A fan’s loyalty can sometimes be tested. On Saturday, I was watching an exciting semifinal match between New Zealand and South Africa in the rugby world cup when I remembered Arsenal also had a Premier League game against Everton. I love football more than rugby, so I decided to switch channels with the All Blacks leading 20-15. A few miles away from Twickenham stadium, the Gunners capitalized on their dominance in the air to beat the Toffees 2-1 and go level on points with leader Manchester City.
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Wenger made three changes to the side that defeated Bayern Munich 2-0 in the Champions League by replacing Mertesacker, Ramsey and Walcott with Paulista, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Giroud in the starting lineup. The Toffees sat deep to deny space but their weakness in the air gave Arsenal quite a few chances. Paulista and Giroud won headers from corners in the first 25 minutes but each time missed the target. Giroud was more clinical in the 36th, ghosting past Jagielka to head home a pinpoint cross from Ozil. Koscielny doubled the lead two minutes later by beating Howard to the ball to nod in Cazorla’s free kick.
Before we analyze the victory over Everton, here are a few lessons from Tuesday’s match against Bayern Munich: 1. Ozil’s future lies in the nine-and-a-half role a la Savicevic or a la Baggio. His movement in the final third is so good that it should translate into more goals. He scored the second goal in stoppage time and had a diagonal strike palmed away by Neuer in the first half.
- Cech is a world-class goalkeeper. He prevented the German side from getting the lead. The saves Cech made against Thiago and Vidal were good but the duel he won against Lewandowski in the 75th was really outstanding.
- The Gunners are paying the price for their stretched squad. Ramsey pulled his hamstring in the second half in part because injuries to Wilshere and Rosicky limited the manager’s rotating options in midfield. Wenger must carefully monitor Ramsey’s health this season as the chances of a relapse are significant.
- Bellerin is a fast learner. Costa had Bellerin’s number in the first half. But the Spaniard adjusted after the break and prevented Costa from doing further damage down the right flank.
- Sanchez must be more careful in his own half. Two of his turnovers led to scoring chances for Bayern Munich. Dribbling in the opponent’s final third is fine, but doing it near your own box is just too risky.
- Obviously, the Gunners can still qualify for the knockout phase of the Champions League. But they trail Bayern Munich and Olympiakos by three points, which means that any qualification depends on the results from those two clubs.
The manager rewarded Giroud for his opening goal in the Champions League by starting him against Everton. Giroud doesn’t have Walcott’s pace but his movement in the box is excellent and his work rate and hold-up play are much better. The Frenchman won 3 of 4 tackles and 50% of his duels. By contrast, Walcott only won 33% of his duels against Watford, 27% against Manchester United and made no tackle in both games. The only negative is Giroud’s relative lack of efficiency. There was no glaring miss but he had six shots inside the box and only two were on target.
Howard was lucky to get away with a deflected clearance when Giroud charged him down in the fifth minute. The Frenchman then chested down a headed pass from the Ox in the 56th for an acrobatic volley that Howard parried. Giroud could have made it 3-1 in the 69th but his curling shot from 17 yards hit the bar. Walcott did not even come off the bench as the manager showed his faith in Giroud’s ability to defend set pieces and hold the ball up. We definitely have a healthy competition between Giroud and Walcott for the lone striker spot.
A new tactical option
Ozil is becoming a more consistent player. In the past two seasons, I felt Ozil performed well only in one game out of two at best. The situation is different this season and the numbers don’t lie: Ozil has 1goal and 7 assists in 10 Premier League matches, that is, an average of 0.8 goal or assist per game. That’s definitely better than last season when he had 4 goals and 5 assists in 22 league games for an average of 0.41 goal or assist per game. Obviously, 10 games represent a small sample size, so it’s up to Ozil to keep high standards throughout the season.
On Saturday, Ozil made the assist for the opening goal and finished the game with five shot assists, tied with Cazorla for most by a player. The Germany playmaker also won 46% of his duels, which is a good percentage compared to his season’s average. He could have also scored but Howard stopped his low shot in the 15th and his volley in the 64th. In the last minute of regulation time, Ozil combined with Giroud to fire a long-range strike that clipped the base of the near post. Giroud made the shot assist for those three chances.
