Top four fight goes to the final day

The chances still seem slim given Liverpool just have to beat a relegated Middlesbrough at home, and Manchester City only need to avoid a heavy defeat to Watford, but Arsenal go into the final day of the season knowing a win could yet sneak them back into the Champions League for another year.
If results don’t go the way of the Gunners on Sunday and they do end up in the Europa League, it’ll be what has gone before during the season that has cost them rather than whatever happens on the final day. But despite the train wreck of a league season, it is to Arsenal’s credit that they have shown signs of recovery from a dreadful run of form to even give themselves a chance of dining again at Europe’s top table. I would have questioned the sanity of someone saying four weeks ago that Arsenal would still have a live chance of getting in the top four on the final day, but in a run of games since the defeat to Spurs when any dropped points would have been curtains for the league season, Arsenal have kept winning. It looked like the team reached rock bottom in the defeat to Crystal Palace and were beyond repair, but with the change of system, Arsene Wenger has very slowly begun the healing process.
The latest victory wasn’t as comprehensive as many hoped for on Tuesday against Sunderland, something that could haunt Arsenal should goal difference become a factor on the final day, but mainly down to the saves from Jordan Pickford in the Sunderland goal, Arsenal could only win 2-0. The Gunnners chalked up 36 shots in the game with the opening of the match feeling slightly like it was shoot-on-site as Arsenal looked a bit impatient to break through.
Chances came and went for Giroud, Ramsey, Bellerin and Holding, as well as other more speculative efforts as Sunderland frustrated Arsenal. The Gunners also looked fatigued after their exertions of the previous week to beat Manchester United and win away at Southampton and Stoke.
Despite any tiredness, Arsenal upped the intensity in the second half with Mesut Ozil really coming to the fore. He’s steadily improved in recent weeks, along with the team, as he’s got used to the new system, but on Tuesday he had a licence to roam about a bit with the visitors sitting deep. With the game needing some inspiration in the second half, Ozil was demanding the ball and driving the team forward. It was no surprise that he picked up the assist for the goal that broke the deadlock.
Ozil found Xhaka from the left and set off on a driving run into the box before the Swiss midfielder found him with a superb pass over the defence. The cushioned first-time ball from Ozil across the box was delightful and Alexis Sanchez was in the right place to tap in one of the easiest goals of his career.
The other key man in that goal, Granit Xhaka, continued his good recent form with another influential display. The quality of the opposition does have to be taken into account, but his passing was excellent all night. Playing as a deeper-lying player, his long range of passing was vital in stretching the packed Sunderland defence and making space for others. Don’t believe what some ‘experts’ say about him being a flop this season. His first season for Arsenal has been a lot about adapting to English football, and now that seems to have happened, I can’t wait to see him have a great campaign next year. He looks fitter and sharper than when he first appeared in the team and has learnt from mistakes that brought him cards earlier in the season. There’s definitely a great player in there. 
The security of Xhaka meant Arsene Wenger was able to introduce Alex Iwobi as an extra attacking creative player in midfield in the second half, and it was a very lively and positive cameo from a youngster who has been out of limelight recently. It definitely helped turn the game as Arsenal were able to flood the box and play with a greater fluidity.
Keen to get more goals, Arsenal didn’t relent after going 1-0 up. The second came as a short corner worked its way across the pitch through Iwobi and onto Shkodran Mustafi, who had popped up on the right wing. He whipped a great cross above the goalkeeper for Giroud, but Pickford managed to parry the Frenchman’s acrobatic volley. Unfortunately for the keeper, Alexis was perfectly positioned to nod in the rebound to bag a brace.
Champions League qualification is still out of Arsenal’s hands, but strange things have happened on the final day before. This has mainly been at Tottneham’s expense, but it’s not completely outside the realms of possibility that there could be a chef change at Liverpool’s team hotel and lasagne is suddenly on the menu on Saturday night. If Arsenal can score early against Everton on Sunday and Liverpool get wind of it, the pressure could just increase and something unexpected could happen. A long inquest will be needed if Arsenal do end up in the Europa League, but at least there’s still a chance of avoiding it going to the last weekend.


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.