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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Ozil eases Arsenal back into the groove after Southampton horror-show

Two games in three days was always going to be a challenge for most of the clubs in the Premier League, however Arsenal’s task felt that bit more challenging following the woeful performance and subsequent 4-0 defeat at Southampton on Boxing Day. The following game with Bournemouth was, in the end, a regulation 2-0 win, but the Gunners were jittery early in the game and were in need of some inspiration to get Boxing Day beating out of their system.
As with the rest of the season, that inspiration was provided by the masterful Mesut Ozil. I’m sure fans of other clubs are fed up of how much Arsenal supporters have gone on about Ozil this season, but it’s only because he keeps delivering superb performances and numerous assists. Given that he’d played the full 90 minutes at St Mary’s less than 48 hours previously, it was a remarkably energetic performance from Ozil, especially as someone who is often criticised for his languid style. He offered himself to receive the ball around the pitch, orchestrated attacking moves brilliantly and even tracked back to make a few tackles.
But for some profligate finishing by those around him, Ozil would have picked up more than the one assist he claimed in the game, taking his total up to 16 in the league this season, just four short of Thierry Henry’s Premier League record for an entire season. In the first half, Ozil’s delivery from corners was excellent, with Bournemouth struggling to cope with his accurate crosses into the box. Gabriel, rotated into the side in place of Laurent Koscielny, and Per Mertesacker were getting clear runs to attack the ball, and that paid dividends in the first half when Gabriel was able to plant a free header into the top corner to give the Gunners the lead. 
The goal topped off an excellent personal performance from the Brazilian, who offered a timely reminder of his qualities so soon after the diabolical defensive performance from the team at Southampton.
Gabriel almost grabbed a second goal soon after as he flicked a header towards goal from another Ozil corner, but after his header came back off the post, the ball was diverted wide as it hit a surprised Per Mertesacker. Arsenal had plenty of other chances to add a second goal before the break as Ozil created opportunities for Theo Walcott.
When the score was still 1-0, Arsenal were always going to be a bit edgy. The second goal was needed to kill the game off and settle the nerves of those in the team and in the stands. A tense ending was the last thing needed as the team tired from the short turn around between matches. Once again, it was Ozil who grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and made the difference.
The only surprise was that Ozil didn’t provide the assist for the second Arsenal goal, however he was heavily involved in the sumptuous build-up play before applying the finishing touch himself. Ozil exchanged passes with Aaron Ramsey before advancing towards the penalty area. With a plethora of Bournemouth players around him, Ozil played a one-two with Olivier Giroud to be able to stride into the penalty area and then stroke the ball under the goalkeeper. Giroud has been on the receiving end of Ozil’s assists recently, so returnedthe favour with a delightful flick back into the German’s path to put him through on goal.
The goal calmed everyone down and freed Arsenal up to express themselves a bit more. Ozil was instrumental in further chances for Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Giroud, but two goals were enough in the end, despite plenty of endeavour from Bournemouth on their first visit to the Emirates.
The win moved Arsenal to the Premier League’s summit ahead of the new year, and was a reminder that the dreadful performance against Southampton was out of the ordinary and isn’t the norm. The Gunners remain in a great position to seriously challenge for the title, but to do that, Mesut Ozil needs to remain fit and firing. He has developed the ability to not just silently and subtly influence matches, but completely dominate games. Bar injury, he is a Premier League record holder-in waiting.
One man who did achieve a Premier League record on Monday was Petr Cech. The goalkeeper notched up his 170th clean sheet, the most in England’s top division in the Premier League era. It’s been noticeable in recent interviews he’s given to various media outlets that Cech is not just round of the record itself, but that it that the clean sheets have contributed to trophies for his team. He’ll know as well as anyone that more are needed this season to push Arsenal towards the title. His incredible relentless hunger for success and for protecting his goal means that his record is set to grow, and it’s fantastic that it will be to Arsenal’s benefit.
With Cech and Ozil in the side, and the Southampton defeat quickly out of the system, Arsenal go into 2016 with plenty of optimism.

