Monday, October 05, 2015

Three Things: Arsenal Crush United 3-0

Arsenal needed to rebound after their loss at the Emirates to Olympiakos on Tuesday night. They did so with style, blasting three past United in the first 20 minutes and then holding on for a clean sheet and victory that pushed them to second in the league, a mere two points behind Manchester City. It was a comprehensive victory that appeared to show a gulf in quality between the two sides, though one result can certainly be deceiving. Sanchez and Ozil led the way offensively, while Petr Cech reminded Wenger why he should probably be playing in any game of consequence. Three quick thoughts on the game:

1. Arsenal Offense Suddenly Clicking: Arsenal scored all of five goals in their first six league matches, including two home games in which they failed to score. Since that barren spell, they have scored 2, 5, 2 and 3 in their last four, beating three teams near the top of the table, sandwiched with the awful defensive display against Olympiakos. At the center of the deluge of goals has been the resurgence of Sanchez, who has scored six of the last 10 for the Gunners. Ozil was also instrumental yesterday, setting up the first and scoring the second, while moving the ball around well and even chipping in with some defensive interceptions and dispossessions. Yet one should not fail to mention the impressive performance of Theo Walcott in the middle, playing what is arguably the best holdup play and distribution of his entire career. Giroud might find his time on the pitch limited going forward, given Walcott’s scoring record in his last 13 league matches and major improvement in leading from the front. The renaissance of Sanchez, arguably tired from the start of the season after the emotional Chile Copa victory this summer, will be essential if the Gunners are to back up this victory with a sustained title run.

On the defensive front, Petr Cech was impressive throughout, making a great save in the first half one-on-one with Martial, when a goal could have given United a breath of life and then adding three more in a second half dominated by United, as Arsenal sat on their lead. Mertesacker played well for most of the game and Gabriel was solid in his return from the one-game suspension. The pace of Bellerin also showed, as he was able to get back defensively to blunt several United attacks from the left, while the improved performance of Monreal continues to surprise, given the trouble he had in his first season with Arsenal, consistently beaten down the line on the right. At the heart of it all, though, was again Coquelin, one of the strangest stories in recent Arsenal history – a guy that one never expected to see again in a red and white shirt (unless he moved to Ajax) and who then has come back after an injury crisis at the club and consistently played as one of the best defensive midfielders in the league.

2. United Overrated? I think it would be absurd to write off a United team that is tied with Arsenal on points and who had won four on the bounce in all competitions following the disappointing 2-1 loss at PSV in the UCL. On the other hand, they have been less than impressive in most of their games this term. They started the season off with a game against Tottenham they only won because of a Kyle Walker own goal. Then they barely beat Aston Villa on the road 1-0 before a 0-0 draw with an awful Newcastle team. A 2-1 loss to Swansea saw them near crisis mode, before the turnaround began with a comprehensive 3-1 win over Liverpool. The problem for United, as many have argued since LVG took over, appears to be a general lack of creativity and slowness in their buildup play – arguably a result of his regimented approach to tactics and defense-first strategy. He also doesn’t seem to know his best team and is stuck leaving in a Wayne Rooney who is so far off his best I have to draw out old memories, like all the goals against Arsenal in the past, to remember that he really was World Class until very recently.

They have shorn up the defense, even if they did concede three early to this rampant Arsenal side, and had only conceded five other goals in 7 league games. They have also shown more mettle this season, coming back to win their match against Wolfsburg on Wednesday after falling behind 2-1. Yet even with Mata playing some of his best football in some time, there are still questions in attack, with both Martial and Depay impressive talents who still need time to fully develop, Ashley Young up and down (and sometimes playing further back) and Valencia a shell of the player that helped them win the league three seasons ago. United will probably win a number of tight games this season and still have an outside shot at the title, but games like yesterday’s are certainly a wakeup call to LVG and the players that were suddenly believing they were the best in Europe. Tough games at Everton, at home for the Manchester Derby and at a hot Crystal Palace together with an away Champions League tie with CSKA Moscow and a Capital One Cup match against Middlesboro, should tell us a lot more about this team.

3. Could Wenger Proves Us All Wrong? I still think it is unlikely. Arsenal have a tendency to look like champion contenders before a series of bad results disrupts their momentum. However, after a stop and start first two months of the season, the Gunners are in second place and still have a chance in Europe, though a point out of six available in the home and away matches with Bayern might be necessary. The capitulation against Chelsea was disappointing, to say the least, but was down as much to the officials and Gabriel’s being enticed to the red by Costa as to anything Chelsea did with the ball. And they were also robbed of two points against Liverpool. The performance yesterday showed what the team is capable of, though, with blistering speed and quick passing leaving defenses in dust. They also did something I wish Wenger would have them do more, which is press strategically high up the pitch, particularly early in games when opponents are still finding their feet. This was the strategy the great Barcelona teams of the late oughts employed whenever they lost the ball and made it hard for opponents to gain any rhythm. The Gunners have intermittently used this approach over the years and I think they should start doing it more often, even against weaker teams in Europe. The idea of passing the ball around and then hoping for a moment of magic has had mixed results over the beginning of this season and heading back to the last six games of the last. They are a much stronger team on the counter, absorbing some pressure and pressing up the pitch, and should consider that as a way to beat inferior opponents, and not just their closest peers.

Importantly, Wenger might have finally found his best team, with Cech over Ospina in the back (for God’s sake!), Bellerin, Koscielny, Mertesacker/Gabriel and Monreal in the back, Cazorla and Coquelin at the heart of the midfield with Sanchez, Ozil and Ramsey playing right behind Walcott. Ox can come in for Ramsey on the right to give a little more pace, Ramsey can occasionally play in his preferred position in the center when Cazorla needs a rest or is pushed up the pitch and Giroud will get time through the middle. The problems arise if any of a few players suffers a long injury layoff. If Ozil rests, Cazorla, Ramsey or even Wilshere, if he ever actually gets more than three games in before another setback, can play. Giroud and Walcott can share the spot up front and we actually have capable backups at both right and left back and through the middle (though if both Mertesacker and Koscielny go down, Chambers has been less than stellar in that position after a good start last season). The big issue is Coquelin. When he is out, Arteta or Flamini are far inferior substitutes, though Flamini, of course, had a monster of a game against North London rivals Tottenham to lead the Gunners to a 2-1 win at White Hart Lane in the Capital One Cup. The loss of Sanchez would probably be devastating, as he has been at the heart of the recent performances, even as the misfiring Welbeck – once he returns from injury – could certainly fill the spot on the pitch. And for all the malarkey we hear about Ozil, he is essential to the game Arsenal play and has even appeared to take some of the criticism to heart and played with more urgency, even without the ball. He already has a goal and four assists in the league this year (in 7 games), and has created more chances than any other player in Europe.

The most surprising thing, for all the criticism of Wenger, is that he has started to turn around his record against the other top teams in 2015. In January, they did lose at Tottenham 2-1, but then beat Man City at the Etihad, United at Old Trafford (in the FA Cup), Liverpool handily at the Emirates 4-1, then drew with Chelsea and United to finish the season. This year, Wenger finally beat a Mourinho-led Chelsea team in the Community Shield, before the 2-0 loss. They drew with Liverpool at home, though a terribly offsides call contributed heavily to the dropped two points. They beat Tottenham in the Capital One Cup and they just hammered United. It could be better, but certainly an improvement on the record from 20

No comments: