Arsenal win another big game: Is it getting better?

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For a long time now we’ve collectively lamented Arsenal’s failure to cope with the big occasion. After the stirring win at Old Trafford, the question begs: are things finally improving?

For me, United is the definitive big game. Perhaps it’s because I grew up amid the red-hot rivalry of the late 90s. United were so dominant in that era, and those clashes were always infused with tension, drama and spite. Even taking in to account neighbours Tottenham and Chelsea, there isn’t a game in the fixture-list that inspires more nerves or animosity. Old habits die hard, and old hatreds endure.

I saw someone compare Monday night’s game to Ali vs. Frazier in 1975: two former greats, evenly matched but now hurting each other all too easily. It’s a nice line, but one that doesn’t reflect the trajectory of the two sides. While United do appear to be a team in decline, there are some signs that Arsenal might be on the way up.

There are indications that Arsene Wenger’s men are beginning to conquer their crippling stage-fright. After all, Monday night’s win comes just a couple of months after another landmark victory at the Etihad.

It’s not been a complete reversal of fortunes. Defeats against Tottenham and Monaco show there is still plenty of room for improvement. However, it’s undoubtedly progress: last season, Arsenal would probably have lost all four of those games.

In the wake of such a significant win, there’s a tendency to assume that our problems are now permanently behind us. “That’s it”, we think. “Now we’ll win every big game and be title contenders once again”.

I’m not sure it’s that simple. We’re turning the corner, but it’ll take more than a single step. It’s generally agreed that our problems are psychological as well as strategic. Improvements in the latter are soothing the former: each big win has tactical and therapeutic benefits. For the first time in a long time, it feels as if we might be learning something.

We’re not yet where we need to be. As the Monaco game showed, Arsenal are far from over the big-game jitters. However, we are certainly making positive progress.

On Danny Welbeck…

From the minute the possibility of Danny Welbeck moving to Arsenal was mooted, I fantasised about his scoring the winner at Old Trafford. He must have done so too, and that probably goes some way to explaining his joyous celebration on Monday night. He certainly had a point to prove to the manager who jettisoned him after a matter of months in Manchester.

As Welbeck’s shot hit the net, Louis Van Gaal’s flat face glowed red with embarrassment, leaving him looking like a cartoon thumb throbbing after being hit with a mallet.

Even if Welbeck never does anything hugely significant in an Arsenal shirt again, he’ll be remembered for this night. This, if you like, was his ‘Arshavin moment’.

However, I’m hopeful that there’s a lot more to come from the Englishman. That goal effectively closed one chapter in his career, but should mark the true beginning of a bright new one.

ps. If you haven’t yet, do check out the Arsecast Extra for more luxurious basking.

Arsenal 2-0 Middlesbrough: Olivier Giroud is answering all his critics

Olivier Giroud is showing you don’t have to be young to improve…
Giroud now has 10 goals from 12 starts this season, the most recent a thumping volley from Alexis Sanchez’s quick-thinking corner.

It seems to me as if he’s answering almost every criticism of his game: he’s become more prolific, he’s scoring against big teams, and he’s responded to stiff competition for his central striking spot. Admittedly he hasn’t got any quicker, but fortunately the personnel around him have.

I think fans are sometimes guilty of confining the capacity to improve to young players. There’s a misconception once you hit about 24, your attributes plateau. Giroud turns 29 this year but is developing at a more impressive rate than many young strikers, including those at our own club. It seems that technical potential and exposure to elite competition are bigger determining factors than age.

This is a different Mesut Ozil…
Some have suggested that since Ozil’s return we’ve seen what we missed. I’m not sure you can miss something you haven’t had before.

This Ozil is certainly different to the one we saw this Autumn. Whether deployed on the left or through the middle, there’s a fresh swagger to his game.

I don’t know what’s brought about this change. Perhaps he doesn’t either – confidence is a difficult thing to unpick. Aitor Karanka put it best when he said in his post match press conference, “Ozil is an amazing player. And now he is happy.”

The Arsenal fans are pretty happy too.

There’s an intriguing battle shaping up between Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott…
When Danny Welbeck was signed from Manchester United, most fans anticipated he’d be locked in a duel with Giroud. However, with Welbeck increasingly being fielded on the flank, he instead finds himself in a direct rivalry with Theo Walcott.

It’s obvious what they both bring: pace. Despite that shared speed, in some respects they’re polar opposites. Welbeck is all about hard work and cohesive team play but lacks end product, whereas Walcott can go missing for long spells but then get a goal out of nothing.

