Arsenal vs. Tottenham: Surprise, surprise

A depleted squad and no money spent in the transfer market. Things did not look good before the match against Tottenham. A vacation in Greece seemed the best alternative to a nightmare scenario in which the Gunners would lose to their rivals and Wenger would keep all the club’s cash in the bank. Back from the country of Nikos Kazantzakis, it was quite a relief to find out that Arsenal won 1-0 and that the manager hired one of the best playmakers in the world by breaking the club’s record transfer fee.

The Gunners troubled Tottenham with their speed, penetration and slick passing game. A foul on Rosicky after two minutes gave Cazorla an opportunity to test Lloris. The Spaniard’s free kick headed for the top corner but Lloris jumped to palm the ball away. When Walcott was fouled in the sixth, Cazorla outsmarted the Spurs with a free kick under the jumping wall, however his effort sailed wide. In the following minute, Giroud chased a long ball from Cazorla but could not direct his header to beat Lloris.

Tottenham lacked fluidity in its game with four summer signings in its starting lineup: Soldado, Chadli, Paulinho and Capoue. Yet, the biggest difference with the side that beat Arsenal 2-1 in March was Bale’s absence. Whereas the Wales midfielder exposed the Gunners’ defensive frailties last season, Arsenal was never pulled out of position two weeks ago. The Gunners do a better job of tracking back after losing possession and they have improved their defensive understanding. Both Cazorla and Walcott made the effort to help their fullbacks.

Tottenham’s few chances in the first half came from Arsenal’s relative vulnerability on the flanks. Chadli got the better of Jenkinson in the 11th but could only fire from a tight angle into Szczesny’s arms. Walker then overlapped with Townsend in the 13th to make a low cross for Soldado whose first-time effort was blocked by Mertesacker. Townsend twice attempted long-range strikes but each time Szczesny made the save.

Just when both teams started playing more cautiously, Arsenal outplayed Tottenham in midfield to open the scoring in the 23rd. Mertesacker stole the ball from Chadli and found Ramsey, who combined with Cazorla before connecting with an unmarked Rosicky. The Czech playmaker released Walcott down the right flank and Giroud was quicker than Dawson to flick home a low cross from the England winger. Villas-Boas’ plan was to outmuscle Arsenal in midfield with Capoue, Paulinho and Dembele. Wenger circumvented that hurdle by relying on the technique and movement of Ramsey, Cazorla and Rosicky. The goal clearly showed who won the tactical battle.

Arsenal came close to doubling the lead before halftime. Ramsey held off a challenge from Dembele to feed Walcott in the 26th. The England winger was on his own and took his chance from a tight angle. Lloris had no trouble to stop Walcott’s low strike. Walcott then took a pass from Cazorla in the 31st and made a low pass to Ramsey, who fired over the bar from 14 yards. Two minutes later, some nifty one-touch passing allowed Cazorla to slip a through ball to Walcott, whose heavy touch allowed Lloris to come off his line and tackle the ball. That was a great defensive play from the Tottenham goalkeeper and a lesson for Szczesny whose legs are slow and whose decision-making can be dodgy.

The Gunners sat back in the second half, mostly waiting for counterattacking opportunities. When Arsenal hit the Spurs on the fast break in the 64th, Cazorla had the choice between Walcott, who made his signature diagonal run, and Giroud, who escaped marking near the right wing. The Spaniard chose Giroud, whose first touch was poor. But the Frenchman still managed to unleash a low drive that deflected off Rose for a corner.

Rosicky initiated another counterattack in the 70th. Giroud fed Walcott, but Lloris perfectly read the play and came out of his area for an interception. Giroud is not as gifted as Van Persie, but he has worked hard to adjust to Arsenal’s style of play. The Frenchman outmuscled two defenders in the 79th to cut the ball back for Walcott. Lloris parried Walcott’s goal attempt and Monreal, under pressure from Walker, could not convert the rebound at the far post.

Tottenham’s only chance in the second half came from a poor clearance by Giroud. Defoe’s half-volley took a deflection off Koscielny but Szczesny managed to make the save. Paulinho got the second ball and squared it back for Soldado, who was denied by a block from Giroud. The Gunners fought hard to protect their slim lead, finishing the match with six defenders as Monreal and Sagna respectively replaced Rosicky and Walcott.

Arsenal climbed to fourth in the Premier League and strengthened its squad by hiring Viviano and Ozil. The club overpaid for Ozil by spending more than 50 million euros, but that’s what most clubs do nowadays to get world-class players. See what happened this summer with Bale and Falcao. Ozil is quite young and still has room for improvement, especially in his finishing and the mental part of his game. Hopefully, Wenger will help Ozil make that extra step.

By signing Ozil, the Gunners are showing to future prospects that they are an ambitious club. Arsenal was no longer a legitimate title contender a couple of years ago when it lost the spine of the team by selling Fabregas, Song and Van Persie. Wenger has started the rebuilding process. He will need to find a striker and a centerback to become a serious contender next season. Giroud’s work ethic can’t be questioned but he’s not a striker who can create scoring chances out of nothing like Henry or Van Persie.

Mourinho said Ozil’s arrival turned Arsenal into a contender. But the truth is that we still have holes in our squad. If Giroud gets injured, we only have Sanogo and Bendtner as centerforwards. If Van Persie is sidelined, Manchester United can still rely on Rooney, Hernandez and Welbeck. Likewise, Chelsea can rotate with Torres, Schurrle, Ba and Eto’o up front. That’s a massive difference in terms of quality. In midfield, Wenger has found a back-up for Arteta by signing Flamini on a free transfer. But at the back, we’re still missing one defender since Djourou has not been replaced.

Arsenal definitely has enough quality for a top 4 finish this season, but its bench is not good enough to win the Premiership title. I’d be glad if the Gunners could prove me wrong.


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