A return to winning ways but in a strange atmosphere

After a dreadful start to the season, a comfortable 3-0 home win against a poor Bournemouth side was just what Arsenal needed. No drama. No wailing and gnashing of teeth. No major negatives. It doesn’t mean that all is good in the world again as the real judgement will come when they got to Stamford Bridge next week, but I don’t really want to think about what the reaction would have been like had Arsenal not picked up three points on Saturday.
Overall, the performance was good and Arsenal looked lively from the outset. With Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain gone and Arsene Wenger sticking to the back three, Sead Kolasinac was finally able to play a Premier League game in his proper wing-back position without getting shuffled into a back three role, or with Hector Bellerin playing on the wrong side. Of all the selection questions in the last couple of games, the picking of the wing-backs has really irked me so far this season, so it was a great relief to finally see the correct two picked.
It immediately paid dividends as Kolasinac showed the attacking intent that made him stand out in pre-season with a great run forward and deft chip into the box for Danny Welbeck to head/shoulder into the net. See what happens when you play players in the right position, Arsene?
If the first goal came with a slightly scruffy finish, Arsenal’s other two were very clinically put away. Reinstated to the starting XI after strangely being left out at Anfield, Alex Lacazette showed what a predator he is in front of goal. His overall game looked in good touch with some pressuring from the front and good link-up play, but ultimately he’ll be judged on putting the ball in the net. He reminds of Eduardo, who was a ruthless finisher before his terrible injury.
For Arsenal’s second goal on Saturday, a lovely deep ball by Ozil was worked into a one-two with Welbeck by Lacazette, before the Frenchman took one touch and swept the ball home over Begovic from just outside the area. He emits a confidence in front of goal that meant it seemed inevitable he’d score as soon as he worked the bit of space. Amidst the doom and gloom of the start to the season, there’s a lot to be excited about with Lacazette.
Danny Welbeck isn’t renowned for his finishing as it is the one area of his game that lets him down as an attacking player, but buoyed by the confidence of his earlier scruffy goal, he produced a much more clinical finish at the start of the second half to make the game safe. Fed by Aaron Ramsey down the left, Welbeck struck a perfect side-footed effort into the bottom corner past Begovic.
But while the action on the pitch was good, I found the game slightly odd. With the start to the season that Arsenal have made, it felt like an end-of-season game when the title has already gone and there isn’t much to play for. The atmosphere felt quite flat for a lot of it, almost with fans fearing that these sort of games could be as good as it gets this season. It also highlighted to me how much the players have got to do to get the fans truly back on side and believing in them again after that Anfield performance. There’s a lot of work to be done on all levels of the club, but for the players, that defeat to Liverpool, but more importantly the performance and the effort put in, has burned a lot of bridges with some. Even if they lose next Sunday at Stamford Bridge, the players will have to put in a performance that shows they care and are willing to leave everything out there for Arsenal Football Club.
The other odd thing about the atmosphere was the reception for Alexis Sanchez. On the whole, it was quite good with fans aware of the messy situation Arsenal and Manchester City made at the end of the transfer window, but most still appreciative of the fact he’s a great player and can still be important for us this season.
But there was a minority who decided to boo the Chilean, with one man in the row of front of me getting particularly irate when he came onto the field. Now I understand why some people are upset given that Alexis wanted to leave, but he wasn’t alone in that stance this summer with reports of Hector Bellerin, Mesut Ozil and Shkodran Mustafi, of those still at the club, all looking to move as well. Those players weren’t booed, so why should Alexis be? He was the most high-profile, but ultimately I don’t see why Arsenal fans would want to make him more unhappy at the club by being volatile towards him. The transfer window has gone, we might as well get behind those players left as they need it at the moment. It’s in our interests to as well because getting the best out of Alexis can only be a good thing to help the team make anything of this season.
The chap in front of me made the point that he’d rather see Reiss Nelson out there instead of Alexis because he wants to be at the club and that keeping Alexis is blocking his development. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as excited as anyone about Reiss Nelson’s talent and his potential, and hopefully we’ll see him in the League Cup and the Europa League, but you can’t seriously say that a 17 year-old kid would be better at this stage than the guy who scored 30 goals for the club last season. It was a pretty ugly ending to the transfer window and no-one comes out of the whole Alexis/Lemar situation with much credit, but whether he likes it or not, the Chilean is stuck with us this season, so lets make the most of him while we can.
Next up is Arsenal’s first Europa League/Uefa Cup match since 2000 with the visit of Cologne on Thursday. It will be interesting to see how seriously Arsene Wenger takes the competition as it is one that could be realistically won, but with Chelsea coming up this weekend, I expect and would like to see wholesale changes. Those deemed first choice this season haven’t covered themselves in glory, so there is a real opportunity for a squad player or a youngster to stake a claim in the Europa League and get some regular football. I hope the likes of Per Mertesacker, Calum Chambers, Jack Wilshere, Mohamed Elneny, Alex Iwobi and Reiss Nelson get the opportunity to make that competition their own and play with a freedom that we haven’t seen from Arsenal in recent European seasons. There isn’t the pressure of the Champions League so hopefully that brings out some positive performances.
If nothing else, a fresh team would give the fans something new and something different to be excited about, as the 3-0 win was great on Saturday, but the players have a lot of work to do in the coming weeks to get people to believe in them again.

