Despite a depleted squad, Arsenal routed Swansea 3-0 on Saturday to earn a fifth straight victory in the Premier League and keep pace with leader Manchester City. That means the Gunners will still be among the top two teams when Walcott, Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain return from injury after the international break in mid-November.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
The Gunners played poorly in the first half and were lucky to reach halftime without conceding a goal. Swansea pressed high up the pitch to force turnovers and disrupted Arsenal’s passing game with a string of cynical fouls. It started with Ki kicking Ozil’s ankle in the 18th minute and Naughton tackling Koscielny from behind in the 20th. Taking turns to make those fouls, the Swans benefited from the referee’s leniency as Fernandez tripped Sanchez in the 25th, Ki pulled back Campbell in the 28th and Taylor shoved the Costa Rican forward a few seconds later without getting booked. It’s only when Ki made his third cynical foul by holding Giroud in the 57th that the referee finally handed out his first yellow card. Repetitive fouling was no longer an issue by then as the Gunners had already taken the lead. Swansea dominated ball possession but Arsenal proved more threatening in the final third with 9 shots inside the box to just 2 for the hosts.
Before we analyze the Swansea game, here are a few lessons from the 3-0 loss to Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup last Tuesday: 1. Arsenal can’t be a serious contender with the current bench. Wenger fielded a makeshift team that played at a ridiculously slow tempo and had no penetration. 2. At the age of 30, Debuchy seems to have lost a step. He looked sluggish on the opening goal and was beaten to the ball by Hutchinson on the third. Hard to believe that Debuchy was one of the best fullbacks in the league two years ago. 3. Chambers is regressing. He barely jumped on the second goal, gave away a cheap free kick that led to the third and lost another header in the 54th that could have made it 4-0. Chambers is wasting his time on the bench and should be loaned out to improve. 4. The Gunners still poorly defend set pieces. Nobody marked the player who crossed the ball on the second and third goals. 5. Bennacer, Kamara and Bielik are too soft for a League Cup game against a Championship side. The game proved much too quick for those three boys. Only Iwobi seemed up to speed. 6. Giroud’s performance depends on good service. He had none from his teammates. 7. The manager was foolish to risk both Giroud and Walcott. We only have two centerforwards since Sanogo and Akpom have been loaned out. Therefore it didn’t make sense to send on Walcott after Oxlade-Chamberlain picked up a hamstring injury.
Ozil’s great performance
Sanchez had an off day at Liberty Stadium but Ozil delivered a great performance in the second half to help make the difference. He fed Giroud for the opening goal with a pinpoint corner kick in the 49th and got the assist for the third with a low cross in the 73th. Ozil could have scored in stoppage time but Fabianski parried his angled strike.
The Germany playmaker was deservedly named Man of the Match. The only negative was the 60% of duels lost, the highest percentage among Arsenal midfielders. We know Ozil doesn’t enjoy the physical side of the game, but he must make an effort to avoid turnovers that put his team in danger. Shelvey dispossessed Ozil in the 21st to send Gomis clean through on goal. Gomis took too much time to round Cech, allowing Bellerin to clear the ball with a sliding tackle. Shelvey created another chance in the 40th, but an offside Gomis killed the play by connecting with the long ball instead of letting an onside Montero chase it.
Campbell struggled against Sheffield Wednesday with three crosses that went nowhere. However, injuries forced Wenger to play Campbell on the right wing again. Honestly, I never thought Campbell could produce such a good performance for his first Premier League start. Campbell won 3 of 3 tackles, more than any other midfielder at Liberty Stadium, and won 70% of his duels, trailing only Cazorla. The only negative was his 63.2% of passing accuracy, while the other Arsenal midfielders reached at least 80%. I guess that percentage will improve with a better understanding of his teammates.
One of the reasons why Wenger is so good at developing youngsters lies in his patience. You can see the difference with Mourinho. A talented player like De Bruyne left Chelsea because he wasn’t the finished product yet and never really had a chance to prove himself. On the other hand, Wenger has shown plenty of patience with Ramsey and Coquelin and even too much with Bendtner and Djourou. So when the French manager told Campbell it was now or never, you can bet the Costa Rica international made the most of that opportunity.
Defensively, Campbell displayed a tremendous workrate. Offensively, he gradually fine-tuned his game. His first goal attempt came in the 16th. Giroud flicked Coquelin’s long pass into the path of Campbell, who curled wide from 20 yards. His shooting accuracy improved in the 37th. Campbell took a pass from Sanchez and fired a low drive that lacked power to trouble Fabianski. He produced a better effort in the 73th, controlling Ozil’s cross to slam the ball into the far corner for a 3-0 lead. That goal made Campbell a bit greedy in the 79th. Sanchez led a counterattack and slipped the ball to Campbell, who opted for a long-range strike over the bar instead of playing Giroud in.
