Sunday, September 21, 2014

Arsenal Rebound Well, Win 3-0

Arsenal headed into their game against Aston Villa Saturday with some serious concerns. They look short on the defensive end, had just blown two one-goal leads in the league and got thumped by Borussia Dortmund in their Champions League opener. But history was on their side, even against a surprisingly hot Villains, having been unbeaten in their past 15 visits to Villa Park. And that historical trend continued, as Arsenal used three first half goals in 3:13 to pull ahead and win easily.

Things didn’t look as positive early though, as Arsenal were on their heals right from the kickoff, with a bad kick out from Szczesny in the third minute almost leading to a Delph score, though the Polish keeper came to his own rescue with a fine save. Slopping passing from Ramsey and Ox kept the pressure on the back four from here, with Kos saving another chance in the 13th minute with a last second intervention. Villa should have been ahead in the 22nd minute, when a poor challenge from Chambers led to a free kick that ended up at the far post for Clark, with Sz again coming to the rescue on a header that could have been a little better. Heading into the 30 minute mark, Arsenal continued to look terrible, spraying passes, losing possession and lucky to still find themselves in the game.

And then, in the 32nd minute, a great counter started with an incisive Mertesacker pass to Ramsey who one touched it to Ox, ahead to Welbeck and then into the path of a charging Ozil, who got behind Villa’s defense and finished coolly one on one with the keeper. It was a much-needed confidence boost for Ozil, who went from scorer to distributor 79 seconds later sending a perfectly weighted pass across goal to Welbeck, who pounded his first goal for the Gunners into the roof of the net from a yard out. A minute later it was three, as Gibbs finished some nice dribbling with a dangerous cross headed to Ox at the far post, before Cissokho intervened to mistakenly put the ball in his own net. A few minutes later, the Gunners ended up two-on-two defensively, leaving many, including me, to wonder if there really is only one tactical setup Wenger utilizes any more.

The second half was a languid supplication by Villa, who allowed Arsenal to pass the ball around for 20 or 30 passes at a time, rarely making forays into the box. But it was an important win for the Gunners, maintaining their undefeated start to the season (only Chelsea and Arsenal have not lost after five games), moving them into fourth place, and picking up points on almost all of their rivals. Chelsea and City played to a 1-1 draw, Tottenham, Liverpool, Everton and United all lost and the Gunners thus sit only four points away from Chelsea heading into the first North London derby of the year. Some thoughts on the game and the weekend …

1. Ozil Redemption: I believe the criticism of Ozil has been somewhat overwrought, though not surprising given the English press’ penchant for making every game a narrative unto itself. Yet it is clear that the missed penalty against Bayern in the first leg of the UCL Round of 16 last season saw a marked decline in his form, even as he went on to win the World Cup creating more chances than anyone else in the tournament (though many argued he had a bad WC). When one looks at the statistics, things are not as alarming as some make them out to be. First one should mention that the worst stretch of last season, when the Gunners lost the title, was when Ozil was out. Since his return, Arsenal have only lost one competitive match, the 2-0 drubbing they took at the hands of Dortmund Tuesday. Heading to Arsenal last term, he led all of Europe in the previous five seasons, with 72 assists, offering a key pass every 22.1 minutes (finishing with 9 goals and 13 assists in 23 league games that last season). In 2013-14, counting games with Real, Arsenal and the German national team (51 in all, with 44 starts), he had 11 goals and 20 assists. For Arsenal, in 40 appearances in all competitions, he had 7 goals and 14 assists. Not incredible numbers, but he led all of the EPL in key passes per game, with 2.8 and was tied for sixth in assists, while missing a stretch of games with an “injury.” This game was a return to form for the German, though, as his passing was sublime, he finished his one chance and contributed to the other goal. Once Sanchez and Walcott line up on the wings and Welbeck becomes more adapted to the Gunner’s tactical game, we could see a rejuvenated Ozil again leading Europe in chances and assists. The most obvious takeaway of the game though, is that he has to play through the middle, as he just doesn’t seem to perform on the wings as well as he does for a stacked German squad.

