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.

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