Thursday, November 03, 2016

Arsenal through to Round of 16, Looking for More After Last Second Winner

While Arsenal’s wait for a major trophy is not even in the vicinity of the Cubs or Indians, fans had become accustomed to a certain standard of success, before the move to the Emirates and the subsequent barren spell that has now stretched 12 years. Sure there have been the two FA Cups and the two, rather meaningless, Community Shields. But Gunner fans want a serious run back toward the Finals of the Champions League (where they lost in 2006) or a sustained title run. The last gasp 3-2 win over Ludogorets in the Champions League does not guarantee this season won’t fall apart, as so many have before, but the Gunners are starting to show a mettle and steel that this team has lacked since Patrick Viera walked away.

For winning in the last second of games where you underperform across the pitch are the stuff that champions are made of. Sir Alex Ferguson, for all his achievements as a manager, might be best remembered for “Fergie Time,” that period at the end of games where his side seemed to almost invariably come alive and often abscond points or victories from the depths of defeat. So many trophies were down to that spirit, including one of his most important – the Champions League triumph in Barcelona over Bayern in 1999 that was part of his only treble winning side.

Now, winning a Group Stage game you are favored to win in the 89th minute, after a lackluster start that saw you go down 2-0, is not on the scale of two goals in extra time to steal a Champions League crown from Bayern Munich. But it’s another sign of a change in the spirit and mentality of a side that has often suffered from what we might call, for lack of a better phrase, neurotic malaise. Three thoughts on the game itself:

1. Giroud Not the Answer: it’s tough to blame a player who was a part of this stirring comeback for the fact a stirring comeback was necessary at all, but it is clear, as it was in the second half of last season, that this side is more stale and vulnerable when Giroud is playing through the center – particularly if the pace of Walcott and/or Ox is not available on the wing. Giroud scored a fine goal to equalize, from an excellent Ramsey cross, but the general quality of his holdup play and the lack of dynamism across the pitch were clear to see.

Sanchez might not fit the typical characteristics of a centre forward, but he has shown an ability to redefine the position as his own, using his pace, power, creativity and willingness to press up the pitch, to lead from the front with real vigor. His 50 goals in just over a 100 games shows his scoring touch has dramatically improved since his days at Barca, and this year he is chipping in with even more assists.

Giroud is certainly a good finisher, who has improved through the years, but his inability to fit within the new nature of the Arsenal attack makes him a liability in most cases. I still believe, as Thierry Henry recently argued, that he can be an impact sub for the rest of the season, and also believe there will be games where he is suited to start, particularly against sides sitting back in waves of four (or even five). But his time as a weekly starter should be over.

2. Too Many Changes? with an eye to the North London Derby Sunday, Wenger made wholesale changes to his side for the away leg against a side that Arsenal just beat 6-0 at home. And it ultimately paid off, as the 3-2 win means they have a real chance to finally top their group and hopefully face a lesser opponent in the opening tie of the knockout stage.

And yet the side he went with showed the same sort of defensive frailty and forward malaise that have hurt this team intermittently for years. Gibbs was arguably guilty on both goals, unable to close down his man effectively either on the wing or in the box. Mustafi was also a step slow for the second, but most troubling, after some strong appearances in the first three rounds, was Ospina, who seemed unwilling to come out to defend set pieces as he has in the past. He played better in the second half, but his lack of command of the box seemed to be contagious, as Arsenal could have just as easily been down 4-2 at halftime.

Beyond the Giroud concern above, there was also a general lack of dynamism on the other side of the pitch. Sanchez clearly had an off-game, but it seems that the lack of movement around him contributed. Ramsey and Giroud are just back from injury, to be fair, but were slow and too methodical with their passing and movement. Gibbs and Jenkinson made a meal of most of their crosses. And Coquelin was off his best.

Luckily, Ozil was back at his best, assisting for the goal that made it 2-1, as he knocked it back cleverly to Xhaka and then finishing with a magical moment to win the game, as he scored the goal of the UCL so far this season after a pitch perfect pass from Elneny. But the game should give Wenger much food for thought, as the side appears clearly better when Sanchez is through the middle and pace exists on both wings.

3. Unlucky Ludogorets: the Bulgarian side has been ahead in all but one of their four Champions League fixtures and all they have to show for it is a solitary point. After taking the early lead last night, the side decided to defend deep and take their chances on the break. It almost paid off but for a couple of poor finishes with a chance to make it three, three excellent second-half saves from Ospina and Ozil’s last second magic. Now there is no chance of advancing, but this side has acquitted itself well in their first foray into the Group Stage. Their passing and countering has been excellent and their defending strong, if inconsistent. Against the big boys from England and France they fell short, but there is little shame in that. 

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