Sunday, October 25, 2015

Gunners grit out three points for a perfect week

The strange nature of being a football fan meant that I was almost more concerned about Arsenal’s Premier League game with Everton than I was about the Champions League match with Bayern Munich. But following the epic efforts on Tuesday night was always going to be tough. Everton had a point to prove following a 3-0 defeat to Manchester United, the Gunners looked physically and mentally fatigued following the win over Bayern and the weather was grey and significantly damp; it had the makings of a very awkward game for Arsenal.
That’s why the 2-1 win on Saturday almost says more about this Arsenal team and their intentions this season than the win over Bayern did. Arsene Wenger’s side had to dig deep at the end of a draining week, but they are finding different ways to win matches and after ten games of the season, they are right in contention at the top of the league.
Arsene Wenger had to rotate his team following the efforts against Bayern, and one of those who came into the side had a huge impact on the game. Olivier Giroud has been effective off the bench by giving defenders a different challenge to Theo Walcott, but he was given an opportunity from the start against Everton following goal scoring efforts as a substitute. Knowing he’s in a real battle for game time with Walcott, Giroud gave his best performance of the season as he bullied the Everton centre-backs and linked up the play brilliantly for the Gunners.
Giroud’s inclusion meant Arsenal had to adapt their recent style and not look to expose Everton with pace in behind the defence, but with Mesut Ozil in great form, the Gunners were able to do that. Both on the floor and in the air, Giroud created space for others as well as being a threat himself when the ball came towards the penalty area. Theo Walcott having a run of games in the team has helped get more out of Ozil as he has a few more options to pass to when attacking, but he was able to link up well with Giroud throughout the match.
That combination helped Arsenal open the scoring after a fairly uneventful first half an hour. Arsenal looked like a team that was getting back into rhythm after a demanding night in Europe, but one piece of quality was enough to open the game up. Ozil drifted into some space on the right hand side of the pitch and floated a beautiful chipped pass over the back four for Giroud to run onto and glance a header over Tim Howard in the Everton goal. I’m reluctant to describe Ozil’s assist as a cross because that usually implies the ball has been played into the box more speculatively that a pass would be, and this particular assist from the German was an inch-perfect chipped pass into the area. Giroud’s awareness of where the goalkeeper was allowed him to finish in the manner that he did and continue his excellent week with a third goal in as many games.
Arsenal are developing a good habit of scoring goals in quick-fire batches during games. Three goals came in the first twenty minutes against Manchester United (including two in as many minutes), three came in 12 minutes at Watford and both goals came in the last 13 minutes against Bayern Munich. After those matches, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that Arsenal struck again quickly against Everton.
The Gunners applied the pressure straight from the kick off, won the ball high up the pitch and Alexis drew a free-kick on the left. Cazorla whipped in a fantastic cross for Laurent Koscielny to attack and he nodded the ball past Tim Howard from a couple of yards out.
It’s very encouraging to see Arsenal scoring in these short bursts because it shows that the team are recognising key moments in matches and making them count. Rather than going into their shell after scoring, Arsenal are looking to take advantage of the other team being vulnerable by pushing to increase the lead and make the game more comfortable. There’s a ruthless quality developing in this Arsenal team.
It’s also encouraging that Arsenal are looking dangerous from crosses and set pieces into the box. It helps having Olivier Giroud in the area to attack the ball, but the delivery of the ball into the area has improved from Ozil and Cazorla. Before the goals, Gabriel won a few headers from corners and Giroud opened the scoring against Bayern following a brilliant ball from Cazorla. It adds to the feeling that this Arsenal team are able to adapt and find different ways to win.
After going 2-0 up, Arsenal did lose a bit of concentration to concede just before half time as Ross Barkley  drove forward to score from outside the box, but it took a massive deflection off Gabriel to beat Petr Cech. That it only took a big deflection for Arsenal to concede for the first time in four games says a lot about the quality of the defending recently.
The second half was edgy as Arsenal had chances to kill the game off. Olivier Giroud was unlucky to hit the bar and Mesut Ozil hit the post following an excellent move involving Giroud. Everton carried a threat on the break and almost snuck an equaliser when Cech came out to smother an effort from Deulofeu. It’s not often I agree with John Terry, but he was right in the summer about Cech saving Arsenal points during the season. He did just that with a late stop from the Spaniard.
The best moment at the end of the game came when Everton looked to break through into the Gunners box. Romelu Lukaku shifted the ball towards his left foot but he was denied by a sliding Brazilian. Gabriel flew across and executed a perfect challenge that cleared the ball into touch. After he annoyed Jose Mourinho and Diego Costa, Gabriel has started to become a bit of a cult hero at the club, and the fist pumping celebration after his tackle only adds to his growing status.
The tackle from Gabriel summed up the spirit Arsenal had to show to get through the game. There were some tired bodies on the pitch at the end but Arsenal toughed it out. Since the opening day defeat, Arsenal have put together a good run of results to be level at the top of the table with Manchester City. A few more weeks like the one just gone and this season will be very interesting indeed.