Holders advance with three stylish goals against Sunderland

It was difficult to know how Arsenal were going to approach their FA Cup third round tie with Sunderland as, despite being the holders and looking for an historic third FA Cup win in a row, it is down the priorities list given where the Gunners sit in the league table and there seeming to be a concerted effort to target the Premier League this season. Arsene Wenger had to make some changes to keep some key players fresh ahead of some important league games, so it wouldn’t have been much of a surprise to see Arsenal let the FA Cup drift away this season.
But, Arsene Wenger has a proud record in the tournament, and despite making some changes, the Gunners fielded a strong line-up and produced a good performance to see off Sunderland with the same scoreline as they achieved against the Mackems in the league last month, and there were the same goalscorers in a repeat 3-1 win.
Arsenal had to work hard to break Sunderland down, and the game was quite even for periods as the visitors fielded a side that was stronger than expected following Sam Allardyce’s quotes during the week about the need to make changes. When the goals did come though, they all had classic hallmarks of what Arsene Wenger likes to see from his team. The passing was incisive, the movement was quick and the finishing was clinical.
The Gunners did have to come from behind though as a rare defensive lapse from Laurent Koscielny occurred in the first half. He was tackled on the edge of penalty area by Jermain Lens, who thumped the ball past Cech to give Sunderland the lead. It was a weak pass back to Koscielny by Kieran Gibbs, but the Frenchman tried to do too much with the ball and got caught out.
Having got the lead, Sunderland were all too happy to take opportunities to take time out of the game, so it was important for Arsenal to get back into the game quickly. The visitors were only ahead for nine minutes before Joel Campbell finished off an excellent forward move from the Gunners down the left. Theo Walcott drove towards the by-line and cut the ball back well towards the penalty spot, and Campbell timed his run well from the right to calmly finish into the bottom corner.
The goal was the high point of a very good performance from Campbell, who is growing into this Arsenal squad. I don’t think he’ll ever be the first choice in one of the three front positions, but he is an excellent option to have and a useful man to call upon when others are unavailable. When he first broke into the side earlier in the season, there seemed to be a lack of trust from other players to give Campbell the ball, but now he is regularly used in the sweeping attacking moves and he’s becoming more consistent.
The other impressive peformer going forward was Alex Iwobi. Given a first senior start at the Emirates, Iwobi was keen to get on the ball and looked to be involved. He also played with his head up and looked to make driving runs forward from midfield. Considering he was tasked with playing in the Ozil position behind the main striker, Iwobi did well to stamp his own style of play on proceedings.
He did tire though, so it wasn’t a surprise to see Iwobi replaced by Aaron Ramsey with 25 minutes to go with the scores at 1-1. With returning captain Mikel Arteta also brought on to hold in midfield, Ramsey was freed up to make his charging runs forward from midfield, and this paid off for Arsene Wenger as the Welshman put Arsenal in front soon afterwards.
Joel Campbell was at the heart of things again for Arsenal as he was part of a one-two with Hector Bellerin that put the Spaniard into space towards the by-line before Bellerin played the ball across towards the six-yard box. Ramsey timed his run perfectly and deftly glided the ball into the far corner past the goalkeeper.
Hector Bellerin then showed his creative side again as he charged forward down the right and got on the end of an excellent chipped pass wide from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Bellerin was patient before threading a fantastic pass across the box for Olivier Giroud to slide the ball into the net for 3-1. While he still has things to develop in his game defensively, he adds a lot to Arsenal going forward and, if he wants to, Bellerin could be the Arsenal right-back for many years to come.
The win could have been even more comfortable had the referee spotted Olivier Giroud being wiped out by Yedlin as he was about to shoot inside the penalty area, but somehow Martin Atkinson came to the decision that it wasn’t a foul.
Overall though, it was a job well done, especially given the players that didn’t play for either being rested or injured. To win by scoring three lovely goals without Alexis, Ozil, Cazorla et al was very encouraging, and was a great way to start the cup defence.

