Gunners grind out a win to stop the rot

Saturday’s 2-0 win over Hull won’t live long in the memory for Arsenal fans, but it was incredibly necessary to put some sort of momentum back into the season. Despite Chelsea dropping points at Burnley, the title challenge remains over for Arsenal, but with Bayern Munich to come on Wednesday, the Gunners would surely have had no hope of a positive result in that game if it followed three defeats on-the-bounce.
Even though Hull are fighting for survival, they weren’t pushovers at the Emirates. Marco Silva has got them organised at the back since his arrival, and made them more adventurous going forward. It led to an unexpectedly open game, which was beneficial to Arsenal in some senses as it played into the hands of the having a front three spearheaded by Alexis Sanchez, but it also created a slightly frenetic feel to the game as the Gunners couldn’t control the tempo. If Arsenal were in any doubt as to Hull’s intentions for the game, Lazar Markovic confirmed them early on with a dangerous run and low cross, which should have been converted by Niasse. Petr Cech also had to make a smart save from a header as the visitors looked to capitalise on any vulnerabilities Arsenal had after back-to-back defeats.
But the Gunners were creating openings of their own, and should have taken the lead when Alexis fired wide with his left foot about 12 yards out. 
The Chilean did get his name on the scoresheet before half-time in a slightly fortuitous manner. A good Arsenal move ended wth Kieran Gibbs’ shot being blocked on the line, but as Alexis went to poke the ball into the net, the ball got kicked into him, ricocheting it into the net. There have been plenty of calls to suggest that it was a handball from the striker, but it was definitely not deliberate. His arm was up to balance when kicking the ball on the floor. That the clearance was kicked into him and went in was bad luck for Hull and good luck for Arsenal, but it was the correct decision to award the goal.
It was similar to Laurent Koscielny’s winner at Burnley earlier in the season. The ball did hit his arm, but there was no intent to handle the ball and it was a split-second from the ball being kicked to it making contact, making it impossible to avoid.
It felt somewhat unusal for Arsenal to lead at half-time after a string of rubbish first-half performances. The Gunners hadn’t been at their best but at least they’d been competitive in the game and weren’t having to come from behind again.
The Gunners did get increasingly nervous as the game went on as they realised the necessity of not dropping more stupid points. Hull felt hard done by again as Kieran Gibbs fouled Markovic 30 yards out from goal, with the visiting team surrounded referee Mark Clattenburg demanding a red card. It was to the referee’s credit that he ignored the mass of Hull players and only showed Gibbs yellow. While he was the last defender, it was a clumsy but not cynical challenge, and Markovic didn’t have full control of the ball, making it hard to justify it being a clear goal-scoring opportunity and being worthy of a red.
It was good to see Kieran Gibbs get an opportunity to start in the Premier League as, while he’s still been solid enough, Nacho Monreal hasn’t quite hit the same levels of performance during this season as he did in the previous two. Elsewhere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain continued to impress in the centre of midfield, often looking like the more experienced central player alongside Francis Coquelin. What was most impressive to me was his willingness and awareness to chase players back and make important defensive contributions, as this has sometimes been a weakness of his on the flanks. The extra responsibility of playing in the middle does seem to have brought out a more disciplined side to Oxlade-Chamberlain’s game. With Mohamed Elneny back from the African Cup of Nations and Granit Xhaka now back from suspension, there’s a chance we won’t see much of the Ox centrally again, but Arsene Wenger should seriously consider using him in there again before the season ends. An Ox-Xhaka combination has a lot of potential on paper and hopefully is one Wenger explores soon.
Arsenal didn’t kill the game off until injury time as they punished Hull on the counter-attack. Ozil slid a good pass forward for Alexis, who was forced wide by an AWOL goalkeeper. He crossed for Lucas to head towards goal, but the ball was blocked by the arm of Clucas on the line with the keeper out of goal, bringing a clear red card and penalty. Alexis slotted it beyond Jakupovic to bag a brace and secure the three points.
There has been a lot written and said about the club in the last week, particularly about Arsene Wenger. Most of it has been a load of clickbait nonsense with any old footballing hasbeen wheeled out to try and twist the knife into the Frenchman. It was good to have an actual game on Saturday to interrupt all of it. While the atmosphere was far from lively at the Emirates, it was nowhere near as negative as I feared it might be, and nowhere near as toxic as you’d expect from a cross-section of media coverage of Arsenal this week.
It’s been a bad couple of weeks, but Arsenal remain firmly in the middle of the scrap with the rest of the top six behind Chelsea and the club still have a serious involvement in the Champions League and FA Cup. The league is now on the back-burner until the beginning of March, so the team can really focus on the other competitions, as the performance in those two tournaments will now have a big impact on any decision Arsene Wenger makes regarding a new contract at the end of the season. It wasn’t a stellar or particularly stirring performance on Saturday, but at least it’s a win to go into the other two competitions with.


