Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Three Things: Arsenal UCL Future in Own Hands

Arsenal hosted Dinamo Zagreb tonight at the Emirates in a game they needed to win if they were to keep alive their quest to become only the second team ever to emerge from the group stage of the competition after losing their first two games. Job done after a resounding 3-0 win which, coupled with a 4-0 Bayern hiding of Olympiakos, meant they can still make it through to the Round of 16 for the 16th season running. What they will need to do to accomplish that feat is go to Greece and win by 2 goals, or 3-2. Three quick thoughts on the win tonight:

1. Streaky Sanchez Chips In: In the 29th minute, Sanchez sent a beautiful cross to the head of a charging Mesut Ozil, who smashed it past Zagreb keeper Eduardo to give the Gunners the lead. Four minutes later Sanchez scored his first goal since October 17, finishing a nice cutback from Monreal. Then, to put things beyond doubt, he chipped in a second on a wonderful pass from Joel Campbell, playing his best game in the red and white, in the 69th minute. While Sanchez was the player of the year last season, he is incredibly streaky, having only scored in 10 of 41 games with Arsenal. This season he has scored nine goals now, but those have come in only five games. Sanchez is a wonderful player with an unparalleled drive to win, but if Arsenal are to finally win another league title, they will need more consistent scoring from their talisman. On an unrelated note, Ozil actually went a game without an assist, but he was all over the pitch, scoring the all-important opening goal and passing the ball around with flair and real confidence. If he can raise his game to this level going forward, chipping in a few more goals along the way, Arsenal have a real shot at advancing in the UCL and making a sustained title challenge.

2. Petr Cech ... Solid as a Rock: the Arsenal keeper is nearing an incredible 40 clean sheets in the Champions League to go with his 2012 title. He was called into action in the second half here, with a wonder save to stop the Gunners from conceding their second own goal in four days. Luckily his quick fire reaction saved Dinamo from making it a game. Why Wenger sat him earlier in the competition is a question that only the manager can answer, but it is clear, if the Gunners do go on to win silverware this season, that he is the signing of the season. His solidity at the back, since that disastrous opening day loss to West Ham, has already earned the team at least five or six points, and John Terry’s prediction that he was worth at least 15 is starting to look more prophetic by the week.

3. Good News Always Comes With Bad for the Melancholic Gooner: it has been slightly easier to be sanguine over the past year and a half as an Arsenal fan, as they have secured those two FA Cups and, though largely meaningless, two Community Shields as well. The win over Bayern to keep their hopes in the Champions League alive was backed by the professional 3-0 win tonight. And even with some early season struggles, Arsenal are still only two points from the summit of the table, with some very winnable fixtures on the dawn. Yet watching Aaron Ramsey jog onto the pitch tonight in the 67th minute was counterbalanced by news that Coquelin’s injury is even worse than originally thought.

He will now miss at least three months of the season, with the only available backups the aging Flamini and the largely untested Calum Chambers. It is possible that Wenger might put Ramsey next to Cazorla at the back, but that sounds like a dangerous pairing against the more physical sides in the EPL. Instead, Wenger will probably make due with Flamini or Chambers at least until January, when it appears he will have to dip into the January transfer window yet again to address an issue that most thought should have been taken care of this summer – namely, a defensive midfielder that can marshal the back in Coquelin’s absence. There are some worthy options including Carvalho and Lars Bender, among a host of Premier League talent that might be available for the right price.

The good news for the Gunners, and I know this sounds harsh, is that Mikel Arteta was also injured in the West Brom game. Arteta was a useful addition after the fire sale the Gunners suffered a few years ago, losing Fabergas, Nasri and then Van Persie (among a host of others) in two windows, but his time has passed; on top of the reality that he was never really a great defensive midfielder. His own goal before hobbling off on Saturday was a healthy reminder that his presence in the team makes the defense always on the cusp of being shambolic. Flamini is statistically worse in every category than both Coquelin (by a mile) and Arteta (by a more reasonable margin), but I think he is better suited to take on the role necessary for at least the next four weeks.

But the latest injury woes only amplify the contention of many that Wenger is no longer the man to lead this Arsenal side to the apex of the league, or even beyond the Round of 16 in the UCL, and that it is time for him to move on (at the end of the season, of course). That seems unlikely unless the Gunners do win the title, but maybe it is time for the board to nudge the aging Frenchman toward the exit before the team he has built disassembles in despair at knowing they are but a couple pieces away from being among the best in the world. Looking at Liverpool dismantle Man City on Saturday showed the power a forward-looking coach can have on a side and it seems time that Arsenal take a chance on a change that seems 10 years in the making.

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