Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Arsenal 5 Aston Villa 0

Arsenal were looking to register their third consecutive league win for the first time this season, going into this game. Although they were on a run of 4 straight wins in all competitions, that spoke volumes for their stop-and-start season in the Premier League so far. Now with key players back from injury and a defensive cover in Gabriel added to squad, our mood was optimistic. On the other hand, Aston Villa's decent record at the Emirates was a cause of slight concern (only Chelsea and Manchester United won more games than the Villans here). In the corresponding fixture last season, Villa beat us 3-1 on the opening day of the 2013/14 season and the referee in charge on this day was the same Anthony Taylor, who awarded a controversial penalty to Villa and sent off Laurent Koscielny for an unwarranted second bookable offence.

Arsene Wenger made 5 changes to the side that started in last Sunday's FA Cup tie with Brighton and Hove Albion. David Ospina was reinstated in goal, which meant that Wojciech Szczesny returned to the bench. We thought it was a fair decision since the Colombia international had so far done nothing wrong to be dropped, while Szczesny did not really prove himself in his last outing that he deserved to be between the sticks ahead of Ospina. Hector Bellerin started at the right-back in place of Calum Chambers, with Per Mertesacker paired with Koscielny after rested on the bench last weekend. Nacho Monreal moved to the left-back, which meant that Kieran Gibbs started on the bench. Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla replaced Mathieu Flamini and Alexis Sanchez, respectively.

A new signing, Gabriel was slotted into the squad straight away after his arrival from Villarreal, but he began his career as an Arsenal player on the bench. This was more or less expected as Wenger stated in his pre-match press conference that the Brazilian defender's lack of language skills could cost them goals. Besides, there was no reason why our first-choice central defensive partnership should be disrupted now Kos' achilles problem had seemed to be managed well and Per had just had a breather. Matheiu Flamini, last weekends' man of the match Tomas Rosicky, Chuba Akpom and Calum Chambers occupied the remaining places on the bench.

One of the major questions prior to the match was whether the Gunners could cope without their top goalscorer, Alexis. The Chilean was a doubt through a tight hamstring. Wenger believed he would unlikely risk the talisman and we agreed with him obviously with our minds on the next week's north London derby already. In the end, Alex's fitness was not even close to being considered for this game, but fortunately, we did not miss his service one bit during Arsenal's thumping of Paul Lambert's side. We had enough quality in the squad to see off an Aston Villa side, with Walcott and Özil shining in place of the impressive Chilean and Santi continuing his scintillating form. Who said Arsenal were a one-man team? 5 goals from 5 different goalscorers underlined Arsenal's squad depth. The absence of Alexis turned out to be a blessing in disguise, providing his injury is a short-term one. It opened the door for Özil to get back to his best, while the injury gave the Chilean a chance to get a rest that otherwise he would have refused to accept.

Another question was whether Özil and Santi can be played together. Prior to Özil's injury in early October, this meant either Özil or Santi had to be shunted to the flank as Wenger tried to accommodate Jack Wilshere at the same time. What we have learnt from the past was if Özil played on the wing, we might as well play with 10-men because the German playmaker was totally ineffectual on the wing either offensively or defensively. Coupled with that, Santi's recent resurgence to his best coincided with his return to the No. 10 position. Now Mesut Özil almost fully fit, which player should be dropped at the other's expense? In this game, Özil shone, while Cazorla maintained his buoyant form. Özil was initially deployed on the wing, switching sides with Walcott, but he was given freedom to roam, while Santi played deeper than the front three, developing a good understanding with Ramsey and Coquelin defensively.

Another positive was a clean sheet. This was Ospina's fourth consecutive clean sheet. Szczesny's father blamed the defenders for his son's poor form, but there is something in Ospina's presence that calms and reassures his defenders. The inclusion of the summer signing and Francis Coquelin in the starting XI is thought to be a major factor behind Arsenal's recent solidity in defence.

