Saturday, September 26, 2015

Arsenal Put Five Past Leicester in Stirring Game

An extraordinary beginning to the match between Leicester City and Arsenal today saw the home team hit the post twice, force a wonder save from Cech and score a goal while a fine save on the other end stopped Cazorla giving the Gunners an early lead, all in the first 15 minutes. The hot James Vardy was the one to put it in the net on 13 minutes, after a tackle on Aaron Ramsey in the opposite box led to a two-on-one counter that the hot striker finished coolly across goal. Per Mertesacker, back in after Gabriel’s three-game suspension became a no-game suspension became a one-game suspension, was partially to blame – though one can’t control their lack of pace – as was Koscielny, who stayed put rather than addressing the more immediate danger of Vardy. Arsenal sought to equalize almost immediately, though a heavy touch from Walcott from a fine Ozil pass led to an innocuous corner, as most are when Walcott plays through the middle. On 17 minutes, Walcott atoned for missing that earlier half chance, and two tame shots from Cazorla, by finishing Cazorla’s lovely through ball to the far corner. It was 1-1 before 20 minutes had passed and looked to be a game with a lot more goals in it.

Flamini, getting his first league start in a year after his two-strike performance midweek against Tottenham in the Capital One Cup victory, lasted a mere twenty minutes before heading to the bench with a hamstring injury, replaced by Arteta. One could see the real loss though, which was Coquelin, as Leicester were running rampant through the Arsenal defense and created chance after chance. It is an extraordinary accomplishment what Claude Ranieri has done with a team that includes two ex-EPL players, in Huth and Albrighton, Arsenal got on the counter themselves in the 28th minute with another great pass from Ozil getting Walcott free coming in from the left side. He decided to lay it back for Ramsey, who for the second time in the game, meandered on the ball a moment too long and had his shot blocked. Sanchez, however, was having another bad day at the park, at one point giving the ball up after a good spell of possession and not even trying to get it back. He even looked slower to three balls in the first half. Something appeared wrong with the Chilean after winning the Copa de America, then, just when I was writing this, Arsenal again got forward after a fine last second intervention from Koscielny at the top of the box stopped another Leicester move. The ball came out to Bellerin after a wonderful touch pass from Ramsey. Bellerin squared the ball and then sent a low cross right into the path of Walcott. A Leicester City defender was able to beat the Englishman to the ball, but his attempted clearance fell kindly to Sanchez, who was able to easily score with the goal gaping. In a back and forth affair, Arsenal were up 2-1 on 34 minutes, doing a good job of cutting into their second worst finishing rate in the league.

Goals were, in fact, flying in across the league on Saturday, with Tottenham pulling off a surprising 4-1 comeback over the suddenly reeling Man City, Liverpool, Stoke and Southampton all scoring in the first half of their games and West Ham and Norwich already at 1-1 early. Only Manchester United and Sunderland were still scoreless, with United having a chance, with a win, to taste first place for the first time since winning the title three seasons ago. A penalty appeal on Mertesacker in the 36th minute, looked close, but was not given and then Leicester had another free kick in the 38th, though it was ultimately claimed by Cech, again looking back to his best after the nightmare opener back in August. Cazorla shot for a third time in the first half on 39 minutes just missing the far corner. With Sanchez off the snide, we might wonder how Cazorla has somehow failed to score this season with so many shots on goal. Ozil almost sent Walcott free on goal again in the 42nd minute, though Theo cut into the charging defenders and the chance was lost. A minute later Arteta gave Leicester another free kick, after a foul on the impressive Mahrez, who seemed to be everyway in this game, showing a skill set that appears among the best in the league this season. Morgan almost met Albrighton’s great dipping free kick moments later, but luckily for the Gunners, it was just past his reach and fell out of bounds. A foul on Sanchez was missed on the other side as one of the most back and forth games in the league continued to provide chances for each side. Mahrez sent it across goal on the other side as the two headed into two minutes of extra time, just wide of the far post, though Cech might have had it covered. After a great defensive intervention by Sanchez, the half ended. Just as Arsenal and Leicester were heading to their respective locker rooms, a great touch cross in close from Mata set up Memphis Depay for the opening goal to give United a 1-0 halftime lead.

