Sunday, October 18, 2015

Three Things: Arsenal Win at Watford 3-0

Players sometimes come back from international breaks flat, but the Gunners had seven who scored a combined 11 goals for their countries during the most recent fortnight. On the back of the 3-0 win over United right before the break, one assumed this would be a rather straightforward win for Arsenal. Watford had different ideas, however, and Arsenal struggled to break through a defense that was using their size, physicality and a high press to disrupt the usual flow of passing that makes the Gunner’s engine purr. The half ended 0-0, with Watford having a couple of decent chances to take the lead, though Aaron Ramsey could have easily scored two himself. After a more open first 15 minutes of the second half, Arsenal finally opened the scoring in the 62nd minute, when Ozil fed Sanchez just as he appeared to be downed from behind in the box. Sanchez, who has scored 10 in his last six for club and country, finished smartly high above the keeper at the near post. Giroud then replaced Walcott and, after a strong spell of creative football from the Gunners, received a lovely cutback from Ozil at the byline and finished coolly into the roof of the net. Ramsey scored a few minutes later to seal the victory and Arsenal held on for a second clean sheet in a row. Three thoughts on the game:

1. Ramsey Finally Scores: Ramsey had three chances to score in the first half, the most egregious being a missed tap in from three yards out after a lovely lofted 30-yard cross from Sanchez. But in the 73rd minute, a fine run and dribble by Bellerin ended with the Spaniard finding Ramsey in the center of the box, his partially blocked shot dribbled into the net. It was his first goal in 12 league games and ended a slump that saw him miss far too many chances, even as he was robbed of a legal goal against Liverpool. Ramsey could be crucial as the season continues, as Sanchez cannot keep up this scoring pace for the next 29 games, plus all the Champions League, FA Cup and Capital One Cup ties. Ramsey was among the best midfielders in Europe a few years back, before an injury sidelined him for a long spell. He has chipped in important goals since his return, including an essential one to help end the trophy drought in 2014, but he does not dominate games the way he did in the fall of 2013. This goal will hopefully be the start of a purple patch for the Wales captain, who did add a goal for his country in their final qualifying game last week. The same is true of Giroud and Walcott, who have combined well over the past couple of months, with the Frenchman impressing with his ability to come in late and still score important goals. Staying relatively injury-free will be important, but the Gunners resolve is starting to reap rewards and a hot Ramsey could keep the momentum going.

2. Putting It All Together: Arsenal have the most points in the league this calendar year, the second time this has occurred in the last three years. Yet there are no trophies for calendar year tallies and the inability to put together 38 games of consistency across a season has cost them often over the past decade. Added to this, Arsenal continue to be one of the best road teams in the league, having lost only one of their last 11 away from the Emirates, the only blemish the official-assisted loss at Stamford Bridge last month. With their recent record and a stouter defense, can this be the season the Gunners finally put it together and recapture the league title that has eluded them since the Invincibles? It is too early to say, but even with a few slipups so far, they are a mere two points behind City and have a decent run of fixtures to possibly supplant the high scoring but inconsistent “noisy neighbors” of Manchester. This appears to be shaping up as the most open title chase in some time, with Chelsea still 11 points behind the leaders, United and Arsenal just two points behind City and a host of upstarts including Leicester and West Ham right in front of Tottenham and Liverpool. The Gunners will have to continue to improve their record against their closest rivals and avoid the slumps that have cost them dearly over the long stretch without a league title. This calendar year has certainly seen them make great strides forward and it could be that Wenger proves all the pundits wrong and wins with a team that a lot of people, including me, believed still needed a little more star power.

3. Ozil’s Quiet Genius: Ozil has been criticized for most of his time with the Gunners and some of it is clearly merited. But too many pundits and critics fail to consider the number of chances he produces from one game to the next, his improved ability to hold up the ball and even play an admittedly minor role on the defensive side of the pitch. Today, he contributed assists for the first two goals, and could have had two or three more if other players finished the chances he created. He has vision like few who have ever played the game and though many would like to see him score more goals, it is his ability to find the open man that makes him unique. He now has six assists and a goal in 8 league games played and added two assists for his country in their 2-1 win six days ago. Ozil will never be a top scorer, but that is really besides the point of his game. He is great on the counter, can place a ball on a dime, is excellent at picking out players making runs into the box and rarely gives up the ball any longer; a problem when he first came to England. If Arsenal do go on to win the league, Sanchez will probably be given the most plaudits, but it is really Ozil that makes the Gunners offense run. And it should be noted that his arrival has seen them win two FA Cups in a row, along with two Community Shields, after their trophy drought stretched to 10 long seasons. He consistently has the most key passes and creates the most chances of any player in the league. Maybe it is time to acknowledge how much he has improved the team?

A critical two-week stretch is up next for the Gunners, including home and away Champions League fixtures against Bayern Munich, a visit from Everton, a Capital One Cup road game against Sheffield United and a trip to Swansea. If they can get through that stretch in good form, a winnable run of fixtures emerges that includes a visit from hated North London rivals Tottenham before they host Man City four days before Christmas. Meanwhile, Watford continue to impress as a newly promoted team, sitting in 14th place on 10 points, though they do need to start scoring goals at home. They appear on target to stay up, though they will need to pick up some points in the coming weeks before a brutal stretch when they play Liverpool (H), Chelsea (A), Tottenham (H), Man City (H) and Southampton (A) in succession between December 20 and January 13. 

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