Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Good win but work still to do

I could get used to this. A second 2-0 home win in four days in any other season, and in any other group, would comfortably see Arsenal through to the last 16 of the Champions League. However this isn’t the group of death for nothing. The Gunners sit at the top on 12 points, but with a trip to face Napoli to come, and because of Marseille’s inability to gain any points, Arsenal still have to avoid a significant defeat in the final match to go through.
All the recent evidence suggests they can do that though. At times, it didn’t feel like Arsenal were brilliant against the Ligue 1 side, but they rarely looked in danger of losing control of the game. It’s a measure of how much Arsenal have improved though to say that the Marseille win wasn’t one of the better performances of the season.
The Gunners could, and should, have scored more going forward, but this was a win that was built on another clean sheet. Four shut-outs in five games tells it’s own story about the form of the Arsenal back-line. On the few occasions the visitors were able to get a shot on goal on Tuesday night, they couldn’t get past Wojciech Szczesny. Had Aaron Ramsey not had such an explosive season, the Polish keeper could rightly claim to be the most improved player at the club this season.
The back four in front of him were excellent again with Sagna, Mertesacker and Koscielny continuing their excellent seasons. A lot of credit must go to Nacho Monreal, who was drafted in for Kieran Gibbs at left back. Gibbs has been superb this season, and I assume was only rested or rotated on Tuesday, but considering his chances to play have been limited, the Spaniard came in and did an excellent job. It really is so reassuring to see that quality of player deeper in the squad.
As well as Monreal replacing Gibbs, Arsene Wenger showed the strength of his squad by making two changes in midfield without really weakening the team. Mathieu Flamini came in for Mikel Arteta and put in another solid and noisy performance. Just one minor thing Mathieu, stop the sleeve cutting. It shouldn’t bother me, but it does. Tomas Rosicky also started and was able to inject some pace into the Arsenal game when the match threatened to meander slightly.
This meant that Arsenal had a variety of very useable options on the bench, not just players there to make up the numbers. Arteta, Santi Cazorla and Theo Walcott were brought on, meaning important players will be ready for the run of three league games in the next two weeks.
Arsenal weren’t quite at their fluent best against Marseille, but the French side were quite defensive and looked to squeeze Arsenal’s attacking midfield trio of Wilshere, Ozil and Rosicky. That failed inside the first minute though as Wilshere found space on the right before curling a beautiful finish into the top corner. He then popped up in the centre in the second half to apply the finishing touch to Ozil’s pass across the box. The English media love hyping then knocking down Jack Wilshere. He knows he hasn’t been scintillating for Arsenal this season, but he’s hardly been bad. Following on from a good performance against Southampton, he produced moments of quality when they were needed to win this game for the Gunners.
The winning margin should have been greater. Mesut Ozil’s penalty was quite tame, Ramsey saw an effort saved when set-up by Wilshere and Theo Walcott shot wide late on. Despite huffing and puffing a bit to get the second goal, Arsenal always seemed in control and looked to have enough to step up through the gears if needed.
Whilst it is annoying to not be through from the group stage with one game to go, to have 12 points from five games is an excellent effort in this tough group. Arsene Wenger showed on Tuesday night that he can rotate his squad and still field a very strong XI, meaning he should be able to have a strong line-up in Naples to finish the job off. With league games to come against Cardiff and Hull, the defeat to Manchester United looks to be truly out of Arsenal’s system and the winning momentum is back. There is still work to do in the Champions League, but with a strong squad and a solid defence, Arsenal can be confident of sealing qualification in Naples.