Call it a rehearsal. The Gunners need to score at least three goals against Monaco on Tuesday to reach the quarterfinals of the Champions League. They managed to beat West Ham 3-0 on Saturday to pull within a point of second-place Manchester City. The Hammers aren’t as good as the French side, but the result and the number of chances created show that the Gunners can still believe in their slim chances of achieving what no other team has ever done in the history of the lucrative European competition, i.e., qualify after having lost the first leg at home by a two-goal margin.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
Wenger made five changes to the side that knocked Manchester United out of the FA Cup last Monday with Ospina, Chambers, Ramsey, Walcott and Giroud replacing Szczesny, Bellerin, Cazorla, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Welbeck in the starting lineup. I believe the manager wanted to rest Bellerin and Cazorla ahead of the match in Monaco, while Ospina and Giroud are the regular starters in goal and up front. Walcott was a more surprising choice since Welbeck could have played on the right wing. Maybe Wenger wanted to see how sharp Walcott is. The England winger has only scored three goals this season: one against lower-league Brighton in the FA Cup, and two against two weak Premier League sides, Aston Villa and Leicester.
Walcott hasn’t rediscovered his killer instinct yet. In the fifth minute, Ozil found Giroud who played Walcott in with a backheel flick. With just the goalkeeper to beat from 10 yards, Walcott dallied on the ball, taking two touches before Collins rushed back to knock the ball away. Walcott’s decision-making was poor because it should have been a first-time effort for any striker. He had another opportunity in the 33rd when Ramsey sent him clean through on goal. The angle was a bit more acute than for his first chance but Walcott could only muster a tame shot straight at Adrian from 12 yards.
Is Walcott the new Arshavin?
We can’t afford to waste such chances against Monaco because their defense will be much more difficult to crack. Inefficient in front of the net, Walcott contributed very little defensively. He looks so lazy compared to Sanchez, Welbeck and Chambo. For years, the fans ignored Walcott’s poor workrate because he scored some crucial goals. His 14 league goals in the 2012-13 season definitely helped Arsenal finish fourth, one point clear of Tottenham. However, the lack of an end product could lead some fans to boo him this season like they did with Arshavin a few years ago.
Struggling with confidence, the Hammers played with 10 men behind the ball. They have dropped to the middle of the table from fourth place in December. Play was a bit congested in the final third with Sanchez and Walcott both cutting inside. But one player who thrives in small spaces is Giroud. His performance against West Ham epitomized the brilliance of his link-up play. Giroud kept a counterattack alive with a flick in the eighth minute but Sanchez’s effort was blocked. The Frenchman then took a pass from Ramsey in the 24th to fire into the side-netting from an acute angle.
A Franco-Welsh partnership
Ramsey and Giroud have developed a great understanding over the past years. They were the reason why Arsenal became a contender in the first half of last season. That partnership shone on the stroke of halftime. Ozil played a one-two with Giroud before feeding Ramsey on the edge of the area. Running away from goal, Ramsey was let down by a heavy touch, but Giroud crossed his path and took the ball from him to whack it into the top corner. It almost looked like a basketball play with Ramsey acting like a screener and creating space for Giroud by pulling Collins out of position. There was of course a bit of luck in that goal with Ramsey’s poor first touch, but the quick one-touch passing and triangular play are typical of the manager’s football philosophy.
Giroud and Ramsey were again involved for the second goal in the 81st. Giroud made a dummy to let Ramsey collect a throw-in. The Wales midfielder played a one-two with Giroud before beating Adrian with a side-footed effort. The Hammers’ unwillingness to fight for the ball in midfield gave Ramsey more license to roam forward. He nearly scored from a Chambers cross in the 27th, but Adrian tipped his acrobatic volley over the bar.
When the ball is faster than the player
Giroud is often mocked for his relative lack of pace but on Saturday he was the one accelerating the ball with his quick decision-making and sharp link-up play. All three goals had one thing in common: they started with a one-two involving Giroud. Arsenal sealed the win in the 84th when Cazorla combined with Giroud before making a low cross toward the far post for a Flamini tap-in. The Gunners could have added a fourth goal in stoppage time. Welbeck met a cross from Giroud but Adrian saved his header.
The Gunners were accused in the first half of the season of being a one-man team. That’s obviously a lie since the team keeps making up ground in the league although Sanchez has been less prolific lately. The Chile forward was denied twice by Adrian on Saturday, heading a cross from Chambers in the 15th and chesting down a West Ham clearance in the 35th for a volley. I thought it was a wise move from the manager to pull him out in the 65th. Sanchez has spent so much energy to prove himself in England that his body must be struggling to recover now.
