Ozil scored and made an assist in the 2-0 win over Bournemouth on Monday to fire Arsenal to the top of the Premier League. His exceptional form is the main reason why the Gunners are contenders this season.
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Paulista bullied his marker to head in Ozil’s pinpoint corner from seven yards in the 27th minute. Then Ozil combined with Ramsey down the right flank before playing a one-two with Giroud to make it 2-0 in the 63rd. The Frenchman sent Ozil clean through on goal with a clever backheel flick. Ozil chested the ball down and showed great composure to slip it under Boruc.
Here’s a quick look at Ozil’s stats to understand how outstanding his performance was: 9 shot assists, a passing accuracy of 95% and 2 of 2 tackles won. The only negative: Ozil lost 70% of his duels.
The Germany playmaker has racked up 3 goals and 16 assists in 18 Premier League games this season for an average of 1.06 goal or assist per game. Ozil is a much better player than the one we saw in his first two seasons at Arsenal. To put things in context, Ozil averaged 0.54 league goal or assist per game in the 2013-14 season and 0.41 last season.
I never doubted Ozil’s abilities. Technically, he’s clearly the most gifted player in the squad. The key issue was why he didn’t seem to fulfill his potential. Somehow, Ozil gave the answer for his newfound consistency in an interview with a German magazine last week, saying he has changed his diet and is having more sleep and physiotherapy. Quite a contrast with the photos showing him smoking and partying like an animal a couple of years ago.
The quarterback and his receivers
Let’s analyze Ozil’s shot assists: four were from corners and five from open play. Paulista connected with Ozil’s corner kicks three times and Giroud once. In open play, Ozil created four chances for Walcott and one for Giroud. If Ozil were a quarterback, Walcott would definitely be his favorite receiver.
The understanding between Ozil and Walcott is more natural than the one between Giroud and Ozil. Because of his pace, movement and penetration, Walcott is a fantastic passing option for any midfielder who can read plays quickly. Ozil spotted Walcott’s run in behind the defense in the 24th and made a perfect cross for the England forward but Walcott failed to make contact with the ball while attempting a volley.
Walcott took another pass from Ozil in the 34th and had his shot blocked by Cook. The angle would have been better for Walcott with a first-time effort. A minute later, Walcott collected a through ball from Ozil and forced Boruc into a leg save with an angled strike. In stoppage time, Ozil led a counterattack and picked out Walcott with a cross from the left wing. However, Walcott’s heavy first touch allowed Boruc to deny him.
Ozil’s relationship with Giroud is different. Giroud is less mobile than Walcott but also more physical, which means that Giroud is a great target in the air and a solid option on the ground for executing a one-two. Ozil’s movement combined with Giroud’s quality link-up play led to the second goal. The duo nearly repeated the move in the 79th. Giroud held off Smith to release Ozil down the left wing. Ozil played the ball back to Giroud with a first-time cross but the Frenchman’s sliding effort sailed wide from 12 yards.
Cech’s Premier League record
Neither Walcott nor Giroud could find the net on Monday. Walcott was a bit selfish in the 67th, firing a low drive wide while an unmarked Ramsey was waiting at the far post for a cross. The Bournemouth defense poorly dealt with a punt from Cech in the 72nd, clearing the ball into the path of Giroud, whose long-range strike was parried by Boruc.
Bournemouth pressed high up the pitch in the opening minutes in an attempt to disrupt Arsenal’s passing game like Southampton did on Saturday.The crowd got some jitters with cheap turnovers by Ramsey and Mertesacker respectively in the fifth and 10th minutes. But in the end, Cech had a quiet evening with just a couple of routine saves, breaking a Premier League record by keeping a 170th clean sheet. Cech gathered King’s tame curling shot in the fifth minute, stopped Ritchie’s 30-yard drive in the 73rd and palmed away Murray’s diagonal strike in stoppage time.
What made the difference in the first half was Bournemouth’s poor defending on set pieces. The Cherries were in danger every time Arsenal had a corner. With better finishing, the Gunners could have reached halftime with a two-goal lead. Ozil’s technique combined with Paulista’s ability to attack the ball put the hosts ahead in the 27th. Then Paulista made a run at the near post to meet another Ozil corner in the 34th but his header bounced off the far post and Mertesacker’s face to go wide. Giroud and Paulista exposed again Bournemouth’s weakness in the air but missed the target respectively in the 36th and the 66th. The only time the Cherries did a decent job was in the 43rd when Paulista redirected Ozil’s offering toward the far post. Gosling prevented Ramsey from heading home with a timely challenge.
