The Gunners bounced back from a disappointing 2-0 loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League by routing Sunderland 4-1 on Saturday to keep pace with Chelsea in the Premier League title race.
Arsenal performed well against the German side on Wednesday until Szczesny was sent off in the 37th minute for fouling Robben and killing a clear scoring chance. I’ve always felt that eliminating the European champions was a step too high for the current squad. The Gunners were missing Walcott, our most prolific forward since Van Persie’s departure, and Ramsey, the team’s best player in the first half of the season.
I also believe we’re missing a couple of world-class players to become serious contenders in the Champions League. Sanogo had a decent game in his second start but he’s far from the finished product and he’s still miles away from a top striker like Van Persie or Henry.
Recovering from Wednesday’s loss
On paper, there was a huge gap between Arsenal and Sunderland, a team fighting relegation. In practice, the Gunners wasted a lot of energy after they were down to 10 men on Wednesday. They only had two days of rest to recover physically and mentally from a tough loss. Wenger made sure his team had fresh legs by replacing Gibbs, Flamini, Ozil, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sanogo with Monreal,Arteta, Rosicky, Podolski and Giroud.
I believe the manager overworked Ozil and could have rested him in January. What was the point of starting him against Coventry in the FA Cup? Ozil has played 32 games since joining Arsenal in September, that’s more than any midfielder at the club. The manager’s overreliance on Ozil was all the more puzzling that Wilshere, Rosicky and Cazorla can also take over the playmaking duties.
Wilshere and Rosicky pull the strings
Sunderland played with 10 men behind the ball, but the Gunners pressed high up the pitch to dominate possession. Wilshere and Rosicky proved instrumental in imposing our passing game while providing some penetration with deep runs. Rosicky fed Wilshere in the fifth minute, and the England midfielder pulled O’Shea and Vergini out of position to slip the ball to an unmarked Giroud, who beat Mannone with a low strike.
Wilshere then set up Podolski in the 21st, but Mannone tipped over the bar the long-range effort from the Germany forward. In the second half, Wilshere led a counterattack and played Gnabry in. The German teenager missed his first touch and needed two more touches to fire an angled shot that Mannone saved. Wilshere’s thigh strain in the closing minutes is a reminder that the manager should not repeat the mistake he made with Ramsey. It’s very tempting to start in every game a versatile player who covers a lot of ground. But if you overuse him, he will become less efficient and ultimately will get injured.
Giroud quiets second-guessing
The Black Cats kept a solid shape despite conceding the opening goal. It took Giroud’s opportunism to double the lead in the 31st. Under pressure from Podolski and Rosicky, Vergini made a soft back pass to Mannone. Giroud intercepted the ball to slip it through the goalkeeper’s legs.
When Wenger gave Sanogo the nod over Giroud for the match against Bayern Munich, it was hard to believe that exhaustion was the only reason for such a choice. Giroud only played the closing minutes against Liverpool a week ago, so he had enough rest before facing the German side. A more plausible explanation is that Giroud needed a bit of time to sort out the mess he created by dating an escort girl.
When Giroud’s name showed up in Saturday’s starting lineup, the obvious question was whether that affair would affect his performance on the pitch. By scoring two goals, the Frenchman has temporarily quieted the second-guessing about his form.
Another dream goal
Rosicky made it 3-0 with a play similar to the goal scored by Wilshere in the 4-1 win over Norwich in October. Same one-touch passing, same numerical inferiority offset by movement. Rosicky ghosted past a static O’Shea to take a pass from Giroud and chip Mannone three minutes before halftime.
Rosicky also set up Cazorla in the ninth minute, but the Spaniard hit a tame effort straight at Mannone. The Czech playmaker then forced Mannone to make a save with a speculative long-range strike in the 30th. When you see the penetration provided by Wilshere and Rosicky on Saturday, you kind of wonder why Wenger is so reluctant to rest Ozil, who has not scored since early December.
Arsenal’s drop in intensity
Sunderland created very little in the first half. Szczesny only had a bit of work in the 16th when the Black Cats hit Arsenal on the fast break. Ki released Alonso down our right flank, and the Sunderland fullback made a low cross that deflected off Koscielny. A wrongfooted Szczesny still managed to make the catch.
Saving some stamina, the Gunners sat back in the second half and allowed Sunderland a short spell of domination. Larsson found Borini inside the area in the 50th. Mertesacker gave a bit too much space to the Italian forward who spun and fired a powerful strike that Szczesny parried. Arsenal’s intensity dropped further when Koscielny escaped Bardsley’s marking in the 57th to head home a corner from Cazorla. The Black Cats defended poorly on three of the four goals scored by Arsenal but that’s the main reason why they are in the relegation zone.
A depleted defense
The Gunners lost more duels in the last 20 minutes. Larsson knocked a high ball down for Ki, who got ahead of Wilshere but saw his close-range effort palmed away by Szczesny in the 70th. A silly foul from Jenkinson gave Larsson a free kick on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 78th but his curling shot sailed wide of the far post. I guess it doesn’t hurt to have Bellerin back from a loan to Watford. That gives us more options at rightback.
Sagna started on the right flank but had to move to the left at halftime after Monreal picked up a foot injury and was replaced by Jenkinson. The French defender then played as a centerback when Koscielny suffered a knock in the back and was replaced by Flamini in the 66th. We might be short at the back for the first time this season.
Sunderland scored a consolation goal in the 81st. Szczesny punched away a free kick from Larsson into the path of Giaccherini, who controlled the ball and fired into the bottom corner from 30 yards. Wilshere and Podolski made a good effort to charge down while Szczesny should have punched the ball toward the flanks.
Ozil’s mental frailties
By staying in the title race, the manager has bought a bit of time to fix the Ozil problem. His penalty against Bayern Munich was poorly taken and looked very similar to his penalty miss against Marseille in November. Ozil’s short and slow run-up means his shot won’t have much power and it will be easier for the goalkeeper to guess the ball’s direction. That’s a short-term issue that Wenger can easily solve by working with Ozil and by changing the pecking order for penalty takers. On Wednesday, for instance, Cazorla and Oxlade-Chamberlain would have been better choices than Ozil.
The long-term problem is Ozil’s mental weakness. The way he played after missing his penalty is evidence of a lack of mental toughness. Chamakh and Gervinho enjoyed a promising start at the club but faded after a few months. Were Ozil to follow a similar path, he would become the club’s worst flop.
The ghost of Fabregas
Ask Arsenal fans who they’d like to have as the team’s playmaker between Ozil and Fabregas and the majority would choose our former captain because Fabregas is tougher mentally. Remember, Fabregas converted a penalty against Barcelona with a broken leg in 2010 and he secured qualification for the Champions League quarterfinals in 2008 with a long-range strike against AC Milan. Could you imagine Ozil do that? Not really.
Ozil’s lack of mental toughness is also impacting his attitude on the pitch. When Ozil arrived at the club, the manager knew the Germany midfielder needed some time to improve his finishing and be stronger in challenges. But the problem is that Ozil is not showing much desire in duels. In terms of talent, Fabregas and Ozil are pretty much at the same level. But in terms of commitment, there’s quite a gap as Fabregas wins more tackles than Ozil.
When Ozil left Real Madrid, he said he wanted to become a better player. Can he question himself and make the extra step that will help him fulfill his potential?
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