make sure they're on the right end of that first strike.

There has been one notable exception to Arsenal's nervy starts. In their Champions League tie with Napoli, the Gunners seized the initiative to devastating effect. Mesut Ozil volleyed home an opener after eight minutes; seven minutes later Olivier Giroud sealed the game.

In the second half, Arsenal saw the benefit of a blistering start. They were able to take their foot off the gas and see the game out in a professional, controlled manner.

Going forward, this performance against Napoli must be the template for when Arsenal encounter top-class opposition.

In December, Arsenal travel to Manchester City before hosting Chelsea in consecutive games. The Gunners will hope to come out of the blocks fast and blow their rivals away.


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