Arsenal were in the lead heading into the second half, but must have felt another score might be necessary to hold off a Leicester City team that has scored a lot of late goals in remaining the only undefeated team in the league after six games (and twice as many as the Gunners overall). The lack of pace of Mertesacker, in particular, would be of major concern, along with the absence of Coquelin. The second half started with the Gunners in the ascendancy though, with a fine cut back floater from Ramsey almost finding Sanchez at the far post. Sanchez almost got a free shot on goal from eight yards out a minute later, though he meandered on the ball a second too long and had a good chance blocked.

Mertesacker looked a little shaky again on 50 minutes, sending a dangerous ball to Bellerin under pressure inside his own box, though the attack came to nothing. Another Sanchez shot, after nice holdup play by Walcott, was blocked slightly over the bar for a Gunners corner. Vardy almost got out on the counter again, but took too long to decide and was disposed in the Arsenal box. It was still back and forth as the game moved toward 55 minutes, as a decent cross from Walcott found Sanchez for a header that was blocked for another corner. After a weak shot from Leicester, Arsenal got out quickly, Sanchez sent it across to Ozil who lofted it perfectly into a charging Sanchez. The Chilean rose high to meet the ball ahead of the Leicester keeper for a 3-1 lead. Now it was just a question of holding on against the cardiac kids of the Premiership so far this season.

Wenger was feeling good on the sideline, with Sanchez on the brace and the team having scored five goals in the past four days after a veritable drought to start the season. Bellerin got down the right with some excellent dribbling and got it across to an open Walcott, 10 yards out, though he scuffed his shot. A great passing attack a minute later saw Walcott get off a shot again, though his curling shot was too high. Walcott was playing well, though his shot selection still left something to be desired. Ozil was almost set free on goal by Monreal and the game still looked like it had a goal or two more in it. Arsenal were more solid at the back, though, and Leicester were having a hard time producing quality chances as Arsenal flowed forward with intent. Ozil had a shot at the far post after a great step over from Sanchez, but again waited too long for the shot and only garnered another corner. Arsenal were playing some of their best football of the year going forward, passing quickly and finding holes in the defense. It might remind Wenger, that this might be a better team occasionally absorbing some pressure to allow their blistering counterattack to open up. Walcott cut across goal from the right and then took a shot right at the keeper rather than passing off to a charging Sanchez, suddenly looking like his old self. Sometimes a goal after a slump can make all the difference, and that seemed to be the case with the Chilean, who had started the season really flat.

Mikel Arteta earned the first yellow of the game in the 68th minute, for a rather egregious handball at midfield.  Walcott again showed some skill in holding the ball up in one of his best performances through the center of his career, with Sanchez just missing him with a slightly overweighted return ball after a wonderful layoff by the English international. Arsenal appeared to shift tactics, attempting to control the game by passing around a clearly tiring Leicester City and it was working to good effect, with the highflying Leicester attack suddenly grounded. Meanwhile, I could not help but notice that Brendan Rodgers must be having heart palpitations as their 3-1 lead was cut into again by Aston Villa. One more goal could be the end of Rodgers stay at the iconic but struggling side. In a strange turn of events, Wenger brought on Ox for Ramsey in the 77th minute, choosing a more offensive player to replace the more versatile Welshman. Bellerin’s speed impressed a moment later, not only beating Vardy to the ball, but earning a goal kick in the end. Drinkwater was replaced a minute later by Kramaric after another good shift and then Giroud came on for Walcott in the 80th minute.

