You can call it a bromance. The understanding between Sanchez and Iwobi led the Gunners to a 4-0 thrashing of Watford on Saturday. Arsenal stayed third in the Premier League, four points clear of Manchester City. If the Gunners can’t win the title this season, then they’d better finish in the Top 3 to avoid the Champions League playoffs in the summer.
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Arsenal proved much more clinical than in the 2-1 loss to Watford in the FA Cup last month with 12 of 19 shots on target. The difference between the two games was that the Gunners had more pace and penetration with Welbeck up front and Iwobi on the left wing instead of Giroud and Campbell respectively. Arsenal also had a better control of the match, enjoying 69% of ball possession and limiting the Hornets to 2 shots on target. Watford’s plan was to hit the hosts on the fast break but Ighalo and Deeney were denied space in the final third. Again, the difference between the two games was that Wenger played Bellerin, Paulista, Koscielny and Monreal on Saturday whereas he fielded a makeshift defense in the FA Cup loss with Chambers, Mertesacker, Paulista and Gibbs.
The manager made no change to the team that won 2-0 at Everton before the international break, handing Iwobi a second start in the league and giving Ospina the nod over Cech, back in the squad but not completely sharp. Iwobi created the first goal with a cross for Sanchez in the fourth minute. Sanchez outjumped Ake at the far post for a header that Gomes parried but Sanchez pounced on the rebound to convert Arsenal’s first scoring chance. Iwobi and Sanchez swapped roles for the second goal in the 38th. Coquelin released Sanchez down the right flank and the Chile forward squared the ball back for Iwobi, who fired a first-time effort under Gomes.
Sanchez fits better in the team’s passing game when he plays on the right wing. He finished the game with 5 shot assists, two more than Ozil and Iwobi. Somehow, the creativity of Sanchez and Iwobi has compensated for Ozil’s drop in form. Ozil has racked up 16 assists in the first half of the season but only 2 since the beginning of January. Likewise, Welbeck and Iwobi have made up for Giroud’s poor scoring form in the second half of the season.
Iwobi is more involved in the team’s passing game than Campbell and shows more composure in the final third than Oxlade-Chamberlain. The Nigeria international had a curling shot tipped over the bar by Gomes in the 14th and struck the woodwork after taking a pass from Sanchez in the 50th. At 19, Iwobi reads the game extremely well and is definitely one of the most exciting prospects in Europe but he’s not the finished product yet. He especially needs to improve his defensive game. Iwobi only won 17% of his duels and had a few turnovers. He also needs to work on his fitness as he got tired after 60 minutes. Hopefully, the manager won’t overwork him next season like he did with Wilshere.
Iwobi was named Man of the Match but I thought Sanchez produced the better performance. Sanchez had 4 of 4 shots on target, with a dipping free kick turned around the post in the 24th and a long-range strike saved by Gomes in the 54th. The Chile forward also proved selfless, making a cross for Monreal, who headed over the bar in the eighth minute. Sanchez had a hand in the third goal as his cross was headed by Nyom into the path of Bellerin, whose volley took a deflection off Watson to beat a wrongfooted Gomes in the 48th. Five minutes later, Ozil collected a through ball from Sanchez, but was denied by Gomes.
Welbeck couldn’t find the net on Saturday despite some good service from Ozil and Sanchez. In the 15th, Ozil cut the ball back for Welbeck, whose effort deflected off a defender to flirt with the side-netting. Welbeck then met a cross from Ozil in the 54th but his tame header did not trouble Gomes. The England international lacked spontaneity a couple of times. Sanchez led a counterattack in the 13th and picked out Welbeck, who cut inside and had his shot blocked while the better option was to round the defender or feed Ozil to his left.
The manager always makes sure there’s some fair competition within the squad. Giroud and Walcott were fighting for the centerforward spot at the start of the season and now Welbeck is the first choice up front. Likewise, Campbell and the Ox were competing for a starting spot on the wing which now belongs to Iwobi. Wenger is a good fixer. Last season, he came up with the tandem formed by Coquelin and Cazorla after finding out that the other midfield pairings lacked complementarity. Can the manager be again a good planner so that Arsenal can perform well an entire season?
Welbeck, Iwobi and Sanchez were replaced in the last 20 minutes by Giroud, Walcott and Campbell respectively. Giroud headed a corner straight at Gomes in the 73rd while Walcott sealed the win in the 90th by tapping home a low cross from Campbell, who dribbled past Nyom. A few more goals by the end of the season would increase Walcott’s market value and help the club sell him at a decent price this summer. At 27, Walcott is unlikely to improve as a player. It’s time to give the other Gunners a chance, especially if they have a better work-rate. Walcott lost possession in the 84th and did not make any effort to win the ball back, forcing Elneny to make a cynical foul on Amrabat.
Coquelin & Elneny providing protection
The Hornets found it more difficult to reach the Arsenal box than in the FA Cup match. Bellerin produced a good performance, scoring the third goal and winning 3 of 3 tackles, the most for any defender. Koscielny and Paulista made 6 interceptions each but Koscielny won 67% of his duels compared to 33% for Paulista. Both centerbacks had their dodgy moments with Paulista screwing up an offside trap and Koscielny losing possession on the edge of the Arsenal area.
Ighalo too easily cut inside Paulista by faking a shot in the 32nd but Bellerin was able to clear the danger. Then Deeney controlled a cross from Ake in the 70th and turned Koscielny to curl a shot that Ospina palmed away. It was a play similar to the opening goal scored by Watford in the FA Cup. The Hornets nearly capitalized on some poor defending in the 56th. Unmarked at the far post, Deeney redirected a free kick toward Prodl, whose header was cleared off the line by Monreal.
In the end, Ospina was not much tested because Coquelin and Elneny worked hard in midfield to shield the back four. They covered a lot of ground and combined to make 7 tackles, while Sanchez, Ozil and Iwobi combined to make only 3 tackles. As the more defensive of the two central midfielders, Coquelin played a key role in stopping counterattacks. The Frenchman made 4 interceptions and won 89% of his duels. Elneny is not an organizer like Cazorla but he plays an important role in the team’s passing game. He made 127 passes (compared to 110 for Ozil) and had a passing accuracy of 96% (compared to 92% for Ozil).
Tougher test at Boleyn Ground
Basically, Elneny is a regulator. He doesn’t bring the ball in the final third like Cazorla. In fact, Elneny made no key pass on Saturday. The Egypt international’s role is simply to bring the ball in midfield when the Gunners build play from the back. In his first game at the club, Elneny made the mistake of not releasing the ball quickly enough. Now he has a better understanding of the team’s passing game and of the necessity of a high tempo. Elneny will need to make a small adjustment in his positional play. He sat too deep a couple of times, playing Ighalo onside in the 28th and forcing Ospina to come off his line.
Can Coquelin and Elneny provide the same defensive security when the Gunners visit West Ham next Saturday? The Hammers are obviously a tougher test than Watford as they are still in the race for a Champions League spot, seven points behind Arsenal. A victory at the Boleyn Ground would keep alive the Gunners’ chances of finishing ahead of Tottenham. On the other hand, a defeat would make a Top 3 finish more difficult for Arsenal.