Second half surge secures the points

Apart from the obvious horror show against against Monaco, Arsenal’s recent form has been excellent. A lot of the points picked up have come from the team getting ahead in the first half and doing enough to see the game out. While the 2-1 win at Loftus Road against Queens Park Rangers on Wednesday night finished with the Gunners just doing enough to win following Charlie Austin’s late strike for the hosts, it was an impressive second half showing that did the trick for Arsene Wenger’s team.
Rather than controlling the first period, Arsenal struggled to impose themselves on the match as they looked subdued. Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez weren’t receiving the ball in dangerous forward positions and QPR were succeeding in disrupting the Gunners by causing problems with a direct game plan by playing the ball up to Bobby Zamora. As the half progressed, Arsenal grew into the game, but it was a very even and competitive match at half time.
That changed in the second half as Arsenal seemed to rapidly go up through the gears. Mesut Ozil ran the show, and while he didn’t get an assist, it was one of the German’s most dominant performances. The supporting runs from players around him were more decisive and more direct, with both Hector Bellerin and Kieran Gibbs regularly storming forward from full-back to cause overlaps against the QPR defence. It felt like it was only a matter of time until the opening goal.
That came just after the hour mark as swift counter attack featuring Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil culminated with Alexis Sanchez feeding a rampaging Kieran Gibbs on his left. The full-back’s shot was blocked, but Oliver Giroud showed good predatory instincts to sweep the ball in immediately after it hit the defender. Hopefully, after two goals in two games since, Giroud has put the Monaco shocker firmly behind him. The fact he now has five goals in four domestic matches just makes that Monaco showing all the more bizarre.
Moments later, Giroud and Alexis put pressure on Steven Caulker, robbing the centre-back of the ball and giving the Chilean a golden chance to double the lead. He tried to pass the ball to Mesut Ozil, allowing Robert Green in to intercept the ball. After his decisive performances earlier in the season, I think every Arsenal fan was concerned to see Alexis not go for the kill after getting the ball. Gooners didn’t want to believe he was in a goal drought, but at that moment it seemed it was getting to him.
But this is Alexis Sanchez. He’s not shown many signs of weakness since joining the club, and just as doubts might have begun to creep in, he jinked his way into the QPR box and fooled the goalkeeper and defenders with a clinical finish into the near post to double the lead. He has been slightly below par by his standards in recent weeks, but in the second half he looked more determined, constantly wanted the ball and completely rebuilt any confidence he might have lost. With Old Trafford on the horizon on Monday, it was well timed.
Robert Green made a few excellent saves to stop Arsenal further extending the lead as the Gunners looked able to create chances at will for the majority of the second period. It was probably the most convincing half of football from Arsenal since the demolition of Aston Villa. That was what made Austin’s late goal all the more surprising. But, after scoring, QPR didn’t really test David Ospina again.
A large reason for QPR not creating another clear chance was a quietly effective game from Per Mertesacker. It felt like a lot of fans and pundits were quick to declare the German’s career almost over after he was dropped for the game against Everton. The BFG was rotated back in against QPR, starting alongside Gabriel, and he was able to deal with the hosts’ direct balls into the box with his usual excellent positioning. It was a shame to see Gabriel go off with a hamstring injury, especially after his good performances against Everton, but fans shouldn’t be worried about Mertesacker coming back in. The rest against Everton could have been just what he needed to refocus the mind and get back to his best.
With all the other sides in the top seven winning, the three points were vital. It was another step on the path to getting Monaco out the system, and kept a winning momentum going before the FA Cup quarter-final. That is a huge game, made bigger by the unlikely progression in the Champions League, but with Giroud scoring and Alexis back in the groove, Arsenal will go to Manchester in decent shape.

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Can Aaron Ramsey save Arsenal's campaign?

