Monday, August 17, 2015

Arsenal Beat Crystal Palace 2-1 Yet Again

Arsenal got off to a bright start in their game at Crystal Palace today. They had three quality chances to score within the first 12 minutes and finally made the pressure pay off in the 16th, when a cross from Ozil was well met by Giroud, who acrobatically buried it just beyond the reach of the Palace keeper. Arsenal could have been out of reach soon after, but a couple more missed opportunities followed, with Sanchez guilty of at least two in the first 20 minutes. Then, even as Arsenal continued to dominate, Crystal suddenly made something out of nothing, with the right back Ward sending a pitch perfect shot into the far corner, just passed the outstretched arms of Petr Cech, who maybe could have done better (beaten for the third time in two games). Arsenal were dominating possession, had more shots, and were nonetheless even. As the first half wore on, Crystal started to shape into the game and had spells of possession themselves, with a couple of opportunities to take the lead.

The second half started with Crystal in the ascendancy, as a Zaha cross found Wickham yards from the goal. Instead of finishing off the chance, he hit the inside of the bar and it rebounded out. Ozil then showed some incredible ball skill, saving a long kick from Cech at the line and then earning a free kick. Arsenal had that and two corners in quick succession but were unable to make them count, with yet another Ramsey shot blocked soon after, in the 54th minute. In the 56th minute, the pressure finally paid off when Ramsey sent the ball wide to Bellerin, who crossed to the far post where the diminutive Alexis Sanchez made up for some earlier misses by rising above the Crystal defender and heading it home (off Delaney, who was awarded the own goal even as I think the ball would have buried itself in the opposite corner if he hadn’t intervened).  On 61 minutes, Coquelin committed a third bookable challenge of the game, lucky not to be sent off after Pardew thought he should have been right before halftime (and had a point, really). Wenger did the wise thing and replaced him two minutes later, though surprisingly with Oxlade-Chamberlain rather than Arteta.

The game was back and forth in the final 20 minutes, as Ox was set on goal, before a fine last second block from Delaney ended the threat. Then Crystal were forward and had two good chances to score within a couple of minutes, as Cech again struggled with getting to a cross and Wickham shooting just wide with an inexplicable wide open shot from about 14 yards out. In the 75th minute, Arteta came on for Sanchez, making his first appearance since last November. In the 80th minute, Patrick Bamford came on, yet another Chelsea player out on loan with a rival. After several minutes of giving the ball away needlessly with too ambitious passes, Arsenal settled and began dominating possession again. Gibbs came on for Ozil, who had a fine game with his slick passing and retention of possession throughout, in the 83rd minute and a minute later an Arteta free kick toward Giroud could have easily led to a penalty, with Giroud clearly pushed in the back by Delaney inside the box. With four minutes left, Crystal earned a corner they didn’t deserve (rather obviously), after some indecision from the sideline official. They almost scored from that corner, but for Morrison not realizing the ball was about to hit him in the head. Cech then kicked the ball straight out of bounds, further troubling Arsenal fans who can’t help but notice his shakiness for a second game running (after a fine performance against his old team in the Community Shield). Crystal had another corner and this time Cech was perfectly positioned to catch a free header and Arsenal were soon on the counter again, though a fine save stopped them from collecting a third. Ramsey gave away the resulting corner yet again, for arguably the 15th or 20th time in the game, giving Crystal a final chance to search out an equalizer. Yet Arsenal held on for the 2-1 victory, ultimately barging 59 percent of possession and launching 20 shots (with 7 on target, to Crystal’s 11 and 4). Some thoughts:

1.     Ramsey and Sanchez: the EPL in the early going of the season is being dominated by counterattacking football, with visitors winning or drawing more games than one would expect statistically, And when a team is sitting deep waiting for the opportunity to get forward, it’s important not to give the ball away in dangerous areas. Ramsey and Sanchez both do so far too often, and even as they were both part of the second Arsenal goal, they need to improve their decision-making as they were lucky not to be punished for their carelessness. Ramsey played some decent football, but gave the ball away with too ambitious passes or carelessness rather frequently. And Sanchez was not much better, missing at least five chances to score while playing his high-octane football without much bite – until the all-important second goal. In the seventh minute he was set in on goal by Ozil but took one touch too many and got caught from behind, killing a great chance to take the lead. This continued throughout the game with both his crosses and shots blocked over and over again. More infuriating was Ramsey, who had a couple chances to take shots and instead tried to get cute with an extra pass, the Arsenal curse of a few years ago that we can hope is not repeated, trying to pass the ball into the net. Ramsey also had a good chance to seal it from an Ozil pass in the 68th minute, but sent it over, before needlessly giving the ball away several more times as Arsenal tried to hold onto the lead. Sanchez was still among the best players on the pitch, but Ramsey seems to have picked back up some of his bad habits from a few years ago, and should maybe be benched for a game or two to pressure him into improving his performance.
2.     Pardew and Crystal: Pardew has rejuvenated a team that was struggling last term and followed that up with a winner in the opener. Maybe more impressive than the points haul is the way the team plays, an attractive brand of counterattacking football based on bursts of speed and clever passing exchanges. He has built a quality team that should be in the mid table again this year, or maybe a little better depending on the performance of teams like Southampton, Tottenham and Stoke.  Cabaye has clearly improved them across the midfield and they have impressive wingers in an improved Zaha and dangerous Bolasie.
3.     Cech and the Defense: Arsenal’s run from Christmas through April last year was largely the result of playing stronger defensive football and relatively solid goalkeeping from Ospina. That pecuniary nature has not been evident so far this season, with the Gunners conceding three goals in two games, with Cech arguably guilty on all of them, seeming a little slow to react to shots and crosses at the moment. But the bigger issue is the way Crystal Palace got forward on Arsenal so often, getting into dangerous positions and almost taking the lead. It is early going and one shouldn’t read too much into the rustiness of Cech, the defense or even Ramsey and Sanchez, but the quality of opponent will be improving in the coming weeks and that shift will have to accelerate if they are not to repeat the failure of the past.
4.     Wenger Selection Woes: Arsenal started the game as they had the end of last year, with Cazorla playing deeper alongside Coquelin. And it was an effective strategy that kept Arsenal charging forward throughout the game. The head scratcher in this one was why Ox didn’t start, after being the solitary shining light in their terrible 2-0 loss to West Ham last week. Wenger has a lot of options off the bench, but will have to find his best 11 in the coming weeks and try to find reasonable playing time for Walcott and Ox going forward. He seems to have realized his mistake from Week 1, though, returning Cazorla to his best position. A real concern might be the recklessness of Coquelin and the decline in form of Ramsey going back to the end of last season.

Next up for Arsenal is a home game against Liverpool a week Monday while Crystal Palace host the reeling Aston Villa on Saturday.

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