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.


Another patchy performance but another positive result

Despite making three changes to starting XI for the Champions League trip to Paris Saint-Germain, Arsenal started even slower than they did against Southampton on Saturday and once again had to salvage something after going behind. The fluency wasn’t there and Arsenal conceded plenty of chances to the hosts, but came away with a credible point.
Given that Arsenal had rotated the squad in the opening games in last season’s competition and it cost them with two defeats, I was staggered to see David Ospina start in goal. Not necessarily because he’s a bad keeper, but just because of the message it sends out to the opposition and the rest of the team to see the second choice keeper between the sticks. It was also a surprise to not see Granit Xhaka and Olivier Giroud picked after they were rested against the Saints. The team selection did bring about some negativity after it felt like fans had been quite positive about the chances in Paris.
With PSG also struggling for fluency at the start of the season, it felt like a good time for Arsenal to play the Parisians. But all of that was blown out of the water within a minute of kick off. Arsenal allowed Serge Aurier too much space on the right and he whipped in a perfect cross for Edinson Cavani to nod the ball past Ospina. I thought before the game that Arsenal could cause lots of problems to the hosts, but the opening minute was a horrible reality check, and a strange sense of deja vu after the terrible start the Gunners made in the group stage last season.
With Alexis Sanchez roaming too much from the centre-forward position and Arsenal making individual errors with some slack passing, PSG were able to build up a head of steam, and should have gone 2-0 up when Cavani rounded Ospina but shot wide from the edge of the box.
Alex Iwobi and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain didn’t offer enough protection to Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin as PSG’s full-backs regularly flew down the flanks to cause Arsenal problems. Mesut Ozil was struggling to get in the game as when Arsenal did get possession, it wasn’t near the final third for the German to create opportunities, and with Alexis dropping too deep to try and get the ball and make something happen, Arsenal were often left without a player in the middle to either link the play up or be a target around the penalty area.
I can understand why Arsene Wenger potentially wanted a quicker player in the main centre-forward role as the expectation would have been that Arsenal would be able to sit in a bit more and look to counter attack the hosts, but with the early goal, that plan was immediately thrown out the window as PSG were happy to be the team to soak up some pressure before releasing the pace of Cavani, Di Maria and the full-backs. Cavani’s movement around the Arsenal centre-backs was superb, but his finishing meant that despite playing poorly, the Gunners made it to half-time at only 1-0 down.
It was a surprise that the boss didn’t make any half-time changes, but the players did respond in the second half as they played with more intensity and managed to push PSG further back with a better pressing game. The final ball was still missing though, with the hosts still looking like the more dangerous side. David Ospina justified his selection with a string of fine saves, especially when one-on-one with Cavani. While the Uruguayan will be heavily criticised for some of his finishing, massive credit had to go to the Colmbian keeper. Ospina proved himself how hard it can be for a goalkeeper to come into games of this magnitude from the cold with his performances in the group stage last season, so to put on a stellar showing was a great effort from the keeper.
Olivier Giroud did eventually come on to give Arsenal a much needed focal point, and someone to be a nuisance to the centre-backs for the hosts, who up to Giroud’s arrival, had had a relatively comfortable evening. With Alexis coming off the flank, Arsenal were able to get more players into the area, and that paid off with Chilean’s equaliser. For one of the only times in the game, Ozil found a pocket of space and had some players in forward positions to thread a pass to. He fizzed the ball across the box into Iwobi, who controlled well and shot early. The keeper parried, and with the defenders occupied with Iwobi and Giroud, Alexis read the play well to find a bit of space near the edge of the box to run onto the ball and slam it into the bottom corner.
The game threatened to wildly open up as Cavani and Iwobi had opportunities to score the winner, before Arsene Wenger decided he was happy with the point and brought on Mohamed Elneny on to shut off the midfield.
There was a bit of late drama though as Olivier Giroud and Marco Verratti received second yellow cards in a bizarre altercation. From the limited TV pictures, it appears as if Giroud understandably just told Verratti he wasn’t impressed by the over elaborate fall from the Italian, before Marquinhos pushed Giroud into Verratti, which knocked the PSG man over. He can sometimes be prone to some hot-headed moments, but on this occasion, I can’t work out what Giroud has done to deserve a second yellow card. Hopefully something can be done about getting it rescinded, but this is UEFA so I’m not holding my breath.
Arguably Arsene Wenger did get the team selection right because the end result was a decent one, but it’s hard to not wonder what might have happened had Xhaka and Giroud started. It feels like the manager is still getting used to having so many options in the squad, so he doesn’t quite know his best combinations for certain games yet. That should come in time, so I guess for the moment it is positive that Arsenal are able to pick up decent results while still fighting for form. Once again, it points to the more steely edge to the side this year, and that does give cause for optimism that this season’s group stage won’t be the frantic fight to the end that Arsenal brought on themselves last season.

Clinical Barcelona punish Arsenal's profligacy

As much as there was a small part of me that did think the improbable was possible, Arsenal were realistically never going to overturn the 2-0 deficit going to the Nou Camp to face Barcelona. All that could be gained was some confidence and some momentum to take into the league after a wretched run of form. Even though the Gunners lost 3-1, the performance was encouraging and much improved on some of the recent dire showings.
The biggest problem was Arsenal’s finishing in front of goal. It’s a problem that can’t be pinned on one player, but has been a squad-wide issue for too much of this season. The Gunners managed to have 20 shots on goal away to Barcelona, which is good going, but only three of those were on target. In contrast, Barcelona weren’t quite at their best, but when they needed to, they were clinical and took their chances. Neymar, Messi and Suarez are the best front three in the world, and they gave Arsenal a lesson in how to finish. As soon as they got a sniff of goal, they punished Arsenal, whereas everything seemed much harder work for the visitors when they got to the final third.
The sort of chances Arsenal missed has only reignited the calls for a world class striker. There’s no doubt that the front-line is an area of the team in need of reinforcement.
One man who did appear in the front-line on Wednesday and did his reputation no harm at all was young Alex Iwobi. It was a surprise to see him in the starting line-up, but given the poor recent performances from Theo Walcott, and the need to have players fresh for the vital league game at Everton on Saturday lunchtime, it wasn’t the worst idea to throw a fearless, talented, 19 year-old into the game. Iwobi was bright on the left of the front three, he always made himself available to take the ball and he didn’t look overawed by the occasion. In a terrible few weeks for Arsenal, the performances of Iwobi have been a real positive, and I fully expect to see him play a role in the league before the end of the season.
The other positive performance came from Mohamed Elneny in central midfield. With most others in the squad in that area of the field out with injury, there’s been a lot of pressure on Arsenal’s newest player to play the key box-to-box role in midfield. Against Barcelona, he was effective at breaking play up and then looking for the forward passes to try and make something happen for the Gunners. Playing alongside Flamini, and then Coquelin, he had license to burst forward, and he did so effectively. He should have scored in the first half following a late run into the box, but made amends with a beauty in the second half.
Arsenal worked the ball well and created some space on the right for Alexis, who rolled the ball across the edge of the penalty area. Elneny strode forward, opened his body up and curled a superb finish into the net via the underside of the bar. Like Iwobi, Elneny has to be involved in the remaining league games as he is one of the few in the squad who is playing well at the moment.
It’s disappointing to go out of the Champions League in the round of 16 again, but this season the exit was at the hands of the best team on the planet. Arsenal weren’t embarrassed in the Nou Camp, and showed plenty of ambition and quality to create chances, they just couldn’t finish those chances. The missed chances, both in individual games and in the league as a whole, unfortunately is an over-riding theme this season, and until that finishing improves, frustrations and negativity around the club will only increase.