Saturday, December 10, 2016

Arsenal Go Top at End of a Great Week (3-1 over Stoke)

The culmination of a very good eight days saw Arsenal go top of the table with a 3-1 victory over Stoke today. It was another game where the Gunners found themselves behind, after a tight penalty call was converted by birthday boy Charlie Adams, but came back to claim points, a trend that bodes well for their continued challenge for an elusive title. Three thoughts on the game:

1. A Team Effort: Alexis Sanchez had a mediocre game by his standards, failing to tally a goal or assist, but he was involved in countless ways nonetheless. It was his pass that opened up space for Bellerin on the left that allowed him to send the pitch perfect cross that Walcott nestled cleverly into the near post for his 100th career Arsenal goal. The second came from the industry of Ox, who lofted the ball over the Stoke defense to a charging Ozil, who continued his own hot scoring streak with a lofted header over the keeper. The third again saw Sanchez involved, as he cut in from the left only to be fouled, with the ball falling kindly to Iwobi, who stormed into the box and then cut the ball powerfully low and across goal for his second in two league games.

It was really a whole team performance, with Gabriel having to move from right back to the center after Mustafi went down with a hamstring injury that will keep him out for at least three weeks. Bellerin came in for his first game in a month, quickly showing what Arsenal has missed as his forays down the right flank freed Walcott to cut in for the opener and on a few other occasions throughout the game. Gabriel was solid at the back, as were Koscielny and Monreal, himself back from a short injury layoff. Coquelin and Xhaka provided a solid shield in front of the back four and passed the ball forward with precision most of the game (though the latter more much than the former) and the forwards switched positions consistently, finding a way to break down Stoke’s usually solid defensive organization.
Arsenal now have weapons across the pitch, a more solid defense, a winning mentality and a relatively strong bench that should mean Wenger can avoid overworking his stars as he has in the past. Given the upcoming run of fixtures, the balance from front to back and several players chipping in goals, Arsenal could well find themselves in a strong position come May to atone for the lost title last season.

2. A Very Good Week: last Saturday, Arsenal cruised past West Ham 5-1 to move from fourth to second in the table. On Tuesday, they beat Basel 4-1 in their final UCL group game, to finish undefeated, though the assumption was it would not be enough to win the group. Instead, PSG somehow settled for a draw at home with Ludogorets and Arsenal finished on top, potentially setting up a better first round opponent, although Bayern and Real loom as two of their potential opponents. Their victory today pushed them even with Chelsea on points and goal difference, though Arsenal have scored more goals. So, for at least 24 hours, they sit at the summit of two tables simultaneously. Next up for the Gunners is a trip to Goodison Tuesday to face a reeling Everton side that has won only one in their last 10 and then to the Etihad for a key matchup against Man City, themselves on a string of only four victories in their past 15 games and 3 of 9 in the league. Get positive results from those two, and Arsenal face a run of winnable fixtures against West Brom, Crystal Palace, Bournemouth, Preston (in the FA Cup), Swansea, Burnley and Watford, before the return fixture at Chelsea in early February. Having only lost two games all season, Arsenal find themselves in their strongest position in years.

3. Around the Horn: Stoke played a solid game for long stretches, showing passing flair and creating more than a few chances, but were ultimately beat down by the Gunner’s relentless attack and high press, keeping them in what is becoming their de facto position – 9th in the table. Mark Hughes has set up a solid side from front to back, though, and they look a good bet to finish in the top half of the table, and maybe even higher if some around them slip up.

In the other games Saturday, Swansea won 3-0 to moved out of the relegation zone, at least for a day, beating a suddenly hot Sunderland 3-0, to shuttle up to 17th and provide American manager Bradley with only his second victory in eight league fixtures so far.
Later, Man City were absolutely demolished for most of their ultimate 4-2 loss to a side whose title defense has been the second worst in the history of English club football, even as Leicester City did win their group in their maiden foray into European football. The powder blues were missing three key players, but some of the blame for this loss must rest with Guardiola, who appeared to set up his team to play to Leicester’s strengths, allowing shambolic defending to assist all four counterattack goals for the home side. It was a big day for Vardy, who scored a hat trick after 16 games without a solitary goal but a tough one for City, who could be in fifth place if Tottenham can take maximum points at Old Trafford Sunday. In the other games tomorrow, Chelsea face off against a hot West Brom, Southampton host Middlesbrough and Liverpool try to keep pace against West Ham.

Overall, today was punctuated by an absolute deluge of goals, with every game at least tallying three. The lowest total was Swansea’s 3-0 victory, the only clean sheet Saturday. In the early game, Everton took the early lead against Watford on a Lukaku goal, only to cede three straight before a late second gave a glimmer of false hope. Burnley beat back a Bournemouth comeback to win 3-2, Hull and Crystal ultimately shared the spoils in a topsy-turvy 3-3 draw and then there were the Arsenal and Leicester victories. In total, 29 goals hit the net in 6 games, further amplifying the sense that EPL defenders have fallen behind their attacking foes of late. No complaints here, of course, on that score …

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