Arsenal ease through as Alexis shows Walcott and Campbell the way

Even though the game was being hyped as a rerun of the dramatic and nerve-shredding FA Cup final back in May, Arsenal’s third round victory over the same opponents was a much more low-key affair. Both sides made changes, although Arsenal were limited by the number of injuries in the squad, and Steve Bruce’s side didn’t look very likely to cause the Gunners many problems at Emirates Stadium.
The match could easily have meandered away as expectant home fans waiting for Arsenal to win the game and, as in most games this season, Alexis Sanchez was the spark. When the Chilean arrived in the summer, Arsenal fans knew they’d signed a fantastic player, but it wasn’t clear quite how brilliant he was because of always being in the shadows of others at Barcelona. At Arsenal, he’s been the main man and he’s relished that role.
Starting as the central player in a front three with Theo Walcott and Joel Campbell, Alexis often dropped in to receive the ball in midfield, but unlike when he was central against Southampton, he had willing runners to go beyond him towards goal. The Chilean also led the line defensively by constantly putting Hull’s back-line and holding midfielders under pressure. For someone who has played the most minutes of any outfielder for Arsenal this season, his work-rate and stamina are remarkable. There are concerns about him being fatigued, but he doesn’t show it when on the pitch. Hopefully with Arsenal entering a period of one game a week for the next month, he can recover a bit from the hectic festive schedule.
Given his influence on the game, it wasn’t a surprise that Alexis was heavily involved in both goals. His corner to the back post was perfect for Per Mertesacker to nod in the opening goal, and as the game threatened to get a bit tense for Arsenal after missing chances to kill it off, Alexis produced a superb finish into the bottom corner from the edge of the box to seal the place in round four.
The brilliance, and obvious good form, shown by Alexis did contrast with the forward players flanking the Chilean; Theo Walcott and Joel Campbell. While Alexis has been involved in almost everything good Arsenal have done this season, from a combination of injuries and being down the pecking order, both Walcott and Campbell are trying to find form and fitness. While there were sparks from both, there were also plenty of occasions when, if they’d had a run of games, the end product would have been better. Both players can look at Alexis as the perfect example of how to apply yourself in games, and with Podolski gone and Sanogo likely to join him out of the loan door, chances to play should come more regularly.
For Theo Walcott in particular, a run of games is vital to regain form and fitness. Unlike almost any other player in he squad, Walcott is keen to run onto the shoulder of the last defender and look to get in on goal. This did mean that there were times when Hector Bellerin was isolated on the right hand side as Walcott didn’t look to hug the touchline, but as he gets a run of games, he’ll get the balance right between staying wide and darting inside to go through on the goalkeeper. It was just good to see him in the starting XI a year after the injury against Tottenham.
While things were interesting up front with the pace of the front three, things were much calmer at the back as Arsenal managed to keep their first clean sheet since the beginning of December. After the calamitous showing at Southampton, it was a relief to fans and players that Hull offered very little in terms of an attacking threat. Calum Chambers gave his most assured performance for a few weeks, and Hector Bellerin impressed at full-back again.
Despite the mistakes at Southampton, it was always planned for Wojciech Szczesny to miss out on Sunday, although the performance of David Ospina was being watched much more closely because of the Pole’s poor errors on the south coast. Because of the lack of quality in the Hull attack, the Colombian goalkeeper was rarely tested, so it remains to be seen whether he retains the position in goal for the visit of Stoke next week. If newspaper reports about Szczesny lighting up in the dressing room after the Southampton game are true, I’d be surprised if Arsene Wenger doesn’t give Ospina his first Premier League start against the Potters, even though he’ll have to face a barrage of high balls into the box. Dropping Szczesny should hurt him more than a £20,000 fine.
Overall, a comfortable win was just what Arsenal needed on Sunday. The Christmas period generally was negotiated pretty well by Arsenal, it’s just disappointing that the Southampton defeat was the abiding memory of it. Still, it was a good way to begin the defence of the FA Cup, and the reward is a fun away tie to Brighton.

