Aston Villa 0-3 Arsenal: Three points in four minutes

Arsenal blasted three goals in just over three minutes to blow Aston Villa away.

Aston Villa 0-3 Arsenal
ESPN Player Ratings

Well, that was just what we needed. Arsene Wenger has a fantastic record at Villa Park, and yesterday it brought him everything he would have wished for: a straightforward three points, and goals and garlands for the under-fire duo of Mesut Ozil and Danny Welbeck.

It might have been so different. Amidst the understandable glee over our first comfortable win of the season, the significance of an early Wojciech Szczesny save has been slightly forgotten. With the game balanced at 0-0, the Pole produced a Schmeichel-esque star-jump to deny Ciaran Clark at close range. On such things can a game hinge.

That fact seemed to be somewhat forgotten after the defeat in Dortmund. Had Welbeck tucked away that presentable opportunity at 0-0, Arsenal would have been ahead and the course of the game diverted. The struggles to keep the Dortmund tide at bay would have been hastily rewritten as last-ditch heroics.

The criticism of the team after the Dortmund game always seemed too much, too soon. Arsenal were really good for long spells against Manchester City, and many fans seemed happy to conveniently forget that off the back of one duff display.

This team is still finding its feet. Arsene has refreshed his attack, and that has prompted a reshuffling of the midfield. At Villa Park, we took a major step forward by reverting back to the system that served us so well for much of last season. The manager lined his side up in a 4-2-3-1, with Jack Wilshere dropping to the bench and taking the 4-1-4-1 with him.

Arsenal immediately looked more at ease. Mesut Ozil shone in a central role, but just as integral to our success was the fact that he had Aaron Ramsey tucked in behind him. From a personal point of view, Ramsey had a poor game: his passing radar is malfunctioning badly, and in his desperation to regain form he is attempting flicks and ticks of unnecessary extravagance. However, playing in a deeper role he was able to provide Mikel Arteta with support and help suppress an energetic Aston Villa midfield. He was below par, but brought balance.

That said, Ozil does deserve special praise. Whatever he says publicly, Arsene Wenger must have toyed with the idea of leaving the German out. However, his faith was repaid when Ozil made two telling contributions in as many minutes to effectively sew up the game.

First he ran beyond the defence to meet a well-weighted Welbeck ball. With the goalkeeper advancing towards him, Ozil relied on his technique, passing the ball expertly in to the corner.

The opening goal gave Arsenal and Ozil’s confidence a real boost, and within seconds they had doubled their advantage. This time, the playmaker reverted to his conventional role as supplier, playing a teasing ball across the six yard box for Welbeck, who capped an intelligent piece of movement by thumping home his first Arsenal goal.

It’s great for Welbeck that he’s got off the mark. The scrutiny he was coming under was absurd given that he’d played just two games for the club against seriously tough opposition. It took Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry around eight games to open their Arsenal accounts. Olivier Giroud didn’t score until the he was picked to face Coventry in the Capital One Cup. Yaya Sanogo, as we all know, has yet to break his duck. That Welbeck has done so inside three games should relieve some of the undue pressure he was under.

I hope so, because he was excellent yesterday. It was often said of Ian Rush that he was the best defensive forward in the league. Welbeck is similar: he sprints back to harry the opposition, ensuring they are never allowed a moment’s rest. When he does get the ball, he uses it well: yesterday he completed 31 of 32 attempted passes. Given the tight spaces centre-forwards operate in, that’s outstanding. Crucially, he also seems to be striking up a good relationship with Ozil. Welbeck has the pace and movement to thrive on Ozil’s creativity, and their combination play yesterday was really exciting.

Kieran Gibbs’ cross was diverted in by Aly Cissokho to gift Arsenal a third goal inside little over three minutes. Yes, Villa collapsed, but Arsenal showed an unfamiliar ruthlessness to profit. It’s certainly nice to be on this side of a capitulation, and it was satisfying too to see us control the game so effectively in the second half.

