Missing players mean Arsenal struggled against a deep defence again

Arsenal’s reformulated front four has mostly destroyed all that it has come up against this season. The movement has been fluid, the passing has been crisp and there has usually been runners in behind the defence to create chances. The only exception has been against teams who have sat deep and flooded the midfield, and Arsenal have struggled to find a way through. 
Against Burnley, it took the arm of Koscielny to score the only goal against an organised defensive team. On Saturday against Middlesbrough, Arsenal couldn’t find a breakthrough as it finished 0-0. While it was admirable and made for an exciting game against Ludogorets, the opposition on that night were naive and left Arsenal plenty of space to carve out opportunities, but Middlesbrough learnt from that performance from the Bulgarians and shut down the Gunners’ attacking game. 
The inability to break down deep defences has been the only real concern about using Alexis as a central striker. When there is space in the game, he can pull defenders around and if he isn’t running beyond the defence, Theo Walcott or Mesut Ozil usually are. But when a team eliminates the space between the defence and the midfield, and in behind the defence, the Chilean often goes wondering deeper to get involved in the game, meaning Arsenal then lack a focal point to distract the defenders.
In general, Arsenal haven’t missed Olivier Giroud this season. But against Burnley, and against Middlesbrough on Saturday, the lack of a plan B was obvious. When Arsenal started crossing into the box later in the game, it was easy for the Middlesbrough defenders to head the ball away. Alexis has a great leap, but isn’t the physical presence that causes a bit of chaos when a cross comes. The extra flicks and knock downs create different possibilities as he occupies defenders in these sort of games, creating the space for others. 
It is why talk of Giroud’s Arsenal career coming to an end because of Alexis playing as a centre-forward, or of the Frenchman no longer being important, is somewhat misguided. He remains an excellent player and offers Arsenal a completely different dimension to anyone else in the squad. On Saturday, Lucas Perez came on and Arsenal did shift slightly to a 4-4-2 with Lucas playing alongside Alexis, but his style of play is still reliant on having a bit of running space and working between the lines of midfield and defence.
Along with Giroud, Arsenal also badly missed Santi Cazorla. Mohamed Elneny replaced the Spaniard because of a slight injury, and while Elneny didn’t play badly and has been unlucky to not have more game time this season, he isn’t Santi Cazorla. In similar games where Arsenal dominate possession, two more defensive-minded midfielders aren’t needed, so someone with the guile and quality of Cazorla would have been ideal to help create chances in such a tight game. 
It was obvious last season how important Cazorla is to Arsenal’s midfield. When he was out last year, the Gunners’ season stuttered badly. Hopefully the slight knock that kept him out of the game on Saturday isn’t serious as Arsene Wenger will need him fit for the bigger games in November.
With Cazorla and Giroud available, the Gunners may well have found a way past Middlesbrough, but it is something for Arsene Wenger to think about. The more teams see the Gunners unable to get through a side playing deep, the more they will have to face opposition teams who deploy that style. 
Had it not been for some excellent stops from Petr Cech, Middlesbrough’s disciplined and dogged display would have brought them three points. Adama Traore was dangerous on the break and could have snatched a goal or two but for the big Czech keeper.
The draw is disappointing as a win would have opened up a two-point lead at the top of the table, but the results this weekend across the division show that this title race is going to be very tight. Plenty of teams will drop unexpected points this season, so Arsenal have to resolve issues against deep, defensive teams as, even though the phrase ‘there’s no easy games’ is a bad cliché, it does ring true this season. 

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Majestic midfield finally gets Arsenal's season going