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Christmas comes a week late for Southampton

Even though it was a week after Christmas Day, Arsenal seemed in a particularly generous mood on New Years’ Day as they gifted three points to Southampton at St Mary’s. Both goals Arsenal conceded in the 2-0 defeat came from brainless defending and individual errors, compounding the frustration that’s building this season.
With Arsenal having a measure of control on the game in the first half, things weren’t looking too bad when a pass down the line sent Sadio Mane towards the by-line. Laurent Koscielny was running with the winger but backed off as Wojciech Szczesny needless careered out of goal. The Pole then backtracked, giving Mane a free opportunity to curl the ball into the empty net. Between Szczesny and Koscielny, they made a complete mess of attempting to defend the situation.
Szczesny then grabbed an assist for Southampton’s second goal as he poked the ball straight to Dusan Tadic in the box, who was able to fire home. That rubbish clearance came after some bizarre dithering from Mathieu Debuchy when the ball was played across the Arsenal box. There were also numerous moments in the build-up when Arsenal could, and should, have put more pressure on the Southampton player with the ball. All in all, it was a complete shambles.
Given Arsene Wenger was able to field the back four and goalkeeper widely regarded as the first choice with Szczesny behind Debuchy, Mertesacker, Koscielny and Gibbs, it wasn’t unreasonable to expect better from the defence. Even though it was the first time they’d played together as a complete five, some of the errors made were schoolboy. As a unit, I think the performance was just a blip.
The back four will be given time, but Wojciech Szczesny has to fear for his place in the team. At centre-back, and to a certain degree at right-back, Arsene Wenger doesn’t have any fantastic options to bring in, but he can change the goalkeeper quite easily. David Ospina should get a chance to start against Hull City in the FA Cup third round on Sunday after a (typically-Arsenal) injury plagued start to his Arsenal career. He was highly regarded in France and played well in the World Cup for Colombia, so a good performance from Ospina against the Tigers would give Szczesny a real problem. As Jens Lehmann, Manuel Almunia and Szczesny himself can testify, Arsene Wenger isn’t usually afraid to change his number one.
A solid defence would have helped out an inexperienced midfield, yet the errors were putting more pressure on the deeper midfield pair of Francis Coquelin and Calum Chambers. While neither of them had a particularly bad game, Coquelin’s strong tackling stood out, it’s a ridiculous situation to go into a game against a team level on points with Arsenal and only have those two available to play as the deep midfielders. I have some sympathy for Arsene Wenger because central midfield is an area of the pitch where Arsenal are well stocked in the squad, and it’s unfortunate to have Arteta, Flamini, Wilshere, Ramsey, Diaby and Ozil all out, but as has been suggested by others, a lot of the injury problems suffered by those players have been from some questionable management.
Going forward, Arsenal had some good players in the starting XI with Oxlade-Chamberlain, Cazorla and Rosicky in behind Alexis Sanchez, but the Gunners’ were crying out for a main centre forward to occupy the Southampton centre-backs, hold the ball up and provide a different option. Alexis is a sensational player, and in certain situations can play well as a central striker, but he was regularly coming deep to get the ball and be more involved in the play. Without a Ramsey or a Wilshere in midfield to drive forward from deep, there was rarely a threat going beyond the Chilean when he dropped towards midfield to receive the ball.
The game only reinforced the sheer stupidity of Olivier Giroud’s red card against Queens Park Rangers on Boxing Day. With Welbeck injured, Arsene Wenger would undoubtedly have started Giroud. Instead, Arsenal’s attacking was too predictable as Southampton knew they could flood the centre of the pitch defensively as the chances of Arsenal scoring from a cross into the box were incredibly low. I hope Giroud has been watching the games he’s missed from suspension and realising what a costly head butt that was and how idiotic a thing it was to do. With no guarantees on Welbeck’s fitness, Giroud still suspended and Alexis in need of a breather, there’ll surely be a slightly random look to Arsenal’s front line on Sunday against Hull.
Gifting Southampton the goals was daft as Arsenal could, and should have got at least a draw from the game. Even with the patchwork midfield, they were controlling possession and did create some openings despite not having the big central striker. Yet this team continues to have the ridiculous ability to shoot itself in the foot. The individual errors are causing big problems, and I can only think that it’s a concentration thing that is holding them back. All of them are good players, yet just do stupid things, often without any warning. Almost more than changing the organisation of the team or the personnel involved, Arsene Wenger has to find a way of making sure the players stay switched on for the whole game. It sounds like a horribly simple thing to say as a professional player should be able to concentrate properly for 90+ minutes, but that doesn’t seem to be the case at Arsenal at the moment.
Finally, having been in the away end at St Mary’s on Thursday, it was interesting to see which players acknowledged the away fans after such a disappointing performance. Most did make their way over to applaud the fans, but it was interesting that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came right in front of the supporters and held his hands up in apology, even though he was one of the only players to come out of the game with any credit for the way he at least tried to make things happen. If others in the squad took on the same attitude every game as the Ox, Arsenal would surely be higher up the table than they are currently.

