Arsenal fans can be forgiven if they suffered a few ugly flashbacks yesterday during the Gunners’ Champions League game at Ludogorets. After a few seasons of ugly starts and scraping out qualifications by the skin of their teeth, this was a year that promised to be different. But, within the first quarter of an hour, Ludogorets had carved a 2-0 lead and every Arsenal fan thought “oh, here we go again.”
Fortunately, this year’s Arsenal is different. An immediate push back found them level at half time and a late moment of sheer brilliance bagged three points and early qualification for the knockout stages for the fourteenth straight season. It was a rough game for Arsenal, particularly on defense, but they saw it out. Might be time to start believing this group is ready to take the next step.
Mesut Özil. Might as well just pin his name to the top of this list every game he plays. Maybe even the ones he doesn’t. What’s left to say about Özil? He’s the heart of this team and he pulled their feet from the fire, again. He’ll do it again, too; of that I have no doubt. Setting up Granit Xhaka for the first goal, providing the ball to Aaron Ramsey out wide leading to the equalizer, and then blinding us all with sheer wonder with the winner at the very death of the game. Özil is thriving in Arsenal’s midfield and attack in a way we’ve rarely seen from him, racking up goals like they were... Özil assists, actually. There is nothing this man can’t do.
Olivier Giroud. Displaced by Alexis Sanchez, Giroud has been dubbed Plan B. Well, with three goals in two games since his return, he’s showing us why Plan B is still a good plan. Providing a target man against an organized Ludogorets side, Giroud was involved for much of the game, distributing well and was able to make space for the rest. It wasn’t the flashiest of games but his contributions were valued. And hey, who was that making a solid tackle allowing Mohamed Elneny to get the ball to Özil?
Ludogorets. Give them credit, this was a prepared side. Both Ludogoretz and Basel have largely been the whipping boys of Group A, neither collecting a win and sitting on a point each from their tie on match day one. With time running out, it feels like whatever side could get something out of their remaining games against Arsenal and PSG would claim the Europa League spot. Today, they were up for it and deserved full credit for their lead. Nor did they capitulate to endless defense after Arsenal stormed back. If not for some last ditch defending, Ludogorets could have retaken their lead, finding their way through an unusually shaky Arsenal defense. On a different day, they would be celebrating a great win, or draw, sending Arsenal back to London to face the same old criticisms.
Arsenal Defense. A little while ago, it was how many goals weren’t being scored on Arsenal. But with a mere two changes, resting the first choice fullbacks, the backline felt unsettled and porous. Carl Jenkinson was OK but inconsistent. Kieran Gibbs had a shocker. Koscielny forgot he knew who Mustafi was. This was all deadly apparent on Ludogorets second goal, with Gibbs getting downright schooled and neither Koscielny or Mustafi picking up Claudiu Keseru who had slipped in between them. It has to be better.
Nor can the defenders ahead of them be held blameless. Francis Coquelin was doing his rove-around-wherever-the-ball-was bit, while Granit Xhaka did his best to remember where he should be in lieu of that, while the wingers lacked the pace or wherewithal to track back effectively. All in all, it was a day to forget and hopefully won’t repeat on the weekend.
David Ospina and his Concrete Boots. Harsh, maybe, but I wouldn’t say Ospina was good yesterday. Given the enviable spot of Champions League goalkeeper, one needs to play like one. In the first half, Ospina found himself lead-footed on both Ludogorets goals, reacting to neither one of them very well and making a few other curious choices. He saved some face in the second half with some good challenges but the damage was done. This was not like his performance in the first three matches, which were very good. Wake up call time.
Set pieces. In the past, I have stated that set pieces are hard to defend against. You expect goals to happen because it is a clear advantage to attack. Yesterday, Arsenal looked amateurish defending them. Ludogorets is not a team of world beaters but had a handful of very good opportunities all from set pieces that Arsenal defense bungled. I think I can tell what the drills will be for the next week or so.