Sunday, December 13, 2015

Efficient Arsenal advance to the top

Despite the current glut of injuries suffered by Arsenal, Arsene Wenger has still, generally, been able to field a good starting XI and hasn’t had to get too creative to play players out of position. But there isn’t much scope for rotation at the moment, so it will have been satisfying for the manager to watch his weary players still pick up the three points at Aston Villa following their midweek exertions against Olympiacos.
That Arsenal travelled to the Premier League’s bottom club following such an important and energy-sapping European trip was a fortunate bit of fate from the fixture list as Remi Garde’s Aston Villa looked incredibly short of confidence following a terrible start to the season, and with Arsenal buoyed by their rescue act in the Champions League, the Gunners didn’t have to be at their best to see off the hosts at Villa Park with a 2-0 win.
The win moved Arsenal to the top of the Premier League, even if just for one day with Leicester still to play Chelsea, and completed an excellent week for the team. In the three matches since losing Santi Cazorla and Alexis Sanchez to injury, Arsenal have won their two league games and saved their Champions League campaign. It emphasises that, despite it being something Arsene Wenger is often criticised for, Arsenal do have a pretty deep squad. To miss players of that calibre and an important cog in the team like Francis Coquelin, along with possible alternatives such as Welbeck, Wilshere, Rosicky, and still win games is encouraging for the rest of the season.
One of the players that has recently returned from a spell on the sidelines made an impact as Arsenal grabbed the initiative early on against Aston Villa. Theo Walcott has played the majority of his football this season as a centre-forward, but with Olivier Giroud in such good form, the Englishman slotted onto the left of the front three, and was able to put pressure on the error-prone Alan Hutton at right-back for Villa. Walcott chased a pass in behind the full-back and nipped in front of him to take control of the ball in the penalty area. Hutton panicked, pulled Walcott down, and was, eventually, punished as the referee gave a penalty after a bit of consideration. Giroud didn’t look in the mood to miss after his midweek hat-trick and he duly stroked the ball into the net, sending the goalkeeper the wrong way.
Having gone 1-0 up, without actually creating many chances, Arsenal were in complete control of the game as Aston Villa struggled to impose themselves on the Gunners. The Arsenal back four and midfield were able to keep possession, and having got the lead weren’t in any need to over-play. They were able to play on the frustrations of the home crowd and the lack of confidence from the hosts and wait for their moment to pick their way through. After plenty of considered possession, it was a lightning quick counter-attack that brought about a second goal before half time.
Aaron Ramsey won the ball 25 yards from his own goal with a good slide tackle, and three passes later was on hand to sweep the ball into the net as Arsenal sliced through Aston Villa’s open defence. In a role reversal, Theo Walcott played the killer through ball into space for Mesut Ozil, who unsurprisingly was unselfish in front of goal to set up the Welshman for a second goal in as many Premier League games.
Arsenal’s good week has coincided with a return to the centre of midfield for Aaron Ramsey. When Cazorla was fit, the Spaniard didn’t deserve to be replaced in the team, but now his enforced absence has given a chance to Ramsey to return to the middle, he is getting back to his best. He offers a different threat to Cazorla as he isn’t quite as careful in possession, but his relentless energy and charging forward runs give Arsenal another dimension when attacking. Mesut Ozil has been fantastic at linking up with whoever has been picked around this season, but there are good signs in the last couple of weeks that Ozil and Ramsey’s understanding that helped the Welshman to a sensational season a couple of years ago has returned.
After the second goal, Arsenal only had two shots on target in the game but had scored with both of them. It was ruthless and efficient to make it very difficult for Aston Villa to build any momentum in the game.
Arsene Wenger recognised that the team were flagging a bit in the early part of the second half as the hosts looked to improve after the break, so he sured things up by adding some fresh legs to the flanks with Gibbs and Oxlade-Chamberlain coming on. In truth, the second half wasn’t scintillating, but it didn’t need to be. Aston Villa had plenty of efforts on goal, but Petr Cech was only called upon to save two of them as he eased to a record-equalling 169th Premier League clean sheet.
Arsenal couldn’t find a third goal to completely kill the game off, but there a sense that if things did get tight, Arsene Wenger’s team, conducted brilliantly again by Mesut Ozil, would have just changed gears and surged on to score again. Ultimately, it was a controlled performance and an example of how to get the job done well and efficiently following an important midweek away trip in Europe. Bigger tests are about to come with Manchester City kicking off the busy festive period, but with players to come back, Arsenal are in much better shape than they were a couple of weeks ago after a lousy November.