The Gunners bought a bit of time by edging West Bromwich 1-0 on Saturday to recover from their worst start to a Premier League season. They also qualified for the knockout phase of the Champions League with a 2-0 victory over Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday. Both results have obviously helped lift the mood at the club, but the Gunners still need more consistency to put their season back on track and sweep aside any talk of a crisis.
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Wenger made five changes to the side that lost 2-1 to Manchester United the previous weekend. Injuries to Szczesny, Arteta and Wilshere and giving Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gibbs a break meant Giroud, Koscielny, Martinez, Flamini and Cazorla were in the starting lineup.
Arsenal had just two full days of rest after its Champions League game and played at an average tempo. West Bromwich troubled a bit Arsenal in the opening minutes by pressing high up the pitch, but the Gunners were in control of the match after 25 minutes. Poor finishing prevented Arsenal from leading at halftime despite eight goal attempts to none for the Baggies.
Tactically, the Gunners tried too hard to penetrate the heart of the West Bromwich defense. Giroud had very little service as the wings were underused with Welbeck and Sanchez often cutting inside and Monreal and Chambers showing cautiousness.
Cazorla’s playmaking skills
It took a great move from Cazorla to break the deadlock in the second half. Cazorla still hasn’t found his shooting boots but he has more influence in the team’s passing game. Cazorla should have opened the scoring in the 55th minute when Giroud released Gibbs down the left wing, but the Spaniard could not jump high enough to connect with Gibbs’ cross.
The mutual understanding between Cazorla and Welbeck at the Hawthorns could prove useful in a season mostly defined by Sanchez’s brilliance so far. In the 31st, Welbeck set up Cazorla, whose tame curling shot from 25 yards barely troubled Foster. Cazorla then found Welbeck in the 52nd and the England striker fed Ramsey, whose spinning effort was blocked. Their understanding finally bore fruit in the 60th when Cazorla dribbled past Wisdom to cross the ball for Welbeck, who outjumped Pocognoli to head home.
That was Cazorla’s third assist of the week as he also set up both goals against Dortmund. He’s stepping up at the right time since Wilshere and Ozil are both injured and Ramsey is still struggling for form. Cazorla started his Arsenal career in a more advanced position on the left wing. I think it makes sense for him to finish his career in a deeper position that will help him pull the strings in midfield while contributing more defensively.
Giroud’s feel for small opportunities
Welbeck scored the winner but I hope Giroud will give him enough competition so that he can improve his finishing. Welbeck collected a bouncing through ball from Sanchez in the 19th, but his first touch was so average that the ball got away from him and the referee did not award any penalty when Wisdom slightly shoved him. I think Arsenal would have earned a spot kick if Welbeck’s close control had been better. The England forward also missed another opportunity in the 26th when Ramsey played him in. Clean through on goal, Welbeck had his low attempt saved by Foster.
Giroud made his first start since the foot injury he picked up in August. The Frenchman doesn’t have Welbeck’s pace but he can smell any small opportunity. Mulumbu was about to intercept a pass from Sanchez in the 24th but he didn’t feel Giroud’s presence behind him. Giroud beat Mulumbu to the ball and should have been awarded a penalty when the West Brom midfielder inadvertently stamped on his foot.
Last year, Giroud scored against Southampton by pressuring a reckless Boruc. Foster also tried his luck in the 27th and lost the ball to the Frenchman, who curled his shot wide from a very tight angle. Giroud showed again his flair in the 53rd when Foster spilled a free kick. He played the ball back to Mertesacker, who fired his half-volley wide.
Koscielny’s positional play
Now that we have two options at centerforward with Giroud and Welbeck, December would be a good time to rest Sanchez a bit. The Chile international really looked tired on Saturday. He ran 40 yards to lead a counterattack in the sixth minute but could only muster a low drive straight at Foster. Sanchez then made an interception in the 37th, allowing Cazorla to feed Ramsey, who missed the target from inside the box.
There’s no doubt that Ramsey would have converted that chance last season, when he scored 16 goals in all competitions. He’s obviously still chasing his best form but he needs to remain patient and avoid speculative shots like the 30-yard drive that went nowhere in the 67th. I think his top priority now should be to give enough protection to the back four just like when he deflected Gardner’s long-range effort in the 90th. Once his defensive game clicks, he’ll have sound foundations for his attacking game.
The Gunners earned a second straight clean sheet in all competitions, which is nice, but there were a few glitches at the back. In his return from a nagging Achilles injury, Koscielny made two positional mistakes that could have proved costly. Berahino was clean through on goal in the 47th but was flagged offside although Koscielny clearly played him onside. Berahino beat again the offside trap seven minutes later as Koscielny failed to take two steps forward. Fortunately, Flamini covered his compatriot, forcing Berahino to curl his shot into the side-netting.
A depleted squad
When Monreal teams up with Mertesacker at centerback, Monreal is the one looking like a smart defender. And when Koscielny partners Mertesacker, Koscielny is the one looking like a silly defender. How bizarre. A lot of fans like the duo formed by Mertesacker and Koscielny because of the 17 clean sheets in the Premier League last season. But I still believe it’s a flawed partnership and that none of them will be part of the spine for a team that can win the league title. The Arsenal defense conceded 41 goals last season, one of the worst totals in the Wenger era, and the club is on pace to finish the season with 44 goals allowed.
Chambers is still struggling at fullback. Brunt and Sessegnon easily dribbled past him in the 41st and the 45th respectively. The Baggies nearly equalized in the 81st when Berahino’s header crashed against the bar. Two mistakes on that play: Gibbs failed to stop Gamboa’s cross while Berahino beat Chambers to the ball. If Chambers becomes a centerback, then he’d better learn the ropes quickly because that’s the kind of duel you can’t afford to lose.
The Gunners are now short at the back and in midfield. Szczesny, Ospina, Debuchy, Arteta, Wilshere, Ozil and Diaby are still injured while Gibbs, Monreal and Oxlade-Chamberlain have picked up knocks at the Hawthorns. Unfortunately there’s no time to feel sorry for ourselves as we host Southampton on Wednesday. It’s definitely a massive test given Arsenal’s poor record against the top teams this season. Chelsea and Manchester City will finish in the top two while the Gunners, Southampton, Manchester United, Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton will fight for the last two Champions League spot. The Red Devils and the Saints have a big advantage over Arsenal since they don’t play in any European competition.