Monday, March 2, 2015

Giroud and Arsenal survive the post-Monaco hangover

Following a defeat as chastening and painful as the one suffered against Monaco last week, Arsenal were never going to be at their fluent best against Everton at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday. There were always going to be nerves, some apprehension and caution from the Gunners. Fortunately, Everton didn’t take advantage as Arsenal kept concentration and secured a good 2-0 win.
The man who’ll have had the most to worry about before the game was Olivier Giroud. In a team who all fell below the expected level against Monaco, Giroud’s wasteful performance up front stuck out horribly on Wednesday. His excellent form prior to the Champions League game saved his place in the side, and while there were a few more missed chances against the Toffees, the Frenchman opened the scoring just before half time with an excellent swept finish from Mesut Ozil’s corner.
Giroud was physical, looked to get involved and didn’t shirk responsibly, when other players could have gone into their shell after such a dreadful showing in his previous game. His usual good link-up play was off against Monaco, but his clever lay-offs and physical strength contributed to the majority of chances the team created against Everton, including an excellent flick-on that allowed Ozil the space to set up the clinching goal.
That clincher was scored by Tomas Rosicky, who reinforced his use to the squad by coming on at 1-0, when the team could have got nervous and sat back too deep, but his high-energy style pressured the visitors. After Rosicky hung back on the edge of the box just before the 90th minute, Ozil found the Czech with time to fire low at goal. The shot took a deflection off Phil Jagielka to go over Tim Howard, but after the blocks and deflections went against Arsenal against Monaco, it felt like the team deserved a bit of luck.
While Arsene Wenger kept faith with Olivier Giroud, the main team change came in the back four as Gabriel made his first Premier League start ahead of Per Mertesacker. Regular SMR readers and listeners will know of my admiration for Per Mertesacker, so I must admit to being slightly disappointed to not see him play. He was horribly exposed against Monaco, but that was partly down to the whole team being a bit kamakaze in the second half. Even so, given how he’s been a pillar of the team for the last few seasons, it was a surprise to see the Mertesacker-Koscienly partnership broken up. With doubts still existing about Laurent Koscielny’s achilles, who limped off slightly again at the end of the game on Sunday, I’m certain we’ll see the BFG back in sooner rather than later; if not against QPR on Wednesday, then I think he’ll play at Old Trafford in the FA Cup, where an experienced pairing will be useful. He’s played a lot of football in the last few seasons, so the occasional rest after a poor performance should do him good.
When he does play again, Mertesacker will know he has to perform to stay in the team, as Gabriel was impressive against the Toffees. There was a mistake in the first half where he needed to be bailed out excellently by David Ospina, and there was a loose pass in the second half that could have cost a chance, but he didn’t look overawed by his first full Premier League experience, especially against a powerful forward like Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian striker was on the end of a stunning last ditch tackle from the Brazilian in the first half, before there was a similarly no-nonsense style challenge on Ross Barkley that endeared him to the home fans.
Gabriel was in front of David Ospina, who kept his place after an iffy showing in the Champions League. The Colombian was much improved and made some excellent saves. As mentioned, his sweeper-keeping to bail out Gabriel and deny Lukaku was first class, as was his flying save from the same player in the second half. It was the sort of confidence-boosting performance he needed, and one that helped calm the rest of the team down on a day when things could have become very edgy.
Everton looked a shadow of the team that really tested the Gunners last season, but this was the sort of match Arsenal needed to rebuild some of the confidence lost in the Champions League. It strengthened the club’s position in the top four and kept the league momentum going. Realistically, knowing the type of match it was going to be, the 2-0 win was about as good as Arsenal fans could have hoped for.