Giroud rescues Arsenal after another Old Trafford no-show

There’s no two ways round it, Arsenal were pretty dreadful on Saturday at Old Trafford. The midfield struggled to exert much control over the game and Arsenal could barely muster a chance going forward. It was horribly similar to most Arsenal performances in the league at Old Trafford for the last few years. 
But somehow Arsenal didn’t lose. I’m not sure if the 1-1 draw is a damning indication of the state Manchester United are currently in, or a positive sign that Arsenal are still picking up points when playing badly. It’s probably somewhere in the middle, but even poor Louis van Gaal United teams beat Arsenal when they played that badly at Old Trafford, but Mourinho’s team couldn’t see the game out.
As much as the performance from the Gunners was absolutely infuriating because Manchester United do look like an incredibly average team this season and if Arsenal had shown anything near peak form, they’d have walked away with all three points, it is definitely worth taking the positive side of the result. I’m sure the performance will be fully dissected behind-the-scenes and we should see a reaction against PSG on Wednesday, but it is a lot easier to conduct that analysis with the unbeaten run intact and a positive vibe remaining around the team. Olivier Giroud’s late equaliser ensures that that is the case. 
While it was clear during the game that Arsenal are badly missing Santi Cazorla in central midfield, the value of Arsenal’s stronger squad this season was evident in Arsene Wenger’s game-changing substitutions. They probably could have been made earlier to try and spark a labouring team into life, but the introductions of Oxlade-Chamberlain and Giroud gave Arsenal a different dimension.
After Arsenal hadn’t had a shot in the second half, in the 89th Oxlade-Chamberlain burst into space on the right and clipped a fantastic cross along the six-yard box. With Arsenal finally getting bodies in the box, Giroud timed his leap superbly and thundered the ball past De Gea with a thumping header. With Alexis Sanchez looking fatigued and taped together with his hamstring injury, it was a reminder that Giroud is a great option to give the Chilean a break. 
The impact from Oxlade-Chamberlain was also pleasing after he stunk the place out in a woeful showing off the bench last time out against Tottenham. His assist and goal count has improved a lot this season, and that cross for Giroud was an example of that.
While going forward Arsenal struggled for the majority of the game, defensively they weren’t regularly opened up by United. Petr Cech made a couple of excellent saves, but bar the goal from Juan Mata, Arsenal weren’t too bad defensively. Mustafi was excellent in the air while Laurent Koscielny didn’t allow Marcus Rashford space after he punished Arsenal with two goals in the corresponding game last season. Francis Coquelin also made some telling interventions defensively. 
But it was just frustrating that Arsenal couldn’t impose themselves going forward as United were there for the taking. As soon as the Gunners finally put pressure on the hosts’ back four, United wilted and conceded a goal.
There’s plenty for Arsene Wenger and Arsenal to ponder, but at least the post-mortem isn’t coming after a defeat. Also on the plus side, Jose Mourinho was incredibly angry after the game, which always warms the heart.

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Ox at the double as Arsenal cruise through 

