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.

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Southampton seen off as Arsenal show signs of life

Even in bad seasons when title challenges have fallen away, Arsenal have generally ended campaigns well to consistently secure the place in the top four. This season has been particularly bad and most fans had resigned themselves to Thursday night football, but just maybe Arsenal are beginning to get on one their end-of-seasons runs to sneak into Europe’s top competition.
Realistically, it’ll require three wins from the last three games, and with a trip to Stoke included as one of those, the chances remain low. But the fact Arsenal have given themselves a chance at all of catching Manchester City or, more likely, Liverpool is a surprise. The 2-0 win on Wednesday at Southampton followed up the win over Manchester United and keeps the hopes alive.
As against Manchester United, Arsenal had to wait until the second half to score the decisive goals, and both of them stood out as the moments of real quality in the game. The Gunners are still adapting to a new way of playing and still trying to build confidence, and Southampton realistically don’t have much left to play for this season, so it made for a relatively quiet game for the most part, before the goals.
The first was worked really well by Arsenal from the back and through the midfield in just a few passes. Rather than looking to the wing-backs, Granit Xhaka played a good ball forward to Mesut Ozil, who cushioned a lovely pass into the path of Alexis Sanchez as the Chilean burst into the box. He showed composure to leave two covering defenders on the ground before finishing past Forster for his 20th league goal of the season. 
After scoring the winner in the FA Cup semi-final, Alexis has been quiet and there have been frustrations about him giving the ball away too many times. But there’s not many others in the league who you’d rather be on the end of an Ozil assist than Alexis Sanchez. Whatever the league position at the end of the season, I’m resigned to likelihood of him leaving, but hope I’m wrong. He can be infuriating, but in games such as Wednesday night, he can make the difference in tight situations.
The clinching goal came in the last ten minutes as Olivier Giroud fulfilled the super-sub role brilliantly again. Moments after coming off the bench, he got on the end of Aaron Ramsey’s header across the six yard box to nod home and secure the points. The build-up had been good with the cross from Alexis picking out Ramsey making another late run from midfield into the penalty area.
Ramsey followed up his good performance against Manchester United with another solid showing on the south coast as Arsenal finally seem to have found a consistent midfield pairing for the first time since Santi Cazorla’s injury back in October. Ramsey has a lot of freedom in the new system and is always willing to run beyond the opposition defence to stretch the play. He’s also getting a run of games without an injury, which has always been an issue for him. Unsurprisingly, he’s looking a lot sharper because of it.
Granit Xhaka alongside the Welshman had another good game as he ticked the play along nicely. His role in the team has seemed confused for a lot of the season, especially since Cazorla’s injury. Depending on who he has been playing alongside, he’s either had to be the more creative partner or more defensive partner, which hasn’t helped him settle into the team in his first season. With Ramsey now being the man usually attacking, Xhaka’s role has become a lot clearer and he is playing better. He’s also adapting to the league and does seem to have learnt from his tackling errors that brought red cards earlier in the season, even though they were harshly given. While there’s still a lot for Arsenal to work on in the new system offensively because of being a man down further up the field, the more consistent partnership in central midfield has been one of the definite benefits of switching to the 3-4-2-1.
There was a worry that with Laurent Koscielny missing through injury, Arsenal’s back three might fall apart given how well Koscielny performed against United, especially when effectively acting as a sweeper behind the other two centre-backs. But Shkodran Mustafi made an excellent return to the team in the middle of the three. His form, along with the team’s, fell off a cliff as the season went on, but the extra centre-back makes it a lot easier to cover if the German goes to press high and doesn’t make a tackle or interception, as happened too often when playing as a two. But on Wednesday night, he was more disciplined and did well alongside Rob Holding and Nacho Monreal, both of whom were solid again.
But as much as Arsenal did generally defend well, they were still indebted to Petr Cech for a few excellent first-half saves to keep the scores level. The Czech keeper has found some great form recently and made a vital one-on-one block from Gabbiadini and tipped over well from a powerful long-range effort from Redmond. There’s been some talk of a return for Wojciech Szczesny next season, something I’d be keen to see after his excellent season for Roma in Serie A, but Cech has rediscovered his form well recently after an indifferent season by his high standards.
Overall it was a job well done for Arsenal. After the defeat to Spurs, it felt like the Gunners would have to win all five of their remaining games to have a chance of squeaking into the top four, and so far it’s two from two. Arguably the toughest test of those five, Stoke City away, is next before two homes games. This run of form could still be too little too late, but Arsenal have finally got into the late-season groove and are clinging onto the chance of salvaging something from the wreckage of a dreadful second half of the league season. 

