Arsenal started strongly, got on the board in the 29th minute, from a beautiful Ramsey header that looped over the Cardiff keeper and into the far corner, controlled the rest of the first half, almost gave up the equalizer in the second and then killed off the game with two late goals. Things began quickly with a nice shot from outside the box by Wilshere after a strong buildup that almost opened the scoring on 1:37. Then things got a bit odd when on 14 minutes, Ozil flicked a pass from Wilshere through to Giroud, who appeared offsides. Rather than shoot on goal as he waited for the whistle, everyone stopped, including Giroud and the opportunity was lost. But Ozil, looking the best he has in a month, sent a tight and quick cross from the left that Ramsey finished like a tall striker 15 minutes later. Things went pretty much to plan throughout the rest of the first half, though Arsenal had some opportunities to put in a second.
The second half started much as the first, with Giroud just missing a goal when Ramsey cut back across the goal and sent him a peach of a pass, that was beat the keeper but was saved on the line by Ben Turner. From there, Cardiff, a team that has beaten Man City and grabbed a late draw against United, moved into the ascendancy and would have equalized but for a spectacular reflex save by Sz of a strong Frazier Campbell header over Gibbs, in the 51st minute. Soon after, Giroud tried to chip the goalkeeper and then had a shot deflected, though Lee Mason called for a goalkick (the third questionable decision of the day). In the 75th, with the game still in the balance, Flamini came in for Cazorla (with his sleeves rolled up rather than cut!) and five minutes later Monreal subbed in for Wilshere. Arsenal began to reassert their control and Ramsey sent it just wide from distance in the 81st minute. In the 86th minute, Ozil sent a wonderfully weighted through ball to the charging Flamini, who scored his first goal since his return, with a powerful, high shot from close range. Up 2-0 Arsenal continued to press and after Walcott came in for Ozil in the 90th minute, Odemwinge lost possession in the Arsenal box, Ramsey charged up the pitch with the ball, passed off to Walcott on the right, who cut it back across for another great finish for Ramsey.
And that’s how it ended, 3-0 Arsenal, with 56 percent of the possession and 15 shots with 6 on target (compared to 10 and 4 for Cardiff). Ramsey added two more goals to hit 13 for the season in all competitions and Ozil added two more assists, looking comfortable for most of the game. Wilshere seemed more in control as well, and after his brace Tuesday against Marseille might be coming back into form, after a relatively average return this season. A few thoughts on the game …
1. Rambo Returns: The incredible rise of Ramsey continues and his goal threat should be opening up more opportunities for Giroud, but he appears to be experiencing a slight dip in form. Though he is essential in the buildup and in holding the ball up, in addition to being an extra defender on set pieces, he appears ready for a break. He had a great chance to score early but just stopped, then missed two other good opportunities later. The reality for Arsenal at present is they have the best midfield in England and with goals possible across the squad, they are a team to be reckoned with going forward. With Wilshere starting to chip in and Walcott returning, this could be the season when they finally end the drought.
2. No Gibbs Left Behind: The rise of Kieran Gibbs has been quite impressive since the beginning of the new year. His defense has improved, his speed and dribbling skills get him into dangerous positions and his cross is substantially better than it used to be, though it is too often blocked by the right back. But he needs to work on his defending in the box. But for the excellent save by Szczesny, Cardiff would have equalized as Frazier Campbell towered over him with Gibbs not even jumping. This is not the first error this year – off the top of my head, I’d say seven or eight at least – and several others have led to goals. Monreal is more solid in many ways than Gibbs, with a better cross, better ball control and better positioning, but has become a late defensive sub this season. This is not a call to change, but to work on that aspect of Gibb’s game, as someone appears to have done with Giroud and his hold-up play, which has improved phenomenally in the past two months.
3. Pressing wins: Pressing up appears to be the way for Arsenal to dominate teams. While they can often lull teams to sleep with their incredible passing and movement, before attacking at will, by pressing up the pitch they tend to force their opponents into errors that can lead to scoring opportunities. When Arsenal sit back, as they do on occasion, they look porous and tend to give up opportunities, as they did again today. But when they are pressing high up the pitch, they can essentially cut off the attack before it ever gets started. This shouldn’t be done against teams that have trouble scoring or those that like to send balls over the top (like Stoke used to and West Brom appears to at times), but it can disrupt the attack of the better teams (as Man U showed against us a few weeks ago). This strategy has been a key aspect of Barcelona’s dominant recent spell that casual fans, and some lazy pundits, ignore and one of the reasons Dortmund overachieves based on their spending and revenue. It is difficult to do this for a whole game, but with all of the options in the middle, particularly when Ox and Podolski return, it is a formula that could win them more big games this season.
4. The comeback kids: the growing stature of Mertesacker and Koscielny is really something to see, particularly if you look back a couple of seasons when Per was being criticized for being too slow for the EPL and Kos made far too many mistakes (though we can forgive him for that flub that gave Birmingham City the Carling Cup in 2010, it still hurts). Add to that list the rise of Ramsey, the return of Wilshere, the brilliant free capture of Flamini and the aforementioned improvement in Giroud and Gibbs and this feels like a talented team that is also hungry to win (something that sometimes seemed lacking over the past five or six seasons).