22 September 2013

Arsenal 3-1 Stoke: the Prem's not ready for Özil

I guess Aaron Ramsey doesn't read my blog as often as I led myself to believe. There was apparently no reconciliation, no redemption, no Hallmark moment between he and Shawcross. Instead, Ramsey simply put the Potters on their arses with a fifth minute goal, slotting home nicely after Begovic managed to parry Özil's free-kick, the
first of a remarkable three goals from set-pieces. Indeed, at times, it seemed like the two teams had swapped kits, with Stoke nearly winning the possession game (finishing at 49% but holding the ball for long stretches) while Arsenal seemed content to park the bus after going ahead early, soaking up pressure and launching the occasional counter-attack. As such, it was hardly a vintage Arsenal win, but it's gratifying to see the lads dig in and nab three points in their third match in eight days.

Speaking of gratification, it was wonderful to see Ramsey score the opener. Afterwards, of course, he treated our visitors with great grace and dignity, shushing them ever so gently so that they could enjoy the moment. Booing, after all, is in such bad taste, especially when one finds oneself in an unfamiliar setting.

However, the story of the day is Mesut Özil. On a day when many teammates looked a bit worse for wear, especially in the second half, Özil delivered three assists (if you give him credit for one on Ramsey's goal). Some of the talk leading into this match focused on how well Özil might fare in the Prem, especially facing one of its infamously most-rugged clubs. Arsène worried that the German would need time to adapt to the "vigorous body challenges he will face". While Stoke have softened somewhat, they're still a bit more brass-knuckle than they are tiki-taka. In fact, if there's a hazing involved in coming to the Prem and adapting to the physicality, you might as well face Stoke, and Özil came through with flying colors.

At some point, well find someone to discuss other than Ramsey or Özil, but, truth be told, they're the story of the season so far. Ramsey's gone for six goals in seven matches after getting just seven goals in his previous 109 Arsenal appearances. As for Özil? In just three appearances now (Sunderland, Marseille, Stoke), he's tallied a remarkable twelve key passes—averaging four per game. Of course, that number is bolstered by the seven he had against Stoke, including three from set-pieces. That number may seem like an outlier, but he will probably be the team's #1 choice for corners and spot-kicks. We may not always see conversions like we did today, but his quality is evident. Say what you will against Shawcross or Huth, but it's not for nothing that Özil found Mertesacker and Sagna for goals, and it's not every day that you can put three past Begovic.

Özil's skill on the ball, and his ability to elevate the games of those around him, may very well do more for our prospects than Higuain or Suarez ever could have (let's not enter the debate over how well we'd fare with Özil and one of those. That ship has sailed). Of course, he hasn't faced any of the Prem's best defenders or midfielders yet, and it's only a matter of time before managers figure out some way to slow him down, whether it's by assigning someone to follow him every where he goes, parking two banks of four defenders behind the ball, or hacking at him. Then again, he's certainly come up against all of that and more before, and we'll certainly seem him adjust as he adapts. For as good as he was at Real Madrid, he's entering a phase of his career and working with a manager renowned for forging players into superstars, and we may just be seeing the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

His continued bedding-in, along with the return to fitness of men like Wilshere (still working back to full fitness), Vermaelen (an unused sub), Arteta (who came on at 80'), and the impending returns of Cazorla and the Ox, this is a club that is already at the top of the Prem and looking to get stronger. Sure, Spurs look to improve as their new signings learn to play with each other, and it's only a matter of time before Chelsea, Man U, and Man City get their acts together. It will be December, with all of its various fixtures, before we know where we really stand.

Before we look too far ahead, though, let's relish where we stand now, atop the Prem despite Spurs' best-ever start in club history and because of our own strong one. Of course, we only have a few days to catch our breath before visiting West Brom. The season is still in its early stages, but the signs all point in the right direction.

As part of the celebration, I hope you'll consider voting for Woolwich 1886 in the Football Blogging Awards. We're contending for a best #New blog; click the image above to cast your ballot through twitter. If you're not on twitter, click here to vote via email. Thanks!