Thursday, April 06, 2017

Arsenal Rebound 3-0 Over West Ham to Move to Fifth

Arsenal rebounded from their recent barren spell with a comprehensive 3-0 victory over West Ham, providing their most compelling league performance in a couple of months. Ozil, Walcott and Giroud were all on the scoring sheet and the Gunners had their first clean sheet in the league since February 11. Some thoughts on the games and the entire midweek slate:

1. Bounce Back Continues … But will it Be Enough?
After an awful two-month stretch, where Arsenal were dispatched from the UCL in humiliating fashion and won only one of six in the league (with four losses and a draw), they have picked up four points from their last two games and finally began to look like the side that seemed a legitimate title-challenger as late as mid-December. Arsenal were largely fluid in attack, particularly in the second half, and got their first league clean sheet since a 2-0 win over Hull on February 11. In fact, if we take out the three FA Cup wins against lower league sides and Southampton reserves, it was only their third clean sheet in their past 12 games. Mustafi and Gabriel partnered well, though they had less to do given that West Ham sat back and absorbed Arsenal’s attack for most of the game (to the tune of 66 percent possession and 21 (8) shots to 7 (2)). 

Arsenal were in the ascendancy early, but missed some good opportunities to score, none more than Welbeck set free on goal from a beautifully lofted Sanchez pass, only to fluff his lines from six yards out. Fears that the game might end in a 0-0 deadlock, even with sustained Arsenal pressure, were erased in the 58th minute, when Ozil latched onto a poor clearance from West Ham, launching the ball from the right edge of the box across goal, where it slipped in under Darren Randolph, who was obstructed by a charging Sanchez. Welbeck missed another excellent chance to seal the win in the 61st minute, after a great zigzagging run and pass from Walcott, only to wait too long and have his shot saved. Walcott made it 2-0 seven minutes later, after a back heel from Sanchez set Ozil free down the left channel of the box, with his cutback pass finished smoothly by Walcott, who is quietly having one of his best scoring seasons as a Gunner. In the 83rd minute, subs Ox and Giroud combined for a wonderfully taken goal, as Chamberlain burst past the West Ham defense before Giroud again beat Randolph at his far post from the right-hand side of the box. It was Giroud’s fifth goal off the bench this season.

While Arsenal can take some confidence from the result, it does remind that they are a much better side these days when teams sit back and absorb their pressure, rather than attack, hold possession or pressure the ball and counter with speed. It is also worth noting that Arsenal would be in a comfortable position within the Top 4 this season if they had done a little better against their compatriots in the Top 7, instead of getting doubled by Liverpool, losing to Everton, settling for draws against Tottenham and United and losing and drawing with City – while trading wins with Chelsea. Ironically, it could be the showdown at White Hart Lane that does them in, assuming they hold serve at home and don’t fall prey to a trip to Stoke, where they have struggled in recent seasons.

2. Ozil Finally at His Best … Again Against Lower Side
As I have noted in previous posts, Ozil has had a habit of disappearing on the biggest stage, this season more than any in recent memory. But after taking the brunt of the derision aimed at the players in recent weeks, he finally provided a display that acquits with his talent. He scored the opener and provided the assist for the second, while tracking back a little better than usual, holding up the ball as he did earlier in the season and finding slicker passes than he has during most of the torrid spell the Gunners have suffered through. In his last three games, he has racked up 3 assists and a goal, after seven appearances with only a solitary assist. It was also his first goal since a December 10 win over these same Hammers, and only his third in his last 20 appearances, after 6 in his first 14 in all competitions.

If Arsenal are to sneak back into the Top 4 before the season ends in May or win the two games necessary to claim another FA Cup, consistent performances from Ozil will be necessary, along with more defensive solidity and consistency across the front line and midfield (of course, one could say this of any side). Ozil at his best is one of the finest creative midfielders in the world and Arsenal need for him to display that flair for the remainder of the season. Assuming he does, they also need to get him to put pen to paper on a new deal.

