The Gunners cruised to a 2-0 win over Aston Villa on Sunday to build a seven-point gap with the fifth-placed team in the Premier League. This was not their largest victory this season but definitely one of the easiest. Arsenal took three points despite playing at an average tempo. Statistics can sometimes be misleading. The Villans had 18 goal attempts compared to 8 for the Gunners. But Arsenal proved much more accurate with 4 shots on target compared to just 2 for the hosts.
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Before we analyze the game at Villa Park, here are a few lessons from the 3-0 rout of Olympiakos last Wednesday: 1. The opening goal showed that the understanding between Ramsey and Giroud is a proven recipe for success. 2. Campbell can be a pass master. His perfectly weighted pass to Giroud for the second goal looked similar to his assist for Sanchez in the win over Dinamo Zagreb. 3. Giroud has a big mouth. The Frenchman earned his second booking in the Champions League this season for talking too much. 4. Walcott can be wasteful. He wasted a couple of good chances, either missing the target or making a poor key pass. 5. The Gunners are a much better team than Olympiakos and should have defeated the Greek side at the Emirates. Four points from the first two matches in the Champions League would have allowed the manager to rotate for the last group game. 6. The Gunners have qualified for the knockout phase of the Champions League for the 13th straight season.
Walcott’s clinical pass
Wenger made only one change to the side that defeated Sunderland 3-1 the previous weekend with Walcott replacing Oxlade-Chamberlain in the starting lineup. You know what you get with Walcott. His work-rate can be questionable but his blistering pace makes him a constant threat for any team. The opening minute was not really encouraging for Walcott, who missed a 10-yard pass and then failed to track back after losing possession.
But somehow, Walcott got a hand in both goals. He chased a long ball from Flamini in the seventh minute and was pulled down by Hutton inside the area. The referee hesitated for a few seconds but still gave Arsenal a penalty after chatting with one of his linesmen, who saw the foul from a better angle. Giroud converted the penalty by sending Guzan the wrong way. Then Walcott found Ozil on the edge of the box with a clinical pass that beat four Villans in the 38th. Ozil notched his 13th league assist this season by slipping the ball to Ramsey for a 2-0 lead.
The manager replaced Walcott and Campbell with the Ox and Gibbs in the 64th to rotate and shackle the flanks. The Ox is technically more gifted than Walcott, but he has been struggling in terms of end product this season. No goal and no assist in 13 league games, that’s simply not good enough. The Ox tried hard on Sunday, first with a deflected shot that Guzan turned around the post in the 82nd and then with a cross that Bellerin headed straight at the goalkeeper in stoppage time.
The heartbeat of the team
Our balance in midfield was a concern against Sunderland. Ramsey made a good effort on Sunday to curb his attacking instincts and focus more on his defensive duties. I thought his all-around performance was outstanding. The Wales midfielder finished the game with 1 goal, 1 shot assist, 2 interceptions, and 5 tackles won -more than any other player on the pitch. Ramsey was the heartbeat of the team with 78 passes (compared to 50 for Ozil) and a passing accuracy of 91% (compared to 88% for Ozil), according to the club’s website.
Ramsey is a key player in Arsenal’s counterattacking game because he has that ability to switch from defense to offense. He initiated the fast break that led to the second goal by dispossessing Gueye. In stoppage time, he stole the ball from Lescott but sent his lob over the bar. Over the past couple of years, Ramsey has also improved his passing skills in the final third. He released Gibbs down the left wing in the 74th for an angled effort straight at Guzan. Ramsey then combined with Ozil to set up the Ox in the 82nd.
Ramsey will turn 25 this month. Most managers will tell you that a player usually enjoys his best seasons between the age of 25 and 30. Before 25, a player has plenty of stamina and recovers quickly from the game but lacks tactical awareness. After 30, a player has a great tactical knowledge but his body starts letting him down.
You can see Ramsey’s tactical awareness when Hutton is charging forward in the 22nd. Realizing that Walcott is not marking the Scotland fullback, Ramsey made the smart decision to go and pressure Hutton. Ramsey is very close to the finished product but he’s still in a learning process. He is sometimes struggling with the first pass when the team is trying to build play from the back. Ramsey was caught in possession while attempting to dribble away from the Arsenal box in the 18th. Another Ramsey turnover in the 31st led to a long-range drive from Gueye that sailed wide.
Another concern is Ramsey’s generosity on the pitch. He will have to play in a more economical way instead of covering too much ground and increasing the chances of a muscle injury. Rosicky, Wilshere and Cazorla are still injured, which means that we have no replacement for Ramsey and Ozil.
Giroud scored his 14th goal for Arsenal in all competitions this season. He nearly found the net again from an Ozil free kick in the 20th, but Gestede cleared his looping header off the line. The France international won 38% of his duels, which is a decent percentage for a lone striker. And Ozil can thank him for his outstanding work-rate. Giroud dropped back quite a few times to press the ballholder when Ozil was in a more advanced position.
Staying away from gambling
As a bottom side, the Villans were obviously low on confidence. They kept parking the bus even after Giroud opened the scoring, giving our centerbacks plenty of time on the ball. It’s only when Ramsey made it 2-0 that the hosts started pressing high up the pitch.
By his own standards, Cech had an average day. But that was enough to make the two routine saves needed for a clean sheet. The Czech goalkeeper gathered a long-range strike from Sinclair in the sixth minute and stopped a 25-yard curling shot from Sanchez in the 50th. His decision-making was questionable in the 21st when he came off his line to palm a cross from Sanchez into the path of Bacuna, who volleyed over the bar.
In the second half, Aston Villa threatened a couple of times in the air. Gestede got away from Mertesacker in the 49th to meet a cross from Hutton for a header that missed the target. Then Sinclair escaped Koscielny’s marking in the 56th to head Hutton’s cross over the bar. A mix of complacency and fatigue gave Aston Villa a few more half-chances. A sloppy back pass from Mertesacker in the 54th led to a weak return pass from Cech. Only a slip prevented Gestede from intercepting the ball. In stoppage time, Traore sped past Monreal and Flamini to hit the side-netting.
The Gunners will soon be entering the busy Christmas period with four games in a 13-day span. The manager might be tempted to play Sanchez against Manchester City on Dec. 21, but I really think it’s a too big gamble. There’s simply no need to rush the Chile forward’s return from injury with 22 league games left. If Sanchez suffers a relapse, we could then lose him for a couple of months. That’s not worth it.