Arsenal vs. Aston Villa: Giroud celebrates St Totteringham’s Day with hat trick

The Gunners retained the bragging rights in north London by thrashing bottomside Aston Villa 4-0 in the final round of the Premier League on Sunday. Arsenal leapfrogged Tottenham into second place as Spurs imploded with a 5-1 loss at Newcastle.

Arsenal vs. Aston Villa

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Giroud notched a hat trick to finish the season as the club’s top striker with 16 goals in the league and 24 in all competitions. Maybe Giroud could have scored more than 20 league goals like Kane (25), Vardy (24) and Aguero (24) if he had not gone through a poor run of form from mid-January to the beginning of May. But a quick look at Giroud’s career stats tells us that his tally is in line with past performances. He racked up 14 league goals in the 2014-15 season and 16 league goals in the 2013-14 season.

The Frenchman proved quite clinical on Sunday by catching the frame with 3 of his 4 goal attempts. Giroud headed a cross from Monreal into the bottom corner to open the scoring in the fifth minute. He then made a run to the near post to slide into the roof of the net a cross from Ozil in the 78th. Two minutes later, Giroud made a run to the far post to guide a cross from Bellerin past the goalkeeper for a 3-0 lead.

Giroud was also involved in some good plays but couldn’t turn them into chances. In the 30th, he initiated a one-two with Ozil, who overhit his return pass. Giroud was then in a one-on-one situation with Lescott in the 50th but lacked the pace and dribbling skills to beat the Aston Villa centerback. A minute later, the Frenchman couldn’t connect with a cross from Ozil for a close-range header.

Sanchez as a centerforward?

Sanchez’s performance was a mixed bag. The Chile forward was a live wire and made 4 shot assists. But he also had a high turnover rate and wasted some good situations with just 1 of 5 shots on target. Sanchez cut inside Lyden in the 32nd only to fire a low drive wide. He then chased a long ball from Ozil in the 84th and had his lob attempt palmed out by Bunn. In stoppage time, Sanchez rounded Bacuna down the left wing and proved a bit selfish by attempting a lob from a tight angle instead of feeding Giroud.

In the past two seasons, Wenger has tried to develop Walcott into a centerforward. Unfortunately, that project has become a complete waste of time because of Walcott’s weakness in the air, his inability to hold the ball up and his poor link-up play. I’ve often wondered whether the manager would try a similar experiment with Sanchez, who’s even shorter than Walcott.

On Sunday, two plays summed up well why it would be an awkward position for Sanchez. He checked his run to control a long ball in the fourth minute, instead of taking the ball in his stride, and lost possession to Lescott. He then miskicked a volley with his left foot in the 35th while connecting with a clipped pass from Ozil. Sanchez is stronger in challenges than Walcott, but he doesn’t have Giroud’s dominance in the air and ability to play back to goal.

A better balance, more control

Wenger made four changes to the side that drew 2-2 with Manchester City the previous weekend with Wilshere, Cazorla, Coquelin and Ozil replacing Welbeck, Ramsey, Elneny and Iwobi in the starting lineup. Arteta, Flamini and Rosicky are set to leave the club this summer, but there was no room for sentimentality as only Arteta managed to make the bench.

The difference in midfield between the two games was pretty obvious. The Gunners had a better balance because Coquelin provides more protection to the back four than Elneny while Cazorla is more disciplined in his positional play than Ramsey. Our passing game was also more slick because Cazorla is a more creative player than Elneny and because Wilshere has better ball retention skills than Ramsey. Cazorla’s ability to dictate the tempo also improved Arsenal’s control of the game.

Cazorla produced a great all-round performance and led all midfielders by making 80 passes and winning 3 of 3 tackles and 71% of his duels, according to the club’s website. Paulista headed a free kick from Cazorla in the 13th but his effort lacked power to trouble Bunn. Cazorla then made a run to the far post in the 56th to meet a cross from Ozil, but his headed pass went behind Sanchez and Wilshere. His only goal attempt was a low shot straight at Bunn in the 75th. Cazorla and Coquelin are arguably our most complementary midfield duo. To a certain extent, they remind me of Pirlo and Gattuso at AC Milan a decade ago.

