Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Arsenal Fight Back to Beat Leicester 4-3 in Season Opener

Arsenal came back from a goal down for the second week in a row, continuing a trend from last season of pulling out victory from the jaws of defeat. After taking an early lead through new striker Alexandre Lacazette (2’), Arsenal gave back two goals over the next half hour, to Okazaki and Vardy. Right before halftime, Welbeck equalized for the Gunners, only for the side to fall behind again as Vardy put in a corner at the near post in the 56th minute. Wenger brought on Giroud and Ramsey in the 67th minute and both scored, in the 83rd and 85th minutes, to complete the comeback for a 4-3 victory.  

Three thoughts on the game:

1.    Defensive Mistakes Almost Cost Arsenal Dearly
Besides a two-month stretch that cost Arsenal their place in the knockout stage of the Champions League and, ultimately, a spot in the top 4, Arsenal cut down on the defensive errors that had beset them for the previous few seasons. With Koscielny, Mertesacker, Gabriel and Mustafi all sidelined, the makeshift back three of Holding, Kolasinac and Monreal, with Ox and Bellerin as wingbacks, and Xhaka and Elneny in the midfield, committed three mistakes in the game, all leading to goals. In fact, those were the only three shots on target for Leicester, among six shots in total across the 90 plus minutes. Arsenal can be forgiven for a few mistakes in the opening game of the season, shaking off the cobwebs and trying to end a stretch of only two wins in the past six openers, but need to limit those mistakes moving forward, as they face Chelsea and Liverpool in two of their next three fixtures, sandwiched by a trip to Stoke and visits from Bournemouth and West Brom.

Their offensive potency saved them in this game, but the aforementioned troubling stretch from January 31 through March 18 earlier this year, saw them conceding at least two goals in 7 of 10 games (with two of the three where they didn’t in the FA Cup against sides from lower divisions) and three or more in six of those games (including 10 over two legs with Bayern in the UCL). Starting with their 2-1 victory over Boro on April 17, the Gunners registered five clean sheets in their last 10 fixtures of the season, conceding one goal in their other five. We should not read too much from the makeshift defense that faced a Leicester side that reminded of the champions of two seasons ago, ceding 70 percent of possession while launching their deadly counter strategically throughout. But getting their starters healthy and back in the lineup quickly will play a big role in taking full advantage of an opening schedule that only features two teams that finished above them among their next eight matches.

2.    Xhaka Continues to Impress
While Xhaka’s errant pass across the pitch in his own half led to Leicester’s opener, he was otherwise excellent, assisting Ramsey’s equalizer with a perfectly lofted pass over the flanked Leicester defense and the corner kick put in by Giroud for the winner two minutes later. Xhaka does not have the range of passes or dribbling ability of Cazorla, but is more solid defensively and has improved his troubling tendency to get into disciplinary troubles. With no slated return for the diminutive Spaniard, Xhaka could play a key role in propelling Arsenal to a title tilt. He has improved his poise and passing range, provides a decent shot from distance that will keep deep-lying defenses honest and is now the leading passer for the team in most games.

The key will be deciding who plays besides him. Ramsey, when healthy, is the obvious choice, and it was his introduction in the second half that took the Gunner offense to the next level, including scoring the equalizer in the 83rd minute. If Ramsey can approach his form of a few seasons ago, Arsenal could well become the most potent attack in the league, only rivaled by a healthy Tottenham and a stacked City. When unavailable or if Arsenal want to play more defensively, either Coquelin (very defensive) or Elneny (a decent option, though his passing is far more erratic than the other options) are both available. If Wilshere stays, he provides another possibility, as does Ox, though he has thrived more on the wings last season and throughout the preseason and last two matches. Whatever the case, Xhaka has certainly silenced his critics throughout last term – sometimes exaggerating his shortcomings – and emerged as a key cog in the first team machine.

3.  Strength in Depth
While Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool are all worried about squad depth, with fans rankling for additional signings, Arsenal’s problem appears to be of the opposite sort – a bloated corps that needs to be culled. While players like Gibbs, Debuchy, Campbell, Perez and Jenkinson will hopefully be sold before the window closes, Arsenal would still have the second best bench in the league, only behind the absurd riches on offer at Man City. Giroud now has the most goals off the bench in the league since the beginning of last season (7), after deciding to stay and fight for a starting spot, rather than move on to a team with more first team opportunities on offer. Walcott is just coming off his best scoring season in a decade with the Gunners (10 goals in the league, four in the Champions League and 5 in the FA Cup). Welbeck is health again, Reiss Nelson is a youngster with big upside after an excellent preseason, Iwobi seems to be returning near to his best form from last season (though he still needs more poise in front of goal) and Lacazette appears to provide a new option for the Gunners with his speed, close control and impressive dribbling abilities.

This, of course, ignored Sanchez, coming off his impressive season of 30 goals and 15 assists in all comps (assuming we keep him before the window shuts in about two-week’s time) and Ozil, who finished with 12 goals and 13 assists after a slow start in the latter category. I’ve already outlined the options in central midfield and then, for the first time in recent memory, Wenger might end up with a selection headache at the back based on performance – with Koscielny, Mustafi, Mertesacker, Gabriel and Holding all vying for three slots through the middle (or two if he returns to a 4-3-2-1) and Bellerin, Monreal, Kolasinac, Gabriel and Ox fighting it out for the wingback spots. Across the lineup, Wenger has viable options at each position on the pitch and a number of impact subs that can change the shape of a game, as was the case Friday night.

It is far too early to raise the prospect of Arsenal finally getting off the 13-year snide and lifting the Premier League trophy once again, but early signs are promising for the Gunners, even as most pundits have them falling outside the Top 4 for the second year running.

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