Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Three Things: Arsenal Become Title Favorites (W 2-1 Over City)!

Arsenal and Man City met yesterday at the Emirates in a matchup that many augured as a potential title decider. It was obviously too early for such bold proclamations, but six-pointers in a tight title race can have a huge influence on the ultimate outcome, as much through momentum as points. One should remember that it was a victory over City last January that launched the Gunners on a winning streak that almost brought them to the cusp of overcoming Chelsea and ultimately led to their second FA Cup in a row. At the Emirates yesterday, the pressure was on and it was City who had the better of the early going, with the Gunners unable to keep possession or pose any serious threat on the City goal. But that all changed in the 33rd minute, only two minutes after De Bruyne missed out on a golden opportunity to give the visitors the lead, when a clever pass from Mesut Ozil to Theo Walcott set him free on the left side of the box. Walcott cut back in and then sent a blistering shot past Ozil and across goal into the corner. In the second minute of extra time, Ozil threaded it through to Giroud on the left again and the Frenchman sent the ball past Hart for a 2-0 lead. Arsenal should have expanded on that lead in the second half, but Giroud, Ramsey and Campbell spurned opportunities. In the 82nd minute, that profligacy almost cost them as Toure sent a snap shot into the far corner of the net to draw to 2-1. Arsenal held firm for the last 13 minutes and secured an important win. Three thoughts on the game:
1. Overcoming the Old Troubles: Over the past decade, Arsenal has had a tendency to lose their biggest games. This has come down to, among other things, the stubbornness of the offensive-minded Wenger. In the last 12 months, the Frenchman appears to have finally allowed that stubbornness to subside (in both the transfer market and tactically) and the result has been far more positive results against his biggest rivals. In 2015, the Gunners have beaten United twice (and drawn a third meeting), drawn and beaten Chelsea (the first win against Mourinho in the long, bellicose “rivalry” with Wenger), beaten and drawn with Liverpool (and the draw would have been a win but for a wrongly disallowed offsides goal by Ramsey), beaten Bayern 2-0 and accrued the most points in the league over the past 12 months. Unfortunately, those results have only earned two trophies (with one being the lightly-regarded Community Shield), but there is a sense better is to come in the future. Missing three of their biggest stars – in Sanchez, Cazorla and Coquelin, the Gunners were still able to beat their closest legitimate rivals to the title this season (yes, Leicester are still up by two points, but lest us forget the Gunners already beat them 5-2).

More on the strategic approach that helped the Gunners win this game below, but one cannot help but start any discussion of their success this season without talking about the Maestro. Mesut Ozil has been Arsenal’s best player for most of this run, supplanting even Sanchez, whose scoring has abated a bit since his hot run in the fall of 2014. His two assists on Monday mean he already has 15 for the season (in 17 appearances), 8 more than Leicester’s best provider and more than Gerrard, Mata or even Bergkamp ever garnered in an entire season. He has more assists than the entire Manchester United squad and now has 29 in his English career (the same total as Hazard … in 59 less games). And as has been the case throughout his time at Arsenal, he also has provided the most opportunities (52), nine better than the next two on the list. The difference this term is that Giroud, Walcott and Sanchez have been finishing those chances at a higher rate, meaning the Gunners can outscore opponents at a higher rate, turning tough losses and draws into three points. Cech should also be given credit here, for a couple of top draw saves and organizing the defense in front of him for the 8 corners and numerous other free kicks they had to defend throughout the game. And really the entire squad chipped in, keeping City in front of them most of the game and then finding themselves behind the Citizen’s back line at least five times. The game could easily have gone the other way if the Gunners failed to convert two of their five quality chances and City did better with their four or five, but that is the difference in every football game and Arsenal now have four points separating them from the team still favored by many to win the title. Wenger has turned a corner just as his career winds down at Arsenal, but it might be a right turn that finally earns him that fourth league title, rubbing a little more salt in Mourinho’s blighted eyes.

2. Lucky Charms - A la France: Most thought that Mathieu Flamini’s second stint at Arsenal was over last summer. Francis Coquelin had quietly emerged as one of the best DM’s in the league, Arteta was a relatively able, if not quiet inspiring backup and pundits assumed Wenger would buy another DM in the summer window. The purchase failed to materialize, Flamini stayed and after injuries to both Arteta to Coquelin, the onus has fallen on the Frenchman to marshal the defense in front of the backline. He has done so ably, building on the two-goal performance he had against Tottenham in the Capital One Cup earlier in the season. In fact, the win yesterday meant that Flamini remains undefeated at the Emirates over his two stints with the Gunners. That covers 52 games since he scored the last goal ever for the Gunners at Highbury Park, including 36 wins and 16 draws.

The victory yesterday exemplified Wenger’s new, dare I say it, tactical flexibility. For much of the first half, Arsenal played with two banks of four players, while Flamini shadowed David Silva and Giroud played alone up top. It meant the Gunners went through the game with only 35 percent possession – at home! However, but for a couple of times where City beat the Arsenal high line and the Yaya Toure goal, the tactic worked perfectly, much as it had against Bayern in the 2-0 victory in the UCL Group Stage game that started the Gunners on the comeback trail to the final 16. It is an approach, in fact, that has served the team well in a number of high profile victories over the past calendar year – pressing strategically, playing off the ball most of the time and then countering with pace and purpose. The final result actually flattered City, who could easily have lost 4 or 5 to 1. And Flamini was a key player who will have to continue to perform at this level if Arsenal are to stay at or near the top until Cazorla, Sanchez and, most importantly, Coquelin, return.

3. Bad (wo) Kompany, They Can’t Deny: City started the season with one of the best defensive displays the Premier League has seen, barring Mourinho’s best Chelsea teams. And then Kompany went out injured and the club showed that price and performance are not as closely correlated as one would hope. Chelsea found that out a few years ago with Torres, of course, but high priced defenders generally perform at a high level. That has not been the case with City of late, particularly on the road. Mangala was terrible on the second goal and could have done better on the first and Otamendi has been up and down since arriving in England. Questions can be asked of Pelligrini as well, though, as playing a clearly less than 100 percent Sergio Aguero (arguably still the best pure striker in England, with due respect to Vardy) and leaving Sterling on the bench seemed to backfire. De Bruyne is a great player with almost limitless upside, but he needs targets to hit, as he is a better provider than scorer. A simple cross in the 31st minute would have given Silva a tap in; instead he tried to do it alone and pushed the ball wide of the far post two minutes before the stunning Walcott strike. It’s hard to know how the rumors of Guardiola taking over in the summer will affect Pelligrini and the team as they seek their third title in five years, but the early evidence is not positive. City have dropped points in recent weeks with regularity, were lucky to steal all three against Swansea last weekend and were thoroughly outplayed by the Gunners for the second time this calendar year. There is still time to rebound, but concerns must be magnifying that this team is below par when their oft-injured captain is on the sideline.

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