It’s that time of the campaign again, when the spotlight is fixed on Arsenal for a number of reasons. A period when observers are either itching to see how the Gunners falter in their title hunt, or watch how Arsene rallies his troops to end a challenging season with a top 4 finish. In this case, it’s probably the latter.
I tagged 2013/2014 as the ‘midfield season’ for obvious reasons. However, it’s fair to say this campaign can be remembered as the ‘counter press’ season. I mean we’ve consistently been treated to goals that have come out of counter attacking moves, as well as counter pressing tactics. An approach that I believe suits the UEFA Champions League. This fusion of counter-attack and counter-pressing has been down to a number of players, notably star signing Alexis Sanchez and mercurial Spaniard, Santi Cazorla and it’s no coincidence the Gunners have thrived from this approach since the arrival of the Chilean and the return of the latter to a central role
Alexis and Santi have given Arsenal a new look
Wins against Manchester City, Borrussia Dortmund, Newcastle, West Ham, Galatasaray etc have shown how Alexis, Cazorla and co. are consistently throwing sucker punches at their opponents. It hasn’t always been pretty, but it surely has had promising rewards. However, the beauty of these rewards is the fact that points have been gathered from not only the brilliance of Alexis Sanchez and Santi Cazorla, but from a long list of player combinations, arguably the largest in recent years.
In the first half of the season, the front four of Santi, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, Alexis & Danny Welbeck were arguably Arsenal’s best attacking quartet. This front four was full of industry, chemistry and enthusiasm. They pressed, harried, out-paced and out-thought opponents in breezing fashion and lit up what was a topsy-turvy opening three months of the season.
However since the return of Olivier Giroud and Mesut Ozil to fitness and form, the team not only looks more precise, but also more suited to a more balanced approach, not least because they can switch between driving counter attacking moves and quick combinations in the final third.
As we approach the Champions League, it would be interesting to see how the Gunners shuffle between vision and drive. Alex enjoying Alexis’ company.
An unsung hero that has consistently shown his potential to match vision with drive this season is Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, and he’s certainly made for the Champions League. It’s no coincidence he scored his 1st Arsenal goal in the UCL and has had blinders against famous UCL opposition like AC Milan and Bayern Munich. Already carving a niche for himself on the edge of the box and clearly thriving from playing alongside a worthy mentor in Alexis, the Ox has shown he’s a fast learner.
This also makes me confident his unfortunate time on the sidelines will help him work on his often too casual and naive nature in the final third. He still needs to perfect his final ball and decision-making especially when on full throttle but at 21 and plagued with a number of serious injuries so far in his time at the Emirates, it’s completely understandable to have such weaknesses.
In furtherance, Chamberlain’s English teammate, Kieran Gibbs has also shown huge improvements in his game in the last twelve months. The fullback has perhaps benefited from the stiff competition with Nacho Montreal (another much improved player) but might be more suited to the UCL, particularly due to his ability to link up with Olivier Giraud and Alexis Sanchez on the counter, like we’ve seen in games against Liverpool, Hull City and Middlesbrough. However, aside being proactive on the counter, another important tool for succeeding in the Champions League is possessing the ability to intelligently snuff out danger, and give the team the license to once again begin these cycles of attacks
This is exactly what Coquelin has brought to the team, giving this side a defensive and offensive balance. The 24-year-old gets his foot on just about everything and still gets to make near-perfect decisions after winning possession. The French man’s composure, technique, tenacity and intelligence are a rare fusion for a screener.
This makes his combination with the equally disciplined Santi Cazorla seem like an upgrade on the highly impressive Flamini-Fabregas partnership that looked on course to give Arsenal Champions League success.
Arsene sticking with a French spine?
With Coquelin, Arsenal look more assured in central midfield and despite the fact that I’ve campaigned severally for an Alexis-esque centre-forward, I have to admit the brilliance Olivier Giroud has shown this term. Fully at the peak of his powers, the 28-year-old has shown how capable he is of leading a star-studded attack and his trademark near-post strikes show the consistency of his brilliant movement.
Let’s face it, Oli is here to stay and he could completely win everyone over with a couple of Champions League snapshots.
Arsenal are slowly achieving their end goal of coalescence and would do no wrong by strengthening their fine merger of counter pressing and quick combinations by throwing more sucker punches in the UCL knock-out stages.