For all the talk of signings being needed by Arsene Wenger in the final knockings of the transfer window, it was easy to forget that one area of the squad has been looking healthy because of the early business done at the start of the summer. In the opening two games of the season, the Arsenal boss was still working out his best combination in the centre of the midfield, but against Watford on Saturday, he fielded three players that combined to orchestrate the Gunners’ most convincing performance of the fledgling season.
With Mesut Ozil deemed fit enough to start for the first time this season, Santi Cazorla moved back into one of the deeper midfield positions and started alongside summer signing Granit Xhaka. The subsequent performance and link-up of the three was very impressive, especially considering Xhaka is still adapting to the Premier League.
In the brief cameo from Ozil at Leciester, Arsenal had immediately looked like a better team, so it was no surprise to see him back in the line-up, even if he wasn’t quite fit enough to play 90 minutes. He only needed 45 to help dismantle a deep and packed Watford defence. By having Ozil always available to receive the ball, Arsenal’s front three of Theo Walcott, Alexis Sanchez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain immediately looked more engaged and dangerous going forward, in stark contrast to the toothless showing in the previous week at the King Power. It’s impossible to not see Ozil as the main reason for that.
It was the German’s chipped cross into the box for Alexis, who had roamed into space at the back post, that brought about a desperate and dangerous aerial challenge from Amrabat inside the first ten minutes of the game to give the Gunners a penalty. The link-up between the Chilean and Ozil was a constant during the first half. A good one-two between the pair created an opportunity for Alexis, but he was denied at the near post by Gomes, before he grabbed a goal at the end of a flowing forward move that, unsurprisingly, had Ozil at the heart of it.
However the real champagne moment between the pair came in stoppage time at the end of the first half. Alexis drifted left from the centre-forward position and waited to assess his options on the ball. Sensing an opportunity, Ozil caught out Watford’s three centre-backs by making a stealthy and speedy run into the box to guide a header past the goalkeeper from Alexis’ perfect cross. It was one of those goals that almost looked too easy to score, and while Watford will ask questions about their defending, it’s important to appreciate the brilliance and timing of the run from Ozil and the awareness and quality of Alexis to spot the run and execute such a brilliant cross. It was just a beautiful and clinical goal.
For Ozil to link so well with the front three, he needed possession from the midfield, and Xhaka and Cazorla dominated that area of the field superbly. Their ability to play creative forward passes themselves also took the pressure off Ozil and allowed him to get further forward rather than having to drop deep to try and make things happen. 
Granit Xhaka showed his full range of passing with a few beautiful big diagonals (I’d like to think they were just for this blog!) with both his left and right foot, as well as some through balls from deep that created chances for Theo Walcott. His tendency to over commit and lunge into some tackles does concern me slightly, but it’s a minor thing he can iron out of his game. Otherwise, he looks like a perfect fit for Arsenal. With his height and excellent left foot, Xhaka reminds me of Emmanuel Petit and Edu when they were at their best for the Gunners. Alongside him, Santi Cazorla was typically excellent in keeping the game ticking over and looked much more comfortable in the deeper midfield role than he did starting in the number ten position at Leicester. He also took an excellent penalty to make it 1-0 despite some more antics from Amrabat.
What was great was that Arsenal were able to solidify the midfield in the second half with the introduction of Mohamed Elneny, while Jack Wilshere also gave another effective option off the bench. Francis Coquelin was also an unused substitute, highlighting Arsenal’s strength in that position. The challenge with such options for Arsene Wenger was always going to be selecting the right ones, and in a game where Arsenal dominated possession, the majestic passing of Xhaka, Cazorla and Ozil was the perfect combination.
Arsenal did ease off in the second half as Watford rallied and found a goal after some pinball in the Arsenal penalty area. Petr Cech was also called upon to make some smart saves, including an excellent double stop that denied Capoue and Ighalo. The Gunners did have chances to kill the game off, the decision making on the break wasn’t good. The was also an opportunity when Hector Bellerin flashed a cross across the penalty area after absolutely wrecking Younes Kaboul through the medium of dribbling.
The first win of the season was incredibly welcome, but the overall quality of the performance was just as pleasing following such an insipid display at Leicester. Plus Arsene Wenger has addressed the aforementioned need for signings with a double swoop this week. Shkodran Mustafi and Lucas Perez will fill the holes in the squad at centre-back and upfront, and while some are calling the players panic buys, I’d like to think that one of the reasons it’s taken until the end of August to get the deals done is that the manager has wanted to make sure he got the right players in. Having not watched much of either player in La Liga in recent seasons, I can’t judge if they’re the top quality additions that fans were crying out for, but they do make the squad look much stronger in key areas so it’s exciting to see what they can bring to the team.
The international break now comes at a bad time for Arsenal, but with a win on the board and a squad looking complete, it finally feels like the season has properly started.