We know Ozil prefers to rely on the fast Walcott as an outlet, but it’s interesting to see a new understanding developing between Ozil and Giroud, with Ozil playing off Giroud almost like a second striker. It’s a new tactical option that requires Ozil to find his killer’s instinct in front of the net. Giroud provided the final ball for some of the goals scored by Ramsey in the past two seasons. Could Giroud and Ozil duplicate that kind of partnership?
Too much room for a shot
Ramsey’s hamstring injury means that the Ox started on the right wing. The Ox had a poor first half, cheaply losing possession in the 10th and taking his chance in the 44th despite two Toffees standing in front of him. His blocked shot led to a swift counterattack and Barkley’s long-range strike deflected off Paulista to beat a wrongfooted Cech. The Ox showed poor decision-making on that play and should have slipped the ball to Bellerin on the right wing. But the goal was not the Ox’s fault. The Gunners retreated well and had five players facing two Toffees in the final third. However, Paulista gave Barkley a bit too much room for a decent shot.
The Ox’s end product was better in the second half. Sanchez collected his through ball in the 47th to have a low effort palmed out by Howard. Six minutes later, the Ox split the Everton defense with a mazy run and slightly overhit his pass for Sanchez, allowing Howard to come off his line and knock the ball away. The Ox then charged down the right wing in the 59th to make a low cross for Giroud who couldn’t make contact with the ball for a tap-in.
The Gunners started tiring in the last 20 minutes but showed enough mental strength and solidarity to protect their lead. Freshness was definitely an issue for Koscielny who lost the two tackles he made and won only 46% of his duels, while Paulista won 2 of 2 tackles and 71% of his duels. Koscielny put his team in danger by turning over the ball in the eighth minute and the 71st. He also missed an interception in the 62nd, forcing Paulista to make a risky tackle inside the area.
A messy play gave the Toffees an opportunity to level in the 79th. Cazorla was a bit late to close down Barry, who crossed the ball for Lukaku. Stranded in the middle of the net, Cech was lucky to see Lukaku’s header bounce off the bar. The Arsenal defense was disorganized on that play because it followed a corner. Monreal was playing in the rightback position and Bellerin at centerback, which explains why both Lukaku and Funes Mori were unmarked at the far post.
That scare led Wenger to replace the Ox with Flamini in the 81st and Sanchez with Gibbs in the 89th. I thought the manager could have yanked Sanchez off by the 70th minute as he clearly had no gas left in the tank. Flamini was sent on to cut out crosses but he somehow managed to get two good scoring chances. He took a pass from Ozil in the 85th for a first-time strike from 18 yards that sailed wide. A minute later, Flamini headed a cross from Sanchez straight into Howard’s hands.
Cech saving 2 points
The Gunners nearly lost two points on a fast break from Everton in the 86th. Koscielny diverted Lukaku’s cross for Mirallas into the path of an unmarked Deulofeu, who was denied by Cech. On that play, Lukaku was taking on Paulista, Koscielny was standing between Lukaku and Mirallas while Monreal was marking Mirallas at the far post. Bellerin and Coquelin were tracking back and both following Lukaku. The only mistake came from Coquelin who should have kept an eye on the edge of the box instead of focusing on Lukaku.
Cech was definitely the difference between a victory and a draw. He had a couple of shaky moments in the first half, pushing Lennon’s curling shot into the path of Stones in the 28th and conceding a corner on the stroke of halftime by misjudging a high ball. But the Czech goalkeeper stepped up when it really mattered. Cech stopped a low effort from Barkley in the 68th after a turnover from Monreal and parried an angled strike from Mirallas in the 88th.
The Gunners next play Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup on Tuesday. That match should be an opportunity for the manager to rest some key players. Sanchez shouldn’t even be in the squad. Our midfield options are so limited now that we can’t afford to have more injuries. Especially since we then have three tough games, with a visit to Swansea next Saturday followed by games against Bayern Munich and Tottenham.