It’s difficult to fault Wenger’s reasoning.
At the beginning of the 2011/2012 season, Arsenal suffered a crisis as first Fabregas and then Nasri (and Clichy (and Eboué…)) departed the club.  They wanted to go, and there was very little that could be done to stop them.  Then Wilshere got injured and, with our midfield in tatters, Arsenal’s fortunes rested almost entirely on the abilities of one player: Robin Van Persie.  Everybody – Arsenal fan or not – knew that RVP was the only reason Arsenal were able to make top four, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that, during that season, he was competing for the title of best player in the world.  Every time he scored we roared with pride, and every time he was involved in a tackle we suffered myocardial infarctions.
But RVP wanted out.  He had one season left on his contract, and rather than letting him go for free in 2013, Wenger made the decision to sell him at an inflated price to Ferguson (whom, he has since told us, he suspected was preparing to retire) in order to cover the costs of bringing in three less talented but still very capable European players: Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla.  An attempt to start rebuilding the team back to pre-2012 levels, and to spread the goals throughout the team so that a single injury or suspension didn’t leave us high and dry.  And, for the 2012/2013 season, that worked.  Podolski, Cazorla and Giroud, alongside a rapidly improving Walcott, more than covered the loss of Van Persie and kept Arsenal in the Champions League spot.
So far, so good.
We come now to the 2013 transfer window.  Arsene, as he had known all along that he would, now had more funds available as new sponsorship deals were agreed and the costs of the Emirates stadium finally started to wind down.  With a squad evidently capable of making the top four by themselves, he looked to add some real world-class firepower, something to give Arsenal an edge. First he targeted Higuain and then Suarez, before finally nabbing Özil in what was considered a fantastic coup.  Only a year after losing an aging RVP, Arsene had managed to replace him with a younger and equally (or more?) talented player, but this time he had a squad that could carry on and win games even if Özil suffered suspension or injury.
[Note: when I say “replace” I am talking in terms of his role as “world-class player”; obviously Özil was not a positional replacement for Van Persie.]
Now, not every decision Wenger’s made in these years makes sense, and there have been some misfires – Park Chu-Young, for example, and £40,000,001 for Suarez, and not spending this January, and the lack of substitutions at half-time on Sunday – but, in having to rebuild a team almost from the ground up, I really can’t fault the logic of the steps I’ve described.  Logical, calculated, smart, rebuilding a squad in crisis.
So can someone tell me how we’ve ended up back where we started?
Somehow, once again, Arsenal seem to be entirely reliant on one player.  Contrary to expectation it isn’t Mesut Özil or Jack Wilshere (both of whom, I think we can all agree, have underperformed), but a man who, as recently as one year ago, many Arsenal fans were writing off as useless: Aaron Ramsey.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read (or heard) variations on this sentence since Sunday: “Now that Ramsey’s back, [insert player here] will perform better“.  Aaron Ramsey will relieve pressure from Arteta; Aaron Ramsey will make runs for Özil; Aaron Ramsey will create goals for Podolski; Aaron Ramsey will get on the end of crosses from Gibbs and Sagna; Aaron Ramsey will share the burden with Giroud; Aaron Ramsey will liberate Cazorla and Rosicky; Aaron Ramsey will provide cover for Vermaelen and Mertesacker; Aaron Ramsey, Aaron Ramsey, AARON RAMSEY!  Nobody’s making a big deal about it, but everybody’s saying it – somehow, the performance of almost every player in our team (maybe not Szczesny) seems dependent on the availability and talent of Aaron Ramsey.  And now, finally, he’s back.
Here’s my concern: what if he’s not up to it?
Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s a great player (in fact I was saying it before all of you were), and his stats for this season are downright impressive: despite having only featured in 19 league games (including two from the bench), Ramsey is Arsenal’s second top scorer.  He has more Man-of-the-Match awards than any other Arsenal player, more tackles per game, and more passes per game.  Only Özil and Giroud have more assists in the Arsenal team, and both have played in more games than Ramsey.  [Stats retrieved from whoscored.com].
But what if these figures aren’t Ramsey’s innate ability coming through?  What if it was just a purple patch of form, such as we saw with Nasri before he left, or Arshavin when he first arrived?  What if we’re about to see the return of the hard-working but often ineffective player that infuriated so many in 2012?  That’s my fear.  What if…what if Aaron Ramsey just isn’t that good?
I hope he is.  I really REALLY do.  But Arsenal are currently struggling to make the Champions League and we have a must-win semi-final against Wigan this weekend, and once again the perception seems to be that we’re entirely dependent on a single player to keep our season afloat.  But this time it’s not a proven Dutch striker with a chocolate foot and over a decade’s experience of top-flight football; this time, it’s a 23-year-old Welshman with a history of injury problems and less than a full season of first-class form.  Will he be up to the challenge?
For Arsenal’s sakes, he’d better be.

