Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Aston Villa 0 Arsenal 2: Three Things We Learned

Arsenal produced a controlled performance that dispatched Aston Villa 2-0 on Sunday in Birmingham.

First-half goals by Olivier Giroud from the penalty spot and Aaron Ramsey from a sweeping counterattack sent Arsenal to the top of the Premier League table, pending the outcome of Monday’s Leicester City-Chelsea encounter.

Here are three things we learned from the match.

Arsenal’s depth can deliver

Arsenal, depleted by injuries and suffering especially the losses of starters Alexis Sanchez, Santi Cazorla, and Francis Coquelin, faced its third test in eight days. The Gunners won all three and outscored their opponents 8-1.

Granted, there will be tougher opposition than Sunderland, Olympiacos, and Aston Villa in the next few weeks, but you can only beat the team that’s facing you. Arsenal have done that and rebounded from a rough November.

Sunday’s accomplishment is nothing to be sniffed at, even though Villa sit at the bottom of the league table. Arsenal returned from Athens in the wee hours of Thursday morning, then had to recover and travel again in advance of the early Sunday kickoff at Villa Park.

This could have created an uncomfortable scenario, as manager Arsène Wenger admitted after the match: “I was a bit anxious today as we had given a lot on Wednesday and came back very, very late on Thursday morning. I know that Villa was fighting to survive and it was maybe a set of important points to win against a team low on confidence.”

Arsenal came through it comfortably and became the only English team to run this kind of European gantlet successfully this week. Of the five Premier League teams playing in European competitions—Manchester City, Manchester United, and Chelsea in the Champions League and Liverpool and Tottenham in the Europa League—only Arsenal won away in Europe in midweek and away in the league at the weekend. Meanwhile, Manchester United lost both its away contests, and Liverpool and Tottenham suffered late in their league matches on Sunday and dropped points.

In this context, the ability and determination of Arsenal to get the result against Aston Villa, particularly with a starting lineup still acclimating to each other and to different individual roles, are evidence of the side’s title potential.

Arsenal’s speed kills

When Arsenal’s attackers see green in front of them and kick into high gear, few defenders can keep up. With Ramsey deployed in the center of midfield, Theo Walcott on one flank, and Mesut Özil in the playmaking position, the Gunners can flash into action and pose an immediate threat.

This dynamic led to both Arsenal goals. For the first, Walcott got past Villa’s lumbering Alan Hutton and gathered a long pass from midfielder Mathieu Flamini. Hutton bumped then grabbed Walcott and sent him to ground in the penalty area. Giroud slotted home from the spot.

The second goal showed the aesthetics and athleticism that the Gunners can offer. Ramsey tackles the ball away from Idressa Gueye about 25 yards from the Arsenal goal. Giroud recovers it, passes quickly to Özil, who finds Walcott just off the center circle on the left. Ramsey’s on his feet by then and at top speed, in a sprinting phalanx with Özil and Giroud.

Walcott takes one touch and sends a beautiful pass through to Özil, who is by this point about 25 yards from the Villa goal. Joleon Lescott, the lone defender still in the play, goes to close down Özil, so the German simply squares it to Ramsey to put into an open net.

Here’s how Ramsey described the passage of play, in his typically understated fashion:
It was nice to be there to finish the move. It was a great move from us. We saw them losing [the ball] as an opportunity to get forward and it was a great ball by Theo in the first place. Then the vision of Ozil to play me in for a simple tap in was delightful as well. I’m delighted that I could finish it off.

These two bursts of speed proved sufficient to secure the victory over Villa. A few subsequent surges, such as Walcott’s run off Giroud in first-half injury time, a foray by substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Ramsey’s incredible dispossession of Lescott all the way on the Villa goal line in second-half injury time, could have added another goal with a bit of luck or composure.

Taken together, these moves show the threat Arsenal’s speed presents. Even without Alexis.

Ramsey returns as a midfield dynamo

Observers of Arsenal have long acknowledged that the central midfield position brings out Ramsey’s individual strengths. His energy, inventiveness, vision, and nose for goal, among other qualities, really emerge in the middle of the park.

Wenger hasn’t always deployed Ramsey there, largely because the overall balance has required his services elsewhere.

Against Villa, the Welshman made a case for basing the balance on him in central midfield.

He started and finished the play for Arsenal’s second goal. He was also the Gunners’ top passer, completing 71 of 78 for a 91 percent rate, according to the FourFourTwo StatsZone app. Ramsey was active on defense as well, making more ball recoveries (nine) than any other Arsenal player and succeeding with five of six tackles, both game highs.

It’ll be interesting to see Ramsey’s collaboration with Flamini develop—it isn’t perfect and might not work as well against top teams—and to examine the questions Ramsey’s performances raise for the club’s transfer priorities. Will they, for example, encourage Wenger and his staff to identify other midfielders who can further bring out Ramsey’s strengths? That should generate much discussion into the January transfer window and beyond.