Welbeck sets the Emirates alight

Despite the best efforts of the Galatasaray fans to light up the North London night with flares, there was one man who was on fire and burned brightest on a balmy evening at the Emirates. Before the kick-off on Wednesday, Danny Welbeck had made a promising, if not spectacular, start to his Arsenal career. But, like for the rest of the team, everything clicked into place for him as the Gunners comfortably dispatched the Turks 4-1, even after playing with ten men for the last half an hour.
After the stuttering draw with Spurs and the defeat in Dortmund, the visit of Galatasaray had the potential to be a tricky one for Arsenal. Failure to win would have triggered more questions over injuries, defensive midfielders, etc, etc, and would have made qualification for the knockout rounds a potential up-hill struggle. Instead, Arsenal are up into second place in group D going into the back-to-back games with Anderlecht, and have built up some much needed confidence and fluidity before a trip across London to Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
With a first career hat-trick, Danny Welbeck led the Arsenal line superbly. He tore the visiting defence apart with his pace, worked hard tracking back for the team and brought others into play well. His running freed up the space for the likes of Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla and Alexis Sanchez to have time and space to weave some magic and find the attacking spark that has been missing too often this season. Alexis got a deserved goal just before half time to make it 3-0, making it a very decent five goals since his summer switch from Barcelona. It was also an excellent response to a hideous assault-like tackle from Felipe Melo which, had referee been up with the play, should have resulted in a red card.
Despite good performances all over the pitch and a more balanced midfield, it was all about Welbeck on Wednesday night. After it initially looked like me may have misjudged it, the first goal was well taken with a defender coming back at him. Immediately after that goal, Welbeck almost looked like a different player. That was typified by the individual work he did to grab the second goal by pressuring the defender, heading the ball forward, chasing himself and then finishing by opening his body up and sliding the ball past the goalkeeper.
With the Galatasaray defence still unsure what to do with a rampant Welbeck, he notched a well deserved hat-trick by timing his run perfectly to get on the end of Oxlade-Chamberlain’s through ball, after playing a prominent role earlier in the build-up. The finish was delicate and perfectly judged. After hitting the post against Manchester City in a similar situation, Welbeck could have hesitated, but with two goals already in his back pocket, he produced an excellent end to a lovely team move that started back in Arsenal’s half.
There will be tougher defences to face, but anyone with the pace, power and willingness to work that Welbeck has will cause problems to anyone. With Arsenal’s creative midfielders and attackers quickly building an understanding of Welbeck’s game, it’ll be exciting to see how he develops when leading the Arsenal line.
Especially after producing a TH14-trademarked finish for his second goal, comparisons between Welbeck and Thierry Henry are almost inevitable. I’m reluctant to make one just because there will never be anyone like Henry again. He was, and will probably always be, along with Dennis Bergkamp, the greatest player I’ll ever see in the red and white. But the similarities are there with Welbeck. The Englishman needed the confidence of being a central striker and getting chances. He won’t be another Thierry Henry, no-one ever will be, but on the evidence of Wednesday night, Welbeck can score a lot of goals for the Gunners.
The major negative from Wednesday was the red card for Wojciech Szczesny. It’s hard to have too many complaints about it, and at least it gave David Ospina the chance to put in a very solid performance for half an hour. Even though the game was already won when 4-0 up, Arsenal do need to kick the habit of getting players sent off in the Champions League, albeit some have been dubious at best *cough* Debuchy v Besiktas *cough*. It’s now five reds in the last seven games in Europe, which does look slightly careless.
Overall, even the red card didn’t really dampen the mood at the Emirates. Arsenal were attacking, confident and clinical on a fun night at the Emirates. The Champions League campaign is back on track and Arsenal head to Stamford Bridge with a striker hitting some form. It seems like Welbz really could be dat guy.