Arsenal bounced back from a disappointing 3-2 loss to Olympiakos in the Champions League by routing Manchester United 3-0 in the Premier League on Sunday. Sanchez netted twice, extending his scoring form with six goals in his last three games, while Ozil made amends for his mediocre performance in Europe’s elite club competition with a goal and an assist.
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The Gunners choked the life out of Manchester United by converting their first three chances for a 3-0 lead after 20 minutes. It looked similar to our heavy losses to Liverpool and Chelsea in the 2013-14 season, except the Red Devils were on the receiving end this time. The Gunners sat back in the second half, letting Manchester United dominate ball possession. The scoreline could have been more flattering if Arsenal had proved as clinical as in the first half.
Ramsey created the first goal by releasing Ozil down the right wing in the sixth minute. Ozil cut the ball back for Sanchez, who made a run at the near post to beat De Gea with a backheel flick. A minute later, Sanchez initiated the second goal with another backheel flick to find Ozil in midfield. The Germany playmaker fed Walcott, who charged down the left wing before cutting inside to play the ball back to an unmarked Ozil. From 14 yards, Ozil placed the ball into the bottom corner for a 2-0 lead.
While the first two goals reflected the verticality of Arsenal’s game, the third in the 20th showed its horizontality. Ramsey got the better of Young on the right wing to find Walcott on the edge of the area. The England forward spun and slipped the ball to Sanchez on the left wing. Sanchez dribbled past Damian to smash the ball into the top corner.
Before we analyze this convincing victory over Manchester United, here are a few lessons from the defeat against Olympiakos: 1. Wenger failed to motivate his players. The Gunners were unable to make a strong start in a must-win game. Until Walcott’s equalizer in the 35th, they only managed to put the Greek side under pressure for three minutes when Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott missed chances in the 10th and 12th respectively. Why Arsenal played with the handbrake on against Olympiakos and left the handbrake off against Manchester United is a complete mystery.
- The first and third Olympiakos goals resulted from some poor marking. There were 8 Gunners vs. 5 Reds inside the area for the first goal. The trouble is that we had nobody protecting the edge of the box and too many players on the six-yard line doing nothing. Again, we outnumbered Olympiakos for the third goal with 6 Gunners vs. 4 Reds inside the box, but none of those Reds was marked. Maybe the Gunners should play basketball to improve their marking skills. Whatever position you play in basketball, you can’t allow open shots.
- Starting Ospina was a mistake. Cech is not perfect but he would have never made the blunder that gave Olympiakos a 2-1 lead. The manager claimed after the match that Cech had a knock. If Cech is fit enough to sit on the bench, then he’s fit enough to play in goal. Ospina’s blunder was not the only reason why Arsenal lost the game but it still killed any momentum we got from the equalizer. I don’t mind some tinkering in the League Cup and FA Cup but the level and the stakes are higher in the Champions League.
- Our bench is not good enough to win the tight games. When Wenger needed more firepower in the closing minutes, his only option was Campbell because Giroud was suspended. By contrast, the Blues have the choice between Remy and Falcao when Costa is not available.
- We next play Bayern Munich and could be on the verge of elimination with zero points from three games. Failing to reach the last 16 would be a clear sign of regression and Wenger’s first major failure at the club. The Gunners have always qualified for the knockout phase of the Champions League since the 2003-04 season.
Sanchez’s groin injury
The manager made four changes to the side that lost to Olympiakos with Cech, Monreal, Mertesacker and Ramsey replacing Ospina, Gibbs, Koscielny and Oxlade-Chamberlain in the starting lineup. Sanchez was arguably the standout performer on Sunday with two goals and a couple of passes that could have turned into assists. Blind intercepted his pass for Walcott in the 12th, Ramsey volleyed wide his pinpoint cross in the 34th, and Rooney killed a counterattack with an obstruction in the 55th after Ozil had collected a long ball from the Chile forward.
Sanchez made life so miserable for Darmian that the Italian fullback was yanked off at halftime. The only negative from the game was the groin strain picked up by Sanchez. Fans can only hope that he won’t aggravate that injury while on international duty. It’s also a warning to Wenger, who will have to make sure that Sanchez is not run into the ground in the next few weeks.
Ozil can be a frustrating player, looking listless against Olympiakos and brilliant against Manchester United. Basically, Ozil shines when his team plays well, but disappears when his team struggles. Arsenal fans will have to get used to the idea that he’s not a leader but a follower. The first two goals reflected Ozil’s smart movement in the final third.This quality should push him to play more like a second striker or a nine and a half. Ozil could have scored another goal in the 73rd when Monreal squared the ball back, but his first-time effort was aimed straight at De Gea.
Weak percentage of duels won
I thought Sunday’s game was quite telling about Ozil’s strengths and weaknesses. Ozil is taller and heavier than Young but still hoped the referee would give him a free kick after losing a duel against Young in the 38th. Then Smalling outmuscled Ozil to win the ball in the 57th. Aware that the Red Devils had the physical edge after Fellaini had replaced Depay at halftime, Wenger moved Ozil to the wing and Ramsey to the center in the 65th to add more grit in midfield.
The main reason why Ozil can’t become a dominant playmaker despite his outstanding technical ability lies in his low percentage of duels won. I’ve checked our midfielders’ performances this season, taking stats into account only when they played at least 45 minutes in a game for the sake of fairness. I did not include the Community Shield match against Chelsea (a curtain-raiser) and the League Cup game against Tottenham (where a makeshift team started). Here’s the average percentage of duels won by our midfielders this season: Coquelin 65.6%, Sanchez 53.3%, Cazorla 45.9%, Ramsey 40.3%, Ozil 34.5%.
