Monday, 3 February 2014

Feed the OX and he will score

Arsenal 2-0 Crystal Palace

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrated his return to the starting line-up with two excellent goals to fire Arsenal back to the top of the table, as the Gunners comfortably overcame Crystal Palace yesterday.

When Tony Pulis left his post as Stoke City manager last summer, most football fans rejoiced at the thought of never having to endure another tedious 90 minutes against a Pulis side again. Unfortunately the football dinosaur (no not Gunnersaurus Rex) was back at the Emirates Stadium yesterday peddling his depressing brand of football once again.

Spot the difference!
From the first minute of the game, the Palace game plan was obvious for all to see, setting up with two banks of four, deep in their own half, committing clever fouls whenever an Arsenal player burst past them and threatened to open them up. Goalkeeper Julian Speroni began wasting time as soon as possible, taking an age over goal kicks, resulting in the referee having to issue quite possibly the earliest ever warning for time wasting.
As a result of these negative tactics, the onus was on Arsenal to take the game to their opponents. Whenever the Gunners combined with each other, with one or two touch combinations, the sheer gulf in class was clear for all to see, but Wenger’s side didn’t do this enough in the first period. Getting into the final third was no problem at all, but with Palace sat so deep, the Gunners were struggling to get in behind and turn the opposition defence. In matches such as these, it is essential to have players making forward runs from deep lying positions. Yet this only happened once in the first half, when Nacho Monreal’s run, in behind the Palace right back, was picked out beautifully by Ozil, but Monreal was thwarted by the onrushing Speroni, who blocked the Spaniard’s effort.

Far too often in the first half, Arsenal’s forward players were simply too static, restricting the options for the midfield, who invariably ended up playing the ball square. It was no surprise therefore that the Gunners only other first half attempt on goal came from a free kick, as Ozil’s delivery eluded everyone inside the box, bounced off the pitch and forced Speroni into a fine save. There was a clear lack of pace and urgency to Arsenal’s game and in fact at half time the sprinklers came on in an attempt to make the surface greasy and therefore assist Arsenal’s passing game and the speed at which the ball was being played.

Although Pulis’ game plan had succeeded in the first half, it was vital for Wenger’s side to score as early as possible in the second period as the longer the game went on without the deadlock being broken, the more nervous, frustrated and agitated the home crowd and therefore the players would have become. Fortunately, the Gunners didn’t have to wait too long to open the deadlock in the second half, with Oxlade-Chamberlain scoring his first of the day two minutes after the restart. Cazorla cut inside from the right flank and lofted a perfect ball over the top of the Palace defence to pick out the run of Oxlade-Chamberlain. The Englishman controlled the ball with his first touch and then cutely dinked an effort past Speroni with his second to give Arsenal the lead.

While many assumed the game was effectively over, Arsenal had enjoyed almost 80% possession at times in the first half, Cameron Jerome nearly equalised almost immediately, but Szczesny was equal to his headed effort. Yet other than this, Palace offered very little. The goal meant they could no longer sit so far deep and at some point would have to break forward in an attempt to restore parity, with Arsenal lying in wait to take advantage of any space left.

In the 73rd minute, the Gunners did just that as an excellent one-two between Oxlade-Chamberlain and Giroud, released the Englishman on the edge of the Palace penalty area, from where he rifled in a low shot, right into the bottom corner of the net to give the Gunners an unassailable lead. The goal owed much to Giroud, who showed great strength, to hold off a Palace defender to take control of the ball, and then composure to play a perfectly weighted pass, enabling Oxlade-Chamberlain to power through on goal.

The former Southampton man’s two goals yesterday continued a somewhat impressive trait to this Arsenal side. Much has been made of the Gunners title bid being founded on their new found defensive stability, which of course is true, but the fact Wenger’s side have shared the goal scoring burden so far this season cannot be underestimated either. Every time a member of the squad who has been scoring goals for fun has been out injured, another player has picked up the goal scoring baton, enabling Arsenal to maintain their title tilt. At the start of the season, Aaron Ramsey was in magnificent goal scoring form, but when his injury forced him out of the side Walcott returned from his own two month lay-off to fire in a number of goals, then Jack Wilshere began to find the net with regularity, before Santi Cazorla scored five goals during a red hot streak in January. As we enter into an extremely difficult run of games, it would now appear it is the turn of Oxlade-Chamberlain to score the goals which will spur the Gunners on.

The squad now have a week off, safe in the knowledge that at least one of their title rivals will drop points tonight as Manchester City and Chelsea face off at the Etihad. The following week’s run of fixtures in which Arsenal must face Liverpool twice and Manchester United will undoubtedly test the Gunners to the limit. Wenger’s men have done exceptionally well so far. They are where they are in the league based on merit and nothing else. The Gunners must now push on, in an attempt to prove their title credentials once and for all.

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