Thursday, November 27, 2014

Sanogo sparks Arsenal back into life

Nope, I didn’t expect I’d ever write that title either. Following a 2-1 defeat on Saturday when, despite not playing that badly, Arsenal looked to be in a really dreadful place, Yaya Sanogo is one of the last players in the squad I’d have suggested would have galvanised the team. Yet, more through circumstance than choice with Welbeck injured and Giroud not registered, the young Frenchman started up front against Borussia Dortmund with the Gunners looking to secure qualification to the knockout rounds of the Champions League.
After the squandered chances against Manchester United, and the tension among some supporters with a growing pro/anti-Wenger split, if Arsenal had gone a long time into the Dortmund game without scoring, problems would have been exacerbated and the team’s fragile confidence could have been damaged further. The man to save us from all of this? Yaya Sanogo.
Sanogo didn’t look like a striker without a goal in over a year at the club as, inside the opening two minutes of the game, he controlled the ball well around the edge of the box before bringing Cazorla into play. The Spaniard cleverly refound Sanogo, who calmly slotted the ball under Weidenfeller.
The weather almost suited the way Arsenal fans felt going into the game as a mist hung above the pitch, but it lifted when Sanogo opened the scoring. That one moment released so much pressure on Sanogo personally, on the team and on the manager. If Yaya Sanogo could score, almost anything felt possible again.
Scoring first was vital for Arsenal. Had they done so against Manchester United, I’m certain they’d have won the game. Against Dortmund, a team that are fantastic on the counter attack, Arsenal didn’t have to leave themselves horribly open, as they did when Klopp’s team outplayed them on Matchday 1. There were still a few hairy moments, but generally in the first half, Arsenal weren’t caught out as the defence and midfield played with greater concentration.
With more of an onus on Dortmund to attack, Arsenal were able to use the quality and pace of Alexis Sanchez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to launch their own counter-thrusts. Playing in the number 10 position, Santi Cazorla was much more effective than any other game this season as he provided the link between the deeper midfielders and the front three, something that was horribly missing against Manchester United. Having got the assist for the first goal, it was no surprise to see Cazorla involved as Arsenal doubled the lead in the second half.
The Spaniard picked out Alexis Sanchez who, by his extremely high standards, had been relatively quiet up to that point of the second half. But as every world class player can do, he produced a moment of magic even when things weren’t quite all going his way. Alexis bent the ball round the goalkeeper with a sublime effort from outside the box, with the Chilean managing to find the one piece of netting that made the shot virtually unstoppable.
While Alexis Sanchez has had some good matches for Arsenal playing as a number 10 almost alongside the main striker, Arsenal had a better balance against Dortmund with Cazorla in the central position and Alexis on the left. With the Chilean’s fantastic work rate, it also provided a bit more protection for Kieran Gibbs at left back.
As a unit, the back four were much better, with the much-maligned Nacho Monreal putting in a very good shift at centre-back. He’s copped a lot of flak, but it’s not Monreal’s fault that the squad is short of centre-backs, and for someone that is obviously built to be a full-back, he’s done a very valiant job in the middle. If Laurent Koscielny really is fit enough to return though, it goes without saying that he has to play. It’ll be a bit of a shame for Monreal though as it’ll probably mean a return to the bench for the Spaniard because of the form of Kieran Gibbs at left-back, who was stood-out on Wednesday. When Dortmund did get through the Arsenal back four, they were met with an impressive Emiliano Martinez, who saved well and didn’t do anything risky with his ball distribution.
The biggest negative was, once again, the injury situation. After finally scoring, we should have predicted that things could turn for Sanogo as he limped off with a hamstring problem. The bigger concern was seeing Mikel Arteta replaced with a calf problem. With a two goal lead, seeing the captain go off did give a large sense of déjà vu from the previous home game in the Champions League when everything crumbed around him, but this time, Arsenal were sensible and didn’t leave themselves exposed.
Arteta does bring a calmness to the team though, and despite the critics lamenting that he isn’t the defensive midfield powerhouse that plenty of fans yearn for, Arsenal are a much more balanced team and more effective team with the Spaniard at the base of the midfield. After some indifferent performances against Anderlecht and Swansea, the pressure is on Mathieu Flamini to step up in the coming league games.
Overall though, it was hard to not be pleased with the way the game went. It much more like last season, when 2-0 home wins were all the rage. Arsene Wenger has tried quite a few different things with his forward line and his midfield this season, but it’s no coincidence that the best performances have come when Wenger has reverted to the set-up that enabled Arsenal to maintain their longest title challenge for a few seasons and win the FA Cup.
It could have been very different on Wednesday though had Arsenal not struck early as the self-doubt would have crept in again. Thank goodness for Yaya Sanogo.