Thursday, May 11, 2017

Southampton seen off as Arsenal show signs of life

Even in bad seasons when title challenges have fallen away, Arsenal have generally ended campaigns well to consistently secure the place in the top four. This season has been particularly bad and most fans had resigned themselves to Thursday night football, but just maybe Arsenal are beginning to get on one their end-of-seasons runs to sneak into Europe’s top competition.
Realistically, it’ll require three wins from the last three games, and with a trip to Stoke included as one of those, the chances remain low. But the fact Arsenal have given themselves a chance at all of catching Manchester City or, more likely, Liverpool is a surprise. The 2-0 win on Wednesday at Southampton followed up the win over Manchester United and keeps the hopes alive.
As against Manchester United, Arsenal had to wait until the second half to score the decisive goals, and both of them stood out as the moments of real quality in the game. The Gunners are still adapting to a new way of playing and still trying to build confidence, and Southampton realistically don’t have much left to play for this season, so it made for a relatively quiet game for the most part, before the goals.
The first was worked really well by Arsenal from the back and through the midfield in just a few passes. Rather than looking to the wing-backs, Granit Xhaka played a good ball forward to Mesut Ozil, who cushioned a lovely pass into the path of Alexis Sanchez as the Chilean burst into the box. He showed composure to leave two covering defenders on the ground before finishing past Forster for his 20th league goal of the season. 
After scoring the winner in the FA Cup semi-final, Alexis has been quiet and there have been frustrations about him giving the ball away too many times. But there’s not many others in the league who you’d rather be on the end of an Ozil assist than Alexis Sanchez. Whatever the league position at the end of the season, I’m resigned to likelihood of him leaving, but hope I’m wrong. He can be infuriating, but in games such as Wednesday night, he can make the difference in tight situations.
The clinching goal came in the last ten minutes as Olivier Giroud fulfilled the super-sub role brilliantly again. Moments after coming off the bench, he got on the end of Aaron Ramsey’s header across the six yard box to nod home and secure the points. The build-up had been good with the cross from Alexis picking out Ramsey making another late run from midfield into the penalty area.
Ramsey followed up his good performance against Manchester United with another solid showing on the south coast as Arsenal finally seem to have found a consistent midfield pairing for the first time since Santi Cazorla’s injury back in October. Ramsey has a lot of freedom in the new system and is always willing to run beyond the opposition defence to stretch the play. He’s also getting a run of games without an injury, which has always been an issue for him. Unsurprisingly, he’s looking a lot sharper because of it.
Granit Xhaka alongside the Welshman had another good game as he ticked the play along nicely. His role in the team has seemed confused for a lot of the season, especially since Cazorla’s injury. Depending on who he has been playing alongside, he’s either had to be the more creative partner or more defensive partner, which hasn’t helped him settle into the team in his first season. With Ramsey now being the man usually attacking, Xhaka’s role has become a lot clearer and he is playing better. He’s also adapting to the league and does seem to have learnt from his tackling errors that brought red cards earlier in the season, even though they were harshly given. While there’s still a lot for Arsenal to work on in the new system offensively because of being a man down further up the field, the more consistent partnership in central midfield has been one of the definite benefits of switching to the 3-4-2-1.
There was a worry that with Laurent Koscielny missing through injury, Arsenal’s back three might fall apart given how well Koscielny performed against United, especially when effectively acting as a sweeper behind the other two centre-backs. But Shkodran Mustafi made an excellent return to the team in the middle of the three. His form, along with the team’s, fell off a cliff as the season went on, but the extra centre-back makes it a lot easier to cover if the German goes to press high and doesn’t make a tackle or interception, as happened too often when playing as a two. But on Wednesday night, he was more disciplined and did well alongside Rob Holding and Nacho Monreal, both of whom were solid again.
But as much as Arsenal did generally defend well, they were still indebted to Petr Cech for a few excellent first-half saves to keep the scores level. The Czech keeper has found some great form recently and made a vital one-on-one block from Gabbiadini and tipped over well from a powerful long-range effort from Redmond. There’s been some talk of a return for Wojciech Szczesny next season, something I’d be keen to see after his excellent season for Roma in Serie A, but Cech has rediscovered his form well recently after an indifferent season by his high standards.
Overall it was a job well done for Arsenal. After the defeat to Spurs, it felt like the Gunners would have to win all five of their remaining games to have a chance of squeaking into the top four, and so far it’s two from two. Arguably the toughest test of those five, Stoke City away, is next before two homes games. This run of form could still be too little too late, but Arsenal have finally got into the late-season groove and are clinging onto the chance of salvaging something from the wreckage of a dreadful second half of the league season.