Sunday, February 01, 2015

Three Things: Arsenal vs. Aston Villa

Arsenal played in the early game Sunday against an Aston Villa team lingering near the heel of the table; having scored only 11 goals all season, though they do had the best defense outside the top four. Had is the instrumental word though, as that defense looked less than convincing in the first quarter of the game, as three players found themselves one on one with goalkeeper Brad Guzan. Giroud was the one to take his chance in the 8th minute, scoring his fifth in his last six games, after Walcott and Ramsey had spurned theirs earlier. The Giroud goal was assisted by a lovely clip heel lofted pass from Ozil in his first start since October 5, looking very much like the star he was at Real throughout. From there, Arsenal continued to dominate even as Villa settled into the game. Giroud spurned a second chance from 8 yards out, choosing a cute pass over a rather simple finish. Koscielny almost headed a corner in a few minutes later and then Cazorla took a pass from Giroud and charged forward, hitting the post in the 26th minute (though a last pass to Ozil would have led to a simple tap in). Ozil put it in the back of the net in the 30th minute, after a nice exchange with Cazorla, but a tight offsides on Cazorla cost them that second goal.
Arsenal were thus dominating, but still only up one nil when Ramsey almost scored from the top of the box in the 35th minute but for a decent Guzan save at the near post. In the 41st minute, Villa came close to equalizing, and ending their almost 9½ hours of league play without a goal, only kept out by a lack of power on the header and a nice save from Ospina. On a quick replay, Walcott missed another good chance, being caught from behind for a second time just outside the box with a clear pathway to the goal. And that is how the half ended, with Arsenal appearing to be four or five nil up, but in fact only leading by the early Giroud goal.

And 30 seconds into the second half, Benteke came within a couple feet of equalizing, after a nice exchange of passes by the Villains, and probably should have done better. Five minutes later, the Belgian had a free header that he sent horribly wide, after Mertesacker allowed the cross to come in unchallenged. Two good chances scorned and in the 56th minute they were made to pay for their continued profligacy, as Giroud and Ozil switched places, with the Frenchman sending a pitch perfect pass beyond the charging Villa defenders and to the German, who slotted the ball well past Guzan and into the far corner of the goal. In the 63rd minute, Theo Walcott finally finished a chance for his 50th EPL goal, after an excellent leading pass from Cazorla and first touch to complete yet another counter. Arsenal were suddenly up 3-0 and cruising. In the 70th minute, Chuka Akpom and Rosicky came on for Giroud and Walcott and less than four minutes later, Akpom used his pace to beat Guzan to the ball and earn a penalty. Cazorla was lucky to convert it after he hit Guzan’s hand, but the Gunners were up 4-0. That makes six in seven for Cazorla, with five coming from the spot as he supplants the injured Arteta as the primary penalty taker for Arsenal. In the 77th minute, Flamini came on for Ramsey, reminding that the Gunners could probably use another DM. Akpom could have scored on a free header in the 85th minute, after Mertesacker sent in a nice cross after retrieving the scraps of a corner and was sent in again early in extra time, though a second weak shot cost him. Bellerin didn’t miss his chance to score his first senior goal a minute later, sending the ball perfectly into the far corner in the 92nd goal. As time ran out, Villa almost scored their first in six, but Ospina saved at his far post and Arsenal had finished the job 5-0.

1. Villa’s Shambolic Defending/Arsenal Rousing Attack: Arsenal could, and probably should, have scored three goals in the first ten minutes of the game and four or five by halftime, but for the rustiness of Theo Walcott and the still wanting quality of Ramsey’s finishing this season; together with Giroud missing two chances, Koscielny having a header cleared on the line, a goal disallowed for a marginal offsides and a series of other near misses. Ramsey does have six goals in all competitions, but compared to the 17 from 2013-14, it appears he is too hungry to find the form that made him one of the best midfielders in the EPL before his injury last term, rushing shots, being too ambitious and missing open players. For Walcott, a slight drop in pace and confidence after a year out injured allowed Villain defenders to catch him on two occasions, but he finished the second half chance for his second in two games. But it was an impressive offensive display throughout, rewarded more in the second half obviously, but it is worth noting that this was done with Sanchez out injured with a slight hamstring problem. Ozil, in particular, should be highlighted for his impressive display throughout, leading the counter, putting the ball in the goal twice (though one didn’t count) and assisting the opener. On the other end, Villa will be concerned at how easily the Gunners went from front to back and cut apart their defense throughout the game, with at least six through balls along with all the other attacking verve, hoping to avoid the drop.

2. Coquelin Continues to Impress: Whenever Coquelin is anywhere near an opponent with the ball, he challenges that player for it. That is the role of a DM, but what is even more impressive about the young Frenchman is how often he disrupts the play, executes a perfect tackle and/or steals the ball and how infrequently he fouls in the process. It is an impressive revival for a player many of us Gooners thought we would never see play for Arsenal again, coupled with a poise on the ball and ability to push the play forward with solid passing that he didn’t exhibit before. Coquelin appears to have become the key to the entire Gunner defense in the past few weeks and might well be the difference between yet another top four finish and missing out on the Champions League for the first time under Wenger. Along with Coquelin, another young player quietly impressing for the Gunners is the right back Spaniard Bellerin, who defends better than Chambers, has a better range of passing and a better cross – as well as a decent shot (it appears!). The two are at the center of the veritable renaissance of a defense that was shipping two goals a game earlier in the season but none in the last three league games.

3. Mertesacker Malaise: there was a noticeable improvement in Per Mertesacker’s game in the first half, as he fights to keep the young hungry Brazilian Paulista from supplanting him in the starting lineup, but some less impressive defending during parts of the second might fuel speculation he will soon be taking up a place on the bench. Alongside him on the proverbial bench, should be the entire Villa offense, which has now gone over 10 hours (and 6 full games) without scoring a goal, with Benteke appearing to be a shell of the fierce presence in the box he was last season. Villa have now set a team record for futility and must be wondering where their next goal will come from and whether Paul Lambert is the right man to lead this team through the tight relegation battle they appear poised to face.

The win pushed the Gunners back into fifth place, tied with Southampton on points (though the Saints have a game in hand) and only one point behind United (with a better goal differential). They have now taken 19 of their last 24 available points heading into the North London derby at a hot Tottenham next weekend while Aston Villa head home to face Chelsea as they teeter just two points above the relegation zone.

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