Monday, August 29, 2016

Majestic Midfield Finally Gets Arsenal’s Season Going

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For all the talk of signings being needed by Arsene Wenger in the final knockings of the transfer window, it was easy to forget that one area of the squad has been looking healthy because of the early business done at the start of the summer. In the opening two games of the season, the Arsenal boss was still working out his best combination in the center of the midfield, but against Watford on Saturday, he fielded three players that combined to orchestrate the Gunners’ most convincing performance of the fledgling season.
With Mesut Ozil deemed fit enough to start for the first time this season, Santi Cazorla moved back into one of the deeper midfield positions and started alongside summer signing Granit Xhaka. The subsequent performance and link-up of the three was very impressive, especially considering Xhaka is still adapting to the Premier League.
In the brief cameo from Ozil at Leicester, Arsenal had immediately looked like a better team, so it was no surprise to see him back in the line-up, even if he wasn’t quite fit enough to play 90 minutes. He only needed 45 to help dismantle a deep and packed Watford defense. By having Ozil always available to receive the ball, Arsenal’s front three of Theo Walcott, Alexis Sanchez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain immediately looked more engaged and dangerous going forward, in stark contrast to the toothless showing in the previous week at the King Power. It’s impossible to not see Ozil as the main reason for that.
It was the German’s chipped cross into the box for Alexis, who had roamed into space at the back post, that brought about a desperate and dangerous aerial challenge from Amrabat inside the first ten minutes of the game to give the Gunners a penalty. The link-up between the Chilean and Ozil was a constant during the first half. A good one-two between the pair created an opportunity for Alexis, but he was denied at the near post by Gomes, before he grabbed a goal at the end of a flowing forward move that, unsurprisingly, had Ozil at the heart of it.
However the real champagne moment between the pair came in stoppage time at the end of the first half. Alexis drifted left from the centre-forward position and waited to assess his options on the ball. Sensing an opportunity, Ozil caught out Watford’s three centre-backs by making a stealthy and speedy run into the box to guide a header past the goalkeeper from Alexis’ perfect cross. It was one of those goals that almost looked too easy to score, and while Watford will ask questions about their defending, it’s important to appreciate the brilliance and timing of the run from Ozil and the awareness and quality of Alexis to spot the run and execute such a brilliant cross. It was just a beautiful and clinical goal.
For Ozil to link so well with the front three, he needed possession from the midfield, and Xhaka and Cazorla dominated that area of the field superbly. Their ability to play creative forward passes themselves also took the pressure off Ozil and allowed him to get further forward rather than having to drop deep to try and make things happen. 
Granit Xhaka showed his full range of passing with a few beautiful big diagonals (I’d like to think they were just for this blog!) with both his left and right foot, as well as some through balls from deep that created chances for Theo Walcott. His tendency to over commit and lunge into some tackles does concern me slightly, but it’s a minor thing he can iron out of his game. Otherwise, he looks like a perfect fit for Arsenal. With his height and excellent left foot, Xhaka reminds me of Emmanuel Petit and Edu when they were at their best for the Gunners. Alongside him, Santi Cazorla was typically excellent in keeping the game ticking over and looked much more comfortable in the deeper midfield role than he did starting in the number ten position at Leicester. He also took an excellent penalty to make it 1-0 despite some more antics from Amrabat.
What was great was that Arsenal were able to solidify the midfield in the second half with the introduction of Mohamed Elneny, while Jack Wilshere also gave another effective option off the bench. Francis Coquelin was also an unused substitute, highlighting Arsenal’s strength in that position. The challenge with such options for Arsene Wenger was always going to be selecting the right ones, and in a game where Arsenal dominated possession, the majestic passing of Xhaka, Cazorla and Ozil was the perfect combination.
Arsenal did ease off in the second half as Watford rallied and found a goal after some pinball in the Arsenal penalty area. Petr Cech was also called upon to make some smart saves, including an excellent double stop that denied Capoue and Ighalo. The Gunners did have chances to kill the game off, the decision making on the break wasn’t good. The was also an opportunity when Hector Bellerin flashed a cross across the penalty area after absolutely wrecking Younes Kaboul through the medium of dribbling.
The first win of the season was incredibly welcome, but the overall quality of the performance was just as pleasing following such an insipid display at Leicester. Plus Arsene Wenger has addressed the aforementioned need for signings with a double swoop this week. Shkodran Mustafi and Lucas Perez will fill the holes in the squad at center-back and upfront, and while some are calling the players panic buys, I’d like to think that one of the reasons it’s taken until the end of August to get the deals done is that the manager has wanted to make sure he got the right players in. Having not watched much of either player in La Liga in recent seasons, I can’t judge if they’re the top quality additions that fans were crying out for, but they do make the squad look much stronger in key areas so it’s exciting to see what they can bring to the team.
The international break now comes at a bad time for Arsenal, but with a win on the board and a squad looking complete, it finally feels like the season has properly started.


Sam Limbert is a regular contributor to Arsenal Review USA and can be found blogging and podcasting at