Date: 12th January 2015 at 12:00am
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You’ve got to earn the right to play football so says one of football’s many clichés but it is one that can be applied to our performance in this game. Despite Mark Hughes’ insistence that they don’t seek to bully their opponents the physical aspect of their play is still pretty evident. But Arsenal weren’t bullied. We harried and chased and closed down for 90 minutes. We won more of the tackles, aerial duels and interceptions while still making more passes more accurately and creating more chances. For once we managed a fair degree of defensive solidity without sacrificing attacking threat.

I’ve long thought that we need at least two of Cazorla, Ozil and Rosicky on the pitch at the same time to create the attacking threat while retaining possession in the areas that matter. At one point we had all three on the pitch but with the dynamic presence of Sanchez also buying into the need to keep control of the ball Cazorla and Rosicky ran the show.

Cazorla has of late been in a rich vein of form which he continued to mine in this contest with 115 touches, 97 passes with 93% completion aided and abetted by Rosicky whose 82 touches and 72 passes with 90% accuracy when combined made up more than a third of all the passes the team made. When, as in this game, Alexis plays with the same amount of control then the effectiveness of their work is magnified. With 83% pass completion, given the areas of the pitch he is most productive in, Alexis in this form not only makes himself but the whole team more productive.

The first goal was a great example of control and intelligence. Instead of trying to take on defenders from his position wide on the left as he picked up the ball from Koscielny breaking out of the opposition box Alexis watched and waited as Kos headed straight back from whence he came before putting a pinpoint cross onto his now perfectly positioned and at the same time unmarked head for the centre back to nod decisively into the net. We’ve all seen Alexis’ industry and tenacity but seeing him make this kind of intelligent decision and execution, anticipating and understanding the movement of his team mates, shows that we may really only just be beginning to see the very best of him. Now there’s a thought to savour.

Rosicky is a player who has long held that ability to make quick intelligent decisions and usually execute them with precision. His one touch exchange of passes with Sanchez to set up the second goal was classic Rosicky. At 34 years of age much of his career seems behind him but on this form, closing down and harrying for possession well into the closing minutes, he still seems to have plenty to offer of real value. He had 20 touches of the ball in the first 30 minutes of the game and 28 in the final 30 minutes. Maybe the couple of years injury took from his Arsenal career left something in the muscles for him to draw on now.

It was good to see what is probably our first pick back four in harness together at the start of the game even if it only lasted 10 minutes courtesy of an unnecessary push from Arnautovic which left Debuchy with a dislocated shoulder taking no further part in the game. That Bellerin acquitted himself well still leaves us without Debuchy`s experience at an important time. On the other flank Monreal, not left unscarred either by his encounter with Stoke’s ball playing artists, is making a genuine case to be considered first choice left back. If anything his stint at centre back has brought out the quality of his defensive game making tackles, winning a number of headers and making more interceptions than any other player. Whatever defensive resources we might add this month our greatest need is to keep our existing preferred defenders out on the pitch as often as possible.

Coquelin might not be the tried and tested DM that many have been clamouring for but he has shown some genuine ability making tackles and winning a surprising number of headers. He is maturing quickly and it would be perfectly understandable if, with Flamini now fit and Arteta maybe not too far away and in the absence of a clear and positive addition being available, the decision to look at that position was deferred until the summer.

I’d seen a stat bandied around this week that this was the worst 20 game points tally in Wenger’s tenure along with claims that this proved we were a clueless and directionless side. Now that stat has changed and it is only the worst 21 game points tally since the season before last. The more pertinent point though is that even with a poor 20 game points tally we were still only 4 points off third spot and less superficial analysis would reveal that there have been quite a few seasons when we’ve had more points at the 20 game stage and been further behind 3rd place. Now we’re just 3 points off third and while City and Chelsea may be too far ahead to contemplate finishing higher than that 3rd seems attainable.

Tellingly though only 9 points separate 3rd from 9th and our stuttering start-stop season needs to stop stuttering and start turning in more of the controlled and balanced performance we saw today. If we’ve been seen as a side that has started well in a number of seasons only to see as fade at the tail end of the season now is the time to prove the reverse is also possible. It should be an exciting ride!