Arsenal cruised past Newcastle 3-0 at the Emirates yesterday, moving 3 points from guaranteeing fourth place and Champions League football for the 17th year in a row. It was a relatively routine victory against a team sputtering toward the end of their season, and possibly manager Alan Pardew’s tenure with the club (only two years after signing an eight-year contract). The scoring started in the 26th minute, when a Santi Cazorla free kick was pounded in from close range by Koscielny. Ozil scored himself in the 42nd minute, after two Giroud shots were parried by Newcastle goalkeeper Krul, the second right into the path of the German international who made no mistake, slotting it between the legs of a Newcastle defender. And the scoring concluded in the 66th minute when Giroud pounded in a header from an excellent Ozil cross. It was an impressive victory, reminding of the Gunners who have led the league for longer than any other team in the top four … and also reminding fans not to celebrate that fourth place too much, given our very real chance to win the league heading into February.
1) Ozil: When Ozil is given time to roam and sufficient rest, he is still the extraordinary player who has more assists than anyone in Europe over the past few seasons. Even missing 12 of our 36 games in the league so far, Ozil leads the Gunners in chances created (nearing 70) and assists (9). His lack of goals (he still chipped in 5 in the league and 7 overall) really fits a career where he is more often the distributor than the scorer (though he does seem more prolific with the German national team). And he can’t finish the chances he creates. Looking at his season, it is easy to see the problems that emerged in the new year – last year Mourinho tended to take him out after 70 minutes, not pushing him late into game and he was given more rest. But Wenger seemed to feel he needed to get every minute out of his most expensive signing, even making him take a part in an early Capital One Cup game. Better man management will ensure that we get the most of him next year, together with more pace for his ability to send in through balls (Walcott will help, but we also need a faster striker in the middle).
2) Ramsey/Ozil: Ozil also clearly benefits from the inclusion of Ramsey in the team – I would argue for two reasons: a) when both players are in, teams cannot focus exclusively on either (particularly given Cazorla’s skill (though in short supply Monday) and Podolski’s finishing ability. It was the Ramsey injury that foreshadowed the decline in Ozil’s performance and productivity and one can certainly argue that injury had a lot to do with the late decline. Yes Ozil missed a key penalty against Bayern, but Arsenal were not going to win the UCL this year anyway. b) Ramsey’s work rate improves the Gunners across the board, from his ability to get back defensively, to his constant movement, to his scoring threat this season – opening up the pitch for more creative play and faster counters.
3) Regrets, We Have a Few: if Arsenal do qualify for the UCL and win the FA Cup, all signs point to Wenger resigning for another two or three years. As anyone who reads my posts knows, this makes me unhappy. But can Wenger finally learn from his years of mistakes and fix things for the coming season? Here are a few things he must do if we are to make a real challenge for the title next term:
a) Sign two strikers and let Giroud go: I love the Frenchman’s workrate, passion and talent in the air, but I just don’t think we can win with him. If we do keep him, he should play against mid to lower-tier teams in the league and in the cups, as his production goes way down against the top teams. The main problem for me is he tends to make us predictable and one dimensional and the top teams can play a narrow back line (as Chelsea did against us, and then Liverpool last weekend), essentially reducing our chance to score. People forget that he had a good chance to tie the game against City, before the two quick counters that put the game out of reach. He simply misses too many chances to be at a team like Arsenal (even with his impressive overall tally of 21, his 15 in the league are just insufficient as our only viable starting centre forward).
b) Replace Arteta: the Spaniard has been one of the better signings from the crazy end of summer spree two seasons ago, but age appears to be catching up with him (he is now 33). He was never really a DM and we appear to be a better, more solid, team when Flamini is playing in that position. I would suggest signing Lars Bender or someone else in that vein to shore up the midfield and allow us to attack without fear of conceding so many goals on the counter – particularly against the top teams in key away matches
c) Tactical Flexibility: Mourinho might be getting considerable criticism for parking the bus against Atletico in the first leg last week and maybe two buses against Liverpool Sunday, but the reality is he wins with consistency and has two Champions League trophies to Wenger’s zero and substantially more silverware over the course of his career (though this is not a tough feat against Le Professeur over the past 9 years). I’m not a huge fan of this tactic, which tends to make games dull, but a simple review of the data on Liverpool during this run would say to play a more defensive first half at Anfield. If Wenger had instructed his team to do so – lest us forget they had the best defensive record in the EPL in 2013 – they may have withstood the early barrage and gotten into the game. The exact same thing can be said of the away games against City and Chelsea and his unwillingness to use this strategy in big games is baffling to say the least. In fact, it was that more defensive stance that helped them beat Tottenham thrice and Liverpool twice, counting the FA Cup victories. The greatest tactical change I’ve seen Wenger make in recent years was the purely offensive setup he employed in the second leg against AC Milan a few years ago, that almost erased a four goal first leg deficit. Maybe he needs to bring in another voice to improve the overall tactics now that Bould has had a positive effect defensively, in general.
d) Review of Training Regime: Wenger might have been reading some of the criticism emerging out of England in recent months, as he claims he will review his training techniques after leading the EPL in injury time out for at least the third year running. This was not the only thing that cost us the title (record against the top 7 and three late draws all contributed to the collapse) but it played a key role, as we can see when Ozil and Ramsey are on the pitch together.
e) Strengthen the Squad Depth Overall: our top players need more rest throughout the course of the season, to allow them to perform in the key months of February and March, when Arsenal seem to collapse almost every year. This requires better reserve players who can step in and contribute. If everyone is healthy next year, we have a decent midfield minus a defensive-minded player like Bender – but we could use another central defender, a world class striker and a winger with pace and good crossing ability. Maybe some of our most impressive reserves can move up next season, but this has also been rare in recent years. Wenger has considerable money at his disposal, let’s hope he spends it, spends it well, and spends it early – to ensure late summer misses don’t leave us short in key positions.
Beyond Arsenal, we have the second legs of the UCL semis this week and Real Madrid put on a show for the ages today, crushing Bayern at home 4-0. It was a dominant performance, where they were rock solid in the box, pushed up high and were deadly on the counter. Chelsea take on Atletico tomorrow and one assumes Mourinho will play a more open style to try to take the lead, though he has to watch out for the deadly away goal. Real look like the favorites against either team, but it would pit one of the two best defenses in Europe against a team that appears to have more offensive fire power than anyone else at the moment. And in one of the great ironies of derby football, Liverpool fans will have to root for hated rival Everton to at least draw against Man City this weekend if they are to have a realistic chance of reclaiming the title left in the ashes of a Gerrard error for the ages.