The Gunners bounced back from their Champions League exit by edging Newcastle 2-1 on Saturday to keep pace with Manchester City in the race for second place in the Premier League. Two poacher’s goals from Giroud and two reflex saves from Ospina stretched Arsenal’s winning streak to six games in all competitions.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
The 2-0 victory over Monaco last Tuesday felt like deja vu. Two years ago, the Gunners lost 3-1 to Bayern Munich at the Emirates stadium before winning 2-0 in Germany. Arsenal dominated the second leg in Monaco with seven attempts on target to none for the French side. But it didn’t prove enough to make up for the wasted chances and poor defending of the first leg. Here are some lessons from that match:
1) Sanchez and Ozil are our most expensive signings but Giroud and Ramsey are our best players right now. Giroud opened the scoring in the 36th minute by slamming a rebound into the roof of the net after the goalkeeper had denied him. Ramsey doubled the lead with a low diagonal strike in the 79th.
2) The Gunners perform well when there is no pressure. Quite a contrast with the first leg, a recurrent stumbling block over the past seasons. The lack of leadership in the squad and Wenger’s motivational skills must be questioned.
3) Sanchez is knackered. He lacks the extra zip in his runs that helped him make the difference in the first half of the season. He tried too hard to dribble past defenders and Monaco capitalized on his numerous turnovers to hit Arsenal on the fast break.
4) Ozil is not a decisive player: no assist and no goal in both legs. He added fluidity to our passing game in Monaco and was involved in the build-up to both goals. But he also missed a few short passes and his moment of glory in the 63rd, pouncing on a poor clearance to volley wide from 16 yards. When I saw the ball fall perfectly for him, I thought about Zidane’s volley in the 2002 Champions League final. Ozil is a very good playmaker but not a great one yet.
5) Ramsey hasn’t lost his flair for goals despite an injury-marred season. He came off the bench in the 63rd to replace Coquelin. The Wales midfielder scored some crucial goals for us last season, including the winner in the FA Cup final. You kind of wonder why the manager did not start Ramsey in such a big game.
6) The Gunners don’t have Monaco’s luck. The French side opened the scoring in the first leg with a speculative shot that deflected off Mertesacker. On Tuesday, bad luck hit Arsenal twice. Welbeck’s goalbound effort in the 38th was miraculously blocked by Abdennour, who was falling to the ground. Then a mix-up between Giroud and Sanchez prevented the Gunners from scoring in the 83rd. Giroud met Cazorla’s free kick for an acrobatic volley that Subasic saved off the line. Sanchez was next to Giroud and in a better position to beat the goalkeeper with a header.
Wenger made three changes to the side that defeated Monaco with Ramsey, Paulista and Chambers replacing Ozil, Mertesacker and Bellerin in the starting lineup. Giroud relied on his outstanding movement inside the box to give Arsenal a 2-0 lead in the first half. Welbeck flicked Cazorla’s free kick on to Giroud, who sent the ball into the bottom corner with his knee in the 24th. Four minutes later, Giroud bullied Williamson to head in Cazorla’s corner from seven yards. The Frenchman had another opportunity in the 70th while chasing a through ball from Cazorla, but he was flagged offside although TV replays showed he was onside.
Giroud was clinical on Saturday, converting the only two chances he had. By contrast, Welbeck proved wasteful in the 26th. Sanchez lifted the ball over Gouffran to then make a cross for Welbeck, whose 12-yard volley sailed wide. In that kind of situation, you have to make the goalkeeper work. A minute later, Welbeck missed another chance when Sanchez sent him clean through on goal. The England forward lost his balance with his first touch, allowing Krul to gather the ball. I think Welbeck wanted to control the ball with his left foot before shooting with his right. As the old saying goes, it’s the situation that dictates which foot you should use. It would have been easier for Welbeck to let the ball drift to his left for a first-time effort.
There’s a lack of end product from Welbeck because he doesn’t have that killer instinct yet. Scoring four goals in 22 Premier League games this season is not enough. Messi, Ronaldo, Sanchez, Hazard and Robben have shown that playing on the wings does not prevent a forward from scoring. It’s simply up to Welbeck to hone his skills in Colney and I think Giroud is a fantastic role model in that regard. When Arsenal signed Giroud, he was the top striker in the weaker French league with 21 goals in the 2011-12 season but his first touch and link-up play were average then.
Watching the ball or the man?
