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The Holes Arsenal Need to Fill to Win the English Premier League Title Race

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 23:  Gary Cahill of Chelsea tackles Olivier Giroud of Arsenal during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Chelsea at Emirates Stadium on December 23, 2013 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
James DudkoFeatured ColumnistDecember 24, 2013

Arsenal's recent slump has seen them surrender a promising lead at the top of the English Premier League and slip to second, albeit on goal difference. Their recent run of two points from three league fixtures has revealed what the Gunners miss the most in this title race. Namely, the right big-game temperament and a quality striker.

Monday's 0-0 home draw against fellow title chasers Chelsea perfectly illustrated both deficiencies. The solid point earned on a rain-soaked Emirates Stadium pitch was equal parts progress and regression.

The progress was successfully producing a safety-first approach and still achieving a favorable result. That was particularly pleasing after the Gunners surrendered six goals against Manchester City.

The cautious, defensive strategy didn't make for a good spectacle, but it is something Arsenal haven't been able to manage during recent seasons.

Although Chelsea seemed averse even to the idea of moving the ball forward in North London, it's easy to imagine previous versions of Arsenal still losing that game by one or maybe two goals.

That has been the pattern in recent big matches, especially against defensive-minded managers favoring destruction over creation. But the fact that Arsenal could set up to protect a point and actually do it is a good sign.

It is a dynamic germane to a team founded on a new solidity provided by determined leaders like Mikel Arteta and Per Mertesacker.

Players like Mike Arteta allow this Arsenal side to scrap for positive results.
Players like Mike Arteta allow this Arsenal side to scrap for positive results.Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

That is the good from the Gunners' recent foray in the title race. But there are still holes to fill, and the first concerns an apparent block in the team's psyche.

Arsenal still struggle to be bold in key games against big teams. They have played every member of last season's top four already and earned only a single point out of a possible nine.

In fact, whenever anything tangible has been on the line this season, Arsenal have timidly shrunk from the challenge. They couldn't beat Everton to build a seven-point cushion at the top of the table. They couldn't get a result against Napoli to win their UEFA Champions League group and avoid the big guns in the last-16.

The chief problem has been a fear that appears to grip a group of players usually defined by their forward-thinking daring. Against Chelsea, several Arsenal players retreated into their shells, none more so than Aaron Ramsey.

Arsenal's player of the season so far was gutless going forward and clueless in defensive areas. What had happened to the assertive midfield dynamo that has overwhelmed so many this season?

As good as he has been, Aaron Ramsey has struggled to assert himself in some big games.
As good as he has been, Aaron Ramsey has struggled to assert himself in some big games.Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

Is Ramsey merely a player who can't produce against top opposition? I don't accept that argument on any level.

Instead, he is just one of many who seems more concerned with not making a mistake against top sides, than he is about taking the game to them.

That helps explain Arsenal's damaging habit of experiencing slow starts in crunch games. They were overrun for nearly the entire opening half an hour by Everton.

City did much the same thing at the Etihad Stadium, while Chelsea controlled far too much of the early exchanges, considering Arsenal were the home team.

It's sometimes easy to question the point of even showing up for these games if you are going to play so scared. But then it is worth remembering that the Gunners have experienced their share of heartbreak and near misses during their barren run.

Being without a trophy for so long has only underlined the importance of winning one, creating extra nervousness whenever a real chance to actually claim silverware gets closer.

But that still doesn't mean manager Arsene Wenger shouldn't get his players to perform with the same fearlessness he exhibits.

Of course, even the strongest psyche can't mask a lack of talent in key areas for too long. Arsenal's problematic key area is up front.

Olivier Giroud has his fans and with good reason, given his work rate and link play. But he still misses too many chances he should convert and rarely looks like scoring against quality opposition.

Olivier Giroud isn't delivering when it counts.
Olivier Giroud isn't delivering when it counts.Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

That point was driven home when the Frenchman spurned two excellent opportunities against Chelsea. The first, a sliced left-foot shot after being put through by a rare moment of quality from Ramsey, was particularly telling.

Giroud had a lot of room to aim for and was on his favored side. Yet he still boomed the ball past the post, to no great surprise.

In truth, the analysis of the miss wasn't completely fair to Giroud. Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech was across to the shot quicker than many gave him credit for.

Had Giroud fit the ball into the bottom corner, it would have been an exceptional finish, worthy of the highest praise. But in a way, a top-quality finish by an elite striker is kind of the point.

It was a tough chance for Giroud that called for a moment of quality, the kind that decides big games defined by fine margins.

That he didn't even hit the target and work Cech was bitterly disappointing. It was far from the first time Giroud not only missed, but missed badly.

Even his second chance, a late slide into the box, thwarted by a Cech block, showed what Giroud is missing and how that costs Arsenal.

The Gunners had produced their best move of the game, a beautiful pattern of passing between Tomas Rosicky and Kieran Gibbs. When Gibbs steered the ball across the box, Giroud slid in but was half a step too slow.

Yes, it was heroic defending from both Cech and John Terry. But a striker more fleet of foot and quicker of mind would pounce to convert that chance and win the game.

Arsene Wenger needs a striker who can combine with Mesut Ozil's range of passing.
Arsene Wenger needs a striker who can combine with Mesut Ozil's range of passing.Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

Greater pace at the focal point of their attack is as important to the Gunners as more assurance in front of goal. Since signing Mesut Ozil, Arsenal are committed to surrounding him with speedy forwards who can better attack his through balls.

Giroud, for all his improvement, is not that player. Arsenal won't win the title with the ex-Montpellier man leading the line, and Wenger shouldn't hesitate to upgrade any way he can in January.

Arsenal are still in a great position in the league, although another way to view their position is to say they are only two points from being outside the top four.

But while the Gunners remain serious players in the title race, they won't win it unless the hole in attack and the one damaging their big-game psyche are filled.

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