September 20, 2013
The opening day loss to Aston Villa filled many the Gooner with fear. We dropped points, picked up injuries and looked rather shaky. Not exactly the formula for a positive outlook.
But now – just over one month later – that game looks to be the exception rather than the rule. We notched our third straight win in the Premier League in Saturday's 3-1 win at Sunderland. And Wednesday's 2-1 victory in Marseille not only got us off to a strong start in the Champions League Group Stage but it also marked our 10th consecutive road win.
And there was plenty to like about both games. Mesut Ozil made his Arsenal debut and displayed the kind of impact he can have within 12 minutes. The German's incredible first touch and sublime passing set up Olivier Giroud's opening goal and nearly set up another before 30 minutes were up. Aaron Ramsey continued his incredible form with two second half goals to put the game away.
A moment of controversy came in the second half over a disallowed Sunderland goal. Jozy Altidore shrugged off Bacary Sagna on the edge of the area and mnanaged to get off a shot that beat Wojciech Szczesny and crossed the goal line. But Sunderland's rejoicing was short lived as the referee had blown the whistle for a foul on Sagna.
Still, the main talking point of the game was Ozil's debut. Wenger noted that his new signing "looked very comfortable," and discussed the key characteristics of Ozil's style of play. "His final pass and his retention of the ball gives everybody time to move."
Those passes left his teammates in awe. Giroud, who teamed up with Ozil to set up Ramsey's second goal, said "He has a fantastic, lovely first touch so it is really easy to find each other, especially for the third goal." And Ramsey commented, "He has a wonder of a left foot. He caresses the ball and the passes seem to be of a perfect weight and right into people's strides."
Ramsey, of course, was no slouch himself. His play in the midfield was as impressive as ever and he has already scored more goals this season than in any of his previous five. Not that any of that surprises Wenger.
But the manager pointed out something more abstract that stood out against Sunderland. "We have seen another aspect of our game - that is mental resources and [the ability to] dig a victory out."
The boss has always spoken about mental strength in the squad, but this season it seems especially strong. Jack Wilshere explained what could be behind that. “We all get on really well here," he said. "We've got a great set of lads and we've been together for four or five years now, most of us. We're starting to build a real friendship and I think that's shown on the pitch.”
Acting skipper Per Mertesacker agreed. "We have an exceptional team - that’s the main thing," he said. "We built up confidence from last season, especially the last 10 games when we didn’t lose anything. You could feel it from the first day that there is something special in this team."
That set up Wednesday's Champions League clash against Marseille. Two seasons ago we eked out a last second win courtesy of Ramsey. This year the match was again incredibly tight. Marseille was dangerous for most of the night and forced Szszesny to make several big saves. But Arsenal struck first midway through the second half when Theo Walcott opened his account for the season with a powerful volley from close range. Ramsey added a second 20 minutes later – and it's a good thing he did. With just seconds remaining, the Welshman was ruled to trip Andre Ayew just inside the penalty area and Marseille got their consolation goal from the spot.
After the game Wenger raved about Ramsey. "Honestly, I didn't expect him to score so many goals. He's especially improved in his passing, his technical quality… For me the most important thing is the quality of his game."
Ramsey took it all very much in stride and pointed to the team element of the win. "We've tried to defend as well as we can as a team," he said. "I feel like the team has grown much stronger in that department over the last couple of seasons. We showed that if we continue to try to play the way that we want to, something will happen in the end. It did and we took our chances."
Walcott's goal is evident of that. Kieran Gibbs sent in a lovely cross, but it was Theo that took advantage of a misstep by Marseille's full back. He showed great technique and he insists it's a good sign of things to come. "It meant a lot getting off the mark [for the season]. Hopefully there are going to be more to come now. I started pretty late last year and I finished as top goalscorer so it's a good sign. I'm pretty sure of that."
Putting the revelry of the wins aside for a moment, there were a couple of blemishes. Both wins –especially the latter – could have ended with clean sheets for Arsenal but for two goals from penalties. Neither was completely clear cut, but in each case an Arsenal player made in reasonably easy for the referee to point to the spot.
The other bit of bad news came before the Sunderland game when we learned that Santi Cazorla picked up an ankle injury and is expected to miss a few weeks. A few weeks ago that would have been absolutely devastating, but it has been tempered by Ozil's arrival, Ramsey's form, and now Mikel Arteta's return to fitness. The Spaniard returned to training this week and could even make the squad this weekend.
Looking ahead to Sunday, Stoke looks to have become an improved version of themselves under new manager- and old, dear friend - Mark Hughes. While the new Stoke has not disposed of their old strengths of set-piece play and aerial duels, they now are playing much more proactive football. But we can still expect a tough-tackling side that will not make things easy for us on either end of the pitch.
It's an early kickoff which means Gooners on the West Coast will be up before 5 a.m. If you can’t bring yourself to make it to the pub that early, the game will be aired on CNBC in the USA and Sportsnet in Canada.
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