Southampton seen off as Arsenal show signs of life

Even in bad seasons when title challenges have fallen away, Arsenal have generally ended campaigns well to consistently secure the place in the top four. This season has been particularly bad and most fans had resigned themselves to Thursday night football, but just maybe Arsenal are beginning to get on one their end-of-seasons runs to sneak into Europe’s top competition.
Realistically, it’ll require three wins from the last three games, and with a trip to Stoke included as one of those, the chances remain low. But the fact Arsenal have given themselves a chance at all of catching Manchester City or, more likely, Liverpool is a surprise. The 2-0 win on Wednesday at Southampton followed up the win over Manchester United and keeps the hopes alive.
As against Manchester United, Arsenal had to wait until the second half to score the decisive goals, and both of them stood out as the moments of real quality in the game. The Gunners are still adapting to a new way of playing and still trying to build confidence, and Southampton realistically don’t have much left to play for this season, so it made for a relatively quiet game for the most part, before the goals.
The first was worked really well by Arsenal from the back and through the midfield in just a few passes. Rather than looking to the wing-backs, Granit Xhaka played a good ball forward to Mesut Ozil, who cushioned a lovely pass into the path of Alexis Sanchez as the Chilean burst into the box. He showed composure to leave two covering defenders on the ground before finishing past Forster for his 20th league goal of the season. 
After scoring the winner in the FA Cup semi-final, Alexis has been quiet and there have been frustrations about him giving the ball away too many times. But there’s not many others in the league who you’d rather be on the end of an Ozil assist than Alexis Sanchez. Whatever the league position at the end of the season, I’m resigned to likelihood of him leaving, but hope I’m wrong. He can be infuriating, but in games such as Wednesday night, he can make the difference in tight situations.
The clinching goal came in the last ten minutes as Olivier Giroud fulfilled the super-sub role brilliantly again. Moments after coming off the bench, he got on the end of Aaron Ramsey’s header across the six yard box to nod home and secure the points. The build-up had been good with the cross from Alexis picking out Ramsey making another late run from midfield into the penalty area.
Ramsey followed up his good performance against Manchester United with another solid showing on the south coast as Arsenal finally seem to have found a consistent midfield pairing for the first time since Santi Cazorla’s injury back in October. Ramsey has a lot of freedom in the new system and is always willing to run beyond the opposition defence to stretch the play. He’s also getting a run of games without an injury, which has always been an issue for him. Unsurprisingly, he’s looking a lot sharper because of it.
Granit Xhaka alongside the Welshman had another good game as he ticked the play along nicely. His role in the team has seemed confused for a lot of the season, especially since Cazorla’s injury. Depending on who he has been playing alongside, he’s either had to be the more creative partner or more defensive partner, which hasn’t helped him settle into the team in his first season. With Ramsey now being the man usually attacking, Xhaka’s role has become a lot clearer and he is playing better. He’s also adapting to the league and does seem to have learnt from his tackling errors that brought red cards earlier in the season, even though they were harshly given. While there’s still a lot for Arsenal to work on in the new system offensively because of being a man down further up the field, the more consistent partnership in central midfield has been one of the definite benefits of switching to the 3-4-2-1.
There was a worry that with Laurent Koscielny missing through injury, Arsenal’s back three might fall apart given how well Koscielny performed against United, especially when effectively acting as a sweeper behind the other two centre-backs. But Shkodran Mustafi made an excellent return to the team in the middle of the three. His form, along with the team’s, fell off a cliff as the season went on, but the extra centre-back makes it a lot easier to cover if the German goes to press high and doesn’t make a tackle or interception, as happened too often when playing as a two. But on Wednesday night, he was more disciplined and did well alongside Rob Holding and Nacho Monreal, both of whom were solid again.
But as much as Arsenal did generally defend well, they were still indebted to Petr Cech for a few excellent first-half saves to keep the scores level. The Czech keeper has found some great form recently and made a vital one-on-one block from Gabbiadini and tipped over well from a powerful long-range effort from Redmond. There’s been some talk of a return for Wojciech Szczesny next season, something I’d be keen to see after his excellent season for Roma in Serie A, but Cech has rediscovered his form well recently after an indifferent season by his high standards.
Overall it was a job well done for Arsenal. After the defeat to Spurs, it felt like the Gunners would have to win all five of their remaining games to have a chance of squeaking into the top four, and so far it’s two from two. Arguably the toughest test of those five, Stoke City away, is next before two homes games. This run of form could still be too little too late, but Arsenal have finally got into the late-season groove and are clinging onto the chance of salvaging something from the wreckage of a dreadful second half of the league season. 