We desperately needed three points to move back to fifth in the Premier League as Tottenham temporarily leapfrogged us after their 3-0 win at the Hawthorns a day earlier. With Manchester United and Liverpool also having won on Saturday, we had to keep up the pace. After the emphatic win over the Midlanders, combined with Southampton's shock defeat to Swansea at St. Mary's, Arsenal are now fifth in the table, level with fourth-placed Southampton on points, with only one goal difference separating the two teams.

We are now on a roll, which sets a perfect platform to build on with a north London derby looming on next Saturday. More than bragging rights are at the stake as we look to push on for a top-four finish. Hopefully, with Alexis and Welbeck returning to the squad, the boss will face once again a pleasing headache. Let's hope all of our players will be at their best next weekend.

Players ratings

Ospina: 8
Pulled off two top-class saves to keep a clean sheet for the fourth time in as many appearances. The defenders' confidence in him is visible in their back passes because he is always where he is expected to be. His distribution was also better than Szczesny's. His quick throw initiated the counter-attack leading to the third goal by finding the Walcott's run on the left flank. Even after Arsenal had secured three points, the Colombian keeper did not drop his concentration level and made a spectacular save to deny Westwood's excellent long-range effort in stoppage time. 

Bellerin: 8

Defensively sound with 3 tackles, 2 interceptions and 4 clearances, and good going forward, delivering 5 crosses. Scored his first goal for Arsenal. It's great to find a capable deputy during Debuchy's long-term lay-off.

Mertesacker: 7
Won 6 aerial duels and kept Benteke's aerial threat at bay. He looked more like his old self in this game.

Koscielny: 7
Also won 6 aerial duels. Solid.

Monreal: 7

Another good game this time in his familiar left-back position.

Coquelin: 8

After an early talking-to by the referee, he controlled himself well. He has been improving in every game, no longer shown a yellow card in recent games. Made 5 tackles and 5 interceptions.

Ramsey: 7

Showed a good engine going up and down the field, making some good passes to set up chances for his team-mates. Had 2 shots, one of which stung Brad Guzan's palm. Replaced by Flamini in the 76th minute.

Cazorla: 9
Stat-based Whoscored.Com's Man of the Match with a 9.8 rating vs Ozil's 9.5. Provided assists for Walcott and Bellerin, hit the woodwork and scored from the spot. With sheer power of his spot kick, the goalkeeper got a hand to it only to direct the ball into the corner of the net. Covering more ground (11.6 km) than any other player on the pitch, his contribution to the team was enormous. Another stellar performance defensively as well, with 3 tackles and 1 interception.

Özil: 9
Sky Sports' Man of the Match. His exquisite flick to send Giroud racing clear highlighted his two major assets: vision and world-class technique. In the first half, his goal was chalked off, flagged for offside, but replays suggested it was a wrong call as he was played onside by a Villa defender. You cannot fault his work rate in this game, covering 11.2 km, only second to Santi among his team-mates. Set up Giroud's goal and scored a goal himself with a composed and inch-perfect finish.

Walcott: 7
Scored his first Premier League goal since the New Year's Day 2014 and his second in a row in all competitions. Great to see his hunger and confidence back after intercepting Santi's pass intended for Giroud and curling a right-footed shot into the bottom corner. 

Giroud: 8
Scored the opener, which was his fifth goal in his last 6 games. Set up a goal for
Özil. Unlucky not to get on the scoresheet twice as his header struck the cross bar.


Rosicky: 6
Came in for Walcott in the 70th minute.

Akpom: 7
Replaced Giroud in the 70th minute. Made several good runs and earned a penalty. We want to see the 19-year-old given more chances. Amid the rumour that he is stalling his contract extension talk, Wenger was probably urged to give him another chance rather than the need to rest Giroud after the knock on his leg in the first half.

Flamini: 6
Came off the bench in the 76th minute to replace Ramsey.

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