Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Arsenal Beat Dortmund 2-0: Through to Last 16

Arsenal largely dominated their game against Manchester United last weekend and lost 2-1. They did so again today and won 2-0. Sometimes the world of football is cruel – win ugly and you are “in good form,” lose a game because of some bad luck and you are “in crisis.” The victory today restored some faith that this team can compete and win, but should be kept in context; particularly as Dortmund already progressed to the knockout stage, have been in terrible form and seemed pretty jaded after blowing a two-goal lead last weekend. On the other hand, the Gunners showed some mettle today that has largely been missing from their game and in the process progressed to the Final 16 themselves, while gaining the chance to win the group.

Arsenal started the scoring after only 73 seconds, getting a goal from the most unlikely of sources. Yaya Sanogo, who had gone 18 months and 19 appearances without scoring a competitive goal, finally opened his account with a nice finish from close range after an excellent one-two with Santi Cazorla. Arsenal thus had the early lead they so craved and kept the pressure on Dortmund, while largely keeping disciplined at the back. Arteta put in another strong performance, after a quality start against United Saturday, and Monreal played his best game through the middle so far. Chambers was also above average, though it was Gibbs that was the real hero, getting back to stop the Dortmund attack on several occasions spread across the game.

With the result still in the balance, Cazorla sent a beautiful pass across the field toward a charging Sanchez, who skirted across from the right before sending a perfect angled shot into the far corner (57’). It was his 13th goal in 20 games for the team this year, reminding us that Wenger did do some good business this summer. Arsenal then settled into a more defensive formation (finally!) and held out until the end. It was an impressive victory that should serve the team well as they settle into a patch of very winnable games. Three thoughts on the game …

1. Wilshere Conundrum: early tests on the ankle injury Wilshere suffered on Saturday appear to indicate a three-month stay on the sideline. Many Arsenal fans will throw up their hands in horror, but I think it might be good news but for the timing (with Ozil still out and the busy holiday season coming up). The reason? While the British press is often impressed with the diminutive star, I find that the Gunners often play better when he is not on the pitch. He has the talent to succeed, but spurns too many chances, loses the ball in dangerous positions, loses his head at key moments and dives like Ronaldo early in his career. It was clear again today that the Gunners passing was smoother and more direct without Wilshere in the lineup.
2. Ox Rocks: the positive story of the year so far is clearly the finishing and work rate of Alexis Sanchez, who is the only starter who is scoring with any regularity. But the less reported story is the reemergence of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as one of the most technically-gifted players in the entire league. While his best play of the day, a shot from just outside the box, clanged off the bar, his passing, movement and first touch were absolutely first-rate and provide further proof that he deserves a place in the starting lineup. When Walcott, Ozil, Wilshere are healthy again, he will obviously struggle for time on the pitch, but he shouldn’t, if the past few games are any indicator. Speaking of Cazorla, he still hasn’t scored in ages, but played a great game with two assists that reminded of the player he was when he first came to the team a little over two years ago (even playing defense). His form, along with Ramsey’s, will be key to the December.

3. Injury Woes Continue: after the results over the past several weeks, I hate to take away from the glow of a great win. But two more injury concerns have emerged, to go with the “bad” news on Wilshere. The first is Arteta, who was playing a great game before going off late with a thigh injury that Wenger says could be serious. The other was Sanogo, who put in a good shift after the early goal (though he flubbed a great chance to make it two a few minutes after the goal), before limping off late with a hamstring problem. The rather obvious question is why the Gunners are suffering through so many injuries from year to year? Is it a flawed training regime? Coming back from injuries too quickly? Overworking players? Or really bad luck continuing over a long period of time? As to the last possibility, Napoleon once said, “luck is the residue of design.” And there is clearly something wrong with the way the Gunners are designing their training and treatment – even after changing their head trainer.

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