Sunday, November 29, 2015

Three Things: Arsenal Blow Chance to Go Joint Top Again (1-1)

Arsenal travelled to a cold, rainy Norwich City stadium trying to draw even with Man City at the top of the table again, a week after falling to fourth place after the disappointing loss to West Brom. And though Norwich held out firm for the first 30 minutes, with some wonderful saves from John Ruddy, a Sanchez interception led to the opener. After Ruddy passed to John O’Neill following a dangerous back pass, Sanchez jumped the touch and sent a perfectly weighted diagonal through ball to a charging Ozil, who lofted it over a charging Ruddy and into the far corner. Arsenal looked set to build on their lead and win easily, but just before halftime, Gabriel ended up on the wrong side of Grabban, who finished easily past Cech (44’) after an excellent pass. It was his first goal for the club, in his 14th appearance, and was the second league game in a row where the Gunners gave up a first half lead. Against West Brom, it was worse, of course, as they allowed two goals before halftime on the way to a loss that included a missed sitter and a blown penalty.

Just before halftime, Wisdom sent a dangerous cross to the far post that Hoolahan met but sent over, with the mouth of the goal gaping, just missing out on his 50th goal in English football. Norwich’s rugby approach continued in the early going of the second half, with Canaries clattering into Cazorla and Giroud in quick succession without a yellow card to show for their physical approach to the game that included, in the first half, a shove on Sanchez, into the television pit. Arsenal were probing around goal, but without an end product and it was actually Santi Cazorla who garnered the first caution of the game, after a clear dive in the 54th minute. Three minutes later, Gary O’Neill did earn Norwich’s first yellow as Ramsey stormed forward after an interception, leading to an Arsenal free kick that Ozil hit right into the wall. On 70 minutes, a lovely cross almost led to an own goal but for a brilliant save from Petr Cech and Norwich almost made the resulting corner pay with a clip just over the goal. The game was back and forth from here, with the Canaries arguably creating the better chances, but the Gunners had to settle for a draw that felt like two lost points. Three thoughts on the game:

1. Ozil Rising: I suppose I have become one of the biggest supporters/defenders of Mesut Ozil, believing he has been among the best players in the world since he catapulted onto the international stage with his performance at the 2010 World Cup with a young German squad that would, of course, win the competition four years later. After lighting up the Bundesliga with Werner Bremen, he moved onto Real Madrid where he became the key provider to Benzema and Ronaldo. Arsenal signed him two years ago and while he is the recipient of endless criticism from pundits and fans that I do not think really understand the game, Ozil is a genius who is starting to really come into form. He has provided more assists this year than any other player in Europe and is now starting to add goals to his game, including the openers today and on Tuesday in the Champions League.

While he was originally intent on being a provider rather than a finisher, he is suddenly adding that element to his game with clever, sharp runs and taking his shot when it is available. It is exactly what Arsene Wenger was hoping to get out of his record signing and one could make an argument, with the decline of Eden Hazard, Fabergas and Costa this season, the streakiness of Sanchez and the injuries to Silva and Aguero, that he is among the top offensive talents in the league at present, just behind a few strikers and maybe the electric Mahrez. They will need him to continue to contribute every week as they could be without Sanchez for a stretch.

2. Risking Sanchez Could be Costly: before the game there were reports that Sanchez had a hamstring niggle and yet he was still allowed to play the game. One wonders why, though the explanation was that “it was not a good time to rest him.” What the hell that means is beyond me, but it could be yet another costly mistake from a manager that continues to have the worst injury record in the league. On 59 minutes, he pulled up with a clear hamstring injury and could now be out for, one assumes, at least three weeks (if not a lot longer). That comes on the heals of an early injury to Koscielny and the list just keeps getting longer for Arsenal, even as Ramsey was finally back in the fold from the start and Ox came in for the last 20 minutes or so. The only one who will see these mounting injuries as potentially positive news is Joel Campbell, who will now probably have a chance to impress over the coming weeks.

3. Turkey Blues: November has been the worst month for points throughout Wenger’s 19-year reign and it appears to be a trend that is continuing this season. It started with a 5-1 decimation at the hands of Bayern on the fourth, then the disappointing 1-1 draw with Tottenham, a 2-1 loss to lowly West Brom and the draw today. The only win for the Gunners in the five fixtures this month was the 3-0 victory over Zagreb. So, rather than being at the top of the table with some very winnable matches in the next few weeks, the Gunners find themselves in fourth place yet again, two points behind City and Leicester and a point behind a very average United team.
Disappointment does not do justice to the feeling Gooners are feeling today and I wonder if I am not the only one wondering when the hell Wenger is going to retire and allow someone else to take a shot at a title that looks a lot more than three points away at the moment. Norwich fans, on the other hand, must feel a sense of optimism after four points in two games against Swansea and Arsenal and a cushion above the drop zone (though only two points).

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