The Gunners thrashed West Ham 3-0 on Wednesday for their first victory in the Premier League since Feb. 11. They still have a lot of ground to make up if they want to get back in the race for a Top 4 finish, but at least the results are going Arsenal’s way as Manchester City lost at Chelsea while Liverpool split the points with Bournemouth.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
I was a bit anxious at kickoff. Injuries forced Wenger to make 3 changes to the side that drew 2-2 with Manchester City on Sunday with Martinez, Paulista and Elneny replacing Ospina, Koscielny and Coquelin in the starting lineup. In a dull first half, the Gunners managed to test Randolph only once. Then they capitalized on a spell of domination in the second half to take the lead. You could feel that their confidence was back after they added a second goal: their passing game suddenly became crisp just like when they had a 19-game unbeaten run in the first half of the season.
The scoreline clearly reflected Arsenal’s dominance as West Ham created only 2 chances compared to 17 for the Gunners, according to Squawka. However, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions too quickly. The Hammers don’t have the technical ability and movement of Manchester City and were low on confidence after losing their 4 previous league games.
Ozil made the difference by scoring the opening goal and setting up the second. He beat Randolph with a curling shot from the edge of the box in the 58th minute. Ozil then played a one-two with Sanchez to square the ball back for Walcott, who got ahead of Byram to stab it home in the 68th. Somehow, Ozil could have notched one more goal and one more assist. Instead of attempting a first-time effort in the 49th, Ozil controlled a reverse pass from Sanchez and was dispossessed by a sliding tackle from Collins. He also played another one-two with Sanchez in the 66th to make a cross for Elneny, whose bouncing header went straight into Randolph’s gloves.
Ozil ends scoring drought
The Germany playmaker finished the game with 5 key passes, 3 successful dribbles out of 3 and 8 turnovers, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Shifting Sanchez back to the left wing has helped restore Ozil’s influence on the game. When Sanchez plays as a false nine, he’s stepping on Ozil’s toes in midfield. Sometimes, they can create moments of magic like the goal scored against Chelsea in September. But too often Ozil has very little opportunity to deliver the final ball because he’s making runs in the final third. That’s why his number of assists has dropped this season.
I believe Ozil performs better in the role of a free-roaming midfielder than as a second striker when Sanchez leads the line. Ozil may score a lot of goals in training but he simply doesn’t have the killer instinct to repeat that feat in competitive games. His goal against West Ham was his first one in the Premier League since the 3-1 win over Stoke on Dec. 10. The Gunners were second in the standings after that Stoke game, three points behind Chelsea. In the end, Wenger’s tactical gamble on Ozil as a second striker backfired since Arsenal’s free fall also coincided with Ozil’s scoring drought.
Ozil slightly improved his work-rate by making 2 interceptions, 3 blocks and winning none of the 4 tackles he made against West Ham. But there are still issues about his attitude. In the first half, Ozil was reluctant to press high up the pitch, forcing Xhaka to do the job in his zone. In the second half, it was Elneny’s turn to perform Ozil’s pressing duties. The Gunners can survive that kind of behavior against the weak teams but they get in trouble against the stronger sides. Remember how Chelsea and Bayern Munich outplayed Arsenal in midfield. You also have to wonder to what extent it affects the chemistry in the dressing room. Players like Silva and Hazard would be criticized in their respective clubs for such a lack of effort.
Welbeck’s poor finishing
Sanchez had an off day with none of his 3 shots on target. He still managed to create 3 chances, finding Bellerin with a ball over the top in the 70th but the Spaniard missed the target from 7 yards. I’m guessing Sanchez must still feel the exhaustion from his trip to South America for the World Cup qualifiers with the Chile team. You can’t blame a player who has carried the club on his shoulders for most of the season, racking up 18 goals and 9 assists in the Premier League.
