Sunday, October 16, 2016

Gunners grind out the win after Granit's strange red

Arsenal matches at the Emirates Stadium can’t be described as boring this season. From the 4-3 defeat on the opening day to Liverpool to the free-flowing brilliance against Chelsea and Basel, there has been plenty to both admire and be horrified by from the Gunners in their homes games so far in this campaign. The latest win over Swansea City on Saturday managed to include a bit of everything as Arsenal moved level on points with Manchester City at the top of the table, despite some defensive lapses and a bizarre refereeing decision.
As much as it was a bit frustrating that Arsenal had to fight hard at the end of the game to secure the win, there was plenty of good in the Gunners’ performance. Theo Walcott, roundly criticised after his performances for England, kept his good club form going with a brace. When ‘experts’ are questioning why Walcott couldn’t reproduce his club form for his country, you only have to look at the players around him to understand why.
Whereas with England there is a lack of fluidity in the attack moves, Walcott has developed excellent relationships with Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, Alex Iwobi in the front four, and Hector Bellerin behind him at full-back. Bellerin and Walcott’s understanding helped open the scoring for Arsenal as a fluid move ended with Bellerin arriving in the box to head the ball back into the middle, where Walcott had read the play and moved inside. The header from the Spaniard was initially cut out by Jordi Amat, but Walcott kept the chance alive by putting pressure on the defender and poking the ball into the net after his loose touch.
Walcott followed that up with an excellent poachers goal before half-time to double Arsenal’s lead. While there was an element of fortune for the ball to fall to him in the six-yard box following a corner, chances like that fall for players when they’re in form and getting into dangerous positions. When the ball did break to Walcott, his first touch was good enough to allow him to turn and fire past Fabianski.
The front four continued to cause the visitors problems in the second half with quick movement and interchanging between positions. Whereas in previous seasons, everything from the midfield usually had to go through Mesut Ozil to create chances, the German appears to have a freer role in the current team due to Alex Iwobi being able to open up defences and Alexis dropping deep from his central role to receive possession. This allows Ozil to push further forward and be on the shoulder of the last defender himself.
That is part of the reason why the assist king is yet to register one this season, despite Arsenal hitting the net with regularity. In contract, Alexis Sanchez already has six, but Ozil has stepped up in front of goal himself. That combination brought Arsenal’s third goal as the Chilean found space on the right and picked out a perfect cross for the German, who had ghosted to the back post. As the ball dropped, Ozil absolutely lamped it past Fabianski on the volley and into the roof of the net. He tried something similar against Chelsea and scuffed the ball into the turf and over the goalkeeper. This time, it was a pure strike that gave the keeper no chance.
While the goals were great, Arsenal’s slack defending twice gave the visitors hope in the game when they should have been out of sight. Just before half-time, Granit Xhaka miscontrolled the ball near his penalty area and allowed Gylfi Sigurdsson to curl the ball past Cech to make it 2-1. Then after Ozil’s strike, Mo Barrow managed to squeeze a low cross past Nacho Monreal for Baston to score unmarked in the middle of the penalty area. Both goals were eminently avoidable from an Arsenal perspective and created needless pressure on the team as the game entered the final quarter.
Generally, Arsenal’s defending has been much improved this season, but this was the first setback for the new signings as Xhaka conceded possession for the first goal, and Mustafi failed to pick up the Swansea centre-forward for the second. While both players have almost slotted in seamlessly into the side since their arrival, it’s probably a good thing that significant errors didn’t cost Arsenal any points as they are good enough players to learn quickly from it. There’s always a period of adaptation in the Premier League, and those errors are going to be part of that for Xhaka and Mustafi.
With the scores at 3-2 heading towards the final 20 minutes, and in the spirit of preventing the team from conceding another avoidable goal, Granit Xhaka cynically tripped Barrow wide on the half-way line to prevent a breakaway that might have left Arsenal short at the back. It was excellent game-management and an example of the more cynical and hard-edge Arsenal have been lacking. He knew he’d get booked, but was willing to take one for the team to not leave the defence short. Yet referee Jon Moss bizarrely pulled out a red card instead of a yellow.
Jon Moss has a reputation of the one of the more under-performing referees in the Premier League, and it wasn’t hard to see why on Saturday. How he managed to send someone off for the clearest yellow card of the season is beyond me. If other referees follow suit and send players off for similar offences, fine. But I’ve never seen anyone get a red for what Xhaka did in that area of the pitch. It basically says that any foul where the man makes no attempt to play the ball could, and should by Jon Moss’ judgement, be a red card. The absurdity of the decision is that if Xhaka had been the last man and made that challenge with Barrow through on goal, he’d get a one-match ban. Yet in a less dangerous area of the pitch, it’s a three-match ban. Fortunately, games against Middlesbrough, Reading and Sunderland aren’t bad ones to miss, but it’s still frustrating that Jon Moss failed to do his job properly, and it almost cost Arsenal a victory. If Xhaka is in a similar position again and has to commit an identical foul to prevent the team being exposed, I hope he does it again and the referee actually applies the rules correctly.
The Gunners knuckled down with ten men, but Swansea did create chances as Nacho Monreal had an unusual off day. The Spaniard wasn’t getting much protection from Iwobi and then Ozil on the left, but he was beaten too many times by Barrow when one-on-one. Sigurdsson fired over when well-placed inside the box and there were plenty of headers that went straight at Petr Cech.
Fortunately, with Theo Walcott on the pitch, Arsenal did have a pace outlet to carry a threat on the break. Continuing the theme of good and bad during the game, Walcott hit the woodwork twice in the final ten minutes as he came agonisingly close to sealing the win and a hat-trick. His first effort was extremely unlucky as he hit the inside of the post before the ball rolled back along the line and away, before in injury time he latched onto Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s through ball but could only hit the bar with the goal at his mercy. Despite the missed chances, Arsenal ran the clock down pretty well and didn’t give Swansea a clear opening once the game entered injury time.
It was a sixth win in a row in the Premier League, and with Swansea picking up good results at the Emirates in the last few years, was a bigger win than a victory over a team of that calibre would usually be. The momentum of the season is growing, but Saturday was a reminder that Arsenal can’t get complacent. They have to keep working hard as one small incident, slack piece of defending or bad refereeing decision can bring that run of wins to an abrupt halt. With Ludogorets, Middlesbrough and Reading to come at home in the next week and a half, the win after the international break sets the Gunners up nicely to keep their good run of wins going across four competitions.