On Wednesday night at the Emirates Stadium, Arsenal’s performance was like that of a 1980’s turbocharged sports car; pedestrian out of the gate, giving their opponent (or in the case of this ill-conceived metaphor, the car in the next lane) the thought of “hey, I could win this” before the turbo spooled up and the one that was always likely to win pulled away, clean out of sight. The Huddersfield Town players could have been excused for feeling pretty good about themselves after the first 45 minutes, only being down to a goal that was scored in the nervy opening minutes of the match. After Arsenal first struck, the visitors even got the next couple clear cut chances as the Gunners got too cute in their own end at times leading to some sloppy turnovers. However, as sure as a Porsche 959 will leave a Ford Cortina for dead, Arsenal pulled away, scoring three more goals in a five minute span before adding another late to take the win 5-0. The Gunners have now outscored their opponents 8-0 since losing at the Etihad the league toppers, Manchester City, and will now be looking ahead to a tough battle with Manchester United on Saturday.
Taking Care of Business
Over the last decade, Arsenal fans have conditioned themselves to not get too excited over a couple big wins because they ever know when the team will have an unexpected slip up. Wednesday’s match with Huddersfield was set up to be the perfect trap game, with the big Manchester United match looming on the horizon. Instead, the Gunners put in the sort of dominating performance that they, as a big club, should come to expect against teams that were in the Championship this time last season.
For Arsene Wenger and his players, the question has never been about ability. The club have been searching for answers to the psychological block that seems to cripple their confidence at least once a season, and the hiring of the sport psychologist responsible for helping the South African “All Blacks” take home a Rugby World Cup a year ago represented a significant effort to do so. Dr. Ceri Evans was first consulted by Arsenal last season, and while his work with the players is closely guarded, it continues the trend of a club searching for answers in all aspects of the game, trying to find that edge to help compete against their cash bloated rivals.
Pure, unadulterated class. That is what Mesut Ozil brings to the table when he is in top form. No player, in a team full of great passers, sees the pitch like the German maestro does. There are some players who play at top speed for the entire match because that is what they must do to be effective. Not Ozil. He glides around the attacking third, ball glued to his left foot (and I mean, like, only his left foot), arriving subtly into danger areas, and giving defenders fits with his precise ball placement and movement.
On Wednesday, Ozil was irresistible. He added two assists and a goal to his season tallies, with his assist on Olivier Giroud’s first goal an absolute masterpiece of the pass and move aesthetic. Watching he and Sanchez engaged in the match and displaying affection for their teammates is enough to warm a Gooner’s heart, but of course such success brings a wave of departure speculation up from the indefatigable media, who seem to have taken a special interest in incensing Arsenal fans since the club made on journalist look foolish. All coincidental, I’m sure…
Whether Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal teams are winning games or not, they are almost always scoring goals. With their hyper attacking style and quality in the forward positions, seldom are fans worried about the attack when wondering whether or not the club can challenge for the title in a given season. Instead, questions about whether or not the defence is good enough have followed the Gunners for years, with many wondering if Wenger can still compete in a league full of master tacticians and their orderly and comprehensive defensive structures with his full-bore attacking one. After opening the season by conceding eight goals in August, the Gunners tightened up at the back, and have come away with the clean sheet in three of their last four matches.
While the effort at the back has been much improved, Arsenal have clearly rededicated themselves to their defensive shape on the training pitch, and it shows. Even when the other team gets into danger areas, the response is far more orderly and composed than it had been at the beginning of the season, when the defence collapsed at times into a pub league level shambles. The settling of Kolasinac at left wing back has helped immensely with stability, but the defence didn’t fully click until Shkodran Mustafi returned from injury. The German international had fallen out of the fans’ good graces since his signing last season, but a gutsy display in the FA Cup last season and his effort since returning to the lineup have started to win him back some fans. If the Gunners are to maintain their current run of form at the back, keeping he, Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal together on the pitch will be imperative.
With Arsenal in rare form at the moment, looking ahead to their big clash with Manchester United, they were unable to escape Wednesday’s romp without incident. Alexandre Lacazette was subbed off at half time with an apparent groin injury, and Arsene Wenger has already said he will miss the next match and likely some additional games as well. It comes as a huge blow to the Gunners, who have seen their good form coincide with Lacazette finally joining Ozil and Alexis Sanchez in the starting lineup. Heading into the weekend, Wenger will need to decide whether he will start Olivier Giroud, who came on and performed well for Lacazette against the Terriers, or Danny Welbeck, who makes up for his lack of finishing ability with his work rate and team-first approach. Neither make the Gunners as dynamic up front as they are with the Frenchman leading the line, but both have also been fixtures in the starting XI during some fruitful periods in the team’s form. Whoever gets the nod must make sure he is working for the team just as hard without the ball as with it, because against as expensive and well organised a side as Manchester United, they will need every advantage they can get.
Social media lit up on Wednesday with some of the Gunners’ American fans livid that the match could not be found on the television. As it turned out, this was their second of two matches that each club is forced to have televised through a premium application, which NBC Sports (the Premier League’s American content partner) charges the princely sum of $49.99 annually for. Far from opening a new and lucrative avenue for money to pour into their pockets, the national media powerhouse only succeeded in creating a massive demand for illegal, pirated content streams.
There is no debate that the secret to the league’s success and global financial pull is its brilliant distribution agreements all over the world, insuring almost every fan that wants to watch a team is able to. However, fans all over the world must hope that this kind of blatant money grab doesn’t expand beyond its current allotment, as this kind of divide-and-sell-every-piece model will quickly turn fans away. In a football mad country like England, providers can and do provide premium content packages to grudging, but ultimately willing, fans, but in a country that has had so much trouble adopting the sport in the same way, the game will only be hurt. Americans don’t love their “soccer” the way the rest of the world does, and while these kinds of premium content packages are rabidly popular among fans of the country’s 4 major sports, creating such a prohibitive cost barrier to quality football matches will only stunt its popularity in the nation of “would you like cheese on that?” Shame on you FA and NBC Universal. Shame on you.