After winning 6-0 at the Emirates against Ludogorets just two weeks ago, it must have been tempting for Arsene Wenger to rest players ahead of the North London derby on Sunday. Ultimately, while there were changes, it was still a strong line-up selected by the boss, and it needed to be as the Bulgarian team made Arsenal really dig deep to get the win to take them through to the last 16 of the Champions League. The Gunners were pushed all the way and required an outrageous piece of individual brilliance from a player that might have been rested with big games on the horizon.
Ludogorets performed well in the first half at the Emirates despite the eventual scoreline, so Arsenal were right to take them seriously with the team selection. Of the players that Arsene Wenger took with him to Bulgaria, it was virtually the strongest side available, bar Cech and possibly Alex Iwobi.
The start to the game seemed to have Arsenal in control until some slack defending suddenly put the Gunners in a sticky situation. First of all, they allowed a free-kick cross to go all the way to the back post allowing Cafu to open the scoring, and then Kieran Gibbs was surprisingly beaten on the wing and a low cross led to the second goal inside the first quarter of the game. There was an element of complacency from Arsenal and they were punished by a hungry home team desperate to avenge the thrashing at the Emirates.
The two goals were also a reminder that the Mustafi / Koscielny partnership is still a developing one. In general, the two have been superb together, but there are still moments that have shown that they aren’t quite the finished article as a partnership.
As with the way Arsenal responded at Sunderland to a setback, they kept calm and got themselves back in the game quickly. Questions can still be asked as to how Arsenal got into a hole in the first place, but there was no doubting the quality of the recovery. It wasn’t 2-0 to Ludogorets for long as Alexis fed Ozil down the left and the German’s cut-back was swept in by Granit Xhaka.
Unsurprisingly, Arsenal dominated the possession for the rest of the half as Ludogorets tried to make the game less open than it was at the Emirates. With a lead to defend, they sat deeper and did away with the high line that saw them get destroyed in London. With Olivier Giroud making his first start of the season, Arsenal could mix up their mode of attack and the Frenchman got on the end of an Aaron Ramsey cross to head Arsenal level just before half-time.
To have Xhaka and Giroud score was another example of the players sharing the goal scoring burden around this season. There are plenty of players in the squad that are feeling good in front of the net. Long may it continue.
Despite scoring two, Arsenal’s attacking lacked the general fluidity of the season so far without the pacier options of Walcott and Iwobi. It was great to see Aaron Ramsey back on the pitch, and the 75 minutes he got under his belt will do him good in the long run, but he did drift quite a bit from the right hand side, making the team look occasionally lop-sided.
The second half calmed down after the four goals in the opening period. Ludogorets had a front four looking to counter-attack, but the rest of the team was content to sit on the potential draw. Arsenal also dropped off a bit in intensity as the likes of Ramsey and Giroud looked like players still working their way up to full fitness. There were plenty of minor fouls as the referee became incredibly pedantic and the game looked to be winding down towards a draw. That was before Arsenal finally drew the hosts forward and there was a bit of space to run in behind the defence in the last few minutes.
Giroud tracked back to win a tackle, allowing Mohamed Elneny to clip an excellent pass over the defence for Mesut Ozil to run onto. The goalkeeper rushed out but was left floundering by a deft flick from Ozil over him. Two covering defenders had charged back, but were evaded as Ozil dummied to shoot, left them on the ground and calmly slotted the ball home. A breathtaking moment of brilliance, made all the more impressive because of it being a winning goal. Ozil didn’t just pull out that piece of skill and calm finishing when the pressure was off, he did it in the dying minutes of a match Arsenal had been behind in, and scored a vital goal to keep them top of the group and secures a place in the knockout stages. What a player. What a goal.
Depending on injuries, I expect Arsenal to return to the Walcott-Ozil-Iwobi-Alexis front four that has served them well this season on Sunday in the North London derby. A poor result in Bulgaria could have given Spurs a lift before the game, but Arsenal now go into it with another win, three more goals and a world class attacking midfielder who made professional defenders and a goalkeeper look like kids in a playground in a high-pressure situation. We’ve got Ozil, Mesut Ozil, and after that goal, everyone really should understand.