Ozil’s mental issues
Can Ozil fulfill his potential? No one can deny his technical ability but his mental strength is questionable. Welbeck slipped a through ball to Ozil in the 69th and the Germany playmaker refused to take his chance from 12 yards with just the goalkeeper to beat. People say he’s a team player. Fair enough. But then why did he make a cross for Walcott at the far post while Giroud had made a run at the near post for a tap-in? Walcott could only head the ball toward Ramsey, who fired wide.
The save Adrian made in the 43rd could be an explanation for Ozil’s reluctance to shoot in that dreadful 69th minute. Giroud fed Ozil, who took a touch before slamming the ball straight at the goalkeeper from 15 yards. Walcott pounced on the rebound but missed the target with his sliding effort. Let’s be honest, that was no gimme for Ozil. Two defenders were about to close Ozil down and his first touch made the ball bounce. In my book, that was not an awful miss, not the kind of miss a midfielder should dwell on.
Ozil provided a lot of fluidity to the team’s passing game on Saturday with his movement and vision, but his final ball was sometimes poor. He led a counterattack in the 58th and sent his cross straight into the goalkeeper’s arms although three Gunners were inside the box. He wasted another fast break in the 64th with a final ball that was intercepted by Noble.
Xavi or Zidane?
If Ozil is reluctant to go into challenges, then he should play close to the striker like a traditional No. 10. That implies many assists but also goals. Ozil had excuses for disappointing performances last season because the manager often played him on the left wing. But now that Wenger plays him in a central position, Ozil should be able to fully express his talent and become the top playmaker that managers and pundits see in him.
The way Ozil is playing this season, he looks more like an all-rounder a la Ramsey or Wilshere, but that implies more defensive work and tackling. Ozil is at a crossroads in his career: either he’s happy with his current stats and then beefs up his game to become a deep-lying playmaker like Xavi, or he wants to play like Zidane and then improves his efficiency in the final third. Anything in between would be a waste of his talent.
The Gunners kept a clean sheet although Chambers was the obvious weak link in the Arsenal defense. Chambers’ positional play was erratic in the first half. He missed an interception in the 16th, allowing Sakho to break forward. Jarvis then ghosted past Chambers in the 22nd to square the ball back for Nolan, whose low volley was parried by Ospina. Chambers failed again to mark Jarvis in the 25th, but the cross from the West Ham winger was cut out. In the second half, Downing dribbled past Chambers but had his goal attempt blocked by Mertesacker.
Koscielny’s outstanding game
The Hammers had a few counterattacking opportunities. Song dispossessed Ozil in the 38th to slip a through ball to Sakho. Koscielny bought time for Mertesacker to rush back and make a block. The visitors then took advantage of Arsenal’s high defensive line in the 61st as Mertesacker committed himself too early. However, Monreal was able to intercept Sakho’s cross for Jarvis. I thought Koscielny had an outstanding performance. The French centerback cleared a dangerous loose ball in the 49th after Sakho had collided with Ospina. Coquelin had a good game but was guilty of diving in after turning the ball over in the 12th. Mertesacker killed the counterattack with a timely interception. Coquelin doesn’t have Arteta’s passing skills and will need to show patience against Monaco. His long ball for Monreal in the 10th went straight into touch.
What could be Arsenal’s starting lineup at Monaco? You definitely need Bellerin at rightback to contain Martial’s pace. Then I’d play Monreal and Koscielny at centerback because Monaco is dangerous on the fast break. We would lose Mertesacker’s dominance in the air but the German defender’s sluggishness is a too big liability in that kind of match. That would mean Gibbs at leftback. In midfield, Coquelin and Cazorla are the obvious starters. The remaining spot would be for Ramsey or Ozil. I would pick Ramsey because Monaco bullied the Gunners in the first leg. You must win tackles to have ball possession and create many chances. Up front, Giroud would lead the line with Sanchez on the left wing. Monaco has one of the best attacking leftbacks in the French league with Kurzawa. Therefore you need a player with a tremendous workrate on the right wing. Since Chambo is injured, Welbeck is the logical choice. If the Gunners have to throw the kitchen sink in the closing minutes, Walcott, Ozil and Rosicky would be the most likely players to come off the bench.