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Arsenal survive a Friday fright to get the season going

While there was something unfamliar about starting the season on a Friday night, there was something all too familiar about the way the Gunners capitulated on the opening day. In recent years, Aston Villa, West Ham and Liverpool have all walked away from the Emirates with three points in the first game as a result of some pretty ropey Arsenal defending. It looked as if Leicester City would do the same this season as they knocked in three cheap goals, but Arsene Wenger threw all of his attackers onto the pitch and the Gunners salvaged a 4-3 win with two late goals.
While the nature of the goals conceded is a concern, I’m inclined to write the game off as an unusual one because of the back three fielded by Arsenal. With Per Mertesacker’s face wound keeping him out, Rob Holding was joined in the back three by Nacho Monreal and Sead Kolasinac. While those three had done a decent job at Wembley against Chelsea in Mertesacker’s absence, the lack of leadership and experience was a problem. Nacho Monreal is a superb footballer but is much more suited to play on the left of the three rather than in the middle. Two set-pieces and sloppy play from Granit Xhaka allowed Leicester to expose these frailties.
But I’m not unduly worried because I’ll be staggered if that back three starts a game as a trio again this season. With Mertesacker and Gabriel to return from injury, Koscielny to return from suspension and Mustafi and Chambers to get up to full fitness, Arsene Wenger should have enough options to not have to resort to that combination again. The three will have big roles to play this season alongside others and in different positions, so hopefully the nightmare start defensively can be quickly forgotten.
One of those three, Sead Kolasinac still made a big impression on the game as he showed why he could be a great addition to the squad as a wing-back. The way he charged forward with regularity from centre-back arguably added to the chaos of the game, but it was effective. He looks perfectly suited to the wing-back role in Arsenal’s new system and is already achieved cult hero status, but he’s a cult hero who is a fine player as well.
While Kolasinac was a positive, Arsenal’s overall attacking game and the ability to change the match using the bench were the other big pluses to take from the match. The free big Bosnian contrasts well with Arsenal’s other new arrival in the summer with Alexandre Lacazette coming for a club record fee, and he got off to the perfect start by guiding Mohamed Elneny’s cross into the bottom corner in the second minute. The intensity and madness of the game will have been an eye-opener for the French striker in his first Premier League appearance, but he was able to contribute and didn’t look off-the-pace.
There was also a nice moment for Lacazette just after Arsenal scored to lead 4-3. In a break in play, he just took a few seconds to just take in the crowd noise as the whole ground sang about Arsenal being by far the greatest team. He’s played in some big stadiums and in some hot atmospheres, but Lacazette looked slightly in awe at the fans in the North Bank and made sure he soaked up the then raucous atmosphere in the stadium.
Along with Lacazette scoring in the first half, Danny Welbeck bagged the equaliser to level it up at 2-2 before half-time, with the assist from Kolasinac. 
After going behind again in the second-half, Arsene Wenger gambled. It’s not often you see the manager make such a drastic change during a game, especially when the defecit was only one goal, but with 25 minutes to go he decided to throw the kitchen sink at Leicester, except the kitchen sink was a bearded Frenchman and a Welsh wizard. While the back three were already in some slightly unusual positions, the switch to get Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey on the field meant an even more unconventional back four emerged with a right winger at right-back (Oxlade-Chamberlain), two left-backs in the centre (Monreal and Kolasinac) and a right-back at left-back (Bellerin). The potential for that to backfire and Wenger’s tactical nous to be severely questioned was massive, but somehow it worked.
Alongside Granit Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey had a big influence on the game as he made late runs into the box and had the license to bomb forward and cause problems. When his chance came with eight minutes to go, he controlled Xhaka’s excellent pass with a deft touch before firing past the goalkeeper. I’m really optimistic of Aaron Ramsey having a big season for Arsenal, and it’s a good sign to see him score early in the campaign. All Arsenal fans have seen what can happen when you get a fit and fully confident Aaron Ramsey, and with Xhaka adding the control to the midfield, the Welshman can be afforded a freer role, one which he excels in regularly for Wales. 
Having equalised, it was left to the other substitute to win it for Arsenal. Xhaka’s corner was superbly headed past Schmeichel by Olivier Giroud via the underside of the bar after the Frenchman had wrestled off Harry Maguire and Wes Morgan to be first to the ball. I can’t emphasise enough just how good that header was given the pressure he was under. He was stronger than the defenders and managed to generate accuracy and power despite two players trying to pull him down. 
After the game, Arsene Wenger said that he did open the door for Giroud to leave if he wanted to because of the competition for places up front. I was surprised the manager did that because of the variation Giroud brings to Arsenal’s attack, but was even more surprised (and relieved!) that the striker didn’t take up that offer and decided to stay and fight for his place. As proved once again on Friday, he offers Arsenal something completely different to anyone in the squad. No other Arsenal attacker could realistically have scored the winner in the manner that Giroud did. With the defenders tiring after chasing the likes of Lacazette and Welbeck, Giroud is the perfect man to bring on and give them a completely different problem to think about.
With Lacazette, Welbeck, Ramsey and Giroud all scoring, it was great to see the team spread the goal-scoring load without Alexis Sanchez. Too often in recent seasons it has felt like the Chilean was the only player likely to stick one in the net, but even with him unavailable on Friday, there were dangerous players coming at Leicester from all angles. It leaves Arsene Wenger with some tricky selection decisions in attacking areas, but to have so many varied options off the bench gives me a lot of hope that even if the defending is a bit dodgy, this isn’t going to be an Arsenal team that lacks goals this season.
It was a serious scare for Arsenal on Friday, but with all the attention on the excellent contributions of new players to the team, it was an old hero, with his good looks and magnificent beard, who entered stage left and reminded everyone of his immense value to the club.

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.