Of all of the clubs to make significant moves during January, Arsenal was perhaps most desperate of all to see them pay off quickly. The Gunners have been in 6th place much of the new year, and are running out of time to land a Champions League place after missing out on this season’s competition last year. They welcomed Everton to the Emirates on Saturday, where both marquee January signings got to start for the first time. The effect was immediate, as Arsenal spent much of the first half in irresistible attacking form, scoring 4 before the first half ended. The second half saw Everton match the Gunners 1-1, but that didn’t stop the hosts from walking off as easy 5-1 winners.
Hat Trick Hero
It might have come down to his very last touch of the evening, but Aaron Ramsey got his first ever hat trick Saturday against a hapless Everton defence. The Welshman was easily one of the most dynamic players on the pitch, and his late runs from his deep midfield position caused frequent headaches for Sam Allardyce’s back 5. The Arsenal attack kept the centre backs pinned deep, opening huge gaps for the roaming trio of Alex Iwobi, Mesut Ozil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the half spaces. The Everton wingbacks Jonjoe Kenny and Rhu-Endly Martina failed to offer adequate cover out wide, with Eliaquim Mangala suffering most of all as he was dragged badly out of shape on two of Ramsey’s goals.
Ramsey and Jack Wilshere are both currently fit (touch wood) and theoretically fighting for the same place in the side. However, if Ramsey keeps proving such a dangerous weapon in midfield, Wilshere might find himself Arsene Wenger’s second choice more often then not. Ramsey has offered more work rate than his English companion, and he has the ability to time his arrival into the 18 yard box as well as any box to box midfielder in the Premier League. He will benefit from the creative efficiency of Henrikh Mkhitaryan as much as any player in the Arsenal side, and the Armenian’s astute defensive instincts will take some of the pressure off of Ramsey closing down opposing attackers. The unbelievable pace and acceleration of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is sure to keep centre backs worried and on the back foot, leaving Ramsey even more space to operate and make aggressive attacking runs. Wenger will be hoping for more performances like Saturday’s from Ramsey the rest of the season as he approaches his sublime form from the 2013/14 season.
Auba’s Instant Impact
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang might have only just donned his number 14 Arsenal shirt for the first time this week, and even spent most of it suffering from illness, but that did not prevent him from getting his first start, at home in front of a welcoming Emirates crowd. The striker wasted no time in opening his account for the club, scoring a pure “Auba” goal, turning a few inches of space into a few feet with his incredible pace, followed by an audacious chip over Jordan Pickford that seemed to roll into the net in slow motion. It was the type of goal he scored dozens of times for Borussia Dortmund, and Arsenal will hope that he is able to translate his fine form in the Bundesliga into similar consistency in the Premier League.
Aubameyang did not play in a significantly different manner to how Alexandre Lacazette has at centre forward this season, but the threat of his world class pace is enough to buy teammates more space as defenders concentrate on not getting beaten over the top. Both players would undoubtedly prefer starting in the centre forward role, but the initial view is that Lacazette would have to move wide if both were in the same side. Aubameyang adds a different dimension to the attack (along with his former Dortmund teammate Henrikh Mkhitaryan) and could be the key to solving Arsenal’s struggles against opponents in a deep block.
A Different Kind of “Hat Trikh”
Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s real Arsenal debut, a 30 minute cameo in the second half of the Swansea match, could not have gone much worse for he and his new club. Mkhitaryan had barely jogged into place before Arsenal were gashed for another goal, straight through the area of the pitch that was weakened when Mohammed Elneny was swapped for his new teammate. However, his first start in an Arsenal shirt was the stuff that dreams are made of, as Mkhitaryan was everywhere against Everton, weaving in and out of position with Mesut Ozil in the final third. He managed to bag 3 assists on the night, but impressed with his all around contribution as well. He made 4 tackles, 3 interceptions, and 4 key passes, and caused fits with his movement in the final third. It may have only been his first start in Arsenal’s shade of red, but Mkhitaryan already looks happy and comfortable in Wenger’s team.
Ozil and Mkhitaryan are both extremely creative players, but they express themselves in different ways on the pitch. The Armenian is far more direct and active than Ozil, who is happy to take hold of the match and slow it down to his pace. Mkhitaryan is more of a threat running at defenders, and is not afraid to pull the trigger on his powerful shot if he gets a bit of space. He is able to approximate those areas of Alexis Sanchez’ game that made him such a factor for the club, but do so in a less assertive and more efficient way. He will never achieve the raw goals scoring totals of the departed Chilean, but his attacking versatility allows him to function from a deeper role, on the wing, or anywhere in the attacking midfield as the situation dictates. He was a vital cog in the irresistible half of football the Gunners played to open Saturday’s match, and fans are starting to catch on that the club have secured the services of far more than just an unwanted Manchester United cast-off, but rather a truly quality player.
Battered and Bruised
Arsenal may have survived the busy festive period around the New Year without picking up too many debilitating injuries, but the niggles and bumps of the season have been taking their steady toll. Illness has swept through change rooms around the league, and Jack Wilshere was felled during the week, only just making it back into contention by the end of the week for selection. Against Everton, Nacho Monreal was banged up in the first half, not making it out for the second half in his second match in 3 tries. Petr Cech was also clattered quite hard in his box, but stayed in his goal, playing for his 200th Premier League clean sheet, but once Everton scored, he was replaced by David Ospina. Cech walked off the pitch very gingerly, so it remains to be seen how long he is sidelined. He and Monreal will be essential for the Gunners when the take on their hated rivals, Tottenham Hotspur next weekend, so their health will be a natural point of interest during the boss’s press conference this week.
The Arsenal attack was so irresistible in the first half, they were able to put the match out of reach by the time referee Neil Swarbrick blew for half time. However, Arsene Wenger will be disappointed in the lack of precision in the second half, as the Gunners looked very much like a team who thought their job done already. This was ok against Everton, who have not played the Gunners tough in either match this season, but against top quality opposition, they might not have been so lucky. It is hard to maintain ultimate focus in a match that has already been decided, but Arsenal fell asleep at times in their own end, gifting Everton the sort of scoring opportunities they lacked in the first half. Had Arsenal not put the score so far away by the second half, they could have found themselves in trouble after letting the Toffees grow into the match.
The Gunners need to start churning out positive results on a more consistent basis if they have any hope of making it into the top 4. Liverpool and Tottenham are both within striking position, but Arsenal just need to beat out two of their top 6 rivals to return to the Champions League for next season. Fans might have been hoping for a new veteran presence in defence to sign before the January window closed, but Wenger now has two very talented players to add to the attacking mix. His teams have a habit of performing when they’ve been written off by everyone else, but the combination of new hirings on the staff and assertive moves on the market have given fans a reason to have hope for the rest of the campaign and beyond.