A solid defensive performance on Saturday gave the Gunners a third straight clean sheet in all competitions and a 3-0 win over Cardiff to consolidate their top spot in the Premier League. Flamini notched his first goal this season while Ramsey extended his outstanding scoring form by raising his tally to eight league goals.
Wenger made three changes from the team that defeated Marseille 2-0 in the Champions League on Tuesday, leaving Monreal, Flamini and Rosicky on the bench to start Gibbs, Arteta and Cazorla. Such a rotation policy is necessary to keep playing the brand of football advocated by the manager. Making runs, pressing high up the pitch and tracking back require a lot of energy. Wenger will have to rest Ramsey, Giroud and Ozil at some stage in December to avoid injuries. Ramsey and Giroud have already made 22 appearances each, while Ozil has played in 17 matches since joining Arsenal in September.
The Bluebirds scored twice to draw 2-2 with Manchester United last weekend. But it was a different story with the Gunners, who have been very consistent on the road this season. The hosts’ few chances came from Arsenal’s relative weakness on the wings. Cazorla failed to track Theophile-Catherine in the 10th minute and the Cardiff rightback made a cross for Campbell, who outjumped Sagna to head wide. The Gunners were down to 10 men on that play as Mertesacker was receiving treatment after colliding with Sagna in the air. In the 51st, no one pressured Taylor, who had plenty of time for a cross from our right flank. Kim redirected the ball toward Campbell, who outjumped Gibbs for a downward header, but Szczesny dived to make the save.
There was also the usual lapse of concentration on a set piece. Kim made a run at the near post to connect with a free kick in the 33rd, but his off-target flick bounced off a Cardiff player. The Bluebirds mostly resorted to long-range strikes in the second half, attempting to capitalize on poor clearances from the Arsenal defense. Whittingham shot straight at Szczesny in the 79th while Cowie’s low drive in the 84th lacked power to trouble the Poland goalkeeper. Szczesny protected his team’s lead by quickly reading a play in the 78th. Noone slipped a through ball to Odemwingie, who outpaced Mertesacker to be clean through on goal, but Szczesny came off his line to claim the ball.
The Gunners dominated ball possession in the first half and could have opened the scoring by the second minute. Ramsey connected with Wilshere, who struck the bar with a curling shot. The England midfielder’s maturation could play a key role in the title race. His first goal against Marseille showed his improved composure in front of goal. His second goal showed his intelligence without the ball. Wilshere has simplified his game this season, understanding that a timely run can make as much difference as a successful take-on.
Wilshere and Ramsey have a slightly different profile. Both are all-around midfielders who can win tackles, make assists and score goals. But Wilshere has better dribbling and passing skills while Ramsey is a real box-to-box player with more stamina. In the 15th, Wilshere played Giroud in, but the France striker stopped, thinking for a second he was offside, and allowed Caulker to rush back and block his shot. Giroud was indeed offside when Ozil flicked the ball on but he should have played to the whistle as the linesman was not sure whether Ozil made contact with the ball. Wilshere created another chance by setting up Cazorla in the 68th but the Spaniard could only produce a tame effort.
Giroud did not score on Saturday but he made a smart run in the 29th to create space for Ramsey on the opening goal. Ozil made a cross from the left flank for the Wales midfielder, who beat Taylor to the ball to head into the top corner from 12 yards. Playing as a lone striker can be frustrating, especially when the wingers are in fact midfielders. Giroud chested down a high ball from Gibbs in the 40th, reached the byline and could not find any Gunner inside the Cardiff area. Ozil an Cazorla failed to provide some support whereas wingers such as Walcott and Podolski would have made a run to help Giroud. Playing midfielders on the flanks gives you a better ball retention rate but then you also lose a bit of penetration.
Arsenal nearly doubled the lead on the stroke of halftime. Giroud fed Ramsey, who cut inside Turner but was reluctant to shoot with his left foot. The Wales midfielder made another turn to shoot with his right foot, but Turner recovered, forcing Ramsey to fire over. Ramsey then dribbled past two defenders in the 47th to cut the ball back for Giroud, but Turner cleared off the line the Frenchman’s low strike from seven yards. A more clinical striker like Van Persie would have scored.
The Gunners started feeling the fatigue from their Champions League match, frequently losing the ball to let Cardiff enjoy short spells of domination in the second half. Wenger protected his team’s lead by replacing Cazorla and Wilshere with Flamini and Monreal. Just when the Bluebirds seemed close to an equalizer, Arsenal delivered the lethal blow. It’s a scenario we’ve often seen this season. The Gunners are under siege but they still manage to absorb the pressure before the cavalry finally sends a counterpunch. Ozil made a perfectly weighted pass for Flamini in the 86th and the French midfielder blasted the ball into the roof of the net with a first-time effort.
Ozil is an outstanding passer but he still has room for improvement at 25. The chances he wasted against Marseille are an obvious sign that he needs to develop a killer instinct in front of goal. Premier League matches also show that he’s not strong enough in duels and in the air. When Pires joined Arsenal, he had technical maturity but needed to toughen up his game. Ozil is facing a similar challenge.
If we check Arsenal’s stats centre, we can see that Ozil’s passing accuracy (87%) is at the same level as Carrick and Gerrard (both 86.8%) and slightly better than Lampard (84.1%). But Ozil’s ratio of duels won (39.6%) is relatively weak compared to Carrick (55.1%), Gerrard (55.6%) and Lampard (55.1%). One explanation could be that Ozil is still adjusting to the Premier League whereas Carrick, Gerrard and Lampard have played in England for years. But if we look at the stats of some players who are not British, we can see that Hazard (51.4% of duels won) and Javi Garcia (58.5%) have adapted quickly.
Walcott replaced Ozil in the 90th and helped Arsenal add a third goal. Looking for a cheap penalty, Odemwingie dived in stoppage time and turned the ball over. Ramsey led the counterattack and released Walcott down the right flank. Aware that it would be difficult to score from a tight angle, Walcott played the ball back to Ramsey, who took a touch before firing into the top corner.
The scoreline was a bit flattering for the Gunners. They would have dropped points in that kind of match a couple of seasons ago. But now they are a more mature side and cope better with their weak periods. The only negative from Saturday’s match was Cazorla’s performance. The Spaniard is struggling to get back to his best level. Recovering from an ankle injury can be tricky. It took Wilshere a bit of time to hit his stride this season. Patience may be needed for Cazorla too.
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