Both Ozil and Welbeck are likely to get a rest on Tuesday when Arsenal face Southampton in the Capital One Cup. Arsene will want to keep some of the explosive powder that blew Villa away dry for derby day.

 ps. You may notice there’s been a bit of a redesign on the blog. I’m sure there’ll be some issues to iron out, but the good news is that the comments section should now be working once again. Please do feel free to contribute! Cheers.

Dortmund 2-0 Arsenal: An apocalyptic performance, but not the end of the world

Arsenal were dreadful against Dortmund. Watching this felt like looking at a cruelly-drawn caricature of a bad Arsenal display. Jurgen Klopp’s team were outstanding, and had us on the back-foot for 90 minutes.

That said, I feel like I’m a little more positive than most in the wake of this match. I think it’s because I saw encouraging signs against City that I’m not prepared to write off on the back of one horrendous night. There’s a certain novelty about our squad. We’ve got some shiny new toys to play with, and until they’re settled in I’m refraining from definitive judgement.

I can understand the frustration and anger that envelops the Arsenal fanbase this morning. Arsene Wenger might have loosened the purse strings, but he doesn’t seem to know how to tighten the defence.

It’s the repetitive nature of these defeats that’s so infuriating. Wenger’s team make the same errors time after time, marching lemming-like towards high-profile defeat after high-profile defeat. It’s tempting to wheel out the same blog as I do after each of those loses, citing a lack of defensive discipline and the absence of a powerful holding midfielder. To be honest, talk of missed signings feels like a bit of a red herring. The problem is as much to do with tactics as transfers.

Still, I’m optimistic. We haven’t yet hit form this season, but oddly I find that reassuring. I feel like there’s a good XI in our current squad, but Arsene is yet to achieve the alchemic balance to see that translate on to the pitch. It must be true that the best is yet to come.

It’s a dirty word but we’re a team in transition. We’ve had that label in the past when coping with the loss of a major star. That wasn’t transition — that was recovery. This time, the change has been instigated deliberately, not forced upon us. In signing Alexis and Welbeck, Wenger has indicated an intended shift in style. He wants us to a play a more intense pressing game. He wants us to use our speed to win the ball high up the pitch, long before it reaches that dreaded defensive midfield area, and punish opponents with rapier counter-attacks. In short, he wants us to be more like Dortmund.

That kind of strategic shift takes time to implement. We lack fluidity and we lack balance. Both will come with time.

We can’t wait forever. Transition is only bearable if it arrives at a decent destination — none of us want to watch much more of this purgatorial pish. Call me crazy, but I think someone will be on the end of a hiding when this team eventually clicks in to gear. Let’s hope it’s Villa this weekend.

Further Reading:

Borussia Dortmund vs. Arsenal – Player Ratings | ESPN

Why Arsenal may have to wait for Welbeck | ESPN

Arsenal 2-2 Manchester City: Might we be this year’s Liverpool?

This game reminded me a little of the 1-1 with Everton last year…
From beginning to end – and from end-to-end – this was a frenetic and fabulous spectacle. In truth, either side could have come away with three points. This was a game Arsenal could have lost, and yet arguably should have won.

The reason it reminds me of that Everton match – apart from the calibre of entertainment of show – is that at one stage it seemed we were going to make a real statement with a victory. It felt like we were on the verge of a landmark win. Instead, a late equaliser rather took the wind out of our sails.

Nevertheless, there were plenty of encouraging signs. Jack Wilshere and Alexis were both outstanding. Amid the hurry to hail Diego Costa as sliced bread’s superior successor, his impressive acclimatisation to the Premier League has gone almost unnoticed.

For more detailed thoughts on the game, check out my Player Ratings for ESPN.

Danny Welbeck nearly had the perfect start…
I’m in the camp that says his effort off the post was unlucky rather than profligate. I liked the imagination and confidence he showed to take that shot on. When Yaya Sanogo plays, he looks more likely to chip a tooth running in to a post than chip an international goalkeeper.