Welbeck boosts Arsenal against a lethargic United

Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Manchester United has been lamented by many for not being like the old days of crunching tackles, fights in the tunnel, pizza throwing and Martin Keown coming close to ripping off Ruud van Nistelrooy’s face, but in the circumstances of a terrible second half of the season, it was a most welcome result.
Given the Gunners have been so low on confidence, to have a Jose Mourinho team turn up and not look intent on attacking was a good thing. Barring one moment of panic in the first half, Arsenal defended well with the three centre-backs, and slowly they grew in confidence going forward to score two second-half goals.
The first of those was fortuitous in the way Granit Xhaka’s shot looped into the net off the back of Ander Herrera, but that just made it all the sweeter given Herrera is the embodiment of Jose Mourinho on a football pitch, in that he’s thoroughly dislikable. The goal though was reward for another decent showing from Xhaka in the new system. The criticism of him this season has been way over-the-top as, while he hasn’t necessarily set the world alight, he’s been far from one of Arsenal’s main problems. His passing was excellent against United and he did a good job of shielding the back three.
Alongside Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey put in one of his best recent performances by covering loads of ground and being the man to support the centre-forward. With Xhaka sitting deeper and with the extra defender in place, there is more of a freedom for Ramsey to burst forward from midfield, which is when he’s at his most dangerous. An excellent save from De Gea denied him a goal in the first half that his performance would have deserved. He can be an incredibly frustrating player, but we know how effective an in-form Aaron Ramsey can be. Hopefully Sunday was a sign that he’s getting back towards that level again.
Despite what some people say about the game not really mattering as it was 6th vs 5th, you wouldn’t have known it by the reaction of the fans after the second goal. There hasn’t been much to celebrate recently, so it was just a great moment to see Danny Welbeck thump a header in off the bar against his former team. The celebrations didn’t quite match the scenes of the semi-final a few weeks ago, but there was a roar that went round the Emirates that hasn’t been heard for a few months. Plus, the striker celebrated against his former team. None of this muted celebration nonsense, arm in the air, huge smile on his face. Having been out for so long, it must have been a relief for Welbeck to score again at the Emirates, regardless of who it was against.
The finish was well taken by Welbeck, but it was all about the cross from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Darmian didn’t put him under pressure and the Ox used the space to whip a perfect ball to the edge of the six-yard box, taking out the centre-backs. It’s exciting when he runs at players and uses his strength and trickery to take people on, but equally it was great to see him whip in an early cross of such quality. He provided a similarly excellent delivery for Nacho Monreal at Wembley, and having him in the wing-back position does mean he can vary Arsenal’s attack down the right by either running at the full-back or delivering a cross.
Overall, the new system suits Danny Welbeck more than it does Olivier Giroud. The Frenchman must have been slightly frustrated that he didn’t get a quality cross like the one from the Ox when he’s started recently as he’d also have gobbled up the chance that Welbeck scored from, but the former United player gives Arsenal a bit more flexibility when he plays. As the Gunners are effectively an attacker-light with the three centre-backs, having a static centre-forward immediately cuts down the attacking options. As Welbeck can spin in behind defences, press from the front and compete in the air, he opens up a few more possibilities in this system than Giroud does. If he’s fit enough to, I hope Welbeck gets a run in the starting XI through to the end of the season and get into some form ahead of the cup final. Giroud is still a great plan B off the bench if Arsenal need a goal, but isn’t suited to the 3-4-2-1.
The other stand-out performer on Sunday was Laurent Koscielny. He’s at a level where no-one is surprised when he has a fantastic game, but as the middle of three centre-backs, I thought he quietly was superb. Barring one moment of hesitation where Rob Holding’s back pass allowed Wayne Rooney a shot on goal, Koscielny’s reading of the game was superb as he tracked the pacey runners looking to get behind the back three. Both Martial and Rashford couldn’t find a way through him. His performance also made it easier for Rob Holding and Nacho Monreal to adapt and perform well in roles that are still slightly unfamiliar in the three-man defence.
The good win does have to be caveated slightly by saying that Manchester United were pretty insipid for a lot of the game, but they still needed to be broken down because of the defensive way they’d been set up by Jose Mourinho. It was Arsene Wenger’s first Premier League over Mourinho, which added an extra dimension to the win, especially when I expected it to be another Mourinho-special and the game finish 0-0.
Arsene Wenger still has bigger things to worry about than finally beating Mourinho though, as questions about his future will only increase now we’re in May. The Gunners are just about clinging on in the race for the top four, and the challenge is now to back up the win over United by winning the two difficult away games at Southampton and Stoke. Beating Mourinho and United was great fun and much needed, but it’ll feel worthless if Arsenal show that the corner hasn’t been turned and don’t pick up maximum points in an important week.