On the other hand, Walcott had a good game with 1 goal and 1 key pass. He also won 2 of 2 tackles and had 4 successful dribbles out of 5, but made no interception and no block. Walcott has 10 goals and 2 assists in 23 Premier League appearances this season. It’s only the second time in his career that he’s reaching the 10-goal mark. He still has enough games to do better than the 14 league goals scored during the 2012-13 season. My views on Walcott haven’t changed. He’s a great option against teams leaving space at the back, but his limited passing skills are exposed against teams with a tight defense.
Recently, Wenger has preferred Welbeck to Sanchez and Giroud in the lone striker role. Welbeck is stronger in the air than Sanchez and has more pace than Giroud. His main problem is the lack of end product. With some clinical finishing, he could have scored a hat trick. Welbeck met a clipped free kick from Sanchez in the 24th only to fluff his volley. He then connected with a corner from Ozil in the 42nd for a header straight at Randolph. His worst miss came in the 61st when Walcott played him clean through on goal. Welbeck had just Randolph to beat from 10 yards but was denied by the West Ham keeper.
Giroud the supersub
The manager sent on Giroud for Welbeck in the 74th and the Frenchman lived up to his supersub status by cutting inside Collins for a curling shot into the far corner in the 83rd. Giroud has 9 goals and 3 assists from 21 Premier League appearances this season, which is a good return for Arsenal’s third-choice centerforward. That last goal started with a fantastic run from Oxlade-Chamberlain, who dribbled past two Hammers to feed Giroud.
The Ox and Ramsey made their return from injury by replacing Walcott and Elneny in the 81st. They could make a difference in a busy run-in knowing that Cazorla will miss the rest of the season. As a deep-lying playmaker, Xhaka was not as efficient as Cazorla in setting a high tempo. But he still did a decent job by creating 3 chances, winning 4 of 10 tackles and leading all players with 120 passes. Xhaka also tested Randolph with a long-range strike in the 79th.
The midfield partnership formed by Xhaka and Elneny performed well on Wednesday. I’m still not convinced by their quality against the stronger teams but they looked complementary against West Ham. Elneny struggled in his defensive duties, winning only 1 of 6 tackles. However, he contributed to the fluency of Arsenal’s passing game with a passing accuracy of 97%.
On paper, Carroll was supposed to be West Ham’s main threat but had no decent service. Lanzini overhit his free kick in the seventh minute for Carroll, who had isolated himself with Bellerin at the far post. The Hammers’ chances came in fact from duels lost by Elneny. Noble dispossessed Elneny in the 13th to drag a diagonal drive wide. Lanzini then got the better of Elneny in the 75th and dribbled past Mustafi to fire a powerful strike that Martinez parried. In the closing minutes, Martinez also saved a low drive from Fernandes.
At the back, Bellerin slightly improved after a poor performance against City. The Spaniard created 2 chances, had 3 successful dribbles out of 3, won 1 of 3 tackles, and made 1 interception and 2 blocks, according to Squawka. He got booked for a cynical foul on Antonio in the 18th. Surprisingly, Paulista proved our most solid defender, winning 1 of 1 tackle and 4 of 6 aerial duels, and leading all players with 5 interceptions.
The Gunners won despite some mediocre officiating from Atkinson. Another referee would have awarded at least 2 penalties. In the 18th, Walcott dribbled past Masuaku, who made a blatant obstruction inside the area. The only penalty shout that looked weak was the collision between Collins and Monreal in the 80th. Both pounced on a loose ball and missed it. I’m OK with that call. On the other hand, I thought Atkinson showed poor judgement by dismissing Monreal’s penalty appeal in stoppage time. Monreal cut inside Byram, who made a late tackle and not only missed the ball but also stamped on Monreal’s foot. Any decent referee would have awarded Arsenal a spot kick and given Byram a second yellow card. Atkinson missed another call when Carroll elbowed Mustafi on the stroke of halftime. The referee should have given Arsenal a free kick and stopped play because it was a head injury.
The Gunners only have fourth place to play for now. Qualifying for the Champions League is crucial to boost the club’s transfer budget and sign top players this summer. Trailing Manchester City and Liverpool by 4 and 6 points respectively, the Gunners have no room for error. That implies victories over Crystal Palace on Monday and over Middlesbrough on April 17.