Given Arsenal’s last League Cup tie with Reading produced 12 goals, a comeback from 4-0 down and even two goals for Marouane Chamakh, there was no way Arsenal’s 4th round EFL Cup tie against the Royals on Tuesday was likely to go in a similar way. Arsenal did field the same goalkeeper, Emiliano Martinez, who played in that crazy game four years ago, but he showed how he’s improved in that time with an assured display to keep a clean sheet. 
But most of the action, unsurprisingly, was at the other end as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain scored a brace to send the Gunners into the quarter-finals. Arsenal could, and should, have had more, but overall it was a satisfying night for Arsene Wenger as his rotated team got the job done, and players returning from injury got much-needed competitive minutes on the pitch.
The two goals take Oxlade-Chamberlain to five for the season, already his most prolific in his Arsenal career, and was his second and third goals in a week after netting against Ludogorets in the Champions League. In some ways, what is encouraging is that it still feels like there is a lot of room for improvement in his game, even with his increasing productivity in front of goal. There are still plenty of moments in matches where  he makes the wrong decision or holds onto the ball for too long, and if he can sharpen up that area of his game, there’s no reason why, having already got to five goals, he can’t go on and score 10 or even 15 this season if he can break into the starting XI regularly.
Oxlade-Chamberlain’s first goal owed a lot to his growing confidence as he received the ball just outside the box after a kamikaze short goal-kick from Ali Al-Habsi in the Reading goal. The Ox sized up the defender in front of him, jinked a little bit and fired across the goalkeeper perfectly into the far corner. Rather than dithering over the options he had available to him, he had a clear idea of what to do when he got control of the ball and executed it superbly. 
The goal came at a good time as Arsenal had dominated the match in the first half, so it settled any nerves down in a team that understandably lacked a bit of fluency at times because of the number of changes made, but still was comfortably on top in the game. 
The second goal of the evening came in the 78th minute and avoided any tension in the final knockings of the match. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s finish from the edge of the box was well struck and would have required a very good save to stop it, but Al-Habsi was left stranded as the ball deflected off a defender and flew into the net. That Oxlade-Chamberlain was able to get a shot off owed a lot to the work of Rob Holding to dribble to the by-line after a deep corner, and of Olivier Giroud to lay the ball off to the winger when he was in space on the edge of the box.
While the goals of Oxlade-Chamberlain were big positives from the evening for Arsene Wenger, the return of Olivier Giroud was also most welcome. Whatever you read into the slightly mysterious toe injury Giroud had, he’s definitely been missed in certain games as a different option up front. In general, the front four has operated brilliantly this season, but when things haven’t been going well, it would have been great to have the Frenchman available to mix things up. In his 25-minute cameo, Giroud immediately challenged the centre-backs and would have scored with a good header from a free-kick but for an excellent stop from Al-Habsi. He offers something completely different to anyone else in the squad, so it’s great to see him back.
The other returning player was Carl Jenkinson. When he went on loan to West Ham two years ago, and then again last season, I thought we’d never get to see him play for Arsenal again. But with Mathieu Debuchy just disappearing off the face of the earth, and Jenkinson back from a serious knee injury, he was back in the side on Tuesday. He might not be the most technically gifted player, but Arsenal could do a lot worse than him as the back-up right-back. For fans, it really feels like we’ve got a representative on the pitch when Jenkinson plays as he is living the dream for all of us that had Arsenal wallpaper and posters of the team on our walls growing up. For someone who hasn’t played a competitive game for nine months, and hasn’t played for the club since May 2014, he put in a good showing. Bellerin can’t play every game and I’d have no concerns about Jenkinson stepping in if required.
For the youngsters who made appearances, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Jeff Rheine-Adelaide were both good in possession and didn’t look out of place in the game. It will be interesting to see what the dynamic is like in the main Premier League starting XI is by the time the quarter-final with Southampton comes around at the end of November. It’ll come after a tougher run of fixtures including Spurs, Manchester United and PSG, so that will likely dictate if Wenger uses any of the more experienced players to try and get to the last four. If a similar line-up does play in the quarter-final, they’ll have a good chance of going through because the fringe and young players are feeding off the confidence that is building around the club at the moment, and they’ll be keen to keep this EFL Cup run going after scoring six and conceding none in the two games so far. 

