02 February 2014

Arsenal 2-0 Palace: Who needs Drax when we have Ox?

After a tepid first half saw us dominate possession without having much to show for it, a brilliant pair of goals from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain offered both relief and inspiration as we finally saw off Crystal Palace to reclaim our position atop the table. It's not just that he's the 8th Gunner to bag a brace on the season, it's the position from which he did so—defensive midfield. He was a revelation through the middle and starting deep, and he added a directness that we sometimes lacked even while dominating possession on the day.

Throughout the first half, it seemed as if the only goals we would settle for scoring would be replays of the infamous Norwich goal, as we tried to ping the ball around the box, attempting sequences of three and four one-touch passes in hopes of once again passing the ball in. However, with eight and nine defenders in the box, and keeper Speroni doing well, we just couldn't replicate the moment, nor did we seem willing to try anything different, either.

Finally, just a few minutes into the second half, the lads tried a different approach, and it's no coincidence that it led to the first goal. With Palace still dropping back but not yet set up, Cazorla lofted it into the box. Strangely, all of the defenders had shaded to their left side, leaving their right flank completely exposed for the pass and for Ox's run. His first touch was a bit off, but he made no mistake on the second, chipping it with his left over the sprawling Speroni. It was just the kind of chance we needed, and it was exhilarating to see Ox get his first goal in more than a year.

With the idea of a 0-0 draw smashed, Palace had to press forward a bit more, and this opened up the field, creating more space for us to work both through counter-attacks and longer through-balls. Indeed, in the 72nd minute, Ox and Giroud played a quick 1-2 just past midfield that sprang Ox on a gallop into the box once more where, seeing defenders cut off the angle, he sliced sharply to his right and across the middle of the box to squirt a low shot past Speroni (who might have done better to make the save). The goal all but shut the door on a Crystal Palace team that has only scored 15 goals all season, and only five on the road.

Speaking after the match, Arsène said that "it was a great day for [Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain]. He was out for a long, long time, and we needed to be patient to get him back to full fitness. He had a great game and scored two great goals. I believe Chamberlain can play out wide or centrally. Certainly, in a few years he will be a central midfielder. He has that surge of power which is so vital in the game today. He is also a good finisher, and hopefully these two goals will give him some confidence as he is not always sure he is a good goalscorer." That idea of him as a central midfielder, whether as the more attacking half of that defensive pivot or as the central attacking midfielder, is no doubt an intriguing one. The comparisons to the likes of Steven Gerrard are a bit premature, but following a week in which we learned that Ramsey would be out for six more weeks, Flamini would miss three matches, Källström will be out until March, and we hadn't signed Draxler, it's reassuring to see that we still do have options, and a good ones, at that.

This is not to say that Ox could replicate this performance on a regular basis, but it was enough to remind us that, like Draxler, he's 20 and full of potential. Unlike Draxler, he's already a Gunner, already familiar with how we play and what goes on in the Prem. It's not like Crystal Palace were some kind of initiation into the Prem for Ox; he's already made 46 appearances for us. Playing alongside the veteran Arteta probably gave Ox a bit more confidence going forward and pressing up the pitch, and it's well-worth remembering that we seem to be at our best when we can play someone in the defensive midfield who wants to push the ball, whether's it's Ramsey or Wilshere or Ox, and support that man with a more defensive player who can shield the back four, break up attacks, and launch our own attacks. Earlier last week, after all, when we played Arteta and Flamini together, it resulted in a much staler performance. If Ox can be groomed to play that more-aggressive defensive midfield position, well, we saw what happened against Crystal Palace.

His pace, his dribble, and his eagerness to shoot are all vital contributions to a squad that sometimes features players too willing to pass rather than take on or blow past defenders. However, his youth and speed can lead to a dangerous combination, something that he's learning to control:
As a winger, I used to always try to get the ball forward as quick as possible, either by running with it or passing it on. But since I’ve moved centrally, I’ve been told by Arsène to be more patient, as there are times when you need to hold the ball and build a move.
Today marked a strong balance between that developing sense of the game's rhythm and his ability to get forward and make things happen. Ox offered us a timely reminder, just days after the transfer-window closed, that we have a great deal of talent in the squad already, and his first start since returning from injury could not have turned out much better than it did. We've heard the line "he's like a new signing" many times before, but it's not far from the truth after such a performance from Ox.

We're back to the top of the table, at least for a few hours, as we wait to see how Chelsea fares at the Etihad on Monday. 'Til next time, thanks for your visit!