Much-changed Arsenal put on a five-star performance

There’s always a risk making a lot of changes for a cup match, but with a few uninspiring ties drawn for the fourth round, and a full set of Premier League fixtures in the next midweek, alterations were inevitable across the 4th round of the FA Cup. A lot of teams suffered with sweeping changes as Liverpool went out to lower league opposition and Tottenham scraped past fourth-tier Wycombe Wanderers.
On seeing that Arsenal had made changes, critics of the FA Cup could have seen that as another example of a Premier League team not taking the competition seriously, but the Gunners put on a fantastic show to sweep Southampton aside in a 5-0 thrashing. Such is the depth and quality of Arsene Wenger’s squad this season, the starting XI he selected was still packed full of quality and players hungry to make an impression and get more regular game-time.
Southampton also made wholesale alterations after making the EFL Cup final in midweek, and their youngsters got a lesson from a vibrant and pacy Arsenal team. Arsenal still fielded a relatively experienced back four and front three generally had an experienced look to them, but the midfield trio was a bit more unfamiliar. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was playing out of position, with fellow doubled-barrellers Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Jeff Reine-Adelaide also playing in the middle. I was concerned pre-match that Arsenal would lack solidity with those three in the middle, but they controlled the tempo of the game superbly, and did the defensive work when needed. 
Oxlade-Chamberlain in particular took on the role of being the experienced man in the middle and was excellent. His range of passing was good, and with the pace up front with Welbeck, Walcott, Lucas and then Alexis all looking to run in behind the defence, he always had the option of pinging a ball over the defence from deep. Providing Aaron Ramsey and Francis Coquelin were just rested on Saturday and don’t have injury problems, Oxlade-Chamberlain won’t be needed to fill in there in important league games, but it was encouraging to see him put in both a creative and disciplined performance. 
It was the Arsenal midfield that enabled them to grab control of the game early on and not let the hosts gain any momentum from a bouyant home crowd after their EFL Cup semi-final victory. A positive start was rewarded with a slick move involving Maitland-Niles and Lucas Perez. The Spaniard flicked a lovely pass through the Southampton defence for Welbeck to run onto and chip over the goalkeeper into the net for a goal on his first start following his injury nightmare. 
Welbeck doubled up shortly afterwards as Oxlade-Chamberlain played a fantastic pass over the defence, which Welbeck controlled well out the air and slid the ball under the advancing goalkeeper. To have Welbeck looking so sharp in front of goal after such a long time out is a testament to his hard work on the training ground and the work done by the medical staff. He could easily have snatched at either of the chances he had, but both goals were clinical finishes. He’s a player that is loved because of his work rate and desire to help the team, and he adds a different dimension to an Arsenal front-line.
With Welbeck fit and firing, it’s a tough choice for Arsene Wenger to have to make each week to pick a starting line-up. It was interesting to see Welbeck predominately play from the left against Southampton, with Lucas down the middle, so I suspect that when everyone is fit, Welbeck might play on that flank with Alexis playing centrally.
On the right, it’s likely to be Theo Walcott after he made a clinical return from a month out injured. He netted a third Arsenal goal at Southampton in the first half on Saturday as Welbeck and Lucas linked up, allowing the Englishman to square the ball for Walcott to score. 
With the tie virtually won, Arsenal were able to cruise through the second half, but they still looked keen to add to the score; none more so than when Alexis came on for Welbeck just past the hour mark. The substitution was probably pre-planned with Welbeck playing around an hour on his first start after the injury, but it must have seemed cruel on Southampton to be 3-0 down and then see the electrifying Chilean coming on. He had an impact by claiming two assists for Theo Walcott to stroke home two simple goals to complete a hat-trick. 
Even though the finishes were relatively straightforward, it was important for Walcott to return and get on the score sheet. He needs confidence to be at his best, and we’ve seen that a nervy Theo Walcott is a waste of space, so it bodes well to have him hit the ground running when back in the team.
The game really couldn’t have gone much better for Arsene Wenger as he watched on from the stands. Plenty of players who needed game time got it, and in a game that was competitive, but played at an ideal pace to just build up some sharpness. Plus Arsenal’s woeful record at St Mary’s was blown out of the water. The coming week could be season-defining with a trip to Stamford Bridge at the end of it, but Saturday’s rout showed the squad is in good shape ahead of a big week. 

