Arsenal treated us to nice and relatively easy win over the weekend in FA Cup. We love a good win and after our past few games being a mixed bag of results it was great for us to come out of the gate looking to win instead of just coast past a lower level opponent. A win leaves us with a quiet week as we move forward to face Crystal Palace this weekend.
Wenger changed the lineup as we expected he would. He gave a several players a rest, including, Mertesacker, Bellerin, Monreal and Ospina. This meant that Gabriel received his first start in an Arsenal shirt. I was eager to see what he could do and how he performed with Koscielny. In a match were we were dominant it can be difficult to judge a defensive player but I think he did his job well and should ease the pressure off our other defenders and our minds. He made several tackles include a much needed last ditch one in the box to clear a goal scoring chance. He also picked up a defenders yellow when Middlesbrough broke through our midfield and he took out the player. Sure, we tend to get mad at opposition players when it happens against us but you do want your defenders to do that every once in a while to establish a strong presence.
Continuing with the defense, our fullbacks played well, particularly Gibbs who was starting over the rested Monreal. For starters, his pass to Giroud was perfect for the Frenchman to slot home for the opening goal. He was a threat all match with his crossing and he even managed to get into the box for a couple shots on goal. He was clearly making his case to win the starting spot back from Monreal. Chambers was also solid and excusing a few young player/rusty mistakes should be applauded for his performance. When, or more appropriately, if or players get fully fit we have a great selection players from front to back for Wenger to decide on when selecting our starting XI.
Ozil and Giroud have both come back from injury looking better than ever. Giroud, while not the fastest player to ever put on boots is showing why Wenger continues to show faith in him with his positioning and passing ability. Giroud has caught a lot of flak from fans in the past for his lack of pace and for good reason. We tend to play through balls to players like Walcott, Ox and Rosicky who are known for going to the direct route and beating players with more speed. Giroud, frankly, couldn't outrun a parked car on some days and playing a quick through ball just ends up being collected by the keeper or cleared by a defender. His strength is his size and positioning. Watch both goals from the weekend again. Giroud moved into open space when the defenders were focused on other areas. Alexis, Cazorla and Ozil draw attention because they are the threats on the ball if you isolate them then they can't play the passes to our attackers. This plays into our hands because it allows for Giroud to get into spaces between defenders. He set up both his runs by using the focus of the defenders to his advantage. He slipped into the space and finished from tight angles for both goals. Also on display was his strength to hold the ball up, which has always been Wenger's favored method for playing him centrally. He can receive the ball at the edge of the penalty area and set up passes for onrushing midfielders like Cazorla or Ramsey.
We started on the front foot and established dominance early. I was pleased with how we weren't content to let Middlesbrough have the ball and set the tempo. We took the game to them and played on our terms. With Wenger's latest defensive tactics, we have shown the opposition plenty of the ball and this has led to some nervy games but also one of our best with the win over City. I am not advocating the abandonment of our new defensive set up. I am giving Wenger credit for setting up his team to the opposition rather than sit with a standard set of tactics and forcing them in every match no matter who we are playing against. What works against one team may not work against another. The same applies with players as well, some players don't always work well together when in various positions. It may be too early to tell but it looks like the stubborn Wenger may finally be adapting to the progressive style and flow of the game.
Wenger will always be loved in the hearts of fans but his unwillingness to change his setup has been a point of contention to a lot of fans. The lack of a “plan B” in games where our ticky-tacky passing plays are not coming off has been incredibly frustrating. I feel like after the City game, we were all commending Wenger for playing City in a new, smarter way. Then we go full throttle against Villa and it works. After that is the match against our scummy neighbors and it doesn't work even though we played our defensive minded game. The more attacking style worked to a mixed degree against Leicester and finally the attack first tactic works against Middlesbrough. What we are seeing is Wenger toying more with the setup against various opponents. The defensive experiment failed against Spuds because the sat off too much and gave them too much respect. This allowed them to grow into the game and establish their tempo. When we play the defensive game, we need to be the dictators of the tempo because without controlling the game we end up just chasing it even when we lead. Games against lesser opposition we are playing with a more cavalier style letting Cazorla be the playmaker. Hopefully we are seeing a new Wenger and a new Arsenal as we set up for the final leg of the season.
Coming up this weekend is the match away at Crystal Palace, where I hope to see Wenger set up again with the confident, aggressive mindset. A win is a must. Before I end this though I have to mention our next opponent in the FA Cup: Manchester United at Old Trafford. They beat Preston with some questionable goals and dive called for a penalty. I know it is not the most ideal match up but I think our confidence is high right now and let's face it, we are due a good win over them and what time better than defeating them on the way to Wembley?
Stay safe and warm Queen City Gooners. I know this winter weather isn't loved by all of you but I quite enjoy it.