Within seconds, Sanchez received a throw in and then shot from 25 yards out past Schmeichel at the near corner to complete his hat trick and give the Gunners what one assumed was an unassailable three-goal lead with less than 10 minutes left on the clock. Cech saved well from Vardy one-on-one with the keeper on 83 minutes as one had to wonder how Arsenal could let any Leicester play get in behind them up 4-1. Cech was called on again to save really well from Mahrez keeping that three-goal lead moments later. Ulloa had a chance at the near corner, Mertesacker intervening to force a corner. Then Morgan had a decent header, though wide of the near post. Ox earned a free kick down the right to waste a few more precious seconds before Cech made two more great saves in quick succession. Then the current lead leader in goals in the EPL Vardy (6) finished across goal on 89 minutes to make it 4-2. Not only do Leicester have the top scorer, they have Mahrez tied for second with 5, explaining their strong start to the season. Arsenal were shambolic against the impressive attacking intent of their hosts, though it seemed like time was indeed on their side. On 90 minutes, a great interchange between Bellerin and Cazorla should have been finished by Giroud from a yard out, but he somehow fluffed the easiest chance he will probably ever have. He made up for it three minutes later, as he finished a cross from Monreal that was slightly behind him to make it astounding 5-2. The final whistle came soon after and Arsenal were suddenly a mere three points behind new league leaders Manchester United.

Three Quick Thoughts on the Game
1.   Arsenal Attack Finally Bears Fruit: while Arsenal have been flat in a couple of performances this year, it is finishing that has been at the heart of their early season struggles. Today they finished five chances, even as it could have easily been seven or eight, and finally got Sanchez off the snide that has been growing into a mini slump for our player of the year from last season. The Gunners had five league goals in total this year before doubling the total today, with both Giroud and Walcott scoring in a game for the second time this season. They will need to keep up this finishing going forward, in what is starting to look like a wide open title race.

2. Gabriel vs. Mertesacker: the slumbering German might beat the fiery Gabriel in a fist fight, but there are serious questions now about whether Gabriel should beat Mertesacker into the starting 11. Koscielny was everywhere today after playing a part in the opening Leicester goal, but Mertesacker’s lack of pace was more to blame for the first and he was also nowhere to be seen for the second, abandoning the position he should have held on the left of the box. Based on game performances this season, it appears the faster Brazilian should be starting above Mertesacker at the moment. Whether Wenger is willing to make that change is another issue altogether.

3. Rotating Strikers: I still believe Arsenal could use a striker with the ability to score on his own, but the rotation of Walcott and Giroud might be just what the two need to take their games to the next level. With Walcott in, the Gunners try to get behind defenses, and were able to do that consistently today – helped by the pace of Sanchez on the left and Bellerin overlapping on the right. When Giroud is on the pitch, it is more of a controlled game, with the Frenchman serving as the hub in the middle to either release the players around him in on goal or serve as a target for crosses. It has not worked wonders until today, but does at least provide more flexibility to the Gunner’s attack and a blueprint for a potentially sustainable title challenge going forward.

Looking across the league, the flood of goals continued throughout the afternoon following the five in the early game and the seven by Arsenal and Leicester. Manchester United won 3-0 over bottom dwelling Sunderland, Stoke beat Bournemouth 2-1 (with a huge injury to Bournemouth striker Calum Wilson piling the pressure on the newboys), Liverpool held off Aston Villa 3-2 (saving Rodgers for the moment), Southampton beat the suddenly struggling Swansea 3-1 and West Ham and Norwich played out a 2-2 draw (as the most mercurial team in the league again failed to beat an opponent further down the table at home). In the late game, Chelsea came storming back from 2-0 down to earn a draw at Newcastle, but find themselves eight points adrift of the leaders. The win for Arsenal’s North London rivals was a huge one, by the way, meaning they are only a point behind Arsenal and four behind United. A Gooner could not help but wonder for a moment whether Arsenal should actually be in first place though, having been robbed of two points in their home draw with Liverpool and arguably last weekend against Chelsea (backed by the retroactive three-game ban for Costa and reduction of the Gabriel ban to one game; only for his behavior after the false red). As it stands, they are in fourth behind United, City and West Ham, ahead of them only on goal difference (+6 to +3). Arsenal next face Olympiakos in a must-win Champions League game before hosting United next weekend with a chance to draw even with the leaders.

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