The Gunners’ star men--Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez--accounted for all three goals in Arsenal's first win in four matches. Alexis clinched the result in the 69th minute, having moved to center forward when starter Olivier Giroud was replaced just a minute earlier.
The win clarifies Arsenal’s task as it seeks to qualify for the competition’s knockout stages for the 16th consecutive year. A victory by two goals in Athens over Olympiacos, 4-0 losers at Bayern Munich Tuesday, will put the Gunners into the Round of 16 yet again.
Here are three other things we learned from the match.
Özil and Alexis drove and delivered
Arsenal’s two top signings looked as if they don’t want to leave the Champions League. Not only did the pair produce the goods in front of goal, but they provided the energy, tenacity, and talent to overwhelm Zagreb at the crucial moments.
Özil’s opening goal in the 29th minute was an excellent example: After some skillful interplay in the Arsenal half among Santi Cazorla, Özil, and Giroud, Cazorla found Mathieu Flamini, who got the ball quickly to the streaking Alexis on Zagreb’s left flank. Giroud and Özil kept sprinting toward goal, Giroud’s run to the near post creating space for the German playmaker to run into. Alexis lifted a pass to Özil, who connected headlong and sent the ball past Zagreb keeper Eduardo.
A goal of speed, skill, and desire.
Those qualities seem to have returned to Alexis’s game in his last two matches. Alexis made the highlights with two goals, breaking a month-long drought, and the assist for Özil. He also harassed Zagreb’s defenders and midfielders, making 3/3 tackles and seven ball recoveries, tied for second on the team, according to FourFourTwo StatsZone.
Özil matched Alexis’s drive and scoring intent, especially in the first half. As manager Arsène Wenger said after the match, “I think Mesut Özil had an outstanding first half, he has got the taste for scoring now. I have never seen him in the box so many times as in the last five or six games.”
Arsenal’s ostensibly retiring playmaker attempted four shots from inside the penalty area and put three on target. The influence diagram on FourFourTwo.com shows how keen Özil was to get forward--he took, generally speaking, the most advanced position in Arsenal's attack.
On the day, the talents and dedication of these two world-class players made up for injury absences and proved too much for Zagreb.
Arsenal made Zagreb pay through transitions, not possession
Whether by design or by Zagreb’s more assertive approach, Arsenal allowed their opponents more possession than we expected. The usual pattern is for visitors to the Emirates to pack their defenses and force Arsenal to find a way through.
That didn’t materialize on Tuesday. Zagreb exerted pressure early and chased the game late. As a result, Arsenal finished the match with only a slight advantage in possession, 53 to 47 percent. Instead, the Gunners created dangerous situations by turning defense to attack with speed.
The first two goals played out this general scenario in a four-minute stretch of the first half. Özil’s goal came from a counterattack over three quarters of the pitch, while Alexis’s first resulted from a Nacho Monreal interception near the Zagreb penalty area and his centering pass.
In each situation, the Gunners moved and thought more quickly than their opponents and, as a result, found space right in front of Zagreb’s goal. A repeat of that idea and execution in the Premier League would be welcome indeed.
The Cazini midfield worked
There were ample discussions before the match about Arsenal's midfield structure and personnel due to the injury-induced absence of Francis Coquelin. His partnership with Cazorla, the thinking went, couldn't be replicated by another midfielder, so Wenger had to consider a revamp, perhaps even moving from the 4-2-3-1 formation to a 4-3-3.
As it happened, Flamini moved alongside Cazorla but didn't try to imitate Coquelin. He made only one tackle and three interceptions; by contrast, Coquelin was averaging 3.2 tackles and 2.7 interceptions per game in the Premier League before his injury. (Stats from Opta via whoscored.com)
Perhaps even more interesting, Flamini didn't combine with Cazorla nearly as often as Coquelin typically done. Passes from Flamini to Cazorla did not number among the Arsenal's top 11 combinations during the match, while Cazorla connected with his French teammate 12 times, the fifth most frequent Arsenal combination.
Instead of replacing Coquelin's defensive stance, Flamini made a greater creative impact. He picked precisely the right pass to Alexis to send the attacker on his way to assist Özil's opening goal, and his flick along the touch line to Joel Campbell started the move that ended with Alexis's clincher.
Against different opposition, Flamini-as-attacking-hub might not be the most desirable formula, and he might need to deliver more discipline in front of the defense. Here, though, such license paid off.
In just 22 minutes of action, Aaron Ramsey showed how valuable he is to the team's workings. Although he wasn't completely fit, his movement made Arsenal's attack much more dynamic. There was space for others and a renewed zip to the passing with Ramsey on the pitch; he also helped solidify the midfield when Zagreb had the ball. Not a moment too soon, Ramsey's return.