Thursday, September 29, 2016

Arsenal Rising: Unbeaten in 7 Straight

As an Arsenal fan for almost 20 years, I have learned to not read too much into any streak or get too optimistic in general about our prospects of silverware. It is impossible, however, to ignore the way the Gunners have bounced back from their disappointing start to the season. Since the 4-3 loss to Liverpool on the opening weekend, Arsenal are now undefeated in their last eight, having won six and drawn two. They have secured three clean sheet in a row and have not conceded more than a goal in any of that octet of matches.

The past week, they finally turned the table on Wenger’s long-time nemesis Chelsea, flattening them comprehensively in a 3-0 victory at the Emirates that might have been even more humiliating for the Blues if the Gunners didn’t manage the game in the second half. It was their first victory over Chelsea in almost five years and the first time they have even scored in the past four matches against their crosstown rivals. Today they took on the English team killing FC Basel and left the stadium with a 2-0 victory that could have easily been five or six nil. In the process, the team has found a new balance from front to back, seen new signings shine and the renaissance of long-serving Theo Walcott.  

Five thoughts on the two victories:

1.  Walcott Hot Streak: like Wilshere and Ox, this is an important season for Walcott. After showing early promise, his career has suffered through stops and starts, injury problems and a regression in form over the past couple of seasons. While Wilshere is plying his trade for Bournemouth this season in an attempt to rejuvenate his floundering career and Ox waits for the playing time necessary to prove his worth, Walcott has again positioned himself as one of the easiest picks among the starting 11, even with stiff competition across the midfield and forward line.

Theo started with a goal against Liverpool in the opening game of the season, but otherwise looked like a player afraid to get injured again, while missing far too many simple passes, losing the ball regularly and contributing little on the defensive side. His next three games saw no goals and one assist and there were fears, at least by me, that he had regressed toward mediocrity, as so many Gunners from the past. Then he awakened in the Hull game, chipping in with a goal and wreaking havoc on the back line of a suddenly porous Hull defense. He followed that up with one of his finest performances as a Gunner, scoring and running the Chelsea defense ragged, while contributing on the defensive end, in their impressive 3-0 victory. Today, he scored both goals early in the Gunner’s 2-0 victory, while Ozil, Sanchez and others missed opportunity after opportunity for the remainder of the game. Walcott’s rejuvenated form is bad news for Ox, who will find it hard to get back in the starting lineup beyond cup competitions, but good news for Arsenal, who have too often lacked the pace on the right wing to stretch their opponents, particularly when they sit back in flanks of four. Walcott will certainly not continue to score at this rate, but if he can return to the feared figure of a few seasons ago, it adds another asset to the impressive Arsenal attack.

2.  Speaking of that Attack: Arsenal’s laser quick passing, thundering counters and slick one-two’s are finally starting to pay dividends again, with Sanchez, Ozil, Cazorla and Walcott all scoring multiple goals already, and those around them also chipping in. They were absolutely irresistible in the first 45 minutes against Chelsea, one of their finest moments since the Invincibles disbanded, and followed that up with a comprehensive victory over Basel that only missed the killer instinct to crush their opponent into full submission. The number of options now available across the front line is formidable and this increases the pressure on all to keep up the good form. New signing Perez, even after a stellar display in the League Cup, is having a hard time sniffing game time and Giroud is also finding it difficult to get back into the starting 11. On top of this, they are still awaiting the return of Welbeck and Ramsey, who add another dimension to the attack, while Iwobi continues to impress. Few teams in the world will be looking forward to facing Arsenal at the moment, and that is a dramatic change from the recent past.

3.  Defense Solidifies: Alongside the improved attack is a dramatic transformation across the back. Wenger’s stubbornness looked set to cost him the best centre back available this summer, but he finally bit the bullet and signed Mustafi, who has added meddle and pace to a backline that too foten suffered from ill-discipline or Mertesacker’s lack of pace. With Bellerin’s blistering speed to back up any ill-advised foray’s forward by the other three defenders, Arsenal are better equipped to stop counterattacks than at any time since the departure of Viera. Sure PSG got behind the back four far too often, but Arsenal have already kept an impressive four clean sheets in eight games, and conceded a solitary goal in three of the other four games. Xhaka, in particular, has shined, but there seems to be more understanding and cohesion across the side, with even Walcott and Ozil doing their part on the defensive end. The whole team will have to keep their focus going forward, especially when the level of competition rises, but the infamous lack of “spine” appears to finally have been eradicated, at least for the time being.

4.  Sanchez/Ozil Understanding: Ozil’s languid style still leaves some commentators and fans cold, but even as he has somehow gone the entire young season without a single assist, he is still the fulcrum from which the Arsenal attack hums. The assists will come, but we can take heart from the two goals he has scored and a sense that he has picked up his overall level so far this season after a slight falloff down the stretch in 2015-16. Sanchez, on the other hand, has seen his productivity closer to his breakout first season at Arsenal, with five goals and four assists to his name already. Beyond this, his high pressing and effort throughout games seems to be rubbing off on his peers, including Ozil and Walcott. Sanchez and Ozil are the clear stars on the team, but must be heartened by the three signings this summer that have improved the team from front to back.

5.  Looking Forward: Arsenal are now in the driver’s seat in the Champions League, with the opportunity to win all of their remaining matches and finally finish top of their group for the first time in five years. To do that, they will have to beat PSG at the Emirates, or draw that game and finish with a better goal difference. That is a distinct possibility, given the other two teams in the group, and would go a long way in finally pushing them past the Round of 16 in a competition where they have flattered to deceive for a decade now.

In the league, Arsenal sit in third place, a point behind their North London rivals (who they face on November 6) and five behind the seemingly indomitable Manchester City. That indomitability was certainly dented this evening, though, as Celtic finally ended an impressive winning streak to start Guardiola’s reign.  Dropped points are inevitable across a season and one wonders if old doubts might start creeping in. The five dropped points to start the season still smart, but Arsenal are clearly on the rise and the future looks bright. A victory in the League Cup, which is certainly within their reach now, would be a nice way to start a second half push, and build the confidence that has too often faltered in the money end of the season.

Next up for the Gunners are winnable fixtures against Burnley, Swansea, Ludogrets (home and away), Boro, Reading (in the League Cup) and Sunderland, before the first North London Derby of the season. Continuing the undefeated streak until then is surely within their reach, and might be necessary to keep up with a City side that still looks hard to beat. COYG!

No comments: