Saturday, November 29, 2014

Positives finally turn into progress

It didn’t feel like it after the game, but Arsene Wenger and the Arsenal players have been reminding fans this week that there were positives from the defeat to Manchester United. The performance was better, but the chances weren’t taken and Arsenal still managed to self-implode. The 2-0 win over Borussia Dortmund in mid-week was good, but the Gunners still had to stop the rot in the league after back-to-back defeats.
Too often this season, the talk has been about taking the positives, but Arsenal have rarely been able to turn those positives into better results in subsequent matches. Although it was only 1-0, victory at the Hawthorns on Saturday over West Bromwich Albion felt like those positives were being turned into tangible progress. The threat offered by the hosts was hardly the most dynamic Arsenal will come up against this season, but Arsene Wenger’s team kept things simpler defensively and rarely left themselves exposed to the counter attack.
This was massively aided by the return of Laurent Koscielny. Partly because of the lack of a proper reserve centre-back, Koscielny’s absence hit the Gunners hard, but everyone in the team looked calmer on his return at West Brom. Per Mertesacker looked chuffed to have his defensive mate back alongside him, and the two provided a solid base to offer protection to Emiliano Martinez in his first Premier League start in goal.
In midfield, Mathieu Flamini gave a very disciplined performance in front of the back four. In his previous Premier League outing against Swansea, the Frenchman got too pre-occupied with man-marking Gylfi Sigurdsson that he was pulled out of position too often, leaving the defence exposed. That didn’t happen on Saturday as he had a quietly effective game. This allowed Aaron Ramsey, who is slowly getting back towards the player we loved last season, and Santi Cazorla to create opportunities alongside the front three.
The patchy form of Santi Cazorla has almost mirrored the performances of the whole team this season as the Spaniard has either gone missing on the flank in some games, or not been able to exert any creative influence going forward. That has completely changed in the last week though as he has bagged three assists in the last two games. He was central to the win against Dortmund and was involved in everything good that Arsenal did on Saturday. He will have been disappointed with some of his shots from outside the box in the first half, but when dribbling with the ball, it’s fair to say that the magic feet are back.
Those magic feet danced Cazorla past Andre Wisdom around the hour mark before he delivered a perfect clipped cross from the by-line for Danny Welbeck to hang in the air and powerfully head past Ben Foster.
Welbeck had recovered from a knee injury to start alongside Olivier Giroud and Alexis Sanchez in the front three, and while Giroud was the central fulcrum for Arsenal’s attacking movements, there was a fluidity to those alongside him with Welbeck, Alexis and Cazorla interchanging positions with regularity.
The best part of this fluidity though, was that it didn’t leave holes in the Arsenal midfield. Too often this season when Arsene Wenger has given the forward players the licence to roam, the midfield has then looked splintered as the forward players were all over the place. However with Giroud staying in the middle, it was easier for the others to rotate around him and have one less position to worry about filling when the opposition had the ball. It was this fluidity that meant Cazorla popped up on the left to assist Welbeck, who had moved into the centre.
I noticed before the game that a few Manchester United fans were joking on twitter about Welbeck being moved out wide when the opportunity to play down the centre was one of the reasons he joined Arsenal. But Giroud isn’t a typical centre forward to play alongside. If Arsenal can get the combinations right, Welbeck will almost get more opportunities to score as Giroud puts in a lot of work for the team by sucking defenders before bringing other forwards into play. With a bit of work, the front three of Alexis, Giroud and Welbeck has some real potential to be a dangerous three-pronged attack.
The main downside for Arsenal, once again, was the injuries picked up. Nacho Monreal went off in the first half with a knee problem, and his replacement Kieran Gibbs had to limp through the last part of the game as he picked up a knock. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain also suffered after coming on in the second half. Given the injury list that Arsenal have, it’s a testament to the strength of the squad, particularly in midfield and up front, that Arsene Wenger was able to field an attacking, and balanced, line-up on Saturday. If Gibbs and Monreal are out against Southampton on Wednesday though, the defence will look distinctly patchwork again.
Southampton will be a real test, especially as they have the confidence from already winning at the Emirates in the League Cup this season, but hopefully Arsenal can continue the gradual progression and turn back-to-back wins into a genuine bit of momentum. If that happens, we can really believe progress is being made when, even last weekend, it seemed a long way off from happening.