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Giroud completes the Gunners' great escape

Qualifying from the group stages of the Champions League is nothing new for Arsenal, but successfully digging themselves out of a hole in Europe that was of their own making is unusual. Needing to win by something better than 1-0 or 2-1, it was set up for another glorious failure for the Gunners, just as against Monaco, Bayern Munich and AC Milan in recent years. The fact that Olympiacos in 2015 wasn’t added to that list of near misses was as surprising as the match was comfortable for the Gunners, as the 3-0 win was achieved with a controlled and clinical performance.
Questions will, and should, still be asked about why Arsenal were in the position of having to scramble into the knockout stages after losing the first two matches of the group, but having found themselves in a perilous position, Arsene Wenger’s team responded brilliantly by beating Bayern Munich at home and then securing three-goal victories against Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiacos. Having recovered from such a dreadful start can only beneficial for the confidence and belief of the team going into the rest of the season. Let’s be honest, especially with the potential of drawing Barcelona or Real Madrid in the next round, it is unlikely that Arsenal will win the Champions League, but in other competitions, Arsenal will be able to draw on the win in Athens as inspiration if they need to escape a tricky situation.
There were genuine fears among supporters that Arsenal would drop into the Europa League. I’m sure a lot of fans would agree with me that it would have been preferable to go out of Europe altogether, if Champions League qualification was going to elude the Gunners, rather than drop into the secondary Uefa competition, especially with Arsenal harbouring serious title ambitions this season. But the questions about what Arsenal would do in the Europa League in terms of team selection, and if there would be any impact on the league campaign, thankfully won’t need to be answered.
Arsene Wenger has always prided himself on the record Arsenal have in Europe, and the consistency the club have shown in making it out the groups, and had the Gunners gone out, especially after the dreadful early defeats to Zagreb and Olympicos, there would have been plenty of critics lining up to place blame firmly at the feet of the Arsenal manager. But against the Greeks in Athens, Arsene Wenger got his tactics right and made the right tweaks at the right times during the game to help guide the Gunners through.
Wenger was helped by all of his players showing fantastic application and focus throughout the whole game. Individual errors and losses of concentration have cost Arsenal dearly in previous glorious failures in Europe, but everyone was focused on getting the job done and saving themselves from the mess they’d created earlier in the group. There were good performances all over the pitch with Laurent Koscielny, Nacho Monreal, Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil and Joel Campbell all standing out, but no-one contributed more to the win than Olivier Giroud. The Frenchman typified Arsenal’s progression throughout the group stage as he was sent off in the opening game against Zagreb, but put in a perfect centre-forward’s performance against Olympiacos as he dominated defenders, brought others into play and was clinical in front of goal.
After a slightly iffy start to the game, Arsenal grew in confidence as they put together a few promising attacking moves, with Mathieu Flamini seeing a shot deflected onto the bar following good work from Joel Campbell. As the pressure increased, Giroud came to forefront as he was on the end of a slick team move. Mesut Ozil played a sumptuous pass inside the full-back to give Aaron Ramsey space to cross towards the Frenchman in the box. Giroud made his customary move towards the near post and generated enough power with the low header to find the net, despite the keeper getting a hand to the ball.
To get through, it was always going to be vital for Arsenal to score the first goal of the game. Getting it in the first half immediately put the pressure on the home side. In front of their passionate fans, Olympiacos were suddenly a goal away from losing qualification and Arsenal sensed their opportunity. The hosts seemed slightly stuck as to what to do tactically as they were reluctant to sit deep and try and defend their position in the group, but instead looked to press higher up the pitch, which in turn created space for Mesut Ozil to feed Theo Walcott and Joel Campbell to cause Olympiacos problems in the space vacated by their midfield.
Campbell, playing against the team with whom he had a successful loan spell a few seasons ago, exploited that space brilliantly five minutes into the second half to set up Giroud for the vital second goal. Ozil played the ball over the top for the Costa Rican, who controlled the ball superbly before slotting a beautiful reverse pass in behind the defence for Giroud to charge through and confidently stroke the ball into the bottom corner.
Having got the two-goal lead they needed, Arsenal knew that a third goal would effectively kill the game off as the hosts would then need three goals themselves to knock out the Gunners. When Giroud chipped the ball to the back post, it looked like that goal might come through the unlikely source of Nacho Monreal, but his shot was blocked with an arm and the referee decided it was deserving of a penalty. After scoring two, there was only going to be one man taking it. Giroud confidently slotted the ball into the corner to complete his first Arsenal hat-trick and make the final 25 minutes very comfortable for Arsene Wenger’s team.
Giroud is an easy target for criticism as when he’s playing badly as the focal point of the attack, the team really suffers. But he’s much more consistent than he gets credit for, and when he’s on form, he can lead the line brilliantly with the physicality to bully defenders and the subtle touches to fit into Arsenal’s passing style. On a night when Arsenal needed some big performances, and without Alexis Sanchez to spark the team into life, others had to step up. Giroud did just that. There were concerns when he looked to have injured his ankle early in the second half, but the fact he got up, ran back onto the field and immediately scored his second goal added to the magnificence of the performance.
Overall, it was one of the best European away performances under Arsene Wenger because of the pressure and circumstances of the match. The challenge for the Gunners is to not make the mistakes they made earlier in the competition again later in the season. Hopefully that won’t happen, but if it does, Arsenal know they can dig themselves out of however big a hole they create by pressing the self-destruct button.

