Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Arsenal Cruise to Seventh Straight Victory (6-0)

While Ludogorets passed the ball around nicely at times and carved up a few quality chances, the Gunners ultimately cruised to a straightforward and comprehensive 6-0 victory today, winning their seventh on the bounce and continuing an unbeaten streak that has now stretched from match day 1 loss to Liverpool on August 14 forward over two months and 11 games.

Sanchez opened the scoring with a truly sublime chip in the 12th minute, lining up the shot with two defenders around him before sending a perfect sky ball over the goalkeeper and into the far corner. After some nervy moments when the visitors looked set to equalize, Walcott continued his hot streak, scoring a well-taken shot from the edge of the box. Right after halftime, Ox found himself with the ball a few yards out and slotted it home to essentially put the game beyond reach. But the Gunners kept on creating chances and Ozil took three of them, first converting nicely on the break to make it 4-0 in the 56th minute, before two late goals wrapped up the victory.

Arsenal pressed high for most of the game and it often worked, though Ludogorets were able to get behind the defense a few times. Timely interceptions and clearances kept them out, along with a couple of excellent saves from Ospina. Coquelin was particularly impressive in cutting off a number of Ludogorets attacks, while passing the ball around with command and even some invention. Three thoughts on the game:

1.  Ozil Nets a Hat Trick, but is his Creativity on the Decline? Mesut Ozil’s scoring touch has improved dramatically this season, with six goals already in the books (already three quarters of the way to the 8 he registered in 45 appearances last term). And yet there is a sense his passing game has taken a step backwards, as he too often misses passes around the box, tries to be too intricate with his through balls and looks substantially less dangerous than in the past. He is still completing an impressive 88 percent of his passes for club and country this season and had 18 chances created heading into this game, but has failed to register a single assist in nine starts for Arsenal (six in the league and three in UCL). He had 19 in the league last season, though none in the Champions League, but had a major drop off in productivity over the last 10 or so matches of the season. That trend has continued in the early part of this season and while he is still contributing across the pitch, and with the goals, one does wonder if he needs a little break to rediscover the singular vision that makes him among the most dangerous providers in the league.

2. Walcott’s Run Continues; Ox Makes his Case: Walcott just keeps on scoring this season, putting in his sixth just before halftime. It was a nice finish, though many keepers would have gotten across better to save a shot a little too far from the post. But it is not just his scoring record that has improved; his overall level appears to have gone up, with better control, better passing and more poise on the ball in general.

The same can be said of Ox, who had his second solid performance in a row, following his excellent display last weekend. This time he was rewarded with an early second half goal that fell kindly a few yards out, but that he slotted perfectly into the corner. He had a second effort stopped by an excellent save in the 67th, and contributed on both sides of the pitch with a few important defensive interceptions.

The renaissance of these two once promising young stars has been instrumental as Arsenal continue their quest to finally win another title and/or move past the Round of 16 in the Champions League. They do not need to keep up this blistering scoring pace, but taking pressure off of Sanchez and Giroud, in his limited game time, can only help the sometimes brittle confidence of the perennial challengers.

3.  Gunners Lose Possession Battle; Win the War: During the calendar year 2015, Arsenal were the best team in the league, earning more points and ending several years of form against their top rivals. They entered 2016 at the top of the league before their habit of late fades again cost them the title. One shift that occurred during the poor stretch that allowed Leicester to complete their miracle season, was the Gunners reverting away from a new approach that included ceding possession more and attacking with pace and power on the break.

In the current run, they have returned to this strategy in a number of games, combined strong possession with the ability to again score on the break while not exposing their defense to too much undue pressure. Today they took that approach to the extreme, allowing a visiting team from a lower league to have a full 56 percent of possession. To be fair to Ludogorets, they passed impressively and had a number of openings they failed to finish, but it was Arsenal’s ability to turn defense into attack that ultimately won them the game.

It is this more defensive oriented approach that saw them earn their first second place finish in a decade and almost won them the title last season. They do not really need to cede so much possession against lesser sides, but their resiliency at the back, timely interceptions, high press and blistering counter are all indicative of a team that could make a sustained run for the title this season; particularly if employed against the more dangerous sides. The one game they failed to play in this style cost them all three points, when Liverpool took them to task and then held off a late charge. Discipline through the middle and strong finishing could be the difference for the Gunners this season, but only if they remain tight and compact across the back and continue to receive defensive contributions from players like Chamberlain, Walcott and Ozil, well-known for their defensive shortcomings in the past.   

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