Arsenal finish festive football with a whimper, but a win

The game between Arsenal and Newcastle United at the Emirates on Saturday won’t live long in the memory. The Gunners really struggled to find any rhythm during the game and couldn’t find their way through an improved Newcastle team. But somehow Arsene Wenger’s team scraped a 1-0 victory.
In some ways, it was a very concerning performance as Arsenal hardly looked a like a table-topping team for the majority of the match, and given where Newcastle are in the table, the hosts should have put the visitors away with much greater ease. But, given the match came at the end of the busy festive period, and Arsenal are still missing a number of key players, it was just good to get the win and move on.
It means that Arsenal have taken nine points from a possible 12 from the Christmas matches, which is a decent return, and one which has taken them to the top of the league. More performances such as the one against Newcastle won’t keep Arsenal there, but the desire and ability to somehow get the win when playing badly will give the Gunners a great chance of staying atop the Premier League. This time of the year in English football is often just about getting through the games, regardless of performance. With a bit more time until the next league game, Arsenal will be able to fine-tune aspects of their game, rest players and possibly get one or two back from injury to bulk out a depleted squad. There’s also the possibility of a signing (or two, although that might be somewhat optimistic!) arriving with the January window open to further boost the squad before the next league game at Liverpool on 13th January.
Saturday’s win came courtesy of a Laurent Koscielny goal, with the centre-back showing that he still has a very usual knack of scoring important goals for the Gunners. It wasn’t aesthetically pleasing, and in many senses was a bit un-Arsenal like in how it came about, but it was welcomed gladly by the Emirates faithful. It came inside the last twenty minutes of the game and came after Arsenal had barely tested visiting goalkeeper Rob Elliot during the match. Mesut Ozil’s corner was headed up in the air before Olivier Giroud fought to get his head to the ball, putting it towards the back post where Laurent Koscielny had snuck in to guide the ball into the net. He shinned it a bit, but it went in.
The goal did typify the desire in the team to make things happen for them in the title race. With Newcastle struggling in the bottom half of the league, the desire wasn’t quite there to seize an opportunity. After rarely making it into the box in the second half, Arsenal weren’t going to miss the chance when it came, so it was good to see Giroud do well to get above the defence to win to the header that provided the assist for Koscielny, who himself had read the play well and gambled on a chance falling his way in front of the goalkeeper.
After taking the lead, and with Newcastle committing more players forward, Arsenal created more chances and should have killed the game off to avoid a stressful ending to the game. Joel Campbell was lively following his introduction and Mesut Ozil went very close with a clever reverse shot that left the goalkeeper stranded. The best chance fell to Aaron Ramsey, who had jinked his way past the covering defenders, but with Campbell and Hector Bellerin charging up in support awaiting the pass to tap in the clinching goal, Ramsey went for the top corner himself and missed.
Having been on the receiving end of a similar tap-in against Aston Villa, it was a slight surprise to see Ramsey shoot. Had he finished it off, fair enough, but take a look up next time Aaron!
The victory owed an awful lot to another commanding performance from Petr Cech. The big goalkeeper was an immense presence for the Gunners with a few crucial saves, with the one-on-one block to deny Wijnaldum being the stand-out stop. Cech’s importance to Arsenal can’t be overstated at the moment. It feels like we were kidding ourselves as fans when thinking that Szczesny or Ospina could be the Arsenal number one on a long term basis. Both of those keepers have their merits and their strengths, but they can’t compete with Cech’s all round excellence. It’s incredibly reassuring for the defenders, and the fans in the stands, to have such a consistent performer as the last line of defence. I’m still baffled that Chelsea sanctioned the deal to let him leave as he could be the difference between a title win and being another glorious failure.
With Cech playing so well, even when Arsenal aren’t at their best, they are still able to keep clean sheets and then just need one moment of quality or good fortunate going forward to win the game. If the performances improve, which they should do now we’re out of the hectic Christmas period, and Cech continues his superb form, there is real hope for 2016 for Arsenal. Despite a few scratchy showings, Arsenal have ended the Christmas period with a two point lead in the league. There is plenty of work to do, but the foundations have been laid for a proper title tilt.