Points over performance to get back on track

It wasn’t a brilliant performance from Arsenal against Sunderland on Saturday, but considering the injuries in the squad, and the winless league run in November, the 3-1 victory was incredibly welcome. It was nervy, particularly near the end before the third goal in injury time clinched the points, and Arsenal were thankful to Petr Cech for some excellent saves, but it got the job done.
For all the injuries and negativity in November, the win over the Black Cats moved the Gunners up to second in the table and keeps them two points behind the leaders. Every game in the Premier League is turning into a real challenge in this crazy season, so any win is invaluable.
For most of the game, Arsenal looked like a team that were missing a lot of regulars. The team weren’t as fluid as usual and missed the incisive runs of Alexis Sanchez. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain looked very rusty on his return from injury, while Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini will still need time to develop a new central midfield partnership.
The Gunners were grateful for Mesut Ozil continuing his excellent run of form by being the creative hub for the hosts. The German seemed to be the one player able to ignore the issues in the team around him and put in a majestic performance. While Leicester’s flying goal scorers are making headlines, I think that Ozil is the best player in the Premier League at the moment. He looks in complete control of the game when he’s playing, is always looking to play a forward pass rather than just ticking the game over and he’s looking much stronger when on the ball. There was a flick in the second half following a clearance from Flamini that left DeAndre Yedlin lost and confused that just summed up how good Ozil is feeling about his game at the moment.
After not really creating much in the first half, and having seen Sunderland go close to opening the scoring a couple of times, it wasn’t a surprise that Ozil was the one to spark Arsenal into life. His beautiful pass inside the full-back allowed Joel Campbell to run in from the left and roll the ball under the advancing goalkeeper to open the scoring.
Campbell had a decent game and is looking to get involved more in the intricate attacking moves, and in turn, the players around him are more trusting in giving him the ball. Consistency is what the Costa Rican needs to make a real impact at the club, and at the moment he seems to have a good game followed by a poor game. Given the importance of Wednesday night’s trip to Greece, hopefully he’ll break that cycle following a good effort against Sunderland.
Arsenal didn’t kick on after taking the lead, continuing the worrying recent trend in the league of conceding after going one goal ahead. The equaliser came from a dangerous free-kick whipped into the near post and Olivier Giroud misjudged the flight and shinned the ball into his own net.
On a difficult day against three centre-backs, Giroud looked to be having one of those games when his head drops and he moans more than he plays. But he picked himself up and headed Arsenal back in front in the second half with a brilliantly taken goal. Ozil, Monreal and Ramsey combined well on the left hand side before the Welshman clipped in a delicate cross. Giroud attacked the ball brilliantly with a stooping header to find the gap at the near post. The Frenchman was probably sparked into life when he saw Theo Walcott poised to come on off the bench.
Moments earlier, Arsenal were indebted to another brilliant Cech save. It was concerning to see Arsenal give up so many good chances to a team such as Sunderland, but the value of the world class goalkeeper was obvious on Saturday.
Arsenal dropped off too much as the match went on, inviting late pressure from Sunderland, and brought on all the full-backs to try and see the game out, but the Gunners saw the game through with a late clincher in injury time. Aaron Ramsey had a decent game back in the centre of midfield and capped his performance with a goal. It was scrappy, but the Welshman was the only midfielder in the squad likely to have got himself in the position in the six-yard box to force the ball over the line.
As the team was virtually made up of who was left in the first-team squad because of the injures, I’m not too concerned by the performance as the fluidity should come with more time spent together. The win was vital and the same result on Wednesday would be enough to get the Gunners through in Europe. Whatever the state of the rest of the team, with Mesut Ozil pulling the strings, there’s a good chance that Arsenal can achieve it.