Injuries mount as Arsenal slip up

Hopefully, the 2-1 defeat to West Bromwich Albion can be written off as one of those days where everything that could go wrong, seemingly does. At face value, losing a game in which you missed a penalty, scored an own goal, initially took the lead before going behind and had two holding midfielders go off injured looks rather careless.
The fear is that, with injuries building up, the defeat could spark a dip in form at the wrong time for the Gunners. Without anyone taking the league by the scruff of the neck and being a proper front runner, the opportunity really is there for Arsenal in the Premier League this season, so dropping cheap points in the manner they did on Saturday at the Hawthorns is concerning.
Everything seemed to be going well when Olivier Giroud glanced in another perfect set-piece delivery from Mesut Ozi to give the Gunners a 1-0 lead. With Jamie Vardy, rightly, dominating the headlines for his remarkable run of scoring in 10 games in a row, it went under the radar that Ozil bagged an assist for the seventh game in a row, leaving him alone out in front as the Premier League record holder for consecutive assists.
While Arsenal were restricted somewhat by having to play Kieran Gibbs as a left winger, and by West Brom sitting so deep when the Gunners had the ball, things still looked relatively comfortable. Ozil and Cazorla were still able to find a few small pockets of space, Alexis looked surprisingly lively considering how much he needs a rest and Kieran Gibbs didn’t look out of place on the flank.
However a crazy period of play before half time turned the match on its head and left Arsenal wondering how they were behind having been in control of the game. The answer was that West Brom punished a couple of slack moments from the Gunners, which was disappointing given how good the focus of the team has generally been during this season.
Mikel Arteta, who entered the fray early following a worrying injury picked up by Francis Coquelin, was wrongly penalised for a foul, despite Mark Clattenburg being right next to the incident. From the resulting free-kick, Arteta and Per Mertesacker didn’t stay with their runners and James Morrison was able to shin the ball in over Petr Cech.
Arsenal should have then looked to consolidate and make sure they didn’t concede again soon afterwards. The team were too casual having just conceded and were soon 2-1 down as some lazy tracking back allowed James McClean to play a ball across the six-yard box. Arteta had gone back into the penalty area but could only divert the ball into his own net as Cech didn’t intercept the ball in front of him.
Mikel Arteta hasn’t had much football this season, and can still do a job coming on later in a match to help close the game out, but his performance off the bench did highlight how important Francis Coquelin has become for Arsenal. Hopefully his knee injury isn’t too serious because, not long into the second half, Arteta was forced off with an injury himself, meaning Mathieu Flamini is now the only holding midfielder left. With Ramsey, Wilshere and Rosicky also out, the centre of Arsenal’s midfield is suddenly looking extremely thin.
Flamini did give Arsenal a bit more energy in the middle of the pitch as West Brom increasingly were forced further and further back in the second half. It wasn’t for a lack of effort from the Gunners, but they struggled to break down the organised Baggies. Mesut Ozil almost drew the Gunners level when he hit the post with a snap-shot from the edge of the box.
Joel Campbell was introduced for Kieran Gibbs, and the Costa Rican showed why he wasn’t given an opportunity in the team when others were fit earlier in the season. Santi Cazorla produced a fantastic chipped ball to the back post where Campbell had ghosted in to the edge of the six yard box, but he made a complete hash of the finish. It was on his stronger left foot, it wasn’t a hard chance, but Campbell completely mistimed his shot and screwed it horribly across goal. It’s not as if Joel Campbell was thrown into the game cold as he’s played in Arsenal’s last three matches and played in the international break for his country, so to produce such a woeful effort was terrible. When others return from injury, I can’t see Joel Campbell ever establishing himself as a regular in the Arsenal team.
Despite the Campbell miss, Arsenal had a chance to get back in the game late on as Mark Clattenburg awarded a penalty for Chris Brunt’s foul off the ball on Alexis Sanchez. It was good that Clattenburg gave the spot-kick, but it did make his decision to ignore Jonas Olsson’s rugby tackle on Olivier Giroud in the area earlier in the second half a bit stranger. Santi Cazorla stepped up and shot over the bar as his standing foot slipped as he went to strike the ball. It’s difficult to be angry at Santi for the miss because it’s hard to legislate for slipping over like that. It just added to the frustration of Arsenal losing a game they could, and should, have won and the feeling that it was a day when everything was going against the Gunners.
As Arsenal couldn’t salvage a late equaliser, it’s difficult to know how costly a slip that could be from Cazorla. Arsenal have responded well to set-backs this year, and they have no choice but to respond well against Dinamo Zagreb on Tuesday given the perilous position the team have got themselves in to in the Champions League. If Cazorla, and the team, allow the feelings from the West Brom game to linger, it could be a challenging few weeks for Arsenal, despite a run of fixtures that initially looked favourable.