A decision to define the end of an era

In many ways, the last couple of months have had a very familiar feel to them. Arsenal have fallen away in the title race, they’re going to exit the Champions League at the round of 16 and there have been the usual failings in the big games against strong opposition. But there has been another factor at play to make this season feel different. It feels like we’re coming to the end of Arsene Wenger’s reign at the club.
The hammering against Bayern was the final straw for some, but the decision to leave out Alexis Sanchez against Liverpool will have pushed more over the edge with the Gunners losing 3-1. Regular readers and listeners will know the esteem in which I hold Arsene Wenger and how much I fear the future without him at the helm, but it is looking increasingly difficult to see how he can remain in charge for another few years.
He’s a great manager, he can do tactics and can motivate his players, but it just feels like it is the right time for a change because of the negativity and uncertainty building around the club. Even if the team picks up form before the end of the season and maybe even wins the FA Cup, the frustrations around the club and the lack of clarity over the future of what happens when Arsene leaves will only continue. If he signs a two-year contract, I’m struggling to see that the board will have any intention of using that time to properly plan for the future.
Should Arsene Wenger not sign a new contract in the summer and depart the club, people will look back at Saturday’s defeat at Anfield as one of the key moments in the end of his reign. In a vital game, Alexis Sanchez was left on the bench as the boss tried to change his tactics to counter Liverpool’s pressing game. Clearly Wenger felt he had to do something to mix it up in the big away games, and in principle, I didn’t mind him wanting to do that. The selection of Welbeck was very welcome, and Olivier Giroud has a great record against the Reds. But those two could have started alongside the electric Chilean. Just psychologically, the hosts will have got a huge boost seeing Alexis on the bench prior to the game.
When the team sheet was announced, it seemed like Arsene Wenger was taking a do-or-die risk, both in terms of the game, and in terms of his future beyond the end of the season. He will have known how much criticism would be levelled his way if the non-selection of Alexis didn’t pay off. As it didn’t work, I suspect that it will just increase the likelihood of him stepping away from the club in the summer.
Among all of this, a lot of responsibility has to be taken by the players. This week, there were quotes in the press from senior members of the squad about how they want the boss to stay. If they are so desperate for him to do that, it’d be nice if they backed that up with performances on the pitch. A team there were desperate for a manager to stay wouldn’t continue to have these rubbish halves, especially in big games. The first half at Anfield was another one to add to the list of ones recently that just haven’t been good enough.
With Alexis not selected and Ozil unwell, it was a chance for the team to prove that they don’t need their biggest stars to perform well, something they might have to do next season if Arsene Wenger leaves and prompts his two biggest signings to follow him out the door. The team selected was still good enough to compete and cause Liverpool plenty of problems, but if the plan to select Welbeck and Giroud was to be more direct, it didn’t really materialise. Poor Olivier Giroud had almost nothing to work off in the first half as Arsenal couldn’t get control in midfield to create opportunities for him.
While selecting two more defensive-minded midfielders in these sort of games makes sense, as a partnership, I’ve yet to see Francis Coquelin and Granit Xhaka have a good game together. Since signing a new contract, Coquelin has been particularly poor and was rightly hooked at half-time. He was careless in possession and just doesn’t seem to click alongside the Swiss international. In general, Arsenal’s midfielders allowed Liverpool to directly attack the centre-backs too often, especially when Arsenal were sitting off for a lot of the time that Liverpool had possession.
Partly down to Liverpool being able to sit back on a 2-0 lead, but partly down to Oxlade-Chamberlain being moved into the middle of midfield, Arsenal got much more control on the game in the second half. Alexis was direct after coming off the bench and Danny Welbeck provided a threat running in behind the defence. That combination brought Arsenal back into the game with a goal, but they couldn’t build on it.
The performance was made all the more frustrating when looking at the options available to the manager. Especially in attacking areas, there are brilliant options available to the manager, but he is struggling to pick the right combinations for the right games. For Arsene Wenger’s final changes off the bench on Saturday, Lucas Perez and Theo Walcott were brought on, which wasn’t unreasonable in the situation. There were boos for the removal of Danny Welbeck, but that was understandable given he is still returning to full fitness. But it was very strange to take Olivier Giroud off. In the final quarter of the game, should Arsenal have needed to go more direct, Giroud was the ideal man to have on the field.
It is worth a minor note that at 2-1 down, Arsenal were in a position to apply pressure on a nervy Liverpool team. Already on a yellow for a cynical challenge, Emre Can then wiped out Theo Walcott in combination with Joel Matip. Bobby Madley was having a decent enough game with the whistle but then completely bottled the obvious decision to give a second yellow to Can. The midfielder rolled around on the floor as a delaying tactic and inexplicably it worked. For all the jokes of Granit Xhaka getting cards for a similar offence, Xhaka ended up getting booked for that incident itself for protesting the decision not to bring out a second yellow. Arsenal shouldn’t have been in the position they found themselves in during the game, but it would have been helpful to play against 10 men for the last 15 minutes had the referee done his job properly.
But one refereeing decision shouldn’t be the takeaway from the game. Unfortunately, it is the manager’s decision that is the one that will be talked about, and will be continually referred to until a decision is made on his future beyond the end of this season.