Extra time

Nacho goes solo.

The way the Gunners were set up on Sunday and after 20 minutes against Olympiacos on Wednesday meant that left back Nacho Monreal had hardly any support. Walcott on the left flank doesn’t have the keen defensive instincts of Alexis or Joel Campbell, while the midfield pairing of Ramsey and Flamini doesn’t shift laterally to protect the fullbacks as much as Coquelin and Cazorla do.

As a result, Monreal found himself covering a Villa attacker, often Scott Sinclair and the fullback Hutton. Several dangerous Villa attacks resulted.

Arsenal will likely need to adjust as they prepare to face Manchester City’s more effective strike force next Monday.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Match Preview, Olympiacos v Arsenal: Not the End of the World

At this point, there’s no secret about Arsenal’s objective in this evening’s Champions League encounter at Olympiacos: The Gunners must win by two goals or by any score except 1-0 or 2-1 to advance to the competition’s knockout stage.

Falling short would mean Arsenal wouldn’t advance from the Champions League group stages for the first time in 16 years. It would also cast the club into the Europa League, with its potentially awkward Thursday matches in far-flung locales.

We’re at this point because the Gunners fell to Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia and Olympiacos at home in their first two matches, so any talk of failure should really focus on those two performances. Winning today by the required margin represents a much tougher task.

That’s particularly true because Arsenal will be far from full strength. We won’t rehash the team’s injury problems but will only note that the absence of Alexis, when goals against a compact defense are essential, could be decisive.

In those conditions, it won’t surprise us if the Gunners don’t succeed to the necessary degree. And that outcome won’t be a harbinger of the apocalypse.

Yes, winning is preferable, and this team needs to get back in the habit after its difficult November. Joining Europe’s best in the Champions League knockout stage also bolsters Arsenal’s reputation, its finances, and fan enthusiasm. We’re not arguing any of those points.

But, in and of itself, an exit from the Champions League will not be cataclysmic.

That’s mainly because Arsenal don’t have a realistic chance of winning the Champions League. Even if they receive a kindly draw in the first knockout match and buck the recent trend of losing to that initial opponent, the likelihood of taking out Bayern Munich or Barcelona or even Juventus or PSG over two legs is remote.

The Europa League, on the other hand, is a competition Arsenal might actually win.

Aside from that calculation, there’s a far worse outcome than failure in Athens—additional injuries. If any more first team midfielders or forwards are forced off this evening and then are ruled out for any of the busy festive schedule, Arsenal’s prospects in the Premier League will look grim. That would actually be disastrous, given the tight competition at the top of the table and the Gunners’ legitimate chance of overtaking current leaders Leicester City in the next few weeks.

How much will manager Arsène Wenger account for these implications when he sends his team out this evening? He’s not the type to shirk a challenge or to take a tactical loss; that’s why such matches as the 2004 FA Cup semifinal against Manchester United, when he dipped into his squad to rest several starters for their run at invincibility and history, sticks in the memory.

Wenger has also sounded the charge in his comments before the match, saying “There is one positive thing for us - we know exactly what we have to do. We know that we have to go for it from the start. So let's do that and hopefully we can get through.”

An indication of Wenger’s aggressiveness will be his deployment of Theo Walcott. The forward played 25 minutes against Sunderland on Saturday after more than a month on the sidelines with a calf injury. Does the manager give Walcott the start on the right side of Arsenal’s attack and again send out Olivier Giroud as the team’s center forward? That would be the most attack-minded team Arsenal could field at the moment.

It would also be risky in the short- and medium terms. Walcott won’t provide much defensive cover for right back Hector Bellerin, and fielding both Giroud and Walcott, the only two healthy options to lead the Arsenal line, courts injury danger.

Wenger is a risk taker, but he’s not crazy. He’ll acknowledge the significant downsides and, more than likely, keep one of Giroud or Walcott in reserve.

There’s not much choice to make elsewhere in the Arsenal setup, meaning Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey will continue their partnership in midfield. Theirs was a significant combination offensively on Saturday—Flamini-to-Ramsey was the team’s top passing connection—but their focus forward left gaps in the defense that Sunderland exploited on the counterattack.

Because Olympiacos must only avoid defeat, it can sit back, stymie Arsenal’s attack, and look to break. Arsenal’s midfielders will therefore need to be more attentive than they were on Saturday.

A more solid midfield will mark an important development for Arsenal’s league campaign as well. Whatever the outcome in Athens, home is where the focus should be.

Players to Watch:

Olympiacos. Esteban Cambiasso. The experienced midfielder will be the man to control the tempo and keep Arsenal’s playmaker Mesut Özil from finding space. If he can shut down the approaches to the Olympiacos penalty area and move the ball to attack quickly, Cambiasso will put the Greek side in a strong position to advance.

