Saturday, October 29, 2016

Arsenal Go Top … For a Couple of Hours (4-1 at Sunderland)

Arsenal dominated the first half to the tune of 65 percent possession and nine shots to two, but only led 1-0, after spurning some quality chances to at least double that lead (four of those shots were on target). They were made to pay for that profligacy after Sunderland equalized on a 65th minute penalty converted by, who else, the ageless Jermaine Defoe. It took Arsenal only 6 minutes to get back even, as Giroud scored a brace in quick succession before Sanchez eliminated any doubt with his own second, in the 78th minute.

It was more misery for Moyes’ Sunderland side, who sit on a mere two points after 10 games, the worst start in the history of the Premier League, unable to keep a clean sheet in any of those 8 losses or two draws. For Arsenal, it was another three points and, for a couple of hours, sole possession of first place. Three thoughts:

1. Sanchez on the Double: Sanchez continued his recent hot streak, scoring a sumptuous header from a still-hot Ox cross, at the end of a 22 pass move. The Sunderland defenders towered over him, but his movement and positioning was perfect for the opener and he terrorized the aging, ex-United defender John O’Shea, who was off the pitch before halftime. After two from Giroud put the Gunners comfortably ahead, Sanchez finished the scoring, with a clever turn and finish after a Gibb’s shot bundled off the crossbar and Ramsey, finally back in the side, bundled it forward to the Chilean.

Sanchez now has half a century of goals for Arsenal in a mere 106 games and, if he can keep up this form, might just prove the difference for any silverware Arsenal are able to secure.

2. Giroud Scores on First Two Touches: with the way Sanchez is playing through the middle, Giroud must be wondering over his way back to the starting 11. Of course, scoring two on your first two touches against a side you have scored seven goals in seven matches against, certainly provides some hope. The first for Giroud was an excellent finish from a Gibbs cross, reaching his left foot backwards to steer the ball across goal from relatively close range. It was his first of the season. The second came five minutes later, as Giroud sent a well-placed header past the keeper from Ozil, who picked up his second assist of the season, from corner delivery.

Sanchez has been largely scintillating through the middle, but the Arsenal attack has looked a little disjointed at times over the past four games and the presence of the bigger Giroud through the middle appeared to provide the target the Gunners needed to get their offensive machine humming effectively again.

When all are healthy, it will leave Wenger with something of a headache. Should Sanchez be moved back to the left wing to allow Giroud back into the side? Would they then lose the dynamism, though poor finishing, of Iwobi? With Walcott and Cazorla healthy, where does Ox fit into the side? And how about the suddenly healthy Ramsey, after an excellent summer at the Euros? Who to choose among Xhaka, Coquelin and Elneny when Cazorla is pushed back into the starting 11? These are the kinds of questions a manager is happy to consider, but Wenger must be careful not to break up the growing confidence of a side that looks like a fair odds bet to end their title drought. Wenger has been excellent with his rotation so far and will have to continue to maintain that, not overworking players as he has been apt to do.

3. Injuries Piling Up: speaking of that health issue, the Gunner’s injury list is starting to grow yet again – as seems to be the case every season. The hot Walcott is out with a muscle strain, Cazorla is still absent with an Achilles problem, Gibbs had to start for an injured Monreal for the first time since last March, Mertesacker and Welbeck are still on long term recovery and Perez has just been ruled out for two months with a major ankle problem.

None of these injuries have yet cost Arsenal many points, beyond the flat 0-0 draw with Middlesbrough, but they must be vigilant as they embark on a month that has rarely been kind to their long-serving French manager.

The truth is, those injuries still leave plenty of talent on and off the pitch, but a couple more could leave the side threadbare and the absence of Cazorla, in particular, has disrupted some of Arsenal’s fluency going forward, even if they have stiffened at the back with Coquelin and Elneny providing protection for the back four.

Overall, Arsenal’s unbeaten streak continues to lengthen and they sit joint top with City, only behind on goal difference, after Guardiola’s side finally ended their six-game winless streak with a 4-0 hiding of West Brom. United played out a flat draw with Burnley at Old Trafford and Tottenham, while still undefeated on the season, had to settle for a 1-1 draw with the struggling Champions Leicester. Liverpool were tied 2-2 as I write this, and this does really seem like a season where five teams can compete for the title, though City, Liverpool and Arsenal do seem a cut above a Tottenham side that is a little short on goals at the moment and a Chelsea side that still looks suspect at times. Liverpool might be the most exciting team in the league, but their suspect defending might very well cost them the title again. 

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