Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Ox fires Arsenal back to the top

Even if just temporarily, Arsenal are back at the top of the Premier League. Despite some negativity about the lack of transfer activity, and the one player that was signed being injured, Arsenal produced another professional performance to beat Crystal Palace 2-0 at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday.
The Gunners weren’t at their flowing best, but like for much of the season, they stayed focussed, made sure they were solid at the back and then created enough decisive moments to win the game. Four of the last five matches at the Emirates have ended in 2-0 home wins, showing that Arsenal are finding Arsene Wenger’s much talked about consistency. Manchester City are going for the title by battering most things that get in their way. Arsenal aren’t being explosive, but are being as effective at picking up points.
The two Arsenal goals on Sunday came from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as he netted for the first time since returning from injury. He was playing in a deeper central midfield role alongside Mikel Arteta, but he used that to his advantage to make bursts into the box to score twice. For the first goal, he made a late run that went unnoticed, with Santi Cazorla picking him out with a superb pass. The Ox had more work to do for his second goal, but he burst forward following excellent hold-up play by Olivier Giroud. For both goals, Oxlade-Chamberlain showed good pace to run at the heart at the Crystal Palace defence and came up with two good finishes.
Given Arsenal were missing Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere and Mathieu Flamini, it was encouraging to see Oxlade-Chamberlain stand up and take responsibility in the centre of the pitch. The Gunners still have options in the midfield, and even though the Ox is likely to be needed on the wing at times for the rest of the season, he does offer something different when playing in central midfield. Arsenal’s midfield two were too defensive against Southampton on Tuesday, but with Oxlade-Chamberlain willing to burst forward at pace from centre, that wasn’t the case on Sunday.
With players missing in the centre, Kim Kallstrom was brought in on deadline day until the end of the season. However, for the period of time where he might have been most useful with others unavailable, Kallstrom will also be on the treatment table with a back injury. It was known about when he signed, so it does raise many questions about why the Swede was brought in. It seems bizarre, but shouldn’t detract from Arsenal’s good form.
Against Crystal Palace, the defence was good again, with Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny continuing their incredible unbeaten run when they complete games for the team. On the rare occasions that Palace did manage to manoeuvre their way past the Gunners’ centre-backs, they couldn’t find a way past Wojciech Szczesny. He has two more clean sheets than any other goalkeeper in the league this season, and is definitely winning the Gunners points rather than making mistakes that cost them. His sprawling save from a header at the back post in the second half was particularly important with the game not safe at that point.
The win sets Arsenal up for a big few weeks, and enables them to sit back and watch Manchester City and Chelsea slug it out on Monday night. Only a Manchester City win will move Arsenal back to second place in the table, and with Liverpool also dropping points this weekend, the Gunners will have gained ground on other teams around them. The slight slip at Southampton is behind them and they can take confidence into the massive run of games.
Even with the bizarre situation of the new signing being injured, Arsenal still have a strong squad in midfield, and different players are ready to stand-up and make a difference in the title race. Back from injury, the Ox showed on Sunday that he is one of those.