The injury to Mathieu Debuchy was horribly predictable…

Arsene Wenger’s decision not to strengthen his defensive options before deadline day was effectively the equivalent of climbing in to a bull pen, naked except for bright red body paint, and bellowing “come on then you cow twat let’s see what you’ve got”. The boss was asking for trouble, and it has promptly arrived with Debuchy’s severe ankle knack. If the latest reports are to be believed, Nacho Monreal has also suffered a minor injury. We are down to the bare bones, and it feels like only a matter of time until those bones snap under the weight of a gruelling schedule. We are in the midst of a mini ‘Death Run’. Let’s hope the rest of our defenders can survive it.

Mesut Ozil looks lost…

…and I don’t think it’s anything to do with playing on the left. It seemed to me that he was granted the freedom to roam wherever he likes from that flank, frequently swapping with Alexis Sanchez on the other wing and even drifting in to his preferred central role. The heat maps appear to verify that.

The greater problem is what happens when he has the ball at his feet – or rather, what doesn’t. According to Opta, Ozil has 3 assists in his last 19 games. I think I’m right in saying he’s only scored one goal in the same period. For a player with his undoubted talent that is well below-par.

I sensed a bit of a sea-change in attitudes towards Ozil after the City game. Thus far, while he has attracted criticism from outside the club, the Arsenal fans have been stoutly defensive of him. That’s shifting. I think it’s partly due to the fact that we have another expensive plaything in Alexis Sanchez, and I don’t think it’s helped by the fact that Ozil is now being directly compared with Cesc Fabregas, who is excelling at Chelsea.

I’m not sure what’s required for Ozil to click back in to gear, but I’m not convinced that playing him through the middle will be the panacea some suggest.

Could we be this season’s Liverpool?
Watching the City game, I wondered if we might be capable of being this season’s Liverpool. Hold your vomit, readers: I mean it as a good thing. Sort of.

The frenzied high-press we employed in the game’s early stages was reminiscent of the tactics Brendan Rodgers used to blow teams away for much of 2013/14. We should know: we fell victims to it ourselves. A front line of Alexis, Welbeck and Walcott certainly bears comparison with the trio of Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling. Both sets of strikers are characterised by relentless movement and blistering pace. If we get our attacking blend right, we could be as irresistible as the Anfield side were last term.

Unfortunately, at present our team also seems to share some of Liverpool’s defensive vulnerabilities. It’s vital we iron those out if we want to climb up the Premier League table.

For more…

…be sure to tune in to this week’s Arsecast Extra over on Arseblog.

Why Danny Welbeck reminds me of Emmanuel Adebayor

The Leicester game…
…was the latest in a string of uninspiring performances that have formed our start to the season. After our convincing victory over Manchester City in the Community Shield, many expected us to make a fast start in the Premier League. Not so: we’ve looked leggy and listless much of the time.

Part of the problem seems to be that we are struggling to come to terms with a new system. At Leicester, we once again employed the 4-1-4-1 formation we’ve seen in recent weeks. Yaya Sanogo was installed at the point of the attack, with Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil alternating in the wide roles.

It didn’t really work. Arsene seems certain that he wants to include Santi Cazorla, Ozil and Alexis in his first XI, but hasn’t quite worked out how. Personally, I think he ought to have kept faith with Alexis through the middle. After an encouraging display against Besiktas, this could have helped establish him as Arsenal’s new centre-forward. Instead, another opportunity was misguidedly handed to Yaya Sanogo.

At this stage in his development, Sanogo should not be playing for Arsenal football club. Judging by his late transfer business, Arsene Wenger has recognised that too. I’m not willing to write Sanogo off entirely — I did that with Alex Song and was proved wrong. However, at present, if you deposited him in to the third tier of English football, I’m still not convinced he’d stand out as impressive.

Danny Welbeck is a smart signing…
All the good things people claim to see in Sanogo, I see in Welbeck. He is quick, agile, powerful, and a very willing worker.

He reminds me of Emmanuel Adebayor when he first arrived from Monaco. It’s easy to forget now, but in those days Adebayor was a ball of energy, tearing about the pitch trying to make a positive impression. He was partnered with a Thierry Henry riddled with sciatica, and was charged with doing much of the Frenchman’s heavy lifting for him. Pay rises and plaudits eventually killed off Adebayor’s work-rate, but in the early days he was a real handful.

