Saturday, January 18, 2014

Points over performance as momentum builds

2-0 home wins have been quite the fashion at the Emirates this season. Arsenal have seen off their opponents by that score-line in nine home games this season, with most following the similar pattern of getting the goals before seeing the game out with some focused and disciplined play.
Apart from the odd scary moment, that was the case against Fulham. The Gunners were rarely at their fluid best, and had to work hard to create the chances against an opposing defence that were improved by the return of Brede Hangeland, but it’s hard to moan about another clean sheet and three more points. In all competitions, the Gunners have now won six matches in a row, and conceded just two goals in that time.
After a rather uneventful first half, Arsenal had to improve as Fulham had been able to hold the hosts at arm’s length and have a fair bit of possession themselves. Bar a long range shot from Steve Sidwell, Fulham rarely threatened going forward, but looked comfortable holding the Gunners to a draw.
That changed in the second period as Arsenal cranked up the pressure on Fulham in the first 20 minutes of the half. A goalmouth scramble should have brought the opening goal, but moments later, the breakthrough came.
Since August, Santi Cazorla hasn’t quite hit the high levels that he set in his first season. He’s been having to play a more disciplined role on the left rather than being he creative hub of the team in the centre of midfield, however in the last few weeks there have been signs that he is getting back to his best. In the first half against Fulham, his magical quick feet appeared as he bamboozled a couple of defenders, showing his confidence was returning.
Then, as Arsenal had been delaying or rejecting the chance to shoot around the box, Santi Cazorla took responsibility to lash the ball into the net as Wilshere played a pass across the penalty area. After drifting in off the left, Cazorla found a pocket of space in a crowded penalty area to release the tension beginning to build around the Emirates. Five minutes later, he showed the value of not having a weaker foot by finding the bottom corner with his left foot from outside the box.
What’s great about this Arsenal team is that when some players don’t fire and score, the squad has people to step up and make the difference. It was Cazorla against Fulham, but in recent weeks the likes of Wilshere, Giroud, Rosicky, Bendtner and Walcott (pre-injury) have scored vital goals to pick up wins. Whilst there is a lot of reliance on Giroud to stay fit because of the style of play that Arsenal have, there isn’t a reliance on one player for goals.
Back when Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal teams were last league winners, even though Thierry Henry scored a lot of goals, there were contributors from the whole squad with Pires, Ljungberg, Bergkamp, Reyes and others all capable of big goals. The team is able to back themselves a lot more if everyone feels confident of making a difference, and so far that has worked well for Arsenal this season.
A couple of players who could make the difference between now and the end of the season could be Serge Gnabry and Lukas Podolski. Gnabry kept his place in the team against Fulham, and whilst he doesn’t offer the runs in behind on the shoulder of the last defender like Theo Walcott does, he is impressive for an 18 year old. All the game time he’s getting alongside quality players like Ozil, Wilshere and Cazorla will only improve his performances.
Podolski made a welcome appearance off the bench against Fulham, with his very gradual integration back into the team after injury surprising some. Any frustrations he had from not playing were released in one blockbusting effort in the second half that required a top class save to be tipped onto the post. I’m sure the German will have a big part to play in the rest of the season. Against Fulham, he looked fresh, hungry and eager to contribute. His all round game might have some deficiencies, but get a shot on that left foot and he can rip the net out the ground.
The Arsenal back four kept another clean sheet with the Mertesacker and Koscielny partnership continuing their excellent unbeaten run, but the shut-out owed a lot to Mathieu Flamini. It says a lot about Arsenal’s midfield that they can miss someone with the quality of Mikel Arteta and not suffer in his absence. Flamini kept things simple, broke up the play, won headers and kept the the team focused for the whole game. He may have been a convenience free signing for Arsene Wenger, but it’s turned out to be a great decision from the manager to bring the Flamster back.
With someone like Flamini cajoling everyone along from midfield, Arsenal should be able to keep focused and stay consistent. With things being so tight at the top, a minor mistake here and there can make a big difference. Since the first day of the season, Arsenal have eliminated most of those, and must keep them out their game to keep going in the title race. With every game that Arsenal safely negotiate, belief grows. There’s still a lot more than can come from this Arsenal team, and it’s encouraging that while they develop through the season, they’re picking up points. The Gunners are on a roll, let’s see where it takes them.