It’s no coincidence that Giroud and Sanchez scored in the 2-1 victory over Queens Park Rangers on Wednesday. The two forwards have proved instrumental in Arsenal’s climb to third place in the Premier League. Sanchez carried the club on his shoulders when the Frenchman was sidelined by an ankle injury in the first half of the season. Then Giroud took over the scoring duties when the Chilean picked up a hamstring strain in January and went through a goal drought.
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Wenger made two changes to the side that defeated Everton last weekend with Mertesacker and Rosicky replacing Koscielny and Oxlade-Chamberlain in the starting lineup. I guess the manager was simply cautious with Koscielny’s Achilles tendons and Chambo’s groin. Fighting relegation, the Hoops tried to impose their physical game and prevented the Gunners from dictating play in the first 30 minutes.
Sanchez and Giroud showed some good understanding by the 23rd minute. Sanchez led a counterattack to feed Giroud, who beat the offside trap but dragged a low strike straight at Green from a tight angle. Giroud was more clinical in the 64th. Cazorla won the ball in midfield and found Ozil, who released Sanchez down the left wing. The Chile forward made a blind pass to the overlapping Gibbs, whose shot was blocked by Hill. But Giroud followed up to slide the ball past Green for his fifth goal in the last seven Premier League games.
Sanchez’s mental strength
Giroud and Sanchez showed their work ethic by both pressing Caulker in the 68th. Giroud dispossessed the English centerback, flicking the ball into the path of Sanchez. Clean through on goal, Sanchez had his low effort saved by Green. Sanchez had plenty of time but chose the wrong option. Another option would have been a lob with his first or second touch. Once Sanchez reached the area, he was too close to the goalkeeper for a lob. His best option then was to dribble past Green.
Instead of dwelling on that miss, Sanchez showed his mental strength by converting his next chance two minutes later. He cut inside Furlong to slot the ball between the goalkeeper and the near post for a 2-0 lead and his first goal since Jan. 11. Sanchez did not really test Furlong in the first half, but once he dribbled past the English teenager in the 58th to fire wide, you could feel that one of the Hoops’ weaknesses had been exposed. The Chile forward duplicated the same move in the 67th but had his 18-yard strike stopped by Green.
In his first Premier League season, Sanchez has adapted pretty quickly with a ratio of 0.52 goal per game, which is similar to his 0.56 Liga ratio at Barcelona last season. What is maybe more surprising is that Giroud has improved with a league ratio of 0.59, better than his average of 0.44 goal per game last season. The Frenchman is often mocked for his relative lack of pace, but his defensive contribution and hold-up play also help make a difference on the pitch. Cazorla played a one-two with Giroud in the 44th to unleash a bouncing volley that Green parried. With a league ratio of 0.20 goal per game this season, Welbeck started on the bench before replacing Ozil in stoppage time.
It’s not over till it’s over
The Gunners seemed to have the match under control but they switched off defensively in the last 10 minutes just like they did against Crystal Palace. Bellerin failed to close down Phillips, who crossed the ball for Austin in the 82nd. The QPR striker was given plenty of time by Gibbs and Koscielny to spin and fire into the bottom corner. Gibbs was close to Austin and should have denied him space. But Gibbs saw Furlong on the wing and backed off. When Koscielny realized Gibbs had stopped marking Austin, it was too late for a good block. That was poor decision-making from Gibbs. The priority was to prevent Austin from scoring, and not to anticipate a pass to Furlong.
Gibbs’ attacking verve led to the opening goal, but his indecisiveness at the back is the main reason why he’s competing with Monreal for the starting spot at leftback. Bellerin has proved a fast learner this season, but Wednesday’s game reminded him that any drop in intensity or focus can be punished at the top level. Defensively, the Spaniard managed to keep Hoilett quiet. Offensively, he made a good cross for Giroud in the 51st and squared the ball back for Rosicky in the 76th. The goal attempt from the Czech midfielder was blocked but Ozil pounced on the rebound for a 17-yard strike tipped onto the post by Green.
A mixed bag
Some fans blamed Ospina for the Hoops’ goal. I thought that was ludicrous. Maybe a world-class goalkeeper would have made the save. But it was an 18-yard shot in the 100-kph range, which means very little time to react. By the time the goalkeeper pushes off his legs, the ball has already flown past him. On a more positive note, Ospina stopped Austin’s drive in the 12th, saved Yun’s angled effort in the 19th and palmed away a vicious cross-shot from Phillips in the 35th.
I was a bit worried to see the Gunners play a high defensive line with Mertesacker at the back. However, the relative lack of pace of Austin and Zamora definitely helped Arsenal execute well the offside trap. The Hoops had promising situations but were flagged offside five times.
Paulista was teaming up for the first time with Mertesacker. The Brazilian defender’s performance was again a mixed bag. He had a decent start by winning two aerial duels but also showed a bit of naivety. Paulista gave away a free kick with a silly challenge from behind on Zamora in the 13th. He then repeated the same mistake he made against Everton by letting a long ball bounce in the 23rd. Zamora stole the ball to set up Austin, whose half-volley went straight into Ospina’s arms. The match ended prematurely for Paulista with a hamstring injury in the 35th. Koscielny came off the bench to replace him and did a decent job if we except a missed clearance in the 59th.
Alive and kicking
While Bellerin was our youngest player on the Loftus Road pitch, Rosicky at 34 was the oldest one. His technique and movement caused a lot of problems with Henry and Yun receiving yellow cards in the 32nd and 81st for cynical fouls. Sandro should have also earned a booking for holding the Czech midfielder on the stroke of halftime but the referee showed magnanimity. Sandro is just 25 but I thought the way Rosicky outpaced him in the 47th was embarrassing. Rosicky cut the ball back for Ozil, who was denied a clear goalscoring chance by a cynical foul from Henry. Ozil was about to tap in from a couple of yards but Henry pulled him back. Off balance, Ozil could only divert the ball toward the far post, where Sanchez’s follow-up effort was parried by Green. Obviously, neither the referee nor the linesmen spotted Henry’s foul, otherwise it would have been a penalty and a red card. Rosicky also tested Green with a low strike in the 63rd after Giroud redirected a corner toward the Czech midfielder.
Arsenal had no room for error on Wednesday as all the clubs chasing a European spot also won their games. The bad news is that we have fewer options at the back because of Paulista’s hamstring injury. Monreal, who is dealing with back pain, is also a doubt for Monday’s FA Cup match at Old Trafford, while Debuchy still needs a few more weeks to recover from his shoulder injury. On the bright side, Ramsey came off the bench in the 86th to replace Rosicky. His return to the squad is a major boost because Coquelin is our only defensive midfielder who’s currently fit. Injuries to Flamini, Arteta and Wilshere have forced the manager to turn Cazorla into an all-rounder. Cazorla has adjusted well but he simply doesn’t have the same ability to win tackles as Ramsey or Wilshere.