The 20-goal mark
Wenger replaced Campbell and Giroud with Chambers and Gibbs in the 84th in a classic effort to shut the game down by playing with four fullbacks. Giroud opened the scoring in the 49th by losing his marker to head Ozil’s offering into the bottom corner. The French striker notched his sixth league goal, level with Sanchez, as both are on course to score 20 goals each this season. I felt Giroud should have been more clinical in the 29th when Sanchez found him inside the area. The French striker had enough time to control the ball but opted for a first-time effort from 15 yards that sailed over the bar.
The fans had a minor scare on the stroke of halftime when Giroud felt pain in his left knee after colliding with Montero. An injury would have meant no centerforward available for the next two games. Fortunately, Giroud got back on his feet and wobbled on the field for a brief moment before running with no apparent discomfort.
Sanchez didn’t have his shooting boots on Saturday. Ozil led a counterattack in the 54th and fed Sanchez, who sent a curling shot wide from 18 yards. The Chile forward missed another chance in the 65th, heading the ball over the bar after Koscielny redirected a corner from Ozil. In stoppage time, Sanchez finally caught the frame from a tight angle, but Fabianski made the save. Sanchez compensated for his poor finishing with clever passes for Campbell and Giroud.
Bellerin’s last-ditch clearance
Montero gave Chambers and Bellerin a hard time last season. The Ecuador winger had Bellerin in his pocket again but the Gunners somehow found a way to limit the damage. Koscielny headed the ball away after Montero outpaced Bellerin to cross in the seventh minute. The young Spaniard then made the mistake of diving in when Montero dribbled his way through the Arsenal defense in the 27th. However, Gomis headed Montero’s cross straight into Cech’s arms. Montero also got the better of Bellerin in the 50th to deliver a low cross that Cech knocked away. Those bad moments were offset by the last-ditch clearances Bellerin made. He denied Gomis a goal with a sliding tackle in the 21st and crashed into the post in the 55th while clearing Ayew’s effort off the line. Ayew was flagged offside but Bellerin’s attitude still looked heroic.
Gomis’ chance was definitely the turning point of the match. Our centerbacks’ decision-making was awful on that play. When Shelvey stole the ball from Ozil in the 21st, Mertesacker repeated the mistake he made against Monaco and Leicester by attempting an interception in the opponent’s territory instead of retreating toward his own goal. Gomis ran into the space behind Mertesacker and was clean through on goal because Koscielny misread the play and tried to play Gomis offside instead of tracking him. Gomis was still in his own half, so it didn’t make sense for Koscielny to execute the offside trap.
Commanding the area
Koscielny made amends by putting off Shelvey in the 32nd, as the Swansea midfielder headed Montero’s cross over the bar, and by doubling Arsenal’s lead in the 68th. Fabianski caught a high ball only to spill it into Koscielny’s path. The French defender chested the ball down and spun to sweep it into an empty net. That goal brought back memories of some goalkeeping mistakes Fabianski made at Arsenal because of his poor command of the area. It also reminded the fans that Cech is one the reasons why the Gunners have the joint tightest defense in the league.
Cech made some routine saves, stopping a long-range strike from Sigurdsson in the 50th and turning a drive from Williams around the post in the 78th. But he also refrained from making costly blunders. Gomis hoped to get a spot kick with a dive in the 21st but Cech never touched him. In that kind of situation, maybe Szczesny would have brought Gomis down.
We have only played 11 league games and our squad is already stretched with eight players injured (Ospina, Arteta, Rosicky, Wilshere, Ramsey, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Welbeck). At the start of the season, our 24-man squad looked fine on paper. But the staff forgot to take into account injuries.
Overestimating the strength of the squad
If you look at the past couple of seasons, Wilshere and Walcott are injury-prone players, while Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain have struggled with muscle injuries. Then you have Rosicky and Arteta who are 35 and 33 respectively and therefore more likely to pick up injuries because of their age. If you add Welbeck’s knee injury, that means we only had a 17-man squad from a conservative viewpoint. Welbeck’s knee was supposed to heal by July but was still injured in August. That should have been a red flag for the staff. Remember Van Persie? A few years ago, the Dutch striker was supposed to recover from an ankle injury within a few weeks. But complications sidelined Van Persie for five months in the end.
I believe the manager and his staff overestimated the strength of our squad this summer and hurt our title bid by not doing enough in the transfer market. You can’t rely on luck to win the league. You have to make sure your squad will go the distance. I guess the main positive is that we’re still in the title race despite all those injuries. Let’s hope the squad will still be in a decent shape after the busy Christmas period.