Monday, 17 August 2015

First three points

Crystal Palace 1-2 Arsenal

Alexis Sanchez

Arsenal responded to their bitterly disappointing opening day defeat to West Ham in the best possible way on Sunday, with a hard fought victory away to Crystal Palace.

In the lead up to this game Arsene Wenger admitted his side had been over confident as they approached the opening game of the season and had essentially forgotten to do the basics. In the Premier League you have to earn the right to play your game and in order to do so you need to show hunger, determination and commitment. The Gunners showed those qualities on Sunday, playing wonderful attacking football, especially in the opening 25 minutes.

Wenger deployed Santi Cazorla in his favoured central midfield role right from the start, rather than on the wing as he had begun the game against West Ham. The little Spaniard didn’t let his manager down, pulling the strings from this deep lying role and enabling Arsenal to get the ball forward as quickly as possible in the transition from midfield to attack. Further forward, Mesut Ozil was another star of the show as he seems to have made that number 10 position his own. The German’s passing accuracy was 98% at the end of the game, with Ozil having misplaced only pass throughout the entire match. Ozil has had a somewhat roller-coaster time in North London, he has gone through periods when his form has led to many questioning the £42 million Wenger spent on him, while at other times he has shown himself to be a truly world class player. His form at the moment falls into the latter the category and he is fast becoming a pivotal figure for this side. Maintaining possession in the congested final third is extremely difficult, but Ozil makes it look so easy as he keeps the attack flowing, picking out through balls when possible.

The improvement in the sharpness and accuracy of Arsenal’s passing game was not the only noticeable difference from the opening day defeat however. With the return of Alexis Sanchez to the starting line-up, the Gunners were also pressing the opposition with an added intensity that is clearly lacking when Sanchez isn’t on the pitch. The Chilean’s boundless energy is infectious as he urges his teammates to work harder and push forward, forcing their opponents into mistakes higher up the pitch.

As a result of these improvements throughout the team, Arsenal were able to dominate Crystal Palace in the early exchanges, creating a number of goal scoring opportunities. A sharper Alexis Sanchez would have converted Ozil’s excellent through ball, but the Chilean delayed his shot allowing the Palace defence to get back and block his shot. From the rebound Sanchez beat the goalkeeper only so see his effort cleared off the line. Ramsey and Sanchez tested McCarthy again as the first half wore on, but the Gunners couldn’t get the breakthrough their vibrant play richly deserved.

The opening goal finally arrived in the 15th minute and it was a goal which encapsulated the improvement Arsenal had made since the opening game. The Gunners won possession back quickly, high up the pitch, the ball played out wide to Ozil, who picked out a wonderful whipped ball into the box for Giroud to steer home. It was a wonderful goal from the Frenchman, showing great agility as the ball was played just behind him and therefore he had to adjust his body shape to reach it and then show great composure to guide it into the bottom corner of the goal.

The Gunners were now in full control and had to press home their advantage to kill the game off. Unfortunately they weren’t able to show the ruthless streak required in such instances. The clearest chance feel to Sanchez who was denied by McCarthy once again and the rebound cleared by the Palace defence, but Arsenal feel into the trap of over confidence once again. They began to take too many touches when in and around the Palace penalty area, overplaying and ultimately losing possession.

In the 27th minute, the Gunners were made to pay. Poor defending against West Ham had cost them dearly and it appeared as though the Arsenal back line hadn’t learnt their lesson. A cross into the box found Puncheon who chested it down to James McArthur. As he rolled the ball back, Arsenal should have had players closing down Joel Ward, but in scenes reminiscent of West Ham’s second goal the previous week, Koscielny stood off him, allowing Ward the time and space to fizz home a low shot past Cech and into the bottom corner. Replays did not reflect well on Koscielny, showing the Frenchman had turned his back on the ball as the shot came in. Although it is still very early in the season, Wenger must be concerned by his defence. In only two games played Arsenal have now conceded three goals from the six shots on target they have faced. For all their wonderful attacking play, it seems Arsenal’s defence is still their weak point, struggling to cope with any sustained pressure. In fact, from a position of such dominance, the Gunners could have even fallen behind early in the second half as the defence failed to deal with a Zaha cross and Conor Wickham saw his effort rebound off the post.

Having been dead and buried, Palace were now right back in the game, their supporters making for a heated atmosphere. Francis Coquelin, so important to this Arsenal side now, picked up a booking in the 40th minute as the game became stretched and from that point on was walking a tight rope. Another foul from the Frenchman just before halftime led to calls for his dismissal and after the break he was fortunate the referee was not swayed by the home crowd and Alan Pardew as another foul went unpunished. Pardew complained after the game, but he should remember that not every foul warrants a yellow card. Wenger wisely withdrew Coquelin in the 60th minute.

By that time Arsenal had restored their lead, the goal owing much to Sanchez’s determination and sheer will to win. A cross towards the back post from Bellerin, seemed destined to be headed clear by Ward, but Sanchez’s never say die attitude saw the Chilean throw himself at the ball and win the header. The attempt seemed to be going just wide of goal, but Sanchez got the luck his endeavour deserved as Delaney needlessly stuck out a leg, diverting the ball into the net.

Arsenal dug in for the rest of the match and were able to see the game out. Oxlade-Chamberlain came off the bench as did Mikel Arteta and Kieran Gibbs to add defensive steel. Arteta, out for so long last season, performed well, getting challenges in to break up play and win back possession. However Oxlade-Chamberlain needs to work on the defensive side of his game as far too often he appears to switch off when the ball is in and around the Arsenal box.

Wenger will be happy to see his side get off the mark in the new season and respond well to the setback of losing to West Ham on the opening day, however his defence must worry him. Arsenal did show fighting qualities against Crystal Palace but a look at Manchester City’s performance against Chelsea showed the strength and power of the City defence and their sheer desire not to concede. Arsenal need to aspire to that and improve defensively or else they will get caught out and drop crucial points.

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