Bayern out-gunned by Arsene's tactical tweaks

With the odd exception, Arsenal’s Champions League groups have often featured some rather mundane matches, and while it always feels like you should appreciate being in the competition, there have been some group games when it’s hardly felt like the pinnacle of European football. Partly through a change in the pots for the group stage draw itself, and Arsenal’s rather spectacular cock-ups in the first two games in this season’s competition, Tuesday night’s group game with Bayern Munich had the feeling of a high-profile knockout match.
While a defeat wouldn’t quite have been mathematically terminal for Arsenal’s Champions League hopes, it would have effectively ended any realistic hopes of escaping a group that, Bayern Munich apart, shouldn’t have presented many issues for the Gunners. But when a team that has won 12 games in a row turns up, it isn’t a time to feel sorry for yourself and reflect on what has gone before. The difference between Arsenal’s meek efforts against Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiacos and the rousing and remarkable 2-0 win against the Bavarians couldn’t have been more pronounced. It did make the first two defeats seem all the more ridiculous, but after such a great performance, there’s no point feeling downbeat. Arsenal were fantastic on the night and deservedly beat one of the clubs in the small group of elite teams in Europe.
Since Arsenal’s last European capitulation, confidence had been boosted by the dismantling of Manchester United and, with the exception of Laurent Koscielny starting instead of Gabriel, Arsene Wenger sent out the same starting XI that had blown away United to try and get the better of Bayern. Despite the side looking the same on paper, Arsenal showed a versatility to adapt to opponents and some subtle tactical tweaks from Arsene Wenger enabled the hosts to be solid at the back, dangerous in the final third and create the best chances of the game despite being starved of possession for long periods of the match.
Arsenal didn’t look to press high up the pitch against Bayern and were seemingly happy for the visitors to have possession just inside the Gunners’ half of the pitch. This meant there was less space for the dangerous Robert Lewandowski to work in when the ball reached him up front, while Thomas Muller was ineffective stuck out on the right against Nacho Monreal. Douglas Costa’s trickery caused a few problems, but there wasn’t space behind the Gunners back line for him to utilise, so he was reliant on taking people on from a standing start.
Interestingly, Arsene Wenger deviated slightly from the normal 4-2-3-1 formation by dropping Mesut Ozil alongside Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla to have a flat three in midfield. Usually, if Wenger does this during a match, Aaron Ramsey will drop inside and Ozil will move out wide, but on this occasion, the German was the left man of the three central midfielders. This wasn’t because of his renowned defensive work, but when Arsenal did win the ball, it meant Ozil was in the centre of the pitch to feed Arsenal’s flying forwards on the break. He was also closer to Alexis Sanchez so could unleash the Chilean when Arsenal won the ball back, or look for the diagonal pass to Theo Walcott.
Since the win earlier this year at Manchester City when Arsenal soaked up pressure and did their damage on the counter-attack, the belief and trust from the players in their own capacity to defend as a team and their ability to make the most of the opportunities when they win the ball back has grown. Even though the Gunners only had 30% possession against Bayern Munich, there was a sense that Arsenal could cause problems for Bayern’s back four as soon as they approached the final third of the pitch. With Bayern having to play a higher defensive line to retain the majority of possession, the space was there for Theo Walcott and Alexis to stretch the defense. Ordinarily, Arsenal look to the likes of Coquelin and Cazorla to start moves when they win the ball back, but against Bayern, they were often taking a few passes out of the move and being more direct to get Walcott and Alexis on the run to turn the back four around.
For all the tactical planning, the players still have to go out and deliver. Everyone contributed and played their part, none more so that Petr Cech. With so many quality players in their ranks, it is virtually impossible to deny Bayern Munich any clear cut chances despite a great tactical plan, and when Pep Guardiola’s men did find a way through the Gunners, they were faced by a world class goalkeeper who was out to make a point about his selection in the Champions League. I was always someone who looked for the positives in Wojciech Szczesny, Lukasz Fabianski, David Ospina and even Manuel Almunia, but it is almost slightly scary how much better and calmer the Arsenal defence look with Cech behind them.
After important saves in the first half, Cech produced his best stop moments before Arsenal took the lead. Robert Lewandowski escaped the attentions of Mertesacker and Koscielny for a fleeting moment, but when he went towards goal, he was met by a giant Czech goalkeeper who stood tall to parry the ball over the bar. That was with the score at 0-0 in the final twenty minutes of the game, and moments later Arsenal were ahead.
Olivier Giroud had replaced Theo Walcott and offered the Gunners a physical presence up front and won a free-kick for Arsenal just inside the Bayern half with some good hold-up play. Usually, Arsenal would have passed such a free-kick short and looked to build a passing move, but with Giroud on the field, they opted to put the ball into the box. Santi Cazorla put the ball into a perfect area to tempt Manuel Neuer out of goal, the keeper flapped at the cross and Giroud stooped behind him to somehow divert the ball into the net via his head and upper body. Neuer had pulled off a ridiculous point-blank save to deny Theo Walcott in the first half, but his erratic judgement when charging out of goal cost his team on Tuesday.
Having got the lead, Arsenal just had to soak up pressure as they had done for the majority of the match. Bayern passed and probed but couldn’t properly test Cech for the rest of the game as Arsenal looked energised by taking the lead. Mertesacker and Coquelin won vital tackles while Laurent Koscielny somehow prevented Lewandowski from getting a shot off in injury time when the striker looked to wriggle free in the box. But this energy the Gunners found late in the game was typified by Hector Bellerin.
The Spanish full-back had a tough first half against Douglas Costa, but he rose to the challenge and stood up to him in the second half. He then drew on his raw pace to make a huge impact. We’ve all known that Bellerin is quick, and have seen him utilise it in fleeting moments since he’s broken into the first team, but we’ve never seen anything like the breathtaking burst he produced in the 94th minute on Tuesday. With Bayern looking to launch one last attack, Bellerin sprinted half the length of the pitch, only touching the ball four times on the way, to intercept a pass, burn his way past the floundering Thiago and lay on a chance for Mesut Ozil to seal the victory. To show that level of speed was impressive enough, but to do it in the dying moments of an intense Champions League match was incredible. He was surely only a few miles per hour short of the 88 needed to beat Marty McFly to the 21st October 2015.
Ozil was able to apply the finishing touch, despite Neuer’s best efforts, as the fifth official behind the goal spotted that the ball did cross the line, sparking wild celebrations. It was another moment to highlight how Mesut Ozil is finding form this season as he made another big contribution in a big game.
The joyous scenes in the stadium weren’t so much about breathing life into a dying Champions League campaign, but more about the victory being another significant step for this developing Arsenal team. Bayern have been frequent recent visitors in the Champions League and have left with relatively comfortable victories on both occasions. This time though, Arsenal went toe-to-toe with them and deservedly won. The Gunners did have some luck with the nature of the first goal, but it wasn’t as if Bayern put in an off-colour performance. Their passing was crisp and there was a swagger to their play that comes with winning 12 matches in a row, yet Arsenal still managed to produce a performance to beat them.
It was a tactical triumph for Arsene Wenger, who this year has shown a greater tactical flexibility. He’s not just sending his team out in big games to just play as they normally do and hope that’s good enough. Pep Guardiola did that on Tuesday, and he found an Arsenal side that was ready and had a plan to counteract the relentless passing.
The win might still not be enough to contribute to Arsenal getting out of the group in the Champions League, but the confidence and belief it gives for the rest of the season could yet be invaluable in other competitions.