Thursday, December 4, 2014

Wenger gets it right as Arsenal grind out a win

It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t free-flowing, it wasn’t a great performance, but it was three points. Too often this season, Arsenal have been exceedingly good at doing stupid things at key moments in games, and the past week, which has brought three wins and three clean sheets, has offered signs that the Gunners are finally learning from those mistakes. Against a good Southampton team, a positive result was vital otherwise the hard work done in the previous two games would have felt useless. Even though it was late, the 1-0 victory was the clearest sign to me that this Arsenal team are beginning to work things out.
After the defeat to Manchester United, I was really struggling to see where Arsene Wenger could take the team as they almost looked frightened when the pressure was on. It’s looking like that loss was a watershed moment for the manager and squad, and a conscious effort has since been made to not be so naive and stupid again. It’s better late than never to have happened, and so far, the subsequent results have been positive.
It has stemmed from keeping three clean sheets as the defence haven’t been left as exposed. Emiliano Martinez has been a surprisingly calming influence in goal, while Per Mertesacker looks like everything is right in the world now he’s got his mate, Laurent Koscielny, back alongside him. Mathieu Flamini has also had a couple of effective matches in front of the back four, showing discipline to not get needlessly caught out of position. He still lacks the passing and distribution skills of Mikel Arteta, but Flamini’s positioning has been improved.
With everything looking more secure at the back, there’s still enough attacking talent in the Arsenal team that, nine times out of ten, a clean sheet should result in a win. Even if it doesn’t seem like everything is clicking, as was the case on Wednesday as Santi Cazorla didn’t assert the same authority on the game he’d shown against Dortmund and West Brom and Alexis Sanchez had one of his more frustrating games for the club as it almost seemed like he was striving too hard to make things happen, it only takes one moment to make the difference.
Knowing this, Arsene Wenger got his main substitution right against Southampton. Too often he leaves things until the 70th minute before making a significant change, but on Wednesday he introduced Olivier Giroud at the right moment, with just less than half an hour to go. There were some boos from a few supporters unhappy at Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s withdrawal, but the Ox hadn’t had much of an impact on the game, and it was entirely understandable that Wenger wanted to revert to the front three of Alexis, Giroud and Welbeck, which had shown positive signs of linking up well at West Brom.
While I wasn’t surprised to see the Ox go off, considering Tomas Rosicky was waiting on the bench as the game looked like it needed his driving forward runs to try and unlock the stubborn Saints defence, I was staggered that Aaron Ramsey played 90 minutes. Frankly, the Welshman had a bit of a stinker. He was tidy enough in the midfield alongside Flamini, but his attacking game was a bit of shambles as he over-hit passes and found row Z when shooting. I’d have taken him off, but there’s a reason I’m a fan blogging about the game and why Arsene Wenger is there to make the managerial decisions.
Ramsey stayed on, and as the game entered the final two minutes, he was alert as the ball dropped in the penalty area following the clear handball from Jose Fonte. Under pressure from defenders, Ramsey picked the right pass to give Alexis Sanchez a tap-in to win the game. With a secure base in defence, it only needed the one moment, and after indifferent performances from both of them, Ramsey and Alexis got it right.
The introduction of Giroud changed the pattern of play as it came when the game was in a bit of lull. Suddenly Arsenal were more direct and had someone putting the centre-backs under a lot of pressure. As he’s just returning from three months out with injury, Arsene Wenger has to use Giroud carefully, so it wasn’t a surprise to see him start on the bench after starting at West Brom. In the end, using him as a second half battering ram against tiring defenders worked as he caused a calm defence to panic, leading to the space for Alexis to tuck home the winning goal.
Stoke on Saturday will present a different challenge as, despite the claims of their footballing style changing from the Pulis era, if they try to play Arsenal at their own game, they’ll get destroyed. Instead, Stoke will be physical, aggressive and direct. I expect Giroud to start as he can match their physicality, but as he showed on Wednesday with a deft flick to create a chance for Danny Welbeck, the Frenchman is a big target man that can still play the Arsenal way.
Speaking of the Arsenal way, it might not be something readily associated with Arsene Wenger teams, but there is something very Arsenal about back-to-back 1-0 wins. Arsene Wenger is beginning to work this team out, but it has to continue on Saturday to make up the ground needlessly lost earlier in the season.