Arsenal 3-0 West Ham: On What Might Have Been, and Why It Wasn’t

With a tireless Aaron Ramsey feeding off Olivier Giroud’s excellent hold-up play, this performance was almost reminiscent of our table-topping performances of 2013/14.

With West Ham without three of their first choice back-four, Giroud’s powerful hold-up play and deft touch was simply too much for them to handle. Arsenal also benefited from another virtuoso display from Mesut Ozil, who is certainly in the midst of his best run of form since joining from Real Madrid. After the match, Arsene Wenger told Arsenal.com rather emphatically that “Ozil has now adapted”. He took his time, but recent evidence suggests he will prove to be worth the wait.

With Manchester City losing at Burnley later in the day, Arsenal are now just one point off second place.

After the game, the boss was asked if we are now part of the title race:

Not at the moment but we just have to keep going. We’ve won eight of the last nine and we are stronger today than we were at the start of the season. We dropped off in this league because we won one of six at the start of the season. Today we are a different team. We suffered a lot from the post-World Cup fixtures. Players came back and they weren’t ready to play.

He’s right: Arsenal can’t win the title this season because of the disastrous way in which they began the campaign.

With the Gunners now ensconced in third place and looking ahead to an FA Cup semi-final, it’s easy to forget what a tumultuous start to the season it was.

Wenger refers to one win in six, but that record is actually across all competitions. In the Premier League, we won just two of our opening eight games.

That’s dire. Had Arsenal managed to convert draws with Leicester, Everton, and Hull in to wins, we’d currently sit joint-top of the Premier League. Yes, Chelsea would have games in hand, but they’d also have a daunting trip to the Emirates Stadium to come.

The reasons we failed to find our gear are well-documented. There were new players to integrate, injuries to account for and a World Cup hangover to endure.

Intriguingly, Chelsea had plenty of players at the World Cup but started like a house on fire. The other day I read some criticism of Jose Mourinho, suggesting their recent struggles are due to the fact that some of their players were overplayed in the first half of the season. Perhaps so, but when Chelsea eventually stumble over the finish line as champions, it will largely be down to the spectacular way in which they began the season. They built a lead that is likely to prove insurmountable.

Why were they able to start so much quicker? I guess in part due to the availability of key players through their spine — by contrast, the absence of Laurent Koscielny and Olivier Giroud clearly destabilised this Arsenal team. What’s more, we started the season with three world cup winners in the squad. Who knows to what extent their motivation and focus was disturbed by lifting football’s most famous prize?

Anyway, the fact we’re even having this (admittedly somewhat one-sided) conversation is pretty remarkable given how bleak things looked after the November defeat against Stoke. I put much of the optimistic mood down to the win at Old Trafford. Had we lost, we’d be out of the domestic cups and staring glumly down the barrel of a Champions League exit.

Now, we’re dreaming of second place and an unlikely comeback in Monaco. Thanks to the Cup, the glass is half-full.

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.

Arsecast Extra 37: For fans of internationals and injuries…

If you’re still looking for things to fill the time between now and Saturday, why not listen to the latest Arsecast Extra? In this episode, we attempt to work out if any of our players are not injured. It’s as tricky as you’d imagine.

You know the drill: you can subscribe to the Arsecast Extra on iTunes by clicking here. Alternatively, you can dodge the elays and subscribe directly to the feed URL.

Not long now until the return of proper football. It really can’t come soon enough.

 

Some thoughts on Chelsea and Mesut Ozil

Shad Forscythe

Another match away to a top team, another defeat. A few days have passed since events at Stamford Bridge but it doesn’t feel any better. I’m not exactly OptaJames, but I believe I’m right in saying we haven’t beaten a good team for more than a million years.

I’m not inclined to dwell on refereeing decisions. It seemed to me that the incompetence of this particular official extended to both teams. Gary Cahill should undoubtedly have been sent off, but so too should Danny Welbeck. Arsenal might well have had a penalty, but arguably Laurent Koscielny should have been dismissed for conceding the spot-kick that was given.

I’ll run through some thoughts now. To avoid repeating myself, I’ll link to a couple of a pieces I’ve published elsewhere too.

The primary difference was that their stars delivered…

Although we didn’t get any points, we did see some progress. Arsenal were more compact, more combative, and stayed in the game for much longer than last season. Admittedly, that’s not difficult. I don’t know about you, but I was watching the game in 5 minute increments, delighted as each segment passed without the concession of a goal. Mathieu Flamini was particularly good, hurling himself in to tackles and generally making a nuisance of himself.

Ultimately though, the game was decided by two moments of attacking brilliance. The first was that superb slalom from Eden Hazard. The second comprised of two pieces of play of outstanding quality: a lofted pass from Cesc Fabregas, and an emphatically efficient demonstration of control and finishing from Diego Costa.

Mesut Ozil, on the other hand…

…was desperately disappointing against Chelsea. As ever, many leapt to his defence, but I thought he was undeniably poor. During the latest episode of the Arsecast Extra, I described him as being a bit like modern art: people keep telling me I should see things there that I can’t quite make out.

Arsenal Player Ratings vs. Chelsea | ESPN

Mesut Ozil, 4 – It’s difficult to understand just how Ozil managed to avoid being substituted against Chelsea. Deployed on the right flank, he was woeful. Not only was his passing shockingly erratic, but he seemed to shrink in the face of Chelsea’s physical approach. He must toughen up if he is to influence these big games.

Anyhow, it seems his form is no longer of any great concern. As I sat down to finish off this piece, the news broke that Ozil could miss as many as three months with a ligament problem.

Many will tell you it’s a blessing in disguise. I think that’s a bit strong – you never want to lose your most talented players for a prolonged period. However, Arsene has struggled to find a way to fit Ozil, Wilshere, Cazorla and Alexis in to the same XI. Perhaps the German’s absence will simplify the task of arranging his midfield, at least until January.

In these big games, the first goal is so crucial…

Arsenal somehow need to find a way to get the first goal in big games on a more regular basis. Having taken the lead, Chelsea were able to execute their preferred game-plan to perfection, sitting deep before picking up on the break.

In Alexis and Welbeck, we have players who offer a real threat on the counter. Had Chelsea been forced to come out in search of a goal, we might have been able to exploit the space in behind. As it was, we found ourselves banging against a blue wall.

According to Orbinho, The last time Arsenal came from behind to beat a top four team was against Liverpool in March 2012. Since then, there have been 20 such fixtures played. In each of Arsenal’s three wins, the Gunners got the first goal. The big teams simply don’t let leads slip. You can’t afford to give them a headstart.

On Wenger vs. Mourinho | The Mirror

Time after time, Mourinho’s pragmatism has overcome Wenger’s purism. The Frenchman is gripped by footballing ideals that define his tactical philosophy. Mourinho does not seem burdened by the same romanticism.

Wenger is known as “The Professor”, but can’t shake his artistic tendencies. In reality, it is Mourinho who is the clinical scientist.

Fore an audio dissection of the match and Arsenal’s start to the season, check out the live edition of the Arsecast Extra.

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.