Sanchez notched a hat trick and made an assist in Saturday’s 5-1 rout of West Ham to propel Arsenal to second place in the Premier League, three points behind leader Chelsea. The Chile striker became the joint top scorer in the league with 11 goals this season and also raised his tally to 4 assists.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
The Gunners created most of their chances down the left wing in the first half and capitalized on a West Ham turnover to take the lead in the 24th minute. Walcott had a couple of chances to put the game to bed early in the second half but failed to convert them. It took two substitutions to trigger a goal-fest in the last 20 minutes. Ramsey replaced Walcott in the 66th and brought more energy in the Arsenal midfield while Noble’s replacement by Carroll in the 73rd made the Hammers lose their shape.
Sanchez produced an outstanding all-around performance similar to the one against Bournemouth a week ago. He finished the game at the Olympic stadium with 3 goals, 1 assist, 5 key passes, 3 successful dribbles out of 4, but also 7 turnovers and no tackle. His hyperactivity was a bit more obvious against Bournemouth with 2 goals, 5 key passes, 2 successful dribbles out of 3, 10 turnovers, and 2 tackles won out of 6.
The opening goal came from a sloppy pass from Ogbonna blocked by Coquelin in the 24th. Sanchez beat Reid to the loose ball and set up Ozil for a tap-in. The Gunners doubled the lead in the 72nd when Sanchez collected a deep pass from Mustafi. Sanchez rolled away from Masuaku and rounded Ogbonna to beat Randolph with a low strike in the far corner. Reid somehow contributed to the third goal in the 80th as the West Ham centerback deflected Xhaka’s pass for Ozil into the path of Sanchez, who fired home a half-volley from the edge of the box. Carroll pulled one back in the 83rd by heading in a rebound after Payet’s free kick had struck the bar. A minute later, Oxlade-Chamberlain made it 4-1 with a curling shot from 25 yards. Sanchez sealed the win in the 86th by chasing a through ball from the Ox to chip the ball over the goalkeeper.
The manager’s leap of faith
Wenger’s previous attempt to play a diminutive centerforward didn’t work. Most fans still remember how ineffective Arshavin was in the lone striker role while Van Persie was injured. It took quite a leap of faith from the manager to trust Sanchez in that position especially since Sanchez performed well as a winger in the past two seasons at the club.
To a certain extent, Sanchez reminds me a bit of Romario, the Brazilian striker who lifted the World Cup in 1994. They nearly have the same height. Romario has better dribbling skills while Sanchez has more power. Obviously, the drawback with that kind of striker is that you will develop most of your plays on the ground and will struggle to hurt opponents in the air.
Offensively, Sanchez is not a target man like Giroud, who can win headers from crosses and is perfectly tailored for a more direct approach. Sanchez struggled as a lone striker in the goalless draw with Middlesbrough and the lucky win over Burnley. Giroud, who was not available for both games, could have made a difference with his physicality against those compact teams. Defensively, Giroud can help Arsenal evade a high press by knocking down long balls while Sanchez can only run after those clearances.
The Ox shining on the left wing
Since the start of the season, Walcott on the right wing has been a greater goal threat than Iwobi or the Ox on the left wing. The dynamic changed on Saturday as Walcott had a poor game with none of his 3 goal attempts on target. Walcott met a free kick from Ozil in the 49th but missed the target with a header from six yards. He then took a pass from Sanchez in the 52nd only to miskick wide from a good position. Sanchez fed Walcott again in the 65th but Ogbonna blocked the England international’s shot.
On the other hand, the Ox showed more end product than against Bournemouth with 1 goal, 1 assist, 4 key passes, 2 through balls (more than any other player according to whoscored.com), 6 successful dribbles out of 8, 1 of 2 tackles won, 3 blocks, 1 interception and only 1 turnover.
The Ox and Sanchez displayed a good understanding in the first half. By the ninth minute, Sanchez picked out the Ox, who overhit his final ball for Ozil. The Ox was then released down the left wing by Sanchez in the 30th, but showed poor decision-making by opting for an off-balance effort instead of crossing the ball to Walcott, free at the far post. They swapped roles in the 35th when the Ox played Sanchez in. Clean through on goal, Sanchez dribbled past Randolph but lost possession with a heavy touch. The Ox finally found the net in the 84th and could have scored another goal in the 90th if Randolph had not made a leg save.
Ramsey’s value in the squad
Ozil had a good game offensively with 1 goal, 1 assist, 4 key passes and 3 accurate crosses. However, his defensive contribution was pretty weak with 2 interceptions, no tackle and no block. West Ham took advantage of Ozil’s leniency as Noble and Obiang hit 4 accurate long balls each. That poor defensive coverage of the area between the central midfielders and the striker did not hurt the Gunners on Saturday but it could cost them dearly against stronger teams.
