Arsenal did enough to hang on for a sixth successive league win after Granit Xhaka’s 70th minute red card made what was already a nervy second half even more tense. This wasn’t a particularly good Arsenal performance but results elsewhere made this a great day for us overall. Man City and Spurs both could only manage 1-1 draws against Everton and West Brom respectively, meaning we leapfrogged Tottenham and now trail City only on goal difference at the top of the table. I’ll quickly touch on some not-so-good aspects of the performance but focus the majority of this on how we’ve become the joint highest scoring team this season with Man City with 19. We’re on pace to score 90 goals, 25 more than last season when Leicester, City and Tottenham, the other three sides that finished in the top four, all scored more.
-Granit Xhaka’s disciplinary record was no secret when we signed him. He’s accumulated 37 yellow cards and 7 red cards in 154 career appearances at both club and international level. While I thought his red today was harsh- that type of tackle is always given a yellow- it was more worrying that he was in a position where he felt he had to make such a wild lunge in the first place. I just don’t think he has the pace to operate as the more defensive of the two holding midfielders. He can’t get across the width of the pitch to break up counters with the pace and tenacity Coquelin or even Elneny do. I realize in the past I have called for more of the Cazorla-Xhaka partnership against weaker teams because Xhaka is a slightly more expansive passer than Coq. But there is no doubt that our protection in front of the back four is much, much weaker with Coquelin out of the lineup. We lose the athleticism and ball-winning ability. I think Cazorla’s composure and contributions to our possession play are invaluable and he needs to be in the lineup. Elneny appears to be taking the blame for the Liverpool loss so for now I think Coq-Santi is the best option at the base of midfield.
-Alex Iwobi has had a really positive start to the season. His quick feet in tight areas have given us a massive boost in possession. However, he doesn’t get through much defensive work and that has left Nacho Monreal isolated at left back on multiple occasions this season. Nordin Amrabat and Robert Snodgrass both gave Monreal a tough time in the Watford and Hull games because too often he was left isolated to defend 1 v. 1 in the channels. Today Modou Barrow caused us issues down their right side. He set up their second goal and nearly created a few others.
We defended with a midfield bank of four of Walcott, Xhaka, Cazorla and Iwobi. While Walcott has improved his defensive play massively this season and Cazorla does more defensively than he’s given credit for, that’s not a midfield of players renowned for their contribution when the opposition has the ball. We shouldn’t be terribly surprised that Saturday was a bit of a shootout.
Wenger’s move to tighten up the midfield defensively has been to bring on Elneny for Iwobi and move to a 4-5-1 with Ozil on the left of midfield. That allows us to defend with a midfield bank of five rather than four which makes it more difficult for the opposition to switch play to the opposite wing in space. Ozil doesn’t offer any more defensive cover for Monreal than Iwobi however so Wenger’s second defensive move tends to be bringing on Kieran Gibbs to the left wing.
Our first two goals came from a bit of good fortune after bad mistakes from Jordi Amat and Jack Cork but Walcott deserves credit for being alert to both and finishing clinically. I know I wasn’t the only one who wanted him gone this summer but he’s proved his doubters wrong and it’s been great to see a player that is almost universally acknowledged as a good guy playing so well.
With Alexis consistently playing as the #9, Walcott’s presence on the right has been crucial. Alexis’s role is an extremely fluid one leading the lines. He is first and foremost a creator that likes to be on the ball as often as possible. Therefore he’ll often drop off the opposition center backs and come into deeper positions to get on the ball or drift wide to create overloads in the channels. With Alexis dropping deep, it’s crucial we get someone making vertical runs in behind to stretch the opposition defense. Too often last season, when Alexis was playing on the left and Giroud was up top, we didn’t have anyone making those vertical runs. Alexis always came short to get on the ball and Giroud played with his back to goal looking to provide linking wall passes. All of our movement occurred in front of the opposition back four and that made us easy to defend.
Walcott expressed in the summer that he viewed himself as a right winger once again after spending last season playing at the striker position he always viewed as his best. However with Alexis playing up top it gives Walcott the chance to play a sort of hybrid of the two positions when we are in possession. When Alexis drops off into midfield Walcott tucks inside and plays right on the edge of the offside line looking for opportunities to run in behind the defense.
This coordinated movement leaves opposition defenses with a difficult decision. When Alexis drops in between the opposition defensive and midfield lines it forces one of their defenders to step forward to get tight to him. This leaves a gap in their back four for us to make vertical runs into.
If no one steps out to pressure Alexis he’s more than capable of taking on a shot at the edge of the box or picking his head up and finding a penetrating pass. For our third goal no one from Swansea got tight to him when he collected a pass from Walcott between the lines. He therefore had the time to have a look up and coolly provide a perfectly weighted chip over the top to the back post for Ozil to put away.
I may be misremembering last season but to me it seems Ozil has been making more vertical runs into the box than he did last season. His goal today and the header he smashed in at Watford came from penetrating runs deep into the opposition penalty area. He was brilliant last season but only managed 6 goals. He already has half that and we haven’t even played a quarter of the season.
Again, I think Ozil’s increased willingness to make those sorts of runs is partially a result of Sanchez playing up front. Giroud was very much a focal point at the top of the team. He was almost always in front of whoever had the ball when we were in possession and therefore I think maybe our midfielders felt less responsible for making advanced runs since Giroud was always the forward passing option. Now when Alexis drops into midfield to collect a pass I think our midfielders realize if they don’t move into a position higher up the pitch we won’t have a forward pass on. As a result we’re getting more penetrating runs from deeper areas in midfield that are much more difficult for opposition defenders to track.
Giroud’s return will offer a nice alternative option up front but after a difficult first couple games with Alexis as the striker the system looks fine-tuned and dynamic.