Thursday, March 5, 2015

Second half surge secures the points

Apart from the obvious horror show against against Monaco, Arsenal’s recent form has been excellent. A lot of the points picked up have come from the team getting ahead in the first half and doing enough to see the game out. While the 2-1 win at Loftus Road against Queens Park Rangers on Wednesday night finished with the Gunners just doing enough to win following Charlie Austin’s late strike for the hosts, it was an impressive second half showing that did the trick for Arsene Wenger’s team.
Rather than controlling the first period, Arsenal struggled to impose themselves on the match as they looked subdued. Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez weren’t receiving the ball in dangerous forward positions and QPR were succeeding in disrupting the Gunners by causing problems with a direct game plan by playing the ball up to Bobby Zamora. As the half progressed, Arsenal grew into the game, but it was a very even and competitive match at half time.
That changed in the second half as Arsenal seemed to rapidly go up through the gears. Mesut Ozil ran the show, and while he didn’t get an assist, it was one of the German’s most dominant performances. The supporting runs from players around him were more decisive and more direct, with both Hector Bellerin and Kieran Gibbs regularly storming forward from full-back to cause overlaps against the QPR defence. It felt like it was only a matter of time until the opening goal.
That came just after the hour mark as swift counter attack featuring Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil culminated with Alexis Sanchez feeding a rampaging Kieran Gibbs on his left. The full-back’s shot was blocked, but Oliver Giroud showed good predatory instincts to sweep the ball in immediately after it hit the defender. Hopefully, after two goals in two games since, Giroud has put the Monaco shocker firmly behind him. The fact he now has five goals in four domestic matches just makes that Monaco showing all the more bizarre.
Moments later, Giroud and Alexis put pressure on Steven Caulker, robbing the centre-back of the ball and giving the Chilean a golden chance to double the lead. He tried to pass the ball to Mesut Ozil, allowing Robert Green in to intercept the ball. After his decisive performances earlier in the season, I think every Arsenal fan was concerned to see Alexis not go for the kill after getting the ball. Gooners didn’t want to believe he was in a goal drought, but at that moment it seemed it was getting to him.
But this is Alexis Sanchez. He’s not shown many signs of weakness since joining the club, and just as doubts might have begun to creep in, he jinked his way into the QPR box and fooled the goalkeeper and defenders with a clinical finish into the near post to double the lead. He has been slightly below par by his standards in recent weeks, but in the second half he looked more determined, constantly wanted the ball and completely rebuilt any confidence he might have lost. With Old Trafford on the horizon on Monday, it was well timed.
Robert Green made a few excellent saves to stop Arsenal further extending the lead as the Gunners looked able to create chances at will for the majority of the second period. It was probably the most convincing half of football from Arsenal since the demolition of Aston Villa. That was what made Austin’s late goal all the more surprising. But, after scoring, QPR didn’t really test David Ospina again.
A large reason for QPR not creating another clear chance was a quietly effective game from Per Mertesacker. It felt like a lot of fans and pundits were quick to declare the German’s career almost over after he was dropped for the game against Everton. The BFG was rotated back in against QPR, starting alongside Gabriel, and he was able to deal with the hosts’ direct balls into the box with his usual excellent positioning. It was a shame to see Gabriel go off with a hamstring injury, especially after his good performances against Everton, but fans shouldn’t be worried about Mertesacker coming back in. The rest against Everton could have been just what he needed to refocus the mind and get back to his best.
With all the other sides in the top seven winning, the three points were vital. It was another step on the path to getting Monaco out the system, and kept a winning momentum going before the FA Cup quarter-final. That is a huge game, made bigger by the unlikely progression in the Champions League, but with Giroud scoring and Alexis back in the groove, Arsenal will go to Manchester in decent shape.