Sunday, December 04, 2016

Arsenal Cruise Past Stumbling, Bumbling West Ham 5-1

Arsenal were bright early, took the lead, seemed to meander a bit through the middle of the match and then exploded in the last twenty minutes for a comprehensive 5-1 victory over a reeling West Ham. Only three days after a disappointing 2-0 loss in the EFL Cup, where Wenger made 10 changes to the side, this was a much needed three points, keeping the Gunners apace with a rampant Chelsea. Three thoughts on the game:

1. Sanchez Surges Toward Superstar Status: the evolution of Alexis Sanchez since moving from Barcelona has been nothing short of staggering. Sure, he did have 19 goals and 10 assists in his last season with the Catalonian side, but that was not enough to convince the team to give him a bumper raise, instead seeking bigger fish to pan fry into titles. In his first season with Arsenal (2014/15), Wenger played him on the left wing to great effect, with 19 goals and 9 assists in all comps. Last season, suffering from injuries and a cold spell in the middle, he still finished with 16 goals and 9 assists, in far fewer appearances. This season, he has already hit 13 goals (11 in the league, 2 in the UCL) and added 6 assists. Those number are in 19 games, having created an astounding 15 goals in his last 11 appearances alone.

The difference this season, of course, is that he is playing through the middle, a position he struggled with over his first two years with Arsenal. That Wenger gave him another shot, even with other options to consider, is a testament to the manager’s vision, and has made Arsenal a more complete side than they ever were with Giroud up front. In fact, Arsenal are now a team that has talent and strength from front to back, and a hunger for victory long absent from a side that has gone 14 long years without a title.

The improvement this season was on full display against West Ham yesterday, from his high pressing up the pitch that, together with his pace, led to the opener, to his finishing touch later on, that made a tight game an ultimately comfortable victory, pushing the Gunner’s goal difference to second best in the league. The opener came in the 24th minute, as Sanchez’s pressing pushed West Ham into an error – an interception by Coquelin that fortuitously flew forward toward Sanchez. The Chilean rushed toward the loose ball and beat solid West Ham defender Winston Reid to it before an excellent first touch and a simple cross to an onrushing Ozil, who finished coolly into the open net. That growing understanding between the two has been behind so much of the success of the Gunners this season with Ozil adding an assist later, his fourth of the season in all comps, alongside eight goals.

After some stops and starts in the middle, Sanchez doubled the lead in the 72nd minute, with a wonderful first touch from a clever Xhaka pass, storming past two defenders and then scoring from an acute angle across goal from the right side of the box. His third came 8 minutes later, as he received a ball outside the box, turned and somehow slotted it wonderfully into the far post past a sprawling Hammers keeper.

West Ham got one back, as a Payet free kick bounded off the bar and right into the path of a charging Andy Carroll, who continued his fine scoring record against the Gunners. Rather than panic, as a few sides have in recent weeks as their deficits shrunk (including Liverpool today!), Ozil served up Ox about 25 yards on the left and the midfielder pushed the ball toward the middle of the pitch before placing it wonderfully in the far corner, two minutes after the Payet goal. And then Ox sent a perfectly-timed through ball to Sanchez, on the counter, that the Chilean dribbled up to the keeper before reversing the ball and sending it over him to complete the scoring.

2. The Wizardry of Ox: It was a complete performance by the Gunners, with Sanchez as the clear star of the day, but the performance of another player should also be highlighted. This was always going to be an important season for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, having failed to really live up to the high expectations that had only grown after his breakout performance against United way back in early 2012 (a game Wenger subbed him out, to Van Persie’s vocal consternation – maybe leading indirectly to United’s last title the next season as the Dutchman so famously demanded the transfer heard round the world). Injuries, poor finishing and inconsistency have kept the youngster from living up to that potential and there were growing fears he never would. That assessment is starting to change.

Ox is up to six goals and five assists in all competitions this season, with four of those goals and three of the assists coming in his last 11. He has always had the pace and dribbling ability, but his decision-making and finishing have improved dramatically. With Cazorla out for another three months, at least, and Ramsey less than stellar since his return, this could be a good opportunity for Ox to get more time in the side and to show Wenger that he, in fact, was worthy of the long, oft-maligned wait for him to light his fading star.

On that note, with the signing of Xhaka, many believed Coquelin, one of the stars of the failed title tilt last season, might be spending much of this season on the outside looking in. However, with Wenger’s trust in the Swiss International still tempered and Cazorla out for such a long stretch, Coquelin has reestablished himself as an almost certain starter in games that matter, having added a better range of passing to his strong defensive skills. Playing in front of an increasingly solid back four, where Koscielny leads the league in defensive interceptions and Mustafi has settled well, with Xhaka and Elneny as further potential defensive cover, Arsenal have the most solid defensive unit they have had since the early days of the century.

3. Title Race Tightening Even More: Man City were beaten back by Chelsea 3-1, after taking the early lead, missing a couple of quality chance that might have put the game away. Liverpool were cruising at Bournemouth, up first 2-0 and then 3-1, before blowing all three points in extra time with some questionable defending, 4-3. Barcelona were up 1-0 on Real and looking like their old selves, before Sergio Ramos again showed himself to be the cardiac kid of La Liga with an extra time equalizing header. And United blew another lead late, as Fellaini’s clumsy tackle in the box led to a Lleyton Baines equalizer from the spot. So, even as Arsenal dominated the game for long stretches, there was every chance they could pull their own “Barca” (or “Mourinho,” if you prefer) and settle for a point from a deserved three. Instead Arsenal found another gear, as they have done on more than a few occasions this season, and were able to secure all three points with ease.

Alongside Arsenal, Tottenham cruised to a comfortable 5-0 win over hapless Swansea, meaning that the gap from first to fifth is a mere seven points. And given the losses by City and Liverpool, Arsenal are back up to second place, having kept pace with a Chelsea side that has won seven straight in the league. Arsenal are only three points back and, beside a trip to the Etihad in a fortnight, have a nice run of fixtures that could see them rise to the summit of the table, if Chelsea slip up at all before their return fixture February 4 of next year.

On the flip side, Sunderland won again, beating the defending champs 2-1 to move to 18th and threaten the Premier League future of their league struggling opponents. Like Leicester’s startling march down the table, West Ham appear completely lost since leaving their old home last May. They now stand a mere point above the bottom three in what is shaping up as a rousing battle to avoid relegation, with 14th through 19th place separated by a mere three points and Swansea only two points further back at a measly 9. West Ham have the talent to at least be a midtable team, but need to start defending less recklessly and find some wins or they could be scrapping for survival at the money side of the season – a year after fighting for the top four in the final weeks.

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