Ozil’s best season at Arsenal

In his first start of the season, Wilshere was not 100% sharp. That did not prevent England manager Hodgson from including him in the provisional squad for the Euros. Wilshere should get stronger in challenges with a few more games under his belt. He overhit a ball over the top for Sanchez in the 16th. The two players showed a good understanding on Sunday as Wilshere found Sanchez inside the area in the 22nd, but the Chile forward had his shot blocked. Wilshere then connected with a cross from Sanchez in the 33rd only to send a half-volley into the side-netting.

Long-term injuries to Cazorla and Wilshere definitely hurt Arsenal’s title bid this season. They could have helped remove the creative burden off Ozil’s shoulders when the Germany playmaker had a slump in the second half of the season. It was no coincidence if Ozil’s slump happened at the same time as Giroud’s goal drought.

Ozil made the cross for Giroud’s second goal to raise his tally to 19 assists this season, one unit shy of Henry’s Premier League record. He’s definitely having his best season at the club with 19 assists and 6 goals in 35 league games for an average of 0.71 goal or assist per game. By contrast, Ozil’s average was 0.54 in his first season at Arsenal and 0.41 in his second. In fact, Ozil has even been more efficient than in his stint at Real Madrid where he averaged 0.64 goal or assist in his first season, 0.60 in his second and 0.69 in his third.

Arteta’s last game

But Ozil hasn’t reached yet the level of Fabregas’ two best seasons at Arsenal. The Spaniard had 7 goals and 20 assists in 32 league games during the 2007-08 season for an 0.84 average. Fabregas improved that mark with 15 goals and 13 assists in 27 league games during the 2009-10 season for a 1.04 average. Ozil has plenty of room to improve his scoring record. That’s why the manager has asked him this season to play higher up the pitch almost like a second striker. One good example for Ozil is Mahrez who guided Leicester to the title with 17 goals and 11 assists in 37 league games for an 0.76 average.

Elneny came off the bench to replace a tiring Wilshere in the 69th. He pounced on a deflected cross from Sanchez in the 73rd only to volley over the bar from 11 yards. Elneny was then played in by Arteta in stoppage time but shot into the side-netting. Obviously, the Egypt international needs to work on his composure in front of goal. For his last game at the club, Arteta replaced Ozil in the 88th and contributed to the fourth goal in injury time with a strike that hit the bar and bounced off the goalkeeper to roll into the back of the net.

Cech had a quiet afternoon as he only had to make two routine saves, stopping a low bouncing drive from Westwood in the 16th and an angled effort from Ayew in the 66th. Paulista was a bit more busy than Koscielny because Ayew often cut inside from Bellerin’s flank. Koscielny (7 interceptions, 57% of duels won) acted more like a sweeper while Paulista (3 interceptions, 33% of duels won) was often involved in one-on-one situations.

A misleading second-place finish

Ayew is a good striker, but you wouldn’t put him in the same class as Aguero or Kane. So it was a bit surprising to see that Ayew had Paulista in his pocket. Ayew dribbled past Paulista in the eighth minute to make a cross that Koscielny cleared. The Ghana international then turned Paulista in the 38th to feed Sinclair, who dragged his shot wide. Ayew also outmuscled Bellerin in the 66th and skipped past Paulista for a toe-poke that Cech saved. In the closing minutes, it took a sliding tackle from Koscielny to prevent Ayew from being clean through on goal.

This has been a good season for Bellerin who did not suffer from the traditional sophomore slump. He fed Giroud for the third goal, made 4 interceptions and won 3 of 3 tackles. The Spanish defender has racked up 1 goal and 5 assists in 36 league games compared to 2 goals and 1 assist in 20 league games last season. At 21, Bellerin still has room to improve his positional play and the consistency in his delivery. Knowing that we have the best rightback in the league, it would make sense to sell Debuchy this summer. Keeping Debuchy would only hurt the team’s chemistry and take one extra spot in the squad.

Somehow, the Gunners’ second-place finish is misleading. It would be considered a good season by most fans any other year. But finishing 10 points behind Leicester tells you that something is wrong. The Foxes have a weaker squad and a smaller budget than Arsenal. Yet, they still won the league. What makes this season so disappointing is that the Gunners fell out of contention by March while Tottenham still had a shot at the title in May.

Big clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City couldn’t even mount a serious title bid. Chelsea self-destructed under Mourinho while City undermined Pellegrini’s authority by disclosing the hiring of Guardiola. But that’s no excuse for not building a squad that can contend and go the distance. Failing to strengthen an aging squad last summer is the main regret for most Arsenal fans. I would say that Arsenal had a decent season, but not a good one.