Friday, April 22, 2016

Alexis injects some life into Arsenal

For all the negativity around the club following the way Arsenal have thrown the season away, and the more empty seats than usual at the Emirates on Thursday night, the atmosphere in the stadium against West Bromwich Albion didn’t have the toxic undercurrent that is has done in recent weeks. It could have been the resigned feeling among Arsenal supporters, and the exhaustion from a tiring outpouring of frustration, but there wasn’t a sense of anger.
It could also have been down to Arsenal scoring early and never looking to be in too much trouble of doing anything stupid during the game. That’s been very unusual in the second half of the season.
Alexis Sanchez was the spark that Arsenal needed to lift themselves and the crowd as he provided two moments of real quality and continued his own good form. With West Brom unsurprisingly set up to be defensive, the onus was on Arsenal to make things happen rather than trying to draw the visitors out to create space in behind the defence. Despite Arsenal having a terrible record at scoring from outside the penalty area this season, Alexis took it upon himself to change that with a superb strike from 25 yards out inside the first ten minutes. A sharp turn created the space for the shot before he found the bottom corner with a low drive.
The Chilean doubled his tally before half-time with another strike from outside the 18-yard box. Aaron Ramsey was fouled around the D on the edge of the box, giving Alexis the chance to whip a clever free-kick into the bottom corner, deceiving the goalkeeper. Ben Foster in the Baggies goal shouldn’t have made it so easy for Alexis as the Arsenal winger managed to score on the side of the goal that the keeper was covering, but he was aided by Per Mertesacker and Olivier Giroud standing on the end of the West Brom wall and blocking the keeper’s view of the shot.
Foster had almost made a worse error moments earlier when he let a Mesut Ozil shot spill through his legs, but one of his defenders had made their way back to the goal-line and was able to spare him from appearing on goalkeeper errors compilations alongside Massimo Taibi. At the other end of the pitch, Gareth McAuley did hit the bar with a header from a corner, but otherwise Petr Cech went untroubled in the first half as the visitors looked like they were already on the beach at the end of the season.
With the game virtually safe at 2-0 due to the lack of cutting edge from the opposition, Arsenal could have boosted their confidence further by running up a few goals in the second period, but the killer instinct just deserted them around the penalty area. With Ben Foster in dodgy form, it would have nice to see the Gunners test him with a few more efforts from outside the box rather than trying to play the extra pass, but they could afford to be a but more expansive having already netted twice. Mesut Ozil was denied by Foster spreading himself low at the German’s feet before Olivier Giroud had a fierce effort blocked by the keeper’s face in the best chances for the hosts in the second half.
Overall it was a much more controlled performance from Arsenal and one without panic. That was, in part, down to the return of Per Mertesacker to the starting line-up. The German has been missed in recent games, especially away at West Ham, despite him being fit and available. I’m sure that Gabriel, in time, will be a fantastic defender for Arsenal, but he’s had a tough few games and has been lucky to have an extended run in the side. Mertesacker’s reading of the game was as excellent as always on Thursday night and he seemed to bring the leadership and authority that has been missing in the team when they’ve thrown leads away recently. He’s a player that some are quick to write off because he’s a bit slow, but that’s just a lazy bit of analysis because he offers so much more to the team to compensate for his lack of pace.
Olivier Giroud was also given an opportunity up front in place of Danny Welbeck, and while there were the usual moments of Giroud frustration that comes with the big man up front, some of his touches and link-up play was sublime and brought the quicker players like Iwobi and Alexis into the game.
The win doesn’t eliminate the regrets and disappointments in the season, but it did at least provide some relief. It gives Arsenal a four point buffer in the top four, which unfortunately, is the Gunners’ only focus for the rest of the season. On paper, games remaining against Sunderland and Norwich should be comfortable wins, but with both teams scrapping for their lives at the bottom, Arsenal will need to show the same focus they did on Thursday. It’s not the end of the season it should have been, but there were at least signs against West Brom that it might not get any worse for the Gunners.