Of course, there was a trade-off for all that perpetual motion: he couldn’t really finish. Adebayor once conspired to miss two open goals in the same game, on a dark night away to Portsmouth. Welbeck has suffered similar woes in front of goal. Hopefully Arsene Wenger can give him the confidence and composure he needs to develop, as Adebayor did, in to an accomplished goalscorer.

I feel good about this one. Welbeck has all the raw attributes, and we have the ideal coach to oversee his development. He is a huge upgrade on Sanogo, and I expect him to make an immediate impact.

The lack of defensive cover…
…is genuinely difficult to understand. We’ve known we needed another centre-back for some time now. Many of us were calling for an additional signing in January. When Arsene Wenger sold Thomas Vermaelen, he admitted that he would need replacing. And yet nothing has happened.

I can only think that the unexpected progress of Calum Chambers threw Wenger’s plans a little. Speaking to The Guardian last week, he said:

Today we are in a position sometimes, if you always buy, you can never give a chance to a player. We take now the example of Calum Chambers. Calum Chambers played centre-back because I gave him the chance to play centre-back. If I had four centre-backs already because I had bought four, I would never have played him. And he would sit on the bench and play in the youth team.

I think contained in that quote is something approaching an explanation of what was going on in Arsene’s head. He doesn’t want to block Chambers’ path to the first-team.

However, that’s a crazy way to think. Even as fourth-choice, Chambers would still get plenty of game time, especially given his versatility. What’s more, he’s arguably not even ready to be the immediate back-up for Koscielny and Mertesacker. Impressive though he has been, his inexperience has also been evident on several occasions.

We were far stronger at centre-back last season than this. Not only did we have the experience of Vermaelen in reserve, but we also had Bacary Sagna to call upon as emergency cover. No-one can convince me that Nacho Monreal is a centre-half in the making.

Arsenal will need to be very lucky to get away with their lack of defensive cover until January.

Examining why Arsene Wenger doesn’t want to buy a striker

Well, here we are. Another season is underway. I initially wrote ‘well and truly underway’, but then deleted it. In truth, this period between the opening fixture and the transfer deadline always feels like an extension of preseason. The window ends, there’s a flurry of late deals, and then club football goes on a two-week break while some dull internationals are played. When we return in mid-September, that’s when it really feels like the campaign has kicked off.

That seems truer this season than most. The fact that a large portion of our squad is still recovering from their exertions in the World Cup means we’ve had an unusually slow start. Our performances have yet to impress, but fortunately the results haven’t suffered too much. We’ve shown fight if not fluency, getting late goals to pick up valuable points against Crystal Palace and Everton.

I’ve been in Edinburgh throughout August, but returned this week to see my first live game of the season. Arsenal got the job done against Besiktas, but it wasn’t easy. Mathieu Debuchy was certainly unlucky to pick up that second booking, but he’d been wobbling uneasily on a disciplinary tight-rope all evening. He must curb his aggressive streak if he’s to avoid more red cards in future.

Watching our side in the flesh, it became apparent to me that we are very much a team in evolution. The midfield, for example, appears to have been slightly restructured over the summer. Last season, Arsenal typically played with two men in a double-pivot, with Mesut Ozil floating ahead. Mikel Arteta would hold with Aaron Ramsey given greater license to break from deep alongside him.

This season, there’s been a slight shift in emphasis. Rather than the customary 4-2-3-1, Arsenal have been employing something more akin to a 4-1-4-1. There is a pure designated holding player, with two dynamic midfielders deployed further ahead.

This system was presumably implemented in part because of the available personnel. Ozil missed the start of the season, and Arsene Wenger had to find a way to accommodate both Jack Wilshere and Ramsey. This formation allows both those players to break forward, secure in the knowledge that an anchor man is on hand at all times to fill in.

However, Ozil’s return has not prompted the expected reversion to last season’s shape. Instead, the German has twice been positioned on the left flank. Against Besiktas, Ozil found himself ousted to the wing, with Santi Cazorla asked to play a busy box-to-box role in the centre. Last season, that deployment would have seemed improbable at best. Throughout 2013-14, Cazorla was routinely used on the flank in order to grant Ozil a free role through the middle.