Arsenal. Olivier Giroud. The Frenchman has been producing the goals, ten in Arsenal’s league and European matches so far this season, and can trouble Olympiacos on set pieces. If Wenger prefers Theo Walcott’s speed and movement against the home side’s defensive setup, Giroud can be a decisive substitute.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Arsenal 3 Sunderland 1: Three Things We Learned

Arsenal's 3-1 victory over Sunderland on Saturday was welcome if not vintage.

Olivier Giroud's headed goal put the Gunners in front midway through the second half, and Aaron Ramsey's scrappy finish in injury time sealed the team's first league win since October 31. The result moved Arsenal back to second place, two points behind surprise leaders Leicester City.

Although the outcome was positive, particularly given the injury-enforced changes in the lineup, the performance will give manager Arsène Wenger, his staff, and the players much to contemplate as they turn to the busy December schedule.

Here are three things for us all to consider based on Saturday's match.

Arsenal's leads seem precarious

For the third consecutive league match, Arsenal scored the first goal. Such early leads would frequently be decisive, because they allow the team with the advantage to focus on thwarting the opponents and launching counterattacks.

Arsenal have not been able to capitalize of late, however. Just as they had done at West Bromwich Albion and Norwich City, the Gunners failed to hold their lead through the half. Joel Campbell's clean strike of Mesut Özil's sublime pass was negated by a Giroud own goal just before halftime.

The specifics were different in each match, but a common thread is defensive instincts that, in the moment, were not precise enough. In this case, Laurent Koscielny's move to nip the ball from Sunderland's Duncan Watmore along the touchline wasn't necessary and proved a split-second late. The subsequent free kick saw Giroud attempt a clearance with the wrong foot, given his relationship to goal; the equalizing goal was the result.

In truth, level terms looked shaky at times on Saturday, too. Arsenal's midfield was bypassed far too easily, leading to clear chances for Sunderland attackers Watmore and Fabio Borini. The new midfield partnership of Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey didn't support the defense enough, especially when one of the fullbacks had made a foray forward.

Arsenal will need to address this weakness before sterner tests ahead.

Arsenal's difference makers again made the difference

The shakiness didn't undo the Gunners because, in Özil and Petr Cech, the Gunners could call on world-class players to see them through.

In the absence of Santi Cazorla and Alexis Sanchez, Özil took on more responsibility for the Arsenal attack. The German playmaker attempted 107 passes, 15 percent of Arsenal's total on Saturday. As a point of contrast, the previous match in which Arsenal's first choice lineup attempted at least 600 passes was against Stoke City; Özil's attempts made up 10 percent that day. (Stats from FourFourTwo's StatsZone app)

He misfired on 22 passes, a week after failing on just one pass at Norwich City. But his influence was profound. He had the highest number of passes in the attacking third, created five chances for teammates, had more successful dribbles, and suffered the most fouls.

Özil's brilliant assist for Campbell's opener was his 12th in 14 league games this season. That's an absolutely blistering pace. He has twice as many assists as the next highest providers in the league.

At the other end of the pitch, Cech continues to prove his worth. He made three crucial saves, two of what StatsZone calls "big chances" when the attacker has only the keeper to beat. Cech also scrambled away two other potential own goals.

The goalkeeper is shoring up Arsenal's defense and its position near the top of the Premier League table.

Aaron Ramsey's energy was telling

Last week's injury to Santi Cazorla meant that Aaron Ramsey, himself only a week back from an injury layoff, returned to the center of Arsenal's midfield. It's the position he prefers and one in which he thrived during the 2013-14 season.

Despite Ramsey's time on the sidelines--and perhaps despite the sleep deprivation accompanying his new fatherhood--his energy and influence grew as the match went on. His runs overloaded dangerous areas and helped move Sunderland's defenders from their posts.

The assist for Giroud's goal came from one such occasion, when Ramsey shifted left to adjust to left back Nacho Monreal's dribble infield, received Monreal's pass, and found Giroud just in front of Sunderland's Younes Kaboul. He closed the deal by getting into the box and bundling home Calum Chambers's deflected shot.

Overall, Ramsey was almost as involved as Özil in the attacking third, completing 39 of his team-high 114 passes there. He also attempted seven shots and created four chances for teammates.

We'd perhaps like to see a keener focus on the defensive side from Ramsey--he tried and failed his one tackle attempt and made just one interception--but as a second game back from injury, in a different position, with a different partner in midfield, Ramsey's influence was sizable.

Extra time

Arsenal's movement from outside to inside created the first two goals. For the first, Campbell ran outside wingback DeAndre Yedlin and was open for Özil's pass. For the second, Monreal carried the ball from outside to inside, scrambling Sunderland's defense just enough for Ramsey and Giroud to find space.

These attacks from the flank proved more productive than attempts to play through Giroud against Sunderland's three central defenders. It's something to watch as Theo Walcott returns to the side from injury.