Arsenal vs. Aston Villa: Ozil’s resurgence, Cazorla’s consistency and Bellerin’s emergence

For the first time this season, the Gunners won a third straight Premier League game by smashing Aston Villa 5-0 on Sunday to go level on points with fourth-place Southampton. The Villans pressed high up the pitch to enjoy 52 percent of ball possession but Arsenal proved the more efficient team in the final third with eight shots on target compared to just two for the visitors.

Arsenal vs. Aston Villa
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Wenger made two changes to the side that stunned Manchester City 2-0 on Jan. 18 with Ozil and Walcott replacing Sanchez and Oxlade-Chamberlain in the starting lineup. Chambo has been dealing with a nagging groin strain while Sanchez hurt his hamstring. I’m not really surprised by Sanchez’s injury since the Chile international has already played 32 games for the club this season. Sanchez is simply hitting the wall physically like Ramsey did in December 2013. If I were in the manager’s shoes, I’d leave both Sanchez and Chambo out of the squad for the Tottenham match on Saturday to make sure they recover. We cannot risk losing them for a long period because loaning out Podolski and Campbell has limited our options on the wings.

The Gunners reached halftime with the lead but wasted several good situations with poor decision-making. Giroud opened the scoring with a cold-blooded finish in the eighth minute but it was the final ball that caught the eye. Ozil volleyed Mertesacker’s clearance into Giroud’s path with an acrobatic backheel flick. Sent clean through on goal, Giroud could even afford a couple of poor touches before chipping Guzan. When Arsenal signed Ozil, most fans assumed that Walcott would be the perfect outlet for his laser passes. Sunday’s good understanding between Ozil and Giroud shows that the Germany playmaker can also adapt his game to strikers with average pace.

Bullied off the ball
Ozil collected a through ball from Giroud in the 56th to make it 2-0 with a low diagonal strike. In the closing minutes, Ozil could have set up another goal. He cut inside Okore and was a bit selfish, attempting to dribble past Clark while Flamini was free to his right for a 12-yard shot. Ozil lost possession and Monreal pounced on the loose ball to have an effort deflected behind.

There’s an obvious difference in work rate between Ozil and Sanchez. Ozil doesn’t show the same intensity to press and win the ball back. He’s also weaker in challenges than Cazorla although the Spaniard is much shorter. I was shocked to see Ozil easily bullied off the ball twice on Sunday. That’s the main reason why Ozil starts on the left wing. Our team is simply more balanced with Cazorla playing in midfield.

Ozil and Walcott both scored in the 3-2 victory over Brighton in the FA Cup the previous weekend. Walcott continued his scoring form by finding the net in the 63rd. Ospina threw the ball to Walcott, who initiated a counterattack by finding Cazorla in midfield. As Cazorla spotted Giroud’s run inside the box, Walcott intercepted the pass intended for the Frenchman and curled home a low shot.

Walcott still lacks a bit of sharpness. He tried to skip past a defender in the 43rd instead of playing Ramsey in, and he poorly tracked Richardson in the 51st, allowing the Aston Villa leftback to cross the ball for Benteke, who got ahead of Koscielny to head wide. No one can make lethal runs behind the defense like him, but Walcott doesn’t have Chambo’s work rate and passing skills. It will be interesting to see the manager’s picks on both flanks once Sanchez and Chambo are fit again.

Ramsey and the team’s balance
Mertesacker and Koscielny had very little work to do because they got plenty of protection from their midfield. Ramsey had a low-key performance but I thought he was more focused on preserving the team’s balance than usual. He created the fourth goal in the 74th by sending a long ball toward Akpom, who was brought down by Guzan. Cazorla converted the subsequent penalty although the goalkeeper had a hand on the ball. Ramsey also slipped a through ball to Walcott in the opening minute but Okore rushed back to block the England winger’s goal attempt.

There were games this season when Ramsey tried too hard to score, especially with speculative drives from more than 30 yards. He took his chance twice on Sunday and each time I thought it was a decent call. Set up by Monreal in the sixth minute, Ramsey missed the target from 21 yards. The Wales midfielder then took a pass from Ozil in the 36th and had his shot parried by Guzan.