Perhaps during the international break Arsene will take the opportunity to restructure his midfield once again. However, it’s also possible that he has decided that playing Ozil as a pure number 10 leaves his midfield too exposed. This summer, Ozil played predominantly as a winger for the German national team, and that experiment turned out pretty well for Jogi Low’s side. A hypothetical central midfield three of Arteta, Ramsey and Cazorla certainly has more energy and commitment to the defensive side of the game than one containing Ozil.

The remodelling of the team does not end with the midfield. In the past week, there has been significant evidence that Arsene Wenger plans to renovate his attack too. When Arsenal signed Alexis Sanchez back in July, I said I thought he’d been bought as an alternative to Luis Suarez – the brilliance without the biting. His future, it seemed to me, was as a centre-forward.

However, I did not expect him to be picked there so early on in his Arsenal career. In just Sanchez’s second Premier League game, he was named at the point of the Gunners front-line. That initial experiment failed, but Wenger was forced to repeat it in midweek having lost Giroud to a broken tibia. Against Besiktas, Alexis fared rather better. Not only did he grab the winning goal, but he also showed class and courage to hold the ball up against defenders who towered above him.

With Giroud confirmed as being out until Christmas, many Arsenal fans are incredulous that Arsene Wenger does not deem recruiting a new striker a priority. However, as far as our manager is concerned, he has already bought a £35m striker this window: Alexis.

For more than a year, Wenger has been chasing a mobile forward with a good pressing game. Wenger didn’t buy a striker last summer because he couldn’t get his number one target, Suarez. He didn’t buy a striker in January because a player of the requisite calibre and attributes was not available. This summer, Alexis came on the market, and Wenger moved quickly and efficiently to get his man.

I’m sure that in an ideal world Wenger would like to bed Sanchez in as his centre-forward over a period of several months. Giroud’s injury robs him of that luxury. Alexis’ evolution must be sped up, and the team’s with it. However, Wenger presumably reasons that there’s no point threatening that process by buying the ‘wrong’ type of centre-forward. If he has already decided that Sanchez, rather than Giroud, will be his team’s long-term focal point, why derail things by bringing in another square beg for his newly-carved round hole?

Of course, Alexis can’t play every game. But if our team is being rebuilt to accommodate a slighter, speedier forward, then Arsenal already have an ideal back-up in their ranks. Within a matter of weeks, Theo Walcott will be available for selection. When Alexis needs a rest, he seems the obvious player to step in to the void.

In the meantime, Walcott will flourish on the right flank. Alexis is more of a ‘false nine’ than a true target man. Against Besiktas, it was intriguing how frequently he dropped deep to collect the ball and join up with the midfield. On more than one occasion, I spotted Alexis furiously gesturing at Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to dart in behind him. He will find Theo Walcott a far more willing runner. In combination, the pair could be devastating.

The possibility of fielding Walcott as a centre-forward ensures Yaya Sanogo will remain third-choice in the pecking order. What’s more, Wenger has Joel Campbell to consider. Many Arsenal fans spent the summer crying out for Campbell to be given an opportunity at Arsenal. Some of those same fans are now furiously demanding a new striker. You can’t have it both ways.

If it were up to me, I’d bring in an experienced frontman who guarantees 10 goals. Loic Remy, for example, is a proven Premier League finisher with an excellent record. I’d recruit someone of that ilk to add depth and experience to our options. If that meant sending one of Sanogo or Campbell out on loan, so be it.

Arsene doesn’t see it that way. Rightly or wrongly, he believes giving playing time to Campbell and Sanogo is a better investment of resource. What’s more, I suspect he envisages a restyled attack modelled around Sanchez and Walcott. Giroud’s injury robs him of a Plan B, but Plan A is still good to go.

I hope Arsenal will be active between now and the end of the transfer window. They still need another centre-back, and a holding midfielder would be handy too. With Giroud out, the first XI could do with an injection of height and power – if only to help them cope at set-pieces.

However, at this stage I’d be surprised to see another attacker arrive. Giroud’s injury doesn’t derail Arsene’s plans, it merely accelerates them.