Alexis hammers the Hammers

It took longer than it should have done as Arsenal dominated West Ham for the majority of the game, but when the Gunners did gets the goals that their play deserved at the Olympic Stadium on Saturday, Alexis Sanchez was at the heart of it in a devastating display and a 5-1 win.
West Ham do have serious issues. Off the pitch, fans are hardly warming to their new home, but the main issues are on the field where Slaven Bilic’s team look a shadow of the one that qualified for Europe last season. After they defended well to hold Manchester United at Old Trafford last weekend, Bilic kept with playing three at the back. This was a formation that Tottenham used to good effect to nullify Arsenal at the Emirates recently, but West Ham were regularly pulled apart as Arsenal put in their most fluent performance for a good number of weeks.
With the news this week that Santi Cazorla is out for another two months, the game against West Ham was a great time for Arsenal to look like they have finally got the centre of their midfield sorted. Francis Coquelin and Granit Xhaka gave their most convincing performance as a pair with Xhaka playing some lovely passes from deep, and Coquelin getting through his usual disruptive work in the middle of the pitch, stopping the supply line to Dimitri Payet.
It was a Coquelin interception that led to the opening goal as he stopped Angelo Ogbonna’s pass out of defence, allowing Alexis Sanchez to run in towards goal. He unselfishly squared the ball to Mesut Ozil for the German to apply the easy finish. That goal in the first half was thoroughly merited for how Arsenal started the game, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Nacho Monreal getting a lot of joy on the left-hand side, with the final ball just missing on occasion. Alexis then should have doubled the lead before half-time as he took a slightly heavy touch when trying to go round the goalkeeper, but he more than made amends in an explosive second half. 
There were always a concern that Arsenal might regret not making the most of their first-half chances, and West Ham made more of a game of it in the second half. But as the game ticked into the final 20 minutes, Alexis took control. 
His first goal came after superb control from a fizzed ball from Shkodran Mustafi. He turned away from the defender, held him off sprinting into the box and then fired a powerful low strike into the bottom corner from a tight angle. It should have been almost impossible for someone to score a goal after receiving the ball with his back to goal in the way Alexis did, but he found a way. That made it 2-0 and almost settled Arsenal down. The Gunners hadn’t been nervous as such at 1-0, but needed the boost of the second goal to free their game up again.
Moments after bagging his first, Alexis netted again with another excellent goal. As the ball came to him on the edge of the box, without touching the ball he was able to shimmy away from the defender into a shooting position and fire an accurate strike past Randolph into the bottom corner.
West Ham did get a goal back when Andy Carroll headed in after Payet’s free-kick hit the post, but Arsenal just roared back to turn the game into a comprehensive win. First, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain capped a vey encouraging personal performance with a splendid curling shot from 25 yards out. His increasing contribution to goals was highlighted again as he followed his goal up with an assist for Alexis to bag a hat-trick, but somehow the Ox’s pass through won’t be the most memorable thing about that goal.
Alexis raced away from the defenders, drew the goalkeeper off his line and then executed an outrageous piece of skill to bag the match ball. His fake shot led to a stepover that allowed him to chip the ball over Randolph as the keeper started to fall to the floor. It was a bit humiliating for the goalkeeper, but was ingenius from Alexis. Since his hamstring scare for Chile in the last international break, Alexis has got back to his best. The beautiful third goal just confirmed the confidence that that he’s playing with at the moment, and completed one of the best Arsenal hat-tricks since Dennis Bergkamp at Leicester, with every goal being impressive in its own way.
I wrote last week about how important the Chilean is to Arsenal. It does annoy me slightly when pundits or fans lazily just say things like ‘imagine how bad Arsenal would be without Alexis Sanchez’. For one, they wouldn’t be a bad team, just would lack some cutting edge, but also because unless he gets injured, we don’t have to imagine how bad Arsenal might be without him because Arsene Wenger paid the money for him and identified him as someone that could be perfectly suited to the Premier League. It is the sort of comment you might hear from people that are slightly jealous that Alexis plays for the Arsenal and not their club.
But those sort of comments are more prominent at the moment because of the contract situation. Obviously signing both Mesut Ozil and Alexis to extended deals are slightly complex, but Arsenal have to be prepared to give as much as possibly can to get the deals done. If that means some of the other players dog-sitting for Alexis when he needs it, then stick it in the contract. Contary to what Alan Shearer tries to claim on Match of the Day, Alexis is a world class player and a joy to watch playing football. Keeping him must be one of the club’s highest priorities.
Overall, the 5-1 win was slightly flattering on West Ham. After Chelsea made a statement about their title challenge with the 3-1 win at Manchester City and Tottenham put five past Swansea, Arsenal needed to respond playing in the late kick-off, and they did so superbly. November wasn’t bad for Arsenal, but in the context of how the rest of the season has gone, it was a stutter from the Gunners. Now things are looking much more positive again, not just because of the results against Bournemouth and West Ham, but also because of the quality of the performances. The balance of the team looks good again, and if that can be maintained heading in the busy periods in December and January, Arsenal can make a push for the title this season. With Alexis Sanchez in supreme form, anything is possible.