Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Arsenal on a Run – Cruise Past Nottingham Forest 4-0 in League Cup

Arsenal appeared in trouble after dropping five points in their first two games of the young season. Wenger must go chants were ringing through the virtual hemisphere and “splash the cash” rants as ubiquitous as Rooney critiques online. Since then, they have won four and drawn one, a respectable 1-1 draw at PSG in the Champions League. In fact, in the past 10 days, they have beaten a decent Southampton team 2-1, secured a point at PSG, even as they were arguably outplayed for large portions of the match, crushed Hull City on the road 4-1 and then cruised to a 4-0 victory over Nottingham Forest today, with a team largely comprised of reserves.

It has been an impressive stretch, punctuated by the new hope that comes with the signing of players at the end of August that filled two necessary positional holes. Mustafi has slotted in well since his arrival, showing mettle and good positioning while contributing some quality passing from the back. He has been shaky on a few occasions, but seems like the perfect replacement for Mertesacker, arguably better in every category at the moment except height. Perez, after an inauspicious start to his Arsenal career with an uninspiring start against Southampton (subbed on 66 minutes) and a cameo late against PSG, came to life in the League Cup today, chipping in two goals and an assist in an easy win that progressed the Gunners to the final 16 in the only domestic crown Wenger has failed to campture.

So what has changed? Arsenal have firmed up at the back and seem to have solved the problems in the deep midfield. The combination of Xhaka, Coquelin and Elneny give the Gunners a depth in the DM position they have lacked for many years now. Cazorla has returned and looks as strong as ever, serving as the fulcrum of not only the attack but the buildup as well. Sanchez has started strongly after a decline in form in his second season with the North London squad and even Walcott has chipped in. Iwobi has also continued to impress, building on his impressive performances during the second half of last season. Ironically, the Gunners are still suffering through the first half injuries that seem to consistently

Some thoughts on the five game unbeaten streak:

1.  New Boys Impress: As argued above, the new signings have largely impressed in their incorporation into the team so far. Perez has been blooded slowly, but one assumes he will get more chances after the performance today, even if it did come against lesser competition. He scored his penalty with poise and accuracy then went on a solo run past two defenders and the goalkeeper to get his second, while sending in a pitch perfect pass to assist Ox late on. Xhaka has shown an impressive range of passing so far, cut off the attack with some acumen and now chipped in with two long range goals in the past four days. One should not underestimate this threat, though aberrant with his career to date, as Arsenal had the fewest shots outside the box of any team in the league last season. That added threat could push defenders out from camping in the box, providing more space for their intricate passes. And Mustafi has made a strong case for a starting berth even when the aging Mertesacker comes back from his long term injury. On top of these three, the youngster Holding has acquitted himself well since arriving and is clearly a promising prospect for the future.

2.  Sanchez Back on Track? Alexis Sanchez will never be faulted for lack of effort, but it is clear that that effort is bearing more fruit in the early season, as it did back in 2014. He already has four goals and an assist in 6 appearances (one coming off the bench) and has contributed to several other goals over the first five weeks of the season. While his best position is arguably still on the left wing, he has played better through the middle in his last two appearances, and might be returning to his favored position soon, as Giroud nears full health and Perez just made his case for another start in the league (though Chelsea might be a bigger risk than Wenger is willing to take). Assuming he is rested often enough and avoids any serious injuries, he has the chance to have another great season with the Gunners, reiterating his position as one of the most exciting wingers in world football.

3.  Papering Over Some Cracks? While Gooners should be bolstered by the success in recent weeks, it is important to acknowledge both that the competition has been a step below the top level, including a PSG team struggling so far this season, and that they have been assisted by some poor finishing from their opponents over this stretch – none more that PSG after their early goal. Arsenal are defending better, no doubt, but oppositional wingers do seem to be getting behind the defense a little too often for comfort. Monreal has clearly been a level below his best, Cech has been a little slow getting across goal and even Bellerin, after his breakout season, looks a little below his best. Where the Gunners are stronger is through the middle of the defense and in the spine in front of them. And if they are willing to cede possession on occasion, they can take full advantage of one of the better counterattacking threats in the league.

4.  The Underachievers So Far: While the new signings, Koscielny, Cazorla, Iwobi and Sanchez have impressed, some others seem below their best so far. At the top of the list might be Ozil, who seems sluggish and uninspired so far this season, after a falloff in production late last season. In five appearances (four starts), he has a goal and no assists. Sure, the vagaries of the game ensure that even the best players could go more than a few games without an assist, watching Ozil play, there appears to be something wrong. He is losing the ball more often than in the past, failing to get in the pinpoint passes we have become accustomed to and seems to disappear from the game for alarming stretches of action. It could just be fatigue after a long season and summer at the Euros, but one hopes he approaches his best soon, as it is his talent and vision that is vital to keeping the Gunners attack productive. Both Monreal and Bellerin have taken a step back as well and need to improve their positional sense given the number of speedy wingers that now stack the EPL from top to bottom. Theo Walcott, while chipping in two goals and an assist in five starts, seems to have taken several steps backward from his best form of a couple of season ago. It appears, at least to my eyes, like he fears another injury and is quitting out of too many 50/50s and even chasing down passes when confronted by a charging defender, as well as missing far too many passes and crosses. Maybe the recent goal will bolster his confidence and lead to a rennaisance in form, but if not, there are certainly options to replace them, among them Oxlaide-Chamberlain, who has been less than impressive himself until today.

5.  Looking Forward: Ramsey and Giroud are days away from returning to first team training, and both will be important to keeping up the momentum. Ramsey, in particular, after an impressive Euros, needs to build on that performance to return to the midfielder of a few seasons ago who was arguably among the best in the world. Giroud faces more competition today than at any point of his spell with the club, but still provides an aerial threat and fulcrum of attack that none of his competitors have been able to match. Mertesacker is still out for another two months, but his absence might have been a blessing in disguise, forcing Wenger to pay for a top-quality CB for the long run. Less of the blessing is the continued absence of Welbeck, gone for at least another four months. His return for the second half could be huge, though, as it could inject some further impetus and directness into the attack at the very moment the Gunners have tended to fade.

Next up for the Gunners is Wenger’s albatross, Chelsea, though their London rivals have certainly looked less solid defensively in recent weeks. An early goal for the Gunners could be the difference between victory and yet another dropped three points. Next they have a run of winnable fixtures: at Burnley, Swansea and Boro at the Emirates and Sunderland on the road before the first North London Derby of the season. In between, they host Basel in the Champions League, before away and return match-ups against Ludogorets. If they can beat Chelsea, it could be the continuation of a nice run that could see them move even further up the table. A defeat would not be deadly, but the moment seems ripe to reverse recent results against the now Mourinho-less Blues. 

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