Majestic Mesut leads Champions League rout

Wednesday was one of the rare occasions when I went to watch the Arsenal and knew virtually nothing about our opponents. While a win was expected, this was a team that caused Liverpool problems previously in Europe and were not just representing themselves as a club, but Bulgarian football as a whole. In the first half, Ludogorets gave a good account of themselves, before everything fell apart and Arsenal turned on the style to romp home 6-0. 
Given the issues Arsenal have had against some smaller teams in the group stages in recent seasons, it was a nice change and thoroughly enjoyable to see Arsenal be so ruthless and ramp up the goal difference, which could be important should PSG match Arsenal point-for-point for the rest of the group stage. 
It would have been easy for Ludogorets to turn up on Wednesday and look to put every player behind the ball and soak up pressure. Refreshingly, they tried to play the ball on the floor and looked to get men forward when the opportunities arose. This did come with its pitfalls as somewhat naively, the Bulgarians did then leave quite a bit of space behind their back four, which was regularly exploited by Arsenal throughout the evening.
In light of the massive over-hyping of Liverpool’s Premier League game with Manchester United on Monday, and the subsequent snooze-fest that followed, it is really nice to be in the position at the moment of knowing that Arsenal are likely to be entertaining in almost every game. The team aren’t just playing efficiently and winning football matches, they’re doing it with style, swagger and moments of individual and collective brilliance. There can be few arguments that on current form, Arsenal are the team to watch at the moment if you’re a fan of the game and want to see exciting football. 
That’s why the performance in the first half was ever so slightly disappointing. Arsene Wenger made a few changes, most notably with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain getting a chance on the left in place of Alex Iwobi, and that changed the dynamic of the side a bit. It was also a credit to Ludogorets that they looked to take the game to Gunners and called David Ospina into a few bits of action including some smart sweeping off his line win the ball at the feet of the centre-forward. 
But even though the collective wasn’t quite at its best in the first half, the confidence flowing through certain players meant some indiviual excellence from Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott gave the Gunners a control on the game with two  brilliant goals. The first came from the Chilean as the Ludogorets high-line was caught out. Alexis raced down the left into the box, cut back to leave the covering defender on his back-side before deftly lobbing the ball into the far corner. It was audacious and, dare I even make the comparison, the sort of goal Dennis Bergkamp or Robert Pires might have scored.
Just before half-time, after a couple of edgy moments, Theo Walcott grabbed the initiative and fired Arsenal into a 2-0 lead. Found in space 25 yards from goal by Mesut Ozil, he unleashed a curling strike that confused the keeper and flew into the net. There’s no way that Walcott would have even taken a shot on from that distance out in the last few seasons, and while the goalkeeping was slightly suspect for the goal, it was a well-struck effort from Walcott and showed a completely new dimension to his game. He’s not a player associated with driving a team forward when they aren’t playing well, so it was a measure of how good he’s feeling to see him step up with a brilliant individual goal.
The second goal effectively killed off any hope for the Bulgarians, despite their positive performance, and having got the cushion, Arsenal sensed the chance to run riot and surge through the years. Less than a minute into the second half, Kieran Gibbs’ cut-back wasn’t cleared and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain clinically dispatched the ball into the bottom corner from 12 yards.
It was four soon afterwards as the game opened up. Laurent Koscielny won an excellent tackle on the edge of his area, giving Santi Cazorla time to chip a perfect pass over the defence for Mesut Ozil to run onto, majestically control and slide past the goalkeeper when one-on-one.
At 4-0, and an important league game to come three days later, it was the ideal team for Arsene Wenger to take off key players and give others in the squad a needed run-out. Mohamed Elneny came on and was typically tidy in midfield, while Lucas Perez joined the front four and turned the provider with the assists for the fifth and sixth goals. 
With Cazorla, Walcott and Alexis withdrawn to keep them fresh for the weekend, I was slightly surprised Mesut Ozil wasn’t removed early from the action with the game won. But I’m glad he was given a full game as the King of assists confirmed his growing prowess in front of goal. His assist for Theo Walcott’s goal in the first half was, remarkably, his first of the season, but by the end of his night’s work, he’d boosted his goal tally for the campaign to six.
Ludogorets’ high defensive line was punished again as Ozil was able to use his intelligent reading of the play and his deceptively quick pace to get into finishing positions with Lucas Perez slotting in up front to play the centre-forward role in a similar way to Alexis by being happy to run the channels, pull defenders around with his movement and create space for midfield runners such as Ozil.
The German’s second came from Perez moving left, playing the ball across the box and Ozil intentionally bouncing the ball into the ground and over the goalkeeper into the net. His first professional hat-trick was then secured as Perez came from the right to clip a pass into the area, where Ozil allowed the ball to go across his body before volleying past the keeper.
With Ozil as the chief orchestrator of a team playing this well, you just have to enjoy the football. It’s easy to get caught up as a football fan about what each game means in the context of the season and what it means for chances of a trophy at the end of it, but sometimes you just have to forget all of that and enjoy what is on offer in front of you. In the grand scheme of things, a fairly comprehensive win against Ludogorets wasn’t a huge surprise and won’t be especially telling come the shake-up for trophies in May, but my goodness it was good fun and brilliant entertainment. Obviously I hope the great stuff Arsenal are playing keeps going and does lead to something tangible later in the campaign, but at the moment it worth just enjoying each game as it comes and savouring getting to see Mesut Ozil et al near the peak of their powers.