The Gunners snapped their three-game goal drought at the Emirates stadium by thrashing West Bromwich Albion 4-1 on Sunday to finish third in the Premier League, 12 points behind Chelsea. Qualifying for the group stage of the Champions League implies that we will have a lighter schedule in August as well as more maneuvering room to sign top players during the summer transfer window.
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Wenger made three changes to the side that drew 0-0 with Sunderland last Wednesday with Coquelin, Walcott and Paulista replacing Ramsey, Giroud and Koscielny in the starting lineup. I expected the manager to rest Cazorla and Sanchez since they have played respectively 52 and 51 matches for the club this season. In the end, Cazorla had a good game while Sanchez showed again a lack of energy.
Arsenal’s passing game was quicker and sharper than against Sunderland with Walcott and Wilshere providing more penetration in the final third. The Baggies parked the bus with 10 men behind the ball to deny space to Walcott. It looked like a sound game plan except West Brom had nothing to play for and lacked a bit of commitment. Teams managed by Pulis are known for working hard and relishing duels. It was almost a surprise not to see any rough challenge.
In his first start since a 3-0 victory over West Ham in March, Walcott was much sharper than a couple of months ago when he couldn’t convert one-on-one chances. Maybe my memory tricks me, but I remember Walcott’s first touch was kind of average before his knee injury. On Sunday, his first touch was outstanding and helped him beat defenders in tight spaces.
In the opening minute, the Baggies got a foretaste of what was coming. Walcott took a pass from Ozil and made a quick turn to have an effort blocked. Three minutes later, Walcott found a gap between Lescott and Olsson and used his pace to escape marking. Cazorla spotted his run and fed him inside the area. With his first touch, Walcott spun and put himself in a position to shoot. With his second touch, the England forward blasted a diagonal strike into the top corner for a 1-0 lead. That was definitely a clinical finish.
The Gunners doubled the lead in the 14th. Ozil played a one-two with Wilshere, but Wilshere’s return pass was slightly overhit. Somehow, Ozil managed to flick the ball through McAuley’s legs. Pouncing on the loose ball, Walcott skipped past Olsson with his first touch, got away from Dawson with his second before sliding the ball home with his third. Walcott was surrounded by four defenders on that play and had to be very accurate with each of his touches.
Walcott completed his hat trick with a poacher’s goal in the 37th. Wilshere combined with Sanchez before releasing Cazorla on the left side of the area. Cazorla’s low attempt was off target but Walcott reacted quickly at the far post to stab the ball home. The West Brom defense was so lethargic that Walcott could have scored a few more goals. Leading a counterattack in the 23rd, Wilshere picked out Sanchez, who slipped the ball to Walcott. But Myhill palmed away Walcott’s curling shot. The West Brom goalkeeper denied Walcott again in the 42nd. Walcott took a pass from Ozil and created space to his right for a low strike that Myhill turned around the post.
The English Iniesta
Walcott and Giroud are two completely different strikers. Basically, Giroud’s strengths are Walcott’s weaknesses and the other way around. Giroud is strong in the air, links up well and has good hold-up play while Walcott beats defenders with his pace and makes runs in behind the defense. Walcott made an outside run to take Ozil’s pass in the 34th and cut the ball back for Sanchez. A minute later, Walcott got the better of Olsson with an inside run to collect a through ball from Cazorla. Walcott controlled the ball with his first touch but could only muster a tame toe poke with his second touch. I think Walcott would have hit a better shot if he had used his left foot.
Walcott and Wilshere are the two players who are peaking as the season is coming to an end. On Sunday, Wilshere reminded everybody of his talent with his lethal bursts from midfield a la Iniesta. When he’s on fire, Wilshere can score and create chances like the Barcelona star. That’s why I believe Hogdson is wasting Wilshere’s talent by playing him as a No. 6. Of course, the main issue is whether Wilshere can have an injury-free season.
Wilshere was involved in the second and fourth goals and also gave Arsenal a 3-0 lead in the 17th. The Baggies poorly cleared a corner and the ball fell to Sanchez whose goal attempt was blocked. Paulista teed up the rebound for Wilshere, who volleyed into the top corner from 20 yards. Wilshere had two more chances. Driving forward in the 25th, he played a one-two with Sanchez before unleashing a low strike straight at Myhill. On the stroke of halftime, Cazorla found Wilshere, who cut inside Lescott but had his effort blocked.
Cazorla’s conversion into a deep-lying playmaker this season has proved successful with 7 goals and 11 assists in 37 league games. In fact, the Spaniard is our best midfielder with 0.486 goals or assists per game. By contrast, Ramsey racked up 6 goals and 6 assists in 29 games for a 0.414 ratio and Ozil had 4 goals and 5 assists in 22 games for a 0.409 ratio. If we only consider league starts, Cazorla’s ratio increases to 0.545 compared to 0.522 for Ramsey and 0.429 for Ozil.
