Thursday, February 29, 2024

Arsenal 1-0 Newcastle: Ozil’s quality wins it as Maitland-Niles catches the eye again

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Sometimes, when you’re a team that’s low on confidence and struggling for form, you need somebody to provide something special to win you a game. Yesterday, midway through the first half, Mesut Ozil did just that.

The German’s goal was a thing of beauty, a finish that would have stood out and been remembered even if the match itself had been a whirlwind of excitement – so on a day when we found it hard to perform anywhere near our best it shone even more brightly.

It began with Alex Iwobi cutting the ball back across the box for Alexis Sanchez, whose initial shot was blocked. It’s a small thing, but I don’t think we should overlook the fact that the Chilean didn’t just stand and watch as the ball looped high into the air, he contested the header with the defender, ensuring that his clearance didn’t get the distance he would have liked.

Ozil watched it like a hawk, waited for it to fall, took a couple of steps backwards to get himself into the right position, then hit a beautiful looping volley up and over everyone which then looped in perfectly underneath the crossbar. It was technically perfect, he made something quite difficult look very easy, and in the end it was a goal that deserved to win a game.

The issue, of course, was that from the 24th minute onwards, we found it more and more difficult to make chances, and as things progressed you could sense the nervousness from the players as they wobbled a bit and allowed Newcastle back into it:

Arsene Wenger spoke about the inability to score often enough before the match, saying, “You know if you have not scored in the last 10 minutes you will have to go through one moment, they will find one moment, one free kick or corner where you’ll be in trouble and that’s what could’ve happened at West Ham.

“That’s where you sit there you can lose the game where you’ve have 70 per cent of the ball.”

This wasn’t a case of losing the game, but dropping two points that we really, badly needed. Petr Cech made a couple of saves, there was one shot which deflected just wide as the keeper was going the other way, and a late header which flew past the post with Cech rooted to the spot. I know I talk about fine margins deciding games, but we’ve been far too generous in recent weeks with the kind of chances we’ve given the opposition, and I think a bit fortunate not to have been punished more severely.

As he did on Wednesday, Wenger stuck with the back four – the very same back four too, giving Ainsley Maitland-Niles another go at left back. Once again the 20 year acquitted himself very well in a position that is not his own, and afterwards the manager was full of praise for him, saying:

I believe he is the future. He can play left-back, right-back, midfield. Of the three positions maybe the less natural for him is left-back but he adapts very quickly and is a good defender. He has that sense in the the one against one he is very strong.

Whether he’s there because Kolasinac is struggling with injury or form (or both) remains unclear, but what strikes me is that the qualities the manager talks about could easily be applied to Maitland-Niles’ favoured position in central midfield. This is Wenger talking about him in September:

His best position is central defensive midfielder. He has great quality, exceptional pace, capacity to steal the ball without making fouls. I’m convinced he is ready to play.

The centre of midfield, even with the extra man in there, doesn’t feel quite right at the moment. I’m not sure Xhaka, Wilshere and Ozil – who started the the game playing far too deep for a man of his creative talent – is the right balance, and the Swiss in particular is finding it tough going at the moment.

I don’t think he was quite as bad as some have said, but there’s no doubt that yesterday he had moments of carelessness with the ball that could have been more costly. He’s started every Premier League game this season, maybe he could do with a bit of a rest, and if Maitland-Niles is what Wenger says he is, then why not give him a chance there at this stage?

It would mean better balance to the back four, and down the left-hand side, while addressing some of the issues that continue to trouble us in the centre of the park. At the very least he has demonstrated that he’s not overawed when asked to perform at this level, so it’s worth considering.

I know Wenger likes to blood players in wide positions before moving them inside, but as well as Maitland-Niles has done, it can only be a temporary thing playing him at left-back, and if his performances merit a place in the side let’s see how he goes where he’s going to play for the rest of his career.

All in all, not a particularly impressive performance, we didn’t create too many clear cut chances – Giroud’s knock-down for Wilshere in the second half was one, and Lacazette’s decision to try a chip when he could have fired low across the goalkeeper was one which I suspect the Frenchman will regret this morning.

However, we needed three points, we got three points, and before we face Liverpool on Friday night, we have the quarter-final of the Carabao Cup against West Ham to consider. It’s likely to be a team selected with the Mugsmashers in mind, so we’ll have to ask the kids and the fringe players to really step up, but we can address that during the week.

James and I will be here tomorrow with an Arsecast Extra, please join us for that, and in the meantime have a greatland-niles Sunday.

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