Change in formation brings a more focused Arsenal

It might be too late to get Arsenal in the top four this season, and might have been a late sign of desperation from Arsene Wenger to show he’s willing to change, but something had to be done after the humiliation at Selhurst Park. The manager decided that the formation would be the big change and for the first time since 1997, sent an Arsenal team out with a back three.
Ordiniarly, on seeing Arsenal were trying out 3-4-2-1, I’d have been very worried, but given everything else has gone wrong in recent weeks, it seemed worth doing just to mix things up. Whether it is a permanent change remains to be seen as part of me thinks that Arsene Wenger decided to make the change as a way of refocusing the minds of the players. With a new system to work out and learn, it might have been the different thing needed to freshen up training and give the squad something new to think about. It’s harder for them to sleep walk through a game if the players are having to really concentrate on the tactics and system, and while Arsenal were far from fluid on Monday night at Middlesbrough, the attitude, effort and concentration seemed a lot better than in recent weeks.
With Shkodran Mustafi missing through injury, although it wouldn’t have been unreasonable for him to be dropped after the performance at Palace, Gabriel, Laurent Koscielny and Rob Holding made up the back three with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Nacho Monreal as the wing backs. It meant that if the system failed, it was easy enough to switch back to a four with those players on the field. But it wasn’t needed as the Gunners did enough to get a 2-1 win. Of the three, Holding was particularly impressive. His composure on the ball meant he could step out of the three if necessary and there was slightly less pressure on the youngster because of the extra man in the defence alongside him.
There were moments of worry in the second half, particularly from crosses into the box as Petr Cech had to make some smart saves, which means the switch can’t be described as a complete success. I’d be surprised if it gets used at Wembley against Manchester City, but it was good to see the manager try something to stop the rot away from home. After conceding three goals in away games so many times in recent games, something had to be done.
With the extra emphasis on the defence, there was a bit missing from Arsenal’s attack. For a lot of the game, they looked like a team incredibly low on confidence and lacking fluidity. With an onus on the wing-backs to be switched on defensively while also providing service to Olivier Giroud, the Gunners missed the overlapping full-backs to create space in wide areas. But it did free up Alexis Sanchez to have some more freedom in attack, although a lot of his passing remained wasteful.
He did, however, produce the moment of real quality in the game with a fantastic free-kick just before half-time to give the Gunners the lead. After Xhaka was fouled, Alexis managed to get dip and swerve on the ball to get it over the wall and past a motionless Brad Guzan.
After being pegged back to 1-1 in the second half, Arsenal’s other heavily-scrutinised superstar found the net to seal the win. Alexis’ ball into the box was excellently chested down by Aaron Ramsey, allowing Mesut Ozil to crack the ball into the net at Guzan’s near post.
Arsenal had chances to kill the game off on the break, but Middlesbrough couldn’t find a second equaliser. The reaction of Arsenal’s players at the end of the game was interesting as it wasn’t as subdued as you’d expect for a win against a team looking doomed for relegation. In the previous victory over West Ham, the players had been quite muted at the end of the game. On Monday night, the players looked much more pumped up the victory, with Alexis in particular looking chuffed. Taking a cynical view, it could have been a bit of a PR charm offensive after the fans turned on the players at Palace. But I think something must have happened behind the scenes in the last week. The players were hurt by the criticism from supporters at Crystal Palace, as they should have been, so hopefully the win on Monday is the start of a recovery for the rest of the season. 
The change in formation focused the minds for Middlesbrough, but after Arsenal’s recent win over West Ham, they followed it up with a horror show performance. The next game is the FA Cup semi-final. There really is no excuse for not being mentally ready for a game like that. Arsenal will be underdogs against Manchester City and on current form probably won’t go through, but the players have to build on the efforts on Monday and restore some pride in the club.