Ramsey came off the bench in the 66th to help Arsenal take control of the game. He connected with a low cross from Monreal in the 69th but had his first-time effort saved by Randolph. Ozil pounced on the rebound for an acrobatic volley that the Ireland goalkeeper stopped with a reflex save. In stoppage time, Sanchez fed Ramsey, who was denied by Randolph again.
Knowing that Cazorla will be sidelined for three months and that Wilshere has been loaned out to Bournemouth, Ramsey’s value in the squad has become more important just like injuries to Welbeck and Giroud have made Sanchez’s fitness a top priority. Ramsey hasn’t found the net yet, but after a hamstring injury ruined his start to the season, it’s all about having some playing time to get back to the top of his game.
Xhaka’s low-key performance
The Gunners have lost a bit of their attacking fluency because of injuries to Cazorla and Bellerin, who both add a technical touch to the team’s passing game. Bellerin is arguably our most skillful defender while Cazorla is the only midfielder as gifted technically as Ozil. So there was some concern before kickoff about the manager’s choices for the midfield pairing and the rightback starter.
In the end, Wenger took the safe options. In midfield, Wenger partnered a ballwinner, Coquelin, with a deep-lying playmaker, Xhaka. At rightback, he dropped Jenkinson, who has performed poorly lately and is low on confidence, and started the more experienced Paulista while leaving Holding on the bench.
Xhaka was a bit shy in his pacesetting duties, making only 58 passes, compared to 57 for Ozil and 53 for Coquelin. By contrast, Cazorla often makes 80 plus passes per game. Xhaka seemed to focus on his positional play and defensive duties. He sometimes struggled to cope with the pace of Payet, when the West Ham winger cut inside, but still managed to hit 5 accurate long balls, the most for any player according to whoscored.com.
In their fourth start together, Coquelin had better defensive stats than Xhaka (4 of 6 tackles won vs. 2 of 6 for Xhaka, 84.6% of duels won vs. 44.4% for Xhaka, and 6 interceptions vs. 3 for Xhaka) but surprisingly also better offensive stats than the Switzerland international (1 chance created and 3 successful dribbles out of 3 vs. none for Xhaka). Coquelin’s only blemish was his 5 turnovers, including one that led Ayew’s goal attempt in the 75th. I expect Xhaka to play more confidently in the next few games if he gets the nod.
While Monreal and Bellerin play pretty much like wingbacks, Paulista was so reluctant to roam forward that he looked like an old-fashioned fullback. Actually, I don’t mind a bit of cautiousness. But it also means less support for Walcott down the right wing.
West Ham’s through balls came from Paulista’s flank while their dangerous crosses were made from Monreal’s flank. In the 19th, Payet slipped a through ball to Lanzini, who was forced wide by Monreal and then Koscielny. Lanzini still managed to test Cech with an angled shot. On that play, Paulista failed to close down Payet. In the 54th, Lanzini collected another through ball from Payet but his low cross for Fletcher was cleared by Koscielny. On that play, Mustafi came out too late to press Payet while Paulista was a bit slow to turn and track Lanzini.
Monreal took advantage of the poor understanding between Arbeloa and Fernandes to roam forward in the first half. The Spaniard made a poor cross for the Ox, who was free at the near post in the seventh minute. He then had two cutbacks cleared by the Hammers in the 13th.
Failing to stop dangerous crosses has been a big issue for Monreal since last season. In the 44th, Monreal gave too much space to Fletcher, whose cross was headed over the bar by Obiang. In the 62nd, Arbeloa took advantage of some poor coordination between Monreal and Walcott to cross the ball for Fletcher, who sent his tame header straight into Cech’s gloves. Ayew also dribbled past Monreal in the 79th but Koscielny blocked the strike from the West Ham substitute. Monreal won none of the 5 tackles he made. I hope the staff is scouting leftbacks since Monreal is apparently losing a step.
Leading by example
Koscielny produced an outstanding performance, winning 83.3% of his duels, 3 of 3 tackles and 4 of 5 aerial duels according to Squawka and the club’s website, compared to Mustafi’s 63.6% of duels won, 1 of 2 tackles won and 7 of 8 aerial duels won. Koscielny pounced on Mustafi’s off-target header from a corner but couldn’t make contact to divert the ball home in the 17th. In a very short time, Mustafi has proved a more solid partner than Mertesacker or Paulista. Koscielny will turn 32 next year and we can only hope that Mustafi will be ready to marshall the defense when Koscielny steps down.
The title race is so tight this season that the Gunners have no maneuvering room. That’s why I think the Champions League game at Basel on Tuesday is less important than the Premier League game against Stoke next Saturday. Arsenal would top their group only if Paris Saint-Germain were to drop points at home against Ludogorets, which is very unlikely. Wenger won’t rotate much against Basel but I expect him to take off his key players in the second half.