Rosicky rockets Arsenal back into contention

It had been over two weeks since Arsenal had played a league game when they walked out at a White Hart Lane on Sunday, and in that time Chelsea had pulled away then been pegged back, plus Liverpool and Manchester City had gained more points, so the pressure was on to stay in the title hunt. This was also the Gunners’ first league game since the horror show at Stoke, so another defeat could have continued the slide away from the title race.
Just to top it off, regardless of any league position and any other circumstances, this was a North London derby. This mattered.
It might not have been the most fluent performance from Arsenal, but try and find a Gooner who cares. The 1-0 win completed a North London derby hat-trick this season. Played 3. Won 3. Scored 4. (Most impressively) Conceded 0.
The winning goal came early as Arsenal exposed Tottenham on the counter-attack. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlaim broke out with Tomas Rosicky down the right with Spurs full-back Danny Rose caught upfield. On receiving the ball near the box, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s touch wasn’t as planned, but that merely set it into the path of Rosicky on the right edge of the box. The Czech didn’t think twice as he unleashed a rocket into the top corner. Just as momentum was about to be lost in the move, Rosicky stepped in and sent the travelling fans wild. As with Podolski’s goal in Munich, this strike was beautiful in its ferocity.
It was a goal that will go down in North London derby folklore.
Despite not dominating possession, Arsenal then had chances to kill the game on the break, and on another day could have had more goals. Oxlade-Chamberlain was guilty of the worse miss, but the Gunners kept looking dangerous on the counter. Initially, on seeing the team selection, I thought Arsenal would really attack Spurs with Cazorla, Rosicky, Podolski and the Ox all starting. Instead, it turned out to be a great counter-attacking team, with Wenger judging well how the game would pan out.
Gradually the game turned into more of a defensive show from Arsenal. I’ve written many times this season about how highly I rate the Mertesacker and Koscielny partnership, and once again they excelled in the derby. Emmanuel Adebayor asked plenty of questions, but the two centre backs had all the right answers. Everyone in the team stayed focused defensively, bar two crazy moments from Wojciech Szczesny in quick succession where he almost presented Chadli with a goal after dropping the ball. However, the BFG and Koscielny were quick to react, kept their position well and were able to bail out the goalkeeper by blocking Chadli’s shot.
The game was reminiscent of a lot of matches in last season’s run-in, with Arsenal content with a 1-0 lead knowing they had the defensive capacity to hold out the opposition. Arsene Wenger was able to introduce Flamini, Monreal and Vermaelen to take the sting out the game and relatively comfortably see out the win.
The attacking performance wasn’t always fluid, but it’s only the result that matters in the derby. After staying calm during the 90 minutes, the Arsenal players let emotions out at the final whistle. This team know how important this game is to the fans, and it adds to the feeling of togetherness around the club. I loved Podolski climbing into the stand, the BFG leading the team over to the fans and the Szczesny selfie with the supporters in the background.
After fears that the league was slipping away from Arsenal, the season gets very interesting now. Whilst Chelsea have a midweek Champions League tie to negotiate, Arsenal can relax before getting psyched up for another huge London derby. The confidence from winning all North London derbies this season will only help with the preparation this week, knowing a win would move Arsenal further up in the title reckoning.