A new partnership in midfield
Wenger made four changes to the side that suffered an embarrassing 4-0 loss at Southampton on Boxing Day with Paulista, Gibbs, Chambers and Oxlade-Chamberlain replacing Koscielny, Monreal, Flamini and Campbell in the starting lineup.
Koscielny has been struggling with lower back and Achilles injuries in the past seasons, so I guess it made sense to rest him on Monday. Paulista deputized for the French centerback and had a great game, making 7 interceptions (the most for any player on the pitch) and winning 62.5% of his duels and 2 of 2 tackles. He made a crucial contribution in the 49th when King beat the offside trap to be clean through on goal. The Brazilian centerback sprinted to cut out King’s cross with a sliding block.
Flamini had an inflamed ankle according to the manager. With Arteta and Coquelin sidelined by injuries, losing a third defensive midfielder was not an option. So Wenger gave Chambers a chance in midfield. I had my doubts about the brand new partnership formed by Chambers and Ramsey. Chambers is a defender by trade while Ramsey enjoys roaming forward. Would they find the right balance to protect the back four?
Surprisingly, Ramsey restrained his attacking instincts to make up for Chambers’ inexperience in that position. The Wales midfielder won 2 of 2 tackles and made 4 interceptions, including one that prevented King from converting Daniels’ cross in the 13th. Chambers proved an efficient holding midfielder by keeping it simple and releasing the ball quickly. Obviously, Chambers doesn’t have Coquelin’s relentless energy but his stats were good for an unfamiliar position with 3 interceptions, 1 tackle won, no turnover and a passing accuracy of 89.8%.
The Ox enigma
Whether Chambers can reach Coquelin’s level of performance against bigger teams is a different story. Chambers had two minor lapses of concentration on Monday. After blocking Gosling’s long-range effort in the 59th, Chambers lost track of the Bournemouth midfielder, who took a pass from Smith and made a run inside the area. Gibbs dispossessed Gosling but Paulista kicked Gosling in the foot while attempting to clear the loose ball. In the 81st, Chambers gave O’Kane too much space for a curling shot that sailed wide.
The only negative for Chambers and Ramsey is that they both got booked. Ramsey held Gosling to stop a counterattack in the 30th while Chambers made a late tackle on Arter in the 61st. I’m fine with both decisions but I thought the referee was inconsistent. Arter in the 14th and Smith in the 45th made cynical fouls on the Ox but did not receive any yellow card.
It’s been a disappointing season for the Ox. The England international performed brilliantly against Chelsea in the Community Shield but he hasn’t been able to reproduce that kind of form so far, which explains why he’s currently competing with Campbell for the starting spot on the right wing. Does the Ox need to read the game a bit better? Is it a mental hurdle? Or does he simply need some luck?
At least, you can never blame the Ox for his work-rate. He won 5 fouls, 3 of 4 tackles and 81.3% of his duels. Daniels nearly turned a cross from the Ox into his own net in the 49th, forcing Boruc into a diving save. The Ox then led a counterattack in the 83rd, slipping the ball to Campbell, who found Walcott on the edge of the box. Walcott spun and picked out the Ox, whose deflected shot hit the post.
Title up for grabs
The Premier League title is really up for the grabs this season. The picture is pretty clear at the halfway stage. Arsenal (39 points), Leicester (39), Manchester City (36) and Tottenham (35) are still in the title race while Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United have already fallen out of contention. The Blues of last season would have been miles ahead of Arsenal but they have self-destructed under Mourinho in the past few months. Liverpool and Manchester United are still going through a rebuilding process as their most realistic target seems to be a European spot.
The Red Devils trail Arsenal by nine points and it’s hard to see how they could win the title with just 30 points at the halfway stage. Assuming 80 points would be enough to win the league, that would imply racking up 50 points from the last 19 league games. Nobody can seriously believe that Manchester United will achieve that feat. The only team that came close to such a crazy run was Liverpool in the 2013-14 season. The Reds reached the halfway stage with 36 points before collecting 48 points in the second half of the season to finish second, two points behind Manchester City.
It’s the first time since the 2002-03 season that the top team has such a low total after 19 games. Arsenal was leading then with 39 points, followed by Chelsea with 37 and Manchester United with 35. Ferguson went on to win the title that season with 83 points and the Gunners finished second with 78.
In the past five seasons, the leading team at the halfway stage and the future champion always had at least 41 points after 19 games. For those who are superstitious, don’t read the next sentence. Of all the teams leading at the halfway stage in the past five seasons, the Gunners were the only ones who didn’t win the title.
It’s hard to predict which teams will still be in contention in March, but the next two months will seriously test Arsenal’s title credentials as the majority of their injured players won’t return before mid-February. Can the Gunners sustain their title challenge with a weakened squad?