Ospina proved instrumental in protecting our lead as the Gunners’ form dipped after halftime. Williamson outjumped Chambers at the far post to head a corner in the 64th. His header was flicked on by an unmarked Sissoko, forcing Ospina to make a reflex save. In the closing minutes, a low strike from Perez took a deflection off Chambers. Ospina initially dived to his right but still managed to stick out his left leg for an unorthodox clearance.
It looked like an easy game in the first half but a goal from Sissoko, three minutes after the restart, paved the way for a nervy second half. Cabella played a one-two with Taylor to square the ball back for Sissoko, who scored with a low strike from 14 yards. Coquelin failed to track Cabella on that play, while Sissoko was unmarked. There were five Gunners versus two Magpies inside the area when Cabella made the pass. That means our positional play wasn’t right. Koscielny was marking Cabella after Monreal and Coquelin were both beaten by Taylor’s pass. Paulista and Chambers were respectively busy with Perez and Ameobi. Therefore, either Ramsey or Cazorla had to keep an eye on Sissoko. Unfortunately, both were attracted to the ball and ran toward Cabella, leaving a huge space in front of goal for Sissoko.
Sissoko’s goal shows why Ramsey can be a lethal threat with his deep runs. Defenders struggle to spot such runs and opposite midfielders don’t have the same focus inside the area. Ramsey does not have Ozil’s passing skills but he provides more penetration than the Germany playmaker. On Saturday, Ramsey played in the hole behind the striker. I thought he was positioned a bit too high up the pitch. He has more room for his runs when he’s positioned between the holding midfielder and the playmaker.
At times, Ramsey almost played like a second striker. He beat the offside trap in the 22nd to take a pass from Giroud but shot wide from a tight angle. Ramsey and Giroud usually understand each other well on the pitch. However, Ramsey took two chances away from Giroud on Saturday because of some poor communication. Ramsey tried to chest a cross from Monreal in the 36th while Giroud, looming behind the Welshman, was in a better position for a volley. On the stroke of halftime, an offside Ramsey headed a cross from Sanchez while an onside Giroud was again in a better spot for a header.
Coquelin displayed tremendous energy in midfield but he was naive or careless a couple of times. Sissoko too easily dribbled past him to launch a counterattack by the second minute. The Newcastle captain found Perez, who cut inside to have a goal attempt blocked by Paulista. Then two Coquelin turnovers put the Gunners in trouble but Perez missed the target in the 50th while Ospina stopped Cabella’s shot that deflected off Paulista in the 74th. I believe Coquelin also needs to be more accurate in his own area. He headed a cross from Perez into the path of Gouffran in the 61st. Despite the passivity of the Arsenal defense, Gouffran could only muster a tame effort straight at Ospina from 12 yards. Wenger felt his midfield needed some fresh blood and replaced Cazorla and Sanchez with Flamini and Rosicky in the 71st.
The Magpies often targeted Chambers, the weak link in our backline. Ameobi dribbled past him in the 16th and 77th and Perez also got the better of Chambers in the 39th and 73rd. Only poor final balls prevented Newcastle from capitalizing on those favorable situations. Chambers also had a high turnover rate and poorly read the game in the 34th. The Gunners were leading 2-0 but Chambers still felt the urge to rush inside the Newcastle area. The Magpies won the ball back and Coquelin had to cover Chambers, knocking the ball into touch to kill a counterattack.
Paulista’s outstanding performance
I thought the manager waited too long to give Chambers a hand on the right flank, sending Bellerin on for Welbeck in the 89th. The problem I have with Chambers is that he’s slow to turn and his first steps are slow too. I can’t believe a scout wouldn’t mention those flaws before advising the club to sign him. Even if Chambers’ future is at centerback, he will still struggle in one-on-one duels because of those flaws.
While I had mixed views about Paulista in his first appearances, I thought he produced his best performance in England at St. James’ Park. He made eight interceptions and won all his duels according to the club’s website. There was no sign of the defensive naivety he showed against Everton and Queens Park Rangers. His partner at centerback was Koscielny, who nearly gave away a penalty in the 81st. Cabella was ahead of Koscielny to meet a cross and seemed to be tripped by the French defender. However, the referee waved away Cabella’s penalty claim. I guess his interpretation was that Cabella had a heavy first touch and simply looked for contact with Koscielny’s leg.
In their next match, the Gunners could virtually knock Liverpool out of the race for the Champions League spots. If the Reds lose at the Emirates stadium after the international break, they would trail Arsenal by nine points with just seven rounds left. That could be a defining moment of our season. Have I just put some pressure on the Gunners?