Inviting Gilberto Silva onto the pitch at half-time of their Champions League victory over Dinamo Zagreb was a weird and self-defeating form of satire, even for Arsenal. The anchor of their most famous season, a battling defensive midfielder who provided the grit for more creative players to flourish. Even at 39 and two years after his retirement, many would have favoured the Brazilian over Mathieu Flamini in place of the injured Francis Coquelin.
As it was, Flamini performed admirably on Tuesday in Coquelin’s absence; the alternative against such an inferior side was unfathomable. The Frenchman made the most interceptions of any Arsenal player aside from Nacho Monreal, boasted the best passing accuracy of any starter, and no player lost possession on fewer occasions. You fear Arsene Wenger may take such a solid performance as confirmation that he needn’t strengthen in January.
But, just as the role formerly undertaken by Silva and currently earmarked for Coquelin demands, Flamini was the foil for Arsenal’s more inventive stars. And few come more inventive than the pair of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez.
The form of the former heading into a crucial group game at the Emirates was in direct contrast with that of his faltering side. Ozil has assisted 10 Premier League goals since late September, a run comprising of seven consecutive games. Goals in victories over Manchester United and Bayern Munich bore testament to a player who is vital to Arsenal’s hopes of success this season.
Yet the 27-year-old has still faced significant scrutiny recently. After the Gunners fell to a 5-1 defeat against Bayern Munich in their previous Champions League tie earlier this month, Rob Draper of the Daily Mail questioned the German’s big-game output.
‘Here was an occasion, in front of the sceptics, to deliver something special. A game in which Arsenal were missing key players through injury…it was a stage built for players of Ozil’s ability.’
Just under three weeks on, and the stage was set once more. Coquelin’s injury-enforced absence, coupled with a run of form which had garnered just one win in five, instigated the same old questions of Arsenal in the build-up. Is their typical November collapse a mental problem throughout the squad? Why did Wenger not adequately strengthen in the summer? Why had the manager not foreseen a scenario whereby his side would be typically decimated by injuries?
Luckily for the Frenchman, he boasts one of the league’s finest players in Ozil. Victory over their Croation opponents – and in such a dominant fashion – was as vital for their Premier League ambitions as it was their European hopes, and the words of Draper and many before him could have laid heavy on Ozil’s mind. This was as big a game as Arsenal had encountered all season, and it was his time to step up once again and deliver yet another missive to his critics. And boy, did he.
Having opened the scoring with a diving header, Ozil created four chances for his team-mates, the most of any player, and attempted four shots, the most of any p…well, you get the idea; he was excellent. Only the impressive Santi Cazorla enjoyed more touches on a successful evening for the hosts, further exemplifying Ozil’s importance to the cause.
As for Sanchez, this represents a timely return to form. Fears of burnout concerning the Chilean are understandable considering the amount of games he has played this season, and he has simply not been his imperious best. The 26-year-old failed to score in Arsenal’s opening eight games, then scored seven in his following four, leading to a run of six games without a goal heading into the Zagreb clash. Arsenal had won half of the 14 games in which Sanchez had featured but not scored this season, while they had won three of four in which he did. A well-taken double on Tuesday took that record to four of five, as well as providing some goalscoring relief. If Arsenal are to overcome their recent struggles, Sanchez will evidently be key; when he plays well, so does his side.
However, the reliance on Ozil and Sanchez to create is clear. Both attempted four shots on goal, with Cazorla and Olivier Giroud the only others in red and white to register more than one. Ozil was the only Arsenal player to create more chances than Sanchez. It’s a precarious balance to try and strike week in week out.
Of Arsenal’s 18 Premier League and Champions League games so far this season, Sanchez has played 1,489 minutes of a possible 1,620, while Ozil has 1,478 minutes of action in the same timeframe; only Cazorla (1,554) has featured more prominently. Cazorla’s absence would be sorely felt, but possibly offset by the return of Aaron Ramsey. Sanchez or Ozil would not be so easily replaced.
Only Newcastle and Manchester United have more players currently sidelined through injury, and so it is difficult not to contemplate the effect a knock to either Ozil or Sanchez – or both – could have on Arsenal. While every side would find injuries to key players detrimental, an Arsenal without either of their attacking talismans is a significantly less worrying prospect for any opponent.
The nature of their victory over Zagreb was impressive, but it answers no existing questions of this Arsenal side. Drawing conclusions on Wenger’s side from isolated results has already proven futile so often this season. One thing is for certain however: removing one of Ozil or Sanchez would be akin to removing half of Arsenal’s attacking output. No wonder Wenger is so reluctant to rest the latter, but it’s a dangerous game to play with one of your best players.