2. Rambo Needs Some Juice?: it was an impressive team performance from the Gunners after the jittery start, but one player who will be shaking his head is Aaron Ramsey, after another subpar performance. Ramsey did contribute passes to the first two scoring drives, but was otherwise terrible, losing the ball at least ten times, according to my tally. He seems a little lost the past couple weeks, after a purple patch stretching back to last season seems to have quickly dissipated. He still runs harder and farther than any other player on the pitch, but appears to need to calm down a little, as he is too apt to go for the hard shot or try too difficult a pass at the moment. I’m sure he will get back in form quickly, but given the improvement in Wilshere in the past few games, his position could be in jeopardy if he plays like this against Tottenham next week.

3. Undefeated: Even with all of Arsenal’s early season struggles, they now sit in fourth place, within striking distance of Chelsea, while United continues to languish, Everton sit in 14th place, Liverpool have lost three of five and Tottenham are in 9th. Next week is an important test, as they need to get three points from a Tottenham team that has been up and down so far this season, but they are the only other undefeated team in the league and sit on 9 points, with Southampton and Aston Villa between them and Chelsea. One assumes the middle teams will start to move back toward the middle of the table and this thus puts Arsenal in a strong position, if they can start winning the games they have been drawing too often in the early going.

4. Defensive Woes: While Arsenal secured their first clean sheet of the of young season, others were scratching their heads at the defensive lapses. Up a man and a goal, Chelsea saw their old hero Lampard equalize in the 89th minute, after City had given up a late goal to drop all three points against Bayern four days earlier. But these are the two title favorites and they can generally score enough to allow for the occasional lapse. The record of those around them is much worse, beyond the surprising Southampton (only three in five), Aston Villa (four in five), and Burley (four in five, though they are in 19th place). Liverpool came within a Gerrard first half slip of winning the league last year and Everton pushed Arsenal for the coveted fourth place, before a late season drop in form and results saw the Gunners restore their usual spot. Now both Meyerside teams must be wondering what happened to their defenses. Liverpool knew life would be hard after Suarez left, and even harder with Sturridge on the sideline, but have been shipping goals at an alarming rate, with 8 in five games (and a -1 goal difference). Things are substantially more alarming for Roberto Martinez, with Everton sitting in 14th place (on five points) and having given up 13 goals in five (the most in the league by two). Both lost winnable games this weekend and know that they must turn things around quickly if they are to compete for the Top Four this term. United might also be wondering what happened to their defense and wishing they had spent a little more on that side of the pitch, as an impressive 3-1 lead was squandered late when the impressive Leicester City scoring four straight to upset the biggest spending team in Europe this summer (the first time United have lost a two goal lead in over 20 years). There tend to be more goals earlier in the season as teams build into their formational discipline and go for games and three points more often, but many of the teams competing for the Top 4 must be worried about their leaky defenses.

5. The Merchant of North London: Arsene Wenger has been famed for his miserly ways for some time now, only amplified this summer as he refused to fill two obvious holes in the team (at DM and CB -- as I’ve written about extensively over the past month). It was thus rather troubling to learn that Arsenal have 177 million pounds in cash reserves at present. Couldn’t 30 or 40 million of that have been spent on filling those voids, strengthening their chances of winning the title as he nears an almost inevitable departure in the next three years or so? Only Wenger will understand why it didn’t happen and we can only hope the necessary reinforcements are brought in in January.

The Gunners are back at it Tuesday, in a Capital One Cup game with Southampton where one assumes the youngsters will get a chance to shine. Then comes the critical North London derby against Tottenham at the Emirates, with Tottenham sitting only two points behind the Gunners, followed by a key home UCL match against Galatasaray and then a trip to Stamford Bridge four days later before a rematch with Hull City. It is a tough couple of weeks for the Gunners, but could put them right into the heart of the title race and in a more comfortable spot in the Champions League Group. COYG!

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