I used the stats provided by Arsenal’s website to compute those figures. Against West Ham: Ox 78.6%, Cazorla 58.3%, Coquelin 37.5%, Ramsey 33.3%, Ozil 18.2%. Against Crystal Palace: Coquelin 68.8%, Ramsey 53.8%, Ozil 40%, Sanchez 30.8%, Cazorla 25%. Against Liverpool: Coquelin 64.3%, Ramsey 60%, Ozil 50%, Sanchez 47.6%, Cazorla 25%. Against Newcastle: Coquelin 83.3%, Sanchez 68.4%, Ramsey 27.3%, Cazorla 20%, Ox 12.5%. Against Stoke: Coquelin 80%, Sanchez 64.3%, Ramsey 41.7%, Cazorla 40%, Ozil 28.6%. Against Dinamo Zagreb: Sanchez 55.6%, Cazorla 33%, Ox 30%, Ozil 27.3%, Arteta 20%. Against Chelsea: Coquelin 71.4%, Cazorla 58.8%, Ozil 42.9%, Ramsey 40.9%, Sanchez 35%. Against Leicester: Cazorla 60%, Sanchez 54.2%, Arteta 53.8%, Ramsey 28.6%, Ozil 23.1%. Against Olympiakos: Cazorla 70%, Ox 61.9%, Sanchez 58.6%, Coquelin 42.9%, Ozil 30%. Against Manchester United: Coquelin 76.9%, Cazorla 69.2%, Sanchez 65%, Ozil 50%, Ramsey 36.4%.
Studying Aguero’s game
Walcott’s performance was a mixed bag. His link-up play has improved as he made the assist for Ozil’s goal and fed Sanchez for the third. Walcott is slowly building a better understanding with Ozil and Sanchez. He also displayed a tremendous workrate with a sliding tackle in the 39th and an energetic run to pressure De Gea in the 60th. There was a time when Walcott’s contribution to the team’s pressing game was half-hearted jogs. Walcott still has a long way to go before becoming an all-around centerforward. He only won 27.3% of his duels on Sunday. He especially needs to work on his hold-up play as Smalling bullied him in the fourth and the 51st and outjumped him to head away a long ball in the 32nd. Obviously, Walcott will never be as powerful as Giroud, Costa or Rooney. However, I think he could hone his skills by studying the game of Aguero, who’s just an inch shorter than Walcott.
In midfield, Cazorla sacrificed himself to preserve the balance of the team. His only offensive foray was a half-volley from 30 yards that sailed wide in the 25th. His sidekick, Coquelin, protected the back four by winning five of five tackles, tying Smalling as the most successful tackler on the pitch. Coquelin especially made the key tackle that led to the opening goal. His only minor mistake came in the 49th when his passivity allowed Young to cut inside for a long-range strike that Cech easily saved.
Cech’s leg save
Ramsey made a good overall contribution with 3 fouls won, 3 fouls conceded, 5 interceptions, 4 tackles won and a passing accuracy of 93.5%, the best percentage among Arsenal players. The Wales midfielder made the penultimate pass for the opener and the third goal. He could have scored in the 34th but missed the target with a seven-yard volley. Ramsey is still struggling with confidence as he was a bit too slow in the 52nd to play Walcott in and refused to hit a first-time effort in the 58th, losing possession with a poor touch.
Manchester United couldn’t handle the movement from our midfielders. The Gunners also made the difference on the flanks. Monreal and Bellerin kept Mata and Depay quiet while Darmian and Young proved the weak link in the Red Devils’ defense. Bellerin has clearly worked on his jump as he won a couple of headers. He contributed to the first goal by keeping the ball alive. In the closing minutes, Bellerin found the Ox down the right flank but the England international’s lob attempt hit the bar.The Ox replaced Ozil in the 75th and made the best of his short cameo by setting up Giroud, whose low effort from 15 yards didn’t trouble De Gea in the 86th.
Martial created problems with his speed but barely got any decent service from his teammates. The matchup with the slow-footed Mertesacker was obviously a concern but Paulista and Cech compensated for the few mistakes from the Arsenal captain. Mertesacker took a bit too much time to clear a cross from Rooney in the 33rd and nearly turned the ball over to Martial. On the stroke of halftime, Martial shook off Mertesacker to control a cross from Darmian and be clean through on goal. However, Cech made a leg save to protect Arsenal’s three-goal cushion.
A thinner squad
The Gunners absorbed the pressure in the second half. A poor clearance from Mertesacker deflected off Fellaini in the 62nd and the ball fell to Rooney, whose low shot was turned around the post by Cech. The Czech goalkeeper made another save in the 68th, denying an unmarked Schweinsteiger. Ramsey failed to track Schweinsteiger on that play while Paulista was fooled by Mata’s dummy and couldn’t intercept Carrick’s pass. Paulista had a dodgy moment in the 70th, giving away the ball to Martial on the edge of the box. On the bright side, Mertesacker and Paulista made clean tackles on Martial in the 61st and the 79th respectively.
Arsenal moved into second place, two points behind Manchester City. It’s too early to see the Gunners as legitimate contenders. We’ve only played eight league games, we haven’t shown any consistency yet, and our squad is getting thinner. If Sanchez’s groin injury worsens, we will have to rely on Walcott and Giroud for goals. Koscielny picked up a hamstring injury against Olympiakos, which means that we are one injury away from starting the shaky Chambers. In midfield, we have no back-up ballwinner since Arteta and Flamini are both sidelined and there’s very little room to rest our attacking midfielders with Wilshere and Rosicky still recovering from injuries. My opinion would definitely have been different if the club had been more active during the summer transfer window.