The boring thing to say is that both have their uses and will that Wenger will enjoy the luxury of choice. However, I’m intrigued to see who will get the nod in the very biggest games. My hunch is that Wenger might prefer the continuity and protection offered by Welbeck.

Gabriel made his debut…
…and there’s subsequently been a rush to either write him off or hail him as the best thing since Mr. Hovis decided his loaf was a bit too spatially coherent.

In reality, there wasn’t enough evidence to make a call either way. Gabriel made one excellent last-ditch challenge, picked up a classically cynical ‘South American’ booking, and was caught under the ball for Boro’s best chance of the game in stoppage time.

The only thing you can really say about Gabriel with any confidence is that he looks like a defender. Fortunately, that is exactly what Arsenal happen to need.

We’re three games from another party…
When you put it like that, another FA Cup triumph feels tantalisingly close.

We’re now one match from Wembley, two from the final and three from retaining the cup. The domestic cups always represent the most direct route to glory, and I’m glad we’re taking this one with the seriousness it deserves. It would be beyond lovely to wash away a horrendous first half of the season by toasting another trophy.

Tactics truck: Why Alexis, Giroud & Welbeck works so well

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That might have been Arsenal’s best performance of the season thus far. Scoring four times against a team who had conceded just two goals in their previous seven games is not to sniffed at. It’s somewhat ironic that a cobbled-together XI managed to put together our most fluent 90 minutes of 2014/15.

Key to that fluency was the attacking trio of Olivier Giroud, Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck. They started in tandem at the Hawthorns at the back end of November, but despite encouraging signs were split up for the subsequent games against Southampton and Stoke. I hope Arsene Wenger sees fit to stick with them now: they appear to be a potent combination.

There’s a lot to like about the way the three strikers combine. Few forwards offer quite as much defensively as Alexis and Welbeck, who work tirelessly to protect their full-back. Both players also have the technical skill and tactical intelligence to join up with Arsenal’s approach play when required.

Giroud was outstanding on Saturday, and it’s surely no coincidence that he looks more of an asset when complemented by attackers with speed and dribbling ability. However, he deserves a measure of credit for being prepared to adapt his game. Against Newcastle, he regularly drifted in to wide areas to allow Alexis and Welbeck spells in the middle.

His Squawka heat map demonstrates that he was willing to work the channels, particularly on the right, when required. He may be the team’s focal point, but he is determined not to weigh down a mobile attack by becoming an immobile anchor.

There’s a growing camaraderie there, too. These players seem to have embraced the challenge of competition, and are working hard to discover a way to play together. Giroud is not affronted by Welbeck’s presence, and Welbeck in turn has not piped up about being ousted to the flank. Alexis meanwhile, just wants to play anywhere with anyone.

However, what I like most of all is that fielding this front three almost guarantees that Arsenal have a bigger presence in the penalty area. Last season, crosses would flash across a box occupied primarily by opposition defenders. If it wasn’t within Giroud’s reach, it would generally be cleared without danger: No longer: Welbeck and Sanchez both have the stamina and the willingness to get in the box to join Giroud on a regular basis.

That much was evident from our winning goal at West Brom. When Santi Cazorla sprinted to the byline, Giroud’s mere presence at the near post was enough to attract a defender out of the centre, granting Welbeck the space to charge in and score.

Since then, the interchanging movement has only become more sophisticated. The opening goal against Newcastle was a perfect example: when Alexis crossed from the right, Welbeck and Giroud engaged in criss-crossing diagonal runs, the Englishman darting from far post to near and his French counterpart moving in the opposite direction. Their markers were baffled, and Giroud was able to climb high to score.

Our third goal came from another cross from the right. This time, Giroud made his preferred darting run to the dear post. Beyond him, Welbeck sprinted towards goal before pulling back in to space around the penalty spot — a classic Thierry Henry strategy. His positioning created doubt in the mind of Fabricio Colocccini, and allowed Giroud to nip in to score.

Arsenal’s improved penalty box presence has another benefit at the other end of the pitch: having the height of both Welbeck and Giroud in our area does offer a measure of insurance at set-pieces.

Arsenal looked as impressive going forward against Newcastle as they have done all season, and for once it wasn’t solely down to the individual brilliance of Alexis Sanchez. This new front three is already working. Let’s give it the time it needs to get even better.

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ps. Thanks to Arsenalist for the goal clips for me to deface, and sorry for reminding everyone of the horrors of Andy Townsend’s Tactics truc.