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Gunners grab three points to start a big week

On seeing the dreadful performance and result supplied by Arsenal in the Capital One Cup at Sheffield Wednesday on Tuesday, people could be forgiven for thinking that all isn’t well at the club. But the signs are that the League Cup disappointment was a blip. Arsene Wenger rested players for that game knowing he had a huge week approaching, and as the manager’s key men returned, Arsenal started the week with a welcome three goals and three points.
The League Cup result also belied the brilliant league form Arsenal have shown of late, so a clean sheet and a relatively comfortable 3-0 victory against Swansea City shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise. The scoreline didn’t quite reflect how tight the game was in the first half, but as at Watford a few weeks ago, Arsenal quickly slipped through the the gears in the second half and seized control of the game. 
That it was still 0-0 at half time owed a lot to Petr Cech and Hector Bellerin, who combined to deny Bafetimbi Gomis when he was clear through on the Arsenal goal for the first half’a clearest opening. Cech made the striker hesitate before Bellerin flew back to make a covering tackle as the striker attempted to round the goalkeeper. 
At the other end, Olivier Giroud and Joel Campbell, making his first Premier League start with all other right wing options injured, both curled efforts past the far post from presentable left-footed chances. The first half was pleasing on the eye as both teams looked to keep the ball on the floor and build nice attacking moves, but it was quite cagey as Arsenal looked to still be getting the League Cup humiliation out of their system. 
The game came alive in the second period as Arsenal broke the match open. After not forcing a corner during the first half, the visitors won two in quick succession at the start of the second, with Olivier Giroud brilliantly guiding Mesut Ozil’s cross into the bottom corner from the second of those corners. It was the third set-piece goal in a row in the Premier League for Arsenal and the 2000th scored by the team under Arsene Wenger. 
Goals from corners haven’t been a speciality in the Frenchmam’s time at the club, but it does appear to be something Arsenal have worked on and are thinking about more than they have done in recent years. It helps having Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil providing good deliveries into the box with both feet, but the movement of the centre-backs combined with Olivier Giroud seems to have more of a plan to it. For example, for most of the corners the Gunners won on Saturday, they crowded players around Lukasz Fabianski, aware that the Polish keeper is prone to mistakes when put under pressure. When they then mixed up the tactics at corners, the Swansea marking went awry and Giroud took advantage with some good movement running behind Per Mertesacker before planting the header into the bottom corner. This sort of small detail contributes to the feeling that Arsenal are in much better shape to mount a sustained title challenge this season.
Having gone 1-0 up, Arsenal had to make sure they didn’t allow Swansea the chance to get back into the game. Petr Cech had to make a smart save to deny Sigurdsson, and Bellerin performed heroics on the line despite Ayew being offside, but otherwise the Gunners held the hosts at arms’ length.
It was another example of the game management improving from Arsenal as the Gunners are throwing away very few leads this season. In the corresponding game last season, Arsenal also went 1-0 in the second half but they ended up losing 2-1 as they allowed the match to become stretched and they lost control of it. That wasn’t in danger of happening on Saturday as Cazorla and Ozil dictated the tempo of the second half with a dominant midfield display.
The lead was doubled when Lukasz Fabianski dropped the ball under pressure from Olivier Giroud and Laurent Koscielny, allowing the centre-back to tap in a second goal in as many matches. I have some sympathy for Gary Monk in his protestations about the challenge on the goalkeeper as those instances are usually given in favour of the keeper, but on this occasion I think Fabianski just jumped over Koscielny and dropped the ball. Having suffered at the hands of the Pole before, it felt good, if a little cruel, to be the beneficiaries of a Fabianki error.
Arsenal continued the trend of scoring goals quickly after one another as Joel Campbell had time and space to find the bottom corner for his first competitive goal for the club. It followed beautiful link-up play between Ozil and Alexis, with the German claiming a hand in all three goals.
It was also encouraging to see Joel Campbell perform well, and score, partly because the team will need him in the coming games because of injuries to others, but also because he’d been so poor on Tuesday in Sheffield. He wasn’t alone in under-performing in the Capital One Cup, but it was hardly the ideal preparation for him ahead of an unexpected run in the team in some huge matches. It’ll still be difficult for him to hold down a regular place in the team in the long-run, but he’s finally got a chance to prove himself at Arsenal at the highest level. Playing alongside the likes of Ozil, Alexis and Cazorla, he didn’t look out of his depth on Saturday.
You wouldn’t have known that Arsenal were missing eight players on Saturday given how confidently they played. Minds could have wandered to Munich and Tottenham in the coming week, but the focus was good and a second 3-0 away league win in a row was well deserved. There’s no real scope for changing the side for either Bayern or Spurs this week, but the Gunners couldn’t have started a big week any better.

