You didn’t really expect that Arsene Wenger would go out quietly, did you? Yes, whether it is because of some masochistic desire to keep trying despite the negative noise, a fierce pride that borders on familial, or perhaps just managerial talent, Le Prof once again has his side playing inspired football, which continued on Wednesday with their 2-0 defeat of Southampton at St. Mary’s. Though there is definitely a fear that the club have left it too late to turn on the winning form again this season, they have largely taken their opportunities recently, an uninspiring capitulation to local rivals Tottenham a little over a week ago aside.
Southampton did not make three points easy for the Gunners, as it took 60 minutes and a bit of Ozil to Alexis magic to break the deadlock. The first goal came in the middle of a 20 minute period that constituted some of the first real end-to-end action of the match. After yet another goal as a substitute for Olivier Giroud, the Gunners were able to hold on for the win against Wenger’s former pupil at Monaco, Claude Puel.
Here are my five key talking points from the match:
One in, One out
In the news leading up to the match, as well as in Arsene Wenger’s press conference, it appeared that Laurent Koscielny was likely to miss the match. This was (and still is) a cause for concern for the club, as they seem to allow a lot more goals without the Frenchman at the heart of the defence. Luckily the blow of missing our best defender was softened by the return of summer signing, Shkodran Mustafi. The German international had a very solid match, recovering quickly from a sloppy challenge early on to help his team keep the clean sheet. Truth be told, although the Gunners came away from St. Mary’s without conceding a goal, the back line looks far less comfortable than when it is being anchored by Koscielny. Mustafi has a very aggressive, front footed defending style, which is a habit that needs changing if he wants to stay in the centre of a back three. His best fit in this system is most likely as one of the flanking centre backs, perhaps with Rob Holding on the other side as well.
Unfortunately, the Gunner’s were unable to make it out of Southampton unscathed. For what feels like the fifth time this season, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain suffered what appeared to be a hamstring injury. Having drawn heaps of praise for his work rate and dynamism up and down the right flank, Arsenal may find themselves missing him right as he was hitting one of the richest veins of form in his career. Without question, he offers Arsenal the most going forward from that right wing back position, but perhaps against a team that sees more of the ball, specifically down the flanks, having Hector Bellerin in that spot gives the Gunners a bit more cover in defence. For Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, it has now become a race against to time to be fit again for any of the remaining matches as well as the fast approaching FA Cup final against Chelsea. If the club are to have a chance against the first place Blues, they will need every player on hand that they can muster.
When Arsenal were finally able to break down the Southampton defence to put one past goalkeeper Fraser Forster, it was a moment of sublime class from the club’s two best players: Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez. It seemed that the team had been working on flicks on and the return of more Arsenal style quick and crisp passes in training this week and it showed. For the first time since the formational shift, Arsenal were able to move the ball with ease and authority. On the goal, Ozil was able to find Alexis with a sneaky pass, allowing the Chilean to turn two defenders inside out before cutting back and firing the left-footed shot past the goalkeeper.
Mesut Ozil, who has been receiving the usual amount (read: most) of blame for every time Arsenal lose, has been putting in far better efforts recently. His work rate has picked up and he has been getting on the ball a lot more in the danger areas. While the production still hasn’t been up to his usual levels for several months now, it spells good news for the club that he appears to be fighting for the team here in the last month of the season. There is a cheekiness to the way he plays when on song, and the last couple matches have seen him start to exert himself in attack again. Whether he is trying to land a huge new contract or he just wants to win, a motivated Mesut Ozil paired with a never unmotivated Alexis Sanchez is a frightening proposition for any defence in the Premier League
Making 3-4-3 Their Own
The first time we saw this new look formation in the West Ham match, most fans were stunned. After all, Arsene Wenger had said this season that it is not a formation that works with his and Arsenal’s aggressively attacking principles. At first, it seemed as though he had a point. Though the results started coming, with the victory at West Ham and only losing once to the Spurs since, at first, it was not very pretty. The players, unfamiliar with the new system, were hesitant to stray far from where they were supposed to be, playing with very little confidence. Mesut Ozil, in particular, found himself isolated wide out to the right as the team struggled for fluency in possession.
Although conceded goals subsided when the formational shift was made, the attack suffered tremendously. With a lot of open space in the midfield, it seemed Arsenal was struggling to control the ball, and often, the partnership in the centre, especially as in the Tottenham match, was repeatedly over run, and even the normally industrious Alexis Sanchez was unable to receive the ball with enough space to make a play. Meanwhile, Mesut Ozil initially served very little purpose on the right wing when Arsenal had the bad on attack. While there may had been an uptick in the team’s record, it was not a confidence inspiring site.
Since the Tottenham match, Arsenal seem to be coming into their own in the system. Alexis and Ozil are both doing more to get into the dangerous areas in the front of goal, and Ramsey and Xhaka have figured their roles out extremely well in the midfield. Danny Welbeck replacing Olivier Giroud in the starting XI has been vital both to the midfield having more room to operate and to having some real speed up top to get underneath a long ball. The team has also started to play and flow like an Arsenal team should again, playing quick 1-2s and using intricate combinations to blow past defenders like they are standing still. With every passing match we see more comfort and instinctual play from the squad as they continue to “put on last season’s tactical skinny jeans” and discover that they actually fit quite well.
Top Four Now in Sight
It seems as though it was only last week (because, well… it kinda was) the thought of Arsenal making it into the top four was remote indeed. Here we are now a week through May, and as they have turned their games-in-hand into victories and points, the possibility is once again there for the taking, provided they do get a little help. While we know that it isn’t likely the top of the Champions League would be affected whether or not Arsenal make it back, it would still feel quite odd not seeing Arsenal compete on a Tuesday and a Wednesday during the season. A trip to the Europa League and its hellacious scheduling would appear to be almost a worse scenario than missing all European competition for a club not in desperate need of the financial lift. Where this issue may be most important is in the Transfer Window, as, short of paying Manchester United level wages, clubs that miss out often lose appeal to prospective players.
Given that they have left it until quite possibly too late this year, it should not surprise anyone if Arsenal end up missing out on Champions League football next season. However, if the club continue to show this sort of fight and resilience heading into the summer, the same two questions that typically surround the team annually around this time of year are as follows: where was this effort throughout the entire middle half of the season and has Arsene Wenger done enough to deserve to stay in charge of Arsenal Football Club? With three league games to go and the FA Cup final, hope, may yet have a place at the Emirates.