Much of the talk before the match at Villa Park was about Ozil’s disappointing performance since the start of the season. However, the bigger picture was more worrisome. The Gunners had won just one of their last six games in all competitions. While the 2-2 draw with Manchester City a week ago gave the fans the illusion that Arsenal had finally hit its stride, the humiliating 2-0 loss in the Champions League on Tuesday was a reminder that the Gunners were still far from the top level. The scoreline didn’t tell the whole story. If Borussia Dortmund had won 4-1, everybody would have seen it as a fair result.
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On paper, Aston Villa looked like a tough test with only one goal conceded in four games. But Arsenal scored three goals in a four-minute span to down the Villans 3-0 on Saturday and earn its first clean sheet in the Premier League this season. The great understanding between Ozil and Welbeck was the key to crack the defense. In the 33rd minute, Welbeck slipped a perfect through ball to Ozil, who ghosted past Senderos to open the scoring with a low strike from 15 yards. The Gunners capitalized on a counterattack to double the lead a minute later. Welbeck met a low cross from Ozil to side-foot the ball into the roof of the net. Under pressure from Oxlade-Chamberlain, Cissokho diverted into his own net an off-target attempt from Gibbs to hand Arsenal a 3-0 lead in the 36th.
Welbeck scored his first goal for Arsenal by converting his only clear-cut chance of the match. That should definitely boost his confidence after missing three good opportunities against Dortmund. Welbeck showed good ball retention skills and his pace gave Ozil more passing options than when Giroud leads the line. The duo was quieter in the second half. Welbeck took a pass from Ozil in the 53rd and cut inside to curl a shot straight into Guzan’s arms.
In search of consistency
Wenger did not make any tactical change to accommodate Ozil, who started on the left flank but often drifted inside. The difference with the previous games was that Ozil proved sharper in the final third. Ozil gave the best answer to his critics by notching a goal and making an assist. But has he really silenced his critics? I don’t think so.
Ozil was also able of such flashes of brilliance last season. Of course, the problem was his inconsistency. Ozil had maybe three or four good games out of 10 while his predecessor, Fabregas, performed well in six or seven games out of 10. Another criticism leveled against Ozil is a tendency to disappear in the big games or when the team is struggling. His performances against Bayern Munich last season and against Dortmund this week did not help debunk such an unflattering reputation. I guess we will need to wait until the Chelsea match next month to find out whether Ozil has improved mentally.
Winning the ball back
What Dortmund did really well on Tuesday was to press high up the pitch and prevent Arsenal from developing its game. The Gunners took a leaf out of Dortmund’s book to confiscate the ball at Villa Park and play at a high tempo in the first half. When they sit back, they have a pyramid midfield with Arteta and Ramsey protecting the back four while the playmaker, Cazorla or Rosicky, is positioned closer to the striker. But when the Gunners want to win the ball back in their opponents’ half, they use an inverted pyramid with Arteta patrolling in front of the defense while the other two midfielders pressure the ballholder.
That helps explain why Ramsey and Wilshere received yellow cards on Saturday. Ramsey made a professional foul on Agbonlahor to stop a counterttack in the 56th. Wilshere replaced Ramsey in the 78th and was booked for a late challenge on Hutton. The obvious flaw of that system is that the centerbacks have little room for error: once the first line of defense is breached, they often have to deal with one-on-one situations.
Ramsey’s involvement in the goals
Ramsey had a poor game by his own standards, making four sloppy passes in the first 16 minutes. He also took his chance twice from the edge of the box, but fired wide of the near post in the 19th and 45th. However, you can never fault Ramsey for a lack of effort. He played a key role in the first goal with a first-time pass to Oxlade-Chamberlain that destabilized the Villans. Ramsey then initiated the second goal by releasing Ozil down the left wing. And he created space for the third goal with a diagonal run inside the area. The Wales midfielder nearly had an assist in the 42nd but Ozil volleyed wide.
Arsenal won by a wide margin but it could have been a different story. Aston Villa’s plan was to park the bus and wait for counterattacking opportunities which never really came. Their best chances came from set pieces. Hutton connected with a corner from Cleverley in the 17th but headed wide. Then a free kick from Cleverley eluded the Arsenal defense in the 23rd. Koscielny missed his clearance while Gibbs failed to mark Clark, whose downward header was parried by Szczesny. Clark was again left unmarked on a corner in the 58th but Chambo blocked the close-range effort from the Aston Villa centerback.
Szczesny’s ball distribution
Defending set pieces has been a recurrent issue over the past seasons. Whether they use zonal marking or man-marking, the Gunners still fail to attack the ball and simply lack defensive awareness. Clark nearly scored for Aston Villa in the first half. How can you explain that no one is tracking him on a corner in the second half?
Szczesny made a brilliant save, but it’s disappointing to see that he still hasn’t improved his ball distribution. Delph took advantage of a poor clearance in the third minute to fire a low drive that Szczesny turned around the post. Three minutes later, Szczesny sent a clearance straight into touch. Either it’s a technical issue and Szczesny is not practicing hard enough, or it’s a mental issue and Szczesny has no excuse for such a lack of focus.
Arsenal almost got in trouble in the second half because of Chambers’ youth. The former Southampton defender was booked in the 22nd for a late tackle on Agbonlahor. He showed poor judgment in the 60th by holding Grealish, who was 60 yards away from our goal. Chambers could have been sent off but the referee was nice enough to keep his cards in his pocket. If you think I’m exaggerating, then you should remember that Ramsey was ejected against Besiktas last month after receiving a second yellow card for a similar offense.
Rotating to go the distance
Despite a three-goal deficit, Aston Villa made no real effort to rally in the second half and stuck to its 4-5-1 system. Arsenal kept enjoying a lot of ball possession but played at a slower tempo. The match ended on a positive note as no Gunner got injured while Rosicky and Podolski had some playing time by replacing Welbeck and Chambo in the 78th.
Wenger was wise enough to rest Sanchez on the bench. I think rotation should be a top priority for Tuesday’s match against Southampton in the League Cup as we will then face Tottenham, Galatasaray and Chelsea before the international break in October.
Right now, we can’t afford any injury at the back and up front. So it would make sense to rest key players such as Welbeck, Koscielny and Ramsey. It would also be a good opportunity to blood young players like Hayden and Bellerin and give some playing time to benchwarmers like Rosicky, Podolski and Campbell. We definitely need some healthy competition within the squad to go the distance this season instead of fading by February.