Gunners grit out three points for a perfect week

The strange nature of being a football fan meant that I was almost more concerned about Arsenal’s Premier League game with Everton than I was about the Champions League match with Bayern Munich. But following the epic efforts on Tuesday night was always going to be tough. Everton had a point to prove following a 3-0 defeat to Manchester United, the Gunners looked physically and mentally fatigued following the win over Bayern and the weather was grey and significantly damp; it had the makings of a very awkward game for Arsenal.
That’s why the 2-1 win on Saturday almost says more about this Arsenal team and their intentions this season than the win over Bayern did. Arsene Wenger’s side had to dig deep at the end of a draining week, but they are finding different ways to win matches and after ten games of the season, they are right in contention at the top of the league.
Arsene Wenger had to rotate his team following the efforts against Bayern, and one of those who came into the side had a huge impact on the game. Olivier Giroud has been effective off the bench by giving defenders a different challenge to Theo Walcott, but he was given an opportunity from the start against Everton following goal scoring efforts as a substitute. Knowing he’s in a real battle for game time with Walcott, Giroud gave his best performance of the season as he bullied the Everton centre-backs and linked up the play brilliantly for the Gunners.
Giroud’s inclusion meant Arsenal had to adapt their recent style and not look to expose Everton with pace in behind the defence, but with Mesut Ozil in great form, the Gunners were able to do that. Both on the floor and in the air, Giroud created space for others as well as being a threat himself when the ball came towards the penalty area. Theo Walcott having a run of games in the team has helped get more out of Ozil as he has a few more options to pass to when attacking, but he was able to link up well with Giroud throughout the match.
That combination helped Arsenal open the scoring after a fairly uneventful first half an hour. Arsenal looked like a team that was getting back into rhythm after a demanding night in Europe, but one piece of quality was enough to open the game up. Ozil drifted into some space on the right hand side of the pitch and floated a beautiful chipped pass over the back four for Giroud to run onto and glance a header over Tim Howard in the Everton goal. I’m reluctant to describe Ozil’s assist as a cross because that usually implies the ball has been played into the box more speculatively that a pass would be, and this particular assist from the German was an inch-perfect chipped pass into the area. Giroud’s awareness of where the goalkeeper was allowed him to finish in the manner that he did and continue his excellent week with a third goal in as many games.
Arsenal are developing a good habit of scoring goals in quick-fire batches during games. Three goals came in the first twenty minutes against Manchester United (including two in as many minutes), three came in 12 minutes at Watford and both goals came in the last 13 minutes against Bayern Munich. After those matches, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that Arsenal struck again quickly against Everton.
The Gunners applied the pressure straight from the kick off, won the ball high up the pitch and Alexis drew a free-kick on the left. Cazorla whipped in a fantastic cross for Laurent Koscielny to attack and he nodded the ball past Tim Howard from a couple of yards out.
It’s very encouraging to see Arsenal scoring in these short bursts because it shows that the team are recognising key moments in matches and making them count. Rather than going into their shell after scoring, Arsenal are looking to take advantage of the other team being vulnerable by pushing to increase the lead and make the game more comfortable. There’s a ruthless quality developing in this Arsenal team.
It’s also encouraging that Arsenal are looking dangerous from crosses and set pieces into the box. It helps having Olivier Giroud in the area to attack the ball, but the delivery of the ball into the area has improved from Ozil and Cazorla. Before the goals, Gabriel won a few headers from corners and Giroud opened the scoring against Bayern following a brilliant ball from Cazorla. It adds to the feeling that this Arsenal team are able to adapt and find different ways to win.
After going 2-0 up, Arsenal did lose a bit of concentration to concede just before half time as Ross Barkley  drove forward to score from outside the box, but it took a massive deflection off Gabriel to beat Petr Cech. That it only took a big deflection for Arsenal to concede for the first time in four games says a lot about the quality of the defending recently.
The second half was edgy as Arsenal had chances to kill the game off. Olivier Giroud was unlucky to hit the bar and Mesut Ozil hit the post following an excellent move involving Giroud. Everton carried a threat on the break and almost snuck an equaliser when Cech came out to smother an effort from Deulofeu. It’s not often I agree with John Terry, but he was right in the summer about Cech saving Arsenal points during the season. He did just that with a late stop from the Spaniard.
The best moment at the end of the game came when Everton looked to break through into the Gunners box. Romelu Lukaku shifted the ball towards his left foot but he was denied by a sliding Brazilian. Gabriel flew across and executed a perfect challenge that cleared the ball into touch. After he annoyed Jose Mourinho and Diego Costa, Gabriel has started to become a bit of a cult hero at the club, and the fist pumping celebration after his tackle only adds to his growing status.
The tackle from Gabriel summed up the spirit Arsenal had to show to get through the game. There were some tired bodies on the pitch at the end but Arsenal toughed it out. Since the opening day defeat, Arsenal have put together a good run of results to be level at the top of the table with Manchester City. A few more weeks like the one just gone and this season will be very interesting indeed.