Sunday, January 15, 2017

A stroll in Swansea moves Arsenal back into the top four

After a slightly stressful festive period and third round of the FA Cup, it was nice for Arsenal not to need a late goal from Olivier Giroud to bail them out again as they comprehensively beat Swansea on Saturday. The 4-0 win will have been an eye-opener for Paul Clement as he begins the task of trying to keep the Swans in the division, and if they continue to play like they did in the second half against the Gunners, that job is going to be nearly impossible.
Arsenal continued the slightly annoying recent trend of starting poorly in the first half as the hosts created a few decent openings, pressed high up the pitch and restricted space for the likes of Ozil and Alexis, but once the Gunners took the lead, they never looked like surrendering it. 
Olivier Giroud continued his excellent run of form by scoring the opener in the first half. The only surprise was that it wasn’t in the last ten minutes and wasn’t a scorpion kick. The Frenchman seemed to pick up a knock to his ankle early in the game and aggrevated it trying to get on the end of Aaron Ramsey’s low cross. He picked himself up and fired in from close range moments later as Alexis collected the ball from Ramsey, crossed for Ozil, and the German’s blocked header fell perfectly for Giroud to find the roof of the net with his right foot.
He immediately signalled to be substituted, but battled through to half-time and for 15 minutes into the second half. By that time, the game was almost wrapped up after the second Arsenal goal. Arsene Wenger’s team started the second half in much the same way they did at Preston in the previous game. There was more intensity about the play as they didn’t let the home side dictate the terms of the game. They pushed Swansea back, piled on the pressure and made them panic. Even though it was 1-0 at the break, the first half was slack from the Gunners, but they were much sharper in the second period. Similar things have happened now at Bournemouth, Preston and Swansea, and against better opposition, if Arsenal continue to start badly, they’ll be punished more. It’s something Arsene Wenger needs to address, but it was pleasing that even though the team were winning, they reacted to the quality of their performance rather than the scoreline. It would have been easy to think that it 1-0, not try and up the tempo and just look to slow the game now. Instead, Arsenal massively upped their game and swarmed all over the Swans in the second period.
This second-half improvement wasn’t driven primarily by the returning Mesut Ozil or Alexis Sanchez, but by Alex Iwobi. The Nigerian buzzed around dangerous areas and always offered himself to the midfield as a forward pass. His strength on the ball while maintaining close control really shone through in the second half, as did his mature decision making. He’s not just got the skills to play well with his feet, but increasingly his brain is thinking a couple of steps ahead of others, which is very impressive for a young player like him.
Iwobi’s goal-bound shot after a period of concerted Arsenal pressure doubled the lead after half-time as Jack Cork’s touch looped the ball over Lukasz Fabianski. Shortly afterwards, Iwobi drove into the Swansea box again and his low, drilled cross was put past his own goalkeeper by Kyle Naughton. The second one was definitely an own goal, but hopefully the dubious goals panel don’t credit Jack Cork with an own goal when Iwobi’s shot was likely to go into the bottom corner. The Arsenal attacker definitely deserved a goal for an industrious and eye-catching performance.
At 3-0, the game was done. Arsenal kept on attacking though with the forward players sensing a chance to boost the goal difference. When Arsenal have been in these situations this season, it’s been refreshing to see them continue to attack and not just kill the game off. With the league table being very tight around the top four, it could make a difference in May.
Iwobi was involved again as the Gunners bagged a fourth. His through ball set Oxlade-Chamberlain away down the left but his cut-back couldn’t quite find Aaron Ramsey. But the ball fell to the lurking Alexis Sanchez, who expertly swivelled to volley into the top corner to continue his excellent recent form. 
At 4-0 and with 12 minutes to go, Arsene Wenger made the understandable decision to give Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez a rest by bringing on Lucas Perez and Danny Welbeck. While we all absolutely love that Alexis hates being substituted, it was a bit disappointing to see him having a sulk on the bench afterwards. I don’t think it as much of an issue as some are making it out to be as Alexis just wants to play, but he does also have to respect the manager’s decision and take the bigger picture when the team were 4-0 up. Imagine the criticism Wenger would get had he left him on and a frustrated Swansea player injured the Chilean with a crude late tackle. It was absolutely the right decision from the boss to give him a rest.
There will be much tougher games for Arsenal in the coming weeks, but with Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool all dropping points this weekend, it was vital Arsenal got the three points. Alexis and Giroud may have scored and continued to be the headline-makers, but it was a youngster from the Arsenal academy that really drove the team on to an excellent second-half display.