3. Top 4 Battle Tightens as Chelsea Closes on Title
It ain’t over til it’s over, but it’s clearly getting closer to over as Chelsea beat back Manchester City 2-1 today to keep their seven-point lead over Tottenham with only eight games to play for both teams. While City was arguably the better side on the day, luck was against them and Chelsea took their chances better than their opponents, maintaining a seven-point lead that should be enough to see them over the line. The race to the Top Four, on the other hand, tightened, as United were again held to a draw at Old Trafford, Liverpool split the points with Bournemouth and Man City dropped all three points, while the two North London sides won.

In fact, it was a very good day for both sides. Tottenham moved five points above Liverpool with a game in hand and 7 points above City, having played the same number of matches. Arsenal moved from sixth to fifth and, with wins in their game in hand over City and two games in hand over Liverpool, they would be one point behind the former and at least even with the latter (Liverpool currently have a goal difference of +27 and if Arsenal win both those games by one goal, they would be on the same total). Thus, Arsenal are again in control of their destiny, no matter what happens with Liverpool, as long as they finish with a better goal difference. However, that requires the Gunners to win out and this one victory over West Ham is not enough to restore confidence they can accomplish that feat, particularly with United, Tottenham and Everton still on the horizon.

On the other hand, the presumption that Liverpool had the easiest run in of fixtures might be offset by continued concerns that it is the lesser sides that have been robbing them of the most points this season. In fact, Liverpool were undefeated against the rest of the Top 6, with five wins and five draws, in addition to the double over seventh place crosstown rivals Everton. It is sides in the bottom half of the table who have given them the most trouble this season, often as a result of blowing leads late, as happened in both games against Bournemouth this season (a loss and the draw today). With Mane seemingly out for the season, Lallana still facing a spell on the sideline and other injuries, one does begin to wonder if the Top 4 is as secure as presumed a mere four days ago.

Whatever the result, two heavyweights of English football seem likely to be plying their trade in the Europa League next season, potentially costing them signings this summer and the sizable influx of cash the Champions League provides. At present, it looks like United and Arsenal are likely to be those teams, but results over the past five days reminds us that nothing should be taken for granted, particularly Arsenal failing to again crawl their way into the Top 4 they have occupied for 20 years now.

4. Midweek Comebacks: Liverpool were down 1-0 before coming back to take a 2-1 lead, only to be pegged back with a late Bournemouth goal (87’) to draw 2-2. Tottenham were down 1-0 as the clock crossed 88 minutes to Swansea, before scoring three in the next 6 minutes to win comfortably in the end (only the 20th time a team has come back from behind to win in the last five minutes of a game in the Premier era, with the Spurs accounting for four of those results). Middlesboro scored a rare goal to take a 1-0 lead in a key bottom 3 matchup, before ceding four on the road to a 4-2 loss to Hull that moved them two steps closer to relegation. Crystal Palace were 1-0 up early against Southampton in the wake of their Stamford Bridge stunner, only to ultimately lose 3-1. And United scored a late equalizer to “garner” yet another home draw, as Ibrahimovic again saved the day.

It is hard to find stats on this, but it appears more games than usual have turned on late goals this season, with “Fergie time” often hurting rather than helping United along the way. Arsenal have, surprisingly, crawled back from deficits to draw or win several games in the league and Champions League while Liverpool have had a penchant for ceding leads late on, while Tottenham have continued a trend from recent seasons, finding ways to rescue points at the death. Even with their injury woes at present, they seem poised to finally finish a season well and snatch second place, though it could very well be the swan song for the manager that has lifted them from the doldrums of perennial fifth place finishes.

5. Relegation Scrap Taking Shape

Sunderland appear like a lost cause this season, unable to muster the late charge that has saved them for five straight seasons and further reservations will attach themselves to Moyes if they do find themselves plying their trade in the championship next season. Middlesboro also look extremely likely to remain in their current position in 19th place, unable to find the back of the net often enough while their stalwart defense from earlier in the campaign suddenly ceding goals at an alarming rate. That leaves the race for 18th the most compelling remaining question and Hull City dragged themselves out of the bottom three with their victory over Middlesboro combined with Swansea late loss to Tottenham. It appears Swansea, Hull, Crystal Palace and West Ham, separated by five points, are all now in a serious relegation scrap, with Burnley and Bournemouth not completely safe either. That could be bad news for the sides above them and any thoughts of three-point strolls in the run-in, as one expects all to fight tooth and nail to secure passage to another tilt in the Top 20 of English Football.

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