Cazorla troubled the Villans with his reading of the game and close control. He has built a fine understanding with Giroud since they both joined the club in 2012. Cazorla won a header in the 27th and found Giroud, who played the ball back to the Spaniard. Holding off a challenge from Okore, Cazorla hit the post with a low strike from 18 yards. Then Giroud connected with a free kick from Cazorla in the 69th but his header bounced off the bar.

Two No. 10s at work
In the 1980’s, pundits had doubts about the possibility of having two playmakers in the same team. A playmaker is like a conductor leading an orchestra. Cacophony would be the most plausible outcome if an orchestra had two conductors, right? However, France’s Platini and Giresse and Argentina’s Maradona and Burruchaga showed it did not hurt the balance of the team as long as one of the two playmakers moved in a deeper or more advanced position.

That’s how Fabregas and Rosicky managed to build a good partnership a few years ago. Ozil and Cazorla came close to achieving that feat on Sunday. Ozil played a one-two with Cazorla in the 30th before shooting past Guzan from a tight angle. But his goal was disallowed because Cazorla was offside. Two minutes later, Cazorla sent Ozil clean through on goal but the flag went up again. Hopefully, their improving understanding will yield a goal in the next few games.

I still have mixed views on Coquelin. His performance against Manchester City was outstanding but some of his flaws resurfaced against the Villans. Coquelin won a couple of tackles but he also gave away free kicks with unnecessary fouls on Gil in the 13th and the 45th. I mostly see Coquelin as a stop-gap solution for our troubles at holding midfielder. At 23, he still has room to improve, but there’s no way he could become the next Vieira or the next Schweinsteiger.

Bellerin’s emergence
Among the youngsters, Bellerin started at rightback while Akpom replaced Giroud in the 70th. Akpom is pretty much taking over Sanogo’s role in the squad since the Frenchman’s loan move to Crystal Palace. Akpom is facing the same challenge as Sanogo, i.e. scoring his first goal in the Premier League. The 19-year-old striker met a cross from Mertesacker in the 86th but his header lacked power to beat Guzan. In stoppage time, Cazorla sent Akpom clean through on goal, but the teenager could only hit a tame effort from 12 yards.

The feel-good story of the season has been Bellerin’s emergence in the first team. He’s the first player from the academy to become a regular starter since Gibbs in the 2011-12 season. I believe Arsenal’s capacity to compete with wealthier clubs depends on great signings as well as developing young talent. Bellerin sealed the win in injury time with a side-footed effort from 25 yards that ricocheted off the far post. The Spaniard also had a low cross for Akpom cut out by Clark in the 85th.

Defensively, Bellerin is a fast learner but still a work in progress. He perfectly timed his sliding tackle on Sinclair in the 72nd. However, a lapse of concentration nearly cost his team in the 42nd when Weimann made a run across goal to meet a cross from Gil. Ospina stopped the Austrian winger’s downward header to protect Arsenal’s 1-0 lead. Bellerin was a split second late in tracking Weimann. At 5’10, Bellerin will struggle in the air against tall forwards. But what he can do is work on his jump to put off his opponent.

Distrusting old legs
The Gunners beefed up their options at the back by signing Gabriel Paulista from Spanish club Villarreal last week for a reported fee of 15 million euros. The Brazilian defender was on the bench against Aston Villa and will need a bit of time to get familiar with his new club. At 24, his best years are still ahead of him. I expect Mertesacker and Koscielny to remain Wenger’s first-choice centerbacks this season as it takes months to build a solid understanding at the back.

By recalling Coquelin from his loan spell at Charlton, the manager showed he did not want to rely too much on the aging legs of Arteta and Flamini. Both are past their prime and have dealt with recurring injuries this season. And none of the three holding midfielders is strong enough to play for a contending side. Which means that if Wenger wants to sign a world-class ballwinner this summer, he will have to let Arteta or Flamini go.

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