Partnering Coquelin with Cazorla has been the key to the team’s resurgence in the second half of the season. Cazorla sets the tempo in midfield while Coquelin is protecting the back four. It’s a duo as complementary as Barcelona’s Xavi and Busquets or AC Milan’s Pirlo and Gattuso a few years ago. Cazorla made the assist for the first and fourth goals and had two scoring chances. He took a pass from Sanchez in the 31st only to have his drive deflected out for a corner. Myhill then parried Cazorla’s curling shot in the 53rd.
Ramsey replaced Coquelin in the 68th and showed tremendous desire despite his team’s big lead. Ozil slipped the ball to Ramsey in the 81st and the Wales midfielder hit the post with a left-footed strike from 15 yards. I liked the way Ramsey analyzed the situation on that play. He tried to set up a right-footed shot with his first touch but realized he had two defenders to his right. Ramsey then saw plenty of space to his left and therefore drifted to his left with his second touch before taking his chance with his third. Two minutes later, Ramsey chested down a long ball to curl a shot that Myhill tipped onto the bar. His last chance came in the 84th when Sanchez played him in. Ramsey’s first-time effort with his weaker foot sailed wide.
Running on empty
In a more industrious role than usual, Ozil had a good game with six key passes and three tackles won. I guess some fans get frustrated with him because he’s not a traditional playmaker. Instead of acting like a conductor, Ozil looks more like a free-floating midfielder occasionally regulating the flow of traffic. Ozil set up Mertesacker for a scoring opportunity in the 30th. Mertesacker lost his marker with a run at the near post to connect with Ozil’s free kick but Myhill saved his divertion.
Sanchez is undoubtedly Arsenal’s player of the season with 16 goals and 8 assists in 35 league games but he’s currently running on empty. His lack of sharpness in the final third was obvious with a curling free kick over the bar in the seventh minute, and tame low shots in the 11th and 71st. What saved Sanchez on Sunday was his passing skills. Despite an obvious fatigue, Sanchez was able to make accurate passes. I still don’t understand why the manager did not pull him out in the second half so that the Chile forward could have a bit more freshness for the FA Cup final.
The Baggies were no threat in the first half. It was a different story after halftime as the Gunners subconsciously saved stamina for the final and played at a slower pace. Ospina tipped around the post a low drive from Anichebe, who had rolled away from Mertesacker in the 57th. West Brom pulled one back from the subsequent corner with McAuley beating Ospina to the ball to head home.
Ospina’s worst performance
Let’s be honest, that was poor goalkeeping. Ospina had five Gunners in front of him to clean up the 6-yard box and prevent any obstruction. So he had no excuse for not claiming the ball. Ospina poorly guessed the flight of the ball and was therefore poorly positioned for a good catch. What made the defending look even more pathetic is that Paulista lost his duel against McAuley.
Ospina seemed to recover from that positional mistake as he pushed out a shot from Brunt in the 76th and stopped a low drive from Baird in the 87th. But a play in stoppage time raised more questions about the Colombia goalkeeper. From 30 yards, Gardner unleashed a swerving strike that Ospina palmed onto the bar. There were two errors on that play. First, Cazorla failed to challenge Gardner. The Spaniard is not a natural ballwinner but his new position means that he has more defensive duties than when he played on the left wing. And second, Ospina hesitated in his decision-making. He probably tried to palm the ball down, hoping to gather it after the bounce. But from the moment there was some spin on the ball, he should have punched it away.
It’s so weird to see Ospina produce his worst performance of the season just four days after his outstanding game against Sunderland. Take out this match against West Brom and Ospina would definitely have gotten the nod over Szczesny for next season. Now the manager may have doubts about who is the No. 1 goalie. I guess the big difference is that Szczesny cost two goals and three points in the 2-0 loss at Southampton while Ospina only cost a goal in an emphatic victory.
Food for thought
The Gunners boosted their confidence ahead of the FA Cup final. The eye-catching performances of Walcott and Wilshere will give the manager some food for thought when he makes his team selection. Oxlade-Chamberlain also gave himself a chance to be in Saturday’s squad by replacing Wilshere in the 77th for his first game since March 9 when he picked up a groin injury. Welbeck is unlikely to make the squad simply because he’s not a natural scorer and therefore needs several matches to rediscover his form.
Walcott’s scoring form could make negotiations with his agent more difficult this summer. Think of a scenario in which Walcott scores the winning goal on Saturday and you can bet that his agent will ask for a raise even though Walcott missed an entire year and has played very few games since his return from injury.