Monday, December 28, 2015

Three Things: Arsenal Go Top After 2-0 Victory

Arsenal needed a rebound after their 4-0, referee-assisted collapse against Southampton two days earlier. And they got just that as they cruised to a 2-0 victory that could easily have been 6 or 7 nil. Bournemouth held tough early, but a 28th minute header from Gabriel from an Ozil corner got things started and a 63rd minute second from Ozil meant a relatively comfortable win for the Gunners. Depending on the result of the Man City-Leicester City matchup tomorrow, Arsenal could go into the New Year at the top of the table; irrespective of that result they are there for 24 hours. Three thoughts on the game:

1. Able Backups Acquit Themselves Well: Gabriel came in for Koscielny at centre back after spending the past several weeks largely on the bench. He performed well through the middle and scored the opening goal with a powerful header to the corner of the net. His speed and poise were impressive and he cut off most of the Bournemouth offensive threat throughout the game. Gibbs was also given a rare start in the place of Monreal, the only other Gunner beside Cech to have played in every game this year when he came on in the second half. The English international played well, combining relative solidity at back with the pace to get forward with purpose. Finally was Chambers, a player rumored to be heading back to Southampton on loan to get more minutes in the second half of the season. He played in the defensive midfield position, one Wenger thinks he might have the potential to make his own in the future. The big concern is his lack of pace, but his range of passes, interceptions and positional acuity were impressive given some less than inspiring performances in recent cameos. Youngster Iwobi came on for the final minute of extra time and is a potential star for the future. One player who has not started regularly on the pitch today who continued to struggle was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. His pace and dribbling ability were on full display, particularly on the counter, but his decision-making continues to be suspect and he derailed a few opportunities to score throughout his time on the pitch. The performance by the others will certainly give the team hope that they can weather the continued injury troubles as the second half of the season gets underway.

2. Ozil the Magician; Giroud the Oaf: Mesut Ozil has moved from a mild or major disappointment (depending on your perspective) to one of the best #10s in world football this season and continued his extended purple patch with a part in both Gunner goals. The first was a beautifully taken corner that fell to the head of an unguarded Gabriel, allowing the Brazilian to score his first goal for Arsenal. He continued to terrorize the Bournemouth defense with corner after corner, though none of the many chances were taken by the Gunners. In the 63rd minute, he turned from provider to finisher after a lovely interchange with Giroud on the edge of the box set him free on goal. He finished coolly for his third league goal of the campaign to go with an incredible 16 assists. Ozil has 8 more assists than the second best distributor in the league, Kevin De Bruyne, and has created more chances than any other player as well. In this game, he could easily have had four or five assists but for profligacy in finishing by Walcott (at least four decent chances), Giroud (2), Ox (who hit the post, to be fair) and Ramsey (1 or 2, depending on how we measure “clear” chances). In total, I counted at least 12 decent chances to score in the game that went wanting, but it is hard to complain when you not only win three points but get your goalkeeper to a record 170 clean sheets in the process. Cech has accomplished that feat in only 350 games, meaning he is essentially blanking opponents in every other match he plays. The defensive tendencies of Mourinho certainly helped, but Cech has been between the sticks for a host of other managers during his long stay at Chelsea.

The profligacy in front of goal was made immaterial by the victory, as I just mentioned, but one player that really disappointed in the game was Olivier Giroud. If Ozil is a magician, Giroud is an ogre. He reminds me of Kirk Gibson limping to the plate in the 9th inning of the 1988 World Series only to pound a home run. Giroud has 10 league goals this year, and another five in six Champions League games, but beyond his scoring, there seems to be a marginal but noticeable decline in the other areas of his game. Yes, his one-touch return to Ozil was deftly guided into the path of the charging German, but it was really the only highlight for the Frenchman and, surprisingly, his first assist in all competitions this season. His first touch has seemed to abandon him this year, he is beaten in aerial battles far too often (sometimes not even bothering to get airborne), his passing accuracy has fallen and his lack of pace appears to be hurting the team on the counter (particularly in the absence of the speedy Sanchez). Don’t get me wrong, Giroud has been a key player in the rise to the top of the table, and the great escape to the Round of 16 in the UCL, but one wonders how much better Arsenal would be with a more adept centre forward like Vardy or Ighalo (or Benzema!). It appears that the Gunners are on the cusp of signing a deep lying midfielder to provide cover for Flamini in the absence of Coquelin and Arteta – the Egyptian youngster from Basel Mohammed Elneny (who can also chip in goals, as he has 6 in 28 this year with the Swiss club). Next summer, I think it is time to sign a world-class striker who can contribute more than the able but too-often disappointing Giroud.

3. Bournemouth Have Talent to Stay Up: Bournemouth have been savaged by injuries throughout the first half of their return to the Premier League but were on a hot streak, going undefeated since a 1-0 loss to Newcastle on November 7. Since then, they have drawn three and beaten Chelsea, United and West Brom. Yet they still reside in 16th place, a mere three points from the drop zone and have the fourth worst goal differential in the league. However, after being incredibly porous at the back early on (including shipping 10 goals in their first two games), they have settled defensively and have found ways to score without their talisman centre forward Callum Wilson.

Arsenal pressed high intermittently throughout the game and were able to disrupt the passing flow of the Cherries, but they were still able to get behind the Gunners on a few occasions and had a couple of decent half chances to score. They were pretty terrible defending corners throughout the game but arguably suffered more than some other squads playing two games in three days – certainly lacking the squad depth of Arsenal. They have pace and finishing skills and have become more solid on the defensive end. After a trip to high flying Leicester City next weekend, they have a run of fixtures against West Ham, Norwich and Sunderland that could go a long way in determining whether they will hit the magical 40-point total. I’m betting on them getting there.

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