After another dull and inconveniently timed international break, proper football returned at last. The prospect of watching England toil away in a rudimentary fashion in a world cup qualifier within a group weighted to almost ensure their qualification failed to grab me, Andy Murray’s grand slam triumph took place at unfriendly hours and the Olympic and Paralympic sheen is starting to fade from my mind, so my thirst for competitive sport needed sating.
Thankfully Arsenal chose a good time to roll out the teams most accomplished and comfortable performance in some time. Building on the success against a Liverpool side still looking for their teeth, newly promoted Southampton were not given a sniff of their recent nearly heroics against the two Manchester clubs. The half-time score of 4-1 to Arsenal flattered the visitors, such was the Gunners dominance. Though the second half was less one-sided, the hosts scored twice unanswered and several further promising positions.
A 6-1 win should never be taken for granted, but even the flakiest of Arsene Wenger’s recent squads have been known to put newly promoted teams to the sword with relative ease. Certainly Arsenal’s pace and passing out of the blocks had Ian Atkins’ team frozen like a rabbit in the headlights at times, and Arsenal’s style of play is a particularly exacting challenge to those without much experience at this level. However, this was not simply the usual story of an established and well-oiled team finding their rhythm against inferior opposition, a la the days of Fabregas or Henry and Pires. In both personnel and approach this is a very different Arsenal side to recent years, and still very much a work in progress.
Watching a team form and evolve is always one of the primary pleasures for a supporter, particularly with the added frisson of the addition of new players. This would account for some of the current positivity amongst Arsenal fans despite the traumatic end to the transfer window. The club’s captain and top scorer (and arguably only world class player) has departed for a divisional rival, and last year’s most creative midfielder left for Spain in mysterious circumstances and for an oddly low fee, but the overriding sense of optimism is a stark contrast to twelve months ago.
Today will have done no harm at all, with the team’s performance not only reflecting the further development of an emerging tactical shift, but also the seamless nature in which two of the new signings have slotted into place. Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla are both players I had previously admired from afar, but I hadn’t realised quite how tactically adept or physically capable they both are. The German’s work-ethic and finishing is well documented and his ability to both spot danger and sense opportunity has been showcased over the last three fixtures. Where I have been pleasantly surprised is by the quality of his link-up play, particularly for such a one-footed footballer. With Cazorla, it is almost the opposite. Implausibly two-footed, the Spaniard’s touch and passing had been seen with Spain and Villareal, but his physical competitiveness, workrate and speed on the break have exceeded expectations. Most impressive though, has been the speed at which they have integrated into a team in flux undergoing a tactical evolution. Key to this has been the speed with which they have got onto each other’s wavelength. Having highlighted this in my previous post, it was even clearer today, with five one-two’s between them in a three minute period, and it was a connection that Southampton had no answer for.
Wenger has clearly spotted and fostered this combination, and today used Gibbs’ over-lapping capacity from full back and Arteta’s deep-lying lateral movement to totally over-load the right hand side of Southampton’s defence, directly contributing to three of the first half goals. It was very reminiscent of the left sided weighting of Cole, Pires and Henry over the 2001-2005 period, but coming from deeper and with a greater emphasis on retaining possession. Part of what made this so effective was the balance being provided on the other side of the pitch by Oxlade-Chamberlain’s disciplined performance, confirming that he is being picked ahead of Walcott for reasons other than Theo’s ongoing contract issues. The youngster fulfilled a similar function to Ray Parlour or Ljungberg in previous successful Arsenal teams, but with better ball retention. Also key was the return of another Wenger pre-season experiment, that of playing Gervinho as a central striker with a brief to roam out the right hand channel. His movement and pace pushed the visitors defence back, and created space for the new signings, effectively increasing the size of the overloaded left flank. The Ivorian’s use of the ball in advanced positions remains erratic, but hopefully the manager has found a better use for his pace and wonderful dribbling skills than shunting him towards corner flags in an attempt to feed Van Persie like last year.
In midfield, it is also becoming clear why the manager was willing to let Song go, despite his excellent individual season last year. Having made the decision to use Arteta as a predominantly lateral moving deep-lying pivot, in charge of ball retention, Wenger needed a more athletic presence alongside him, who can play a legitimate box to box role, hence the inclusion of Coquelin today ahead of Ramsey. The Welshman is the more technically gifted player, but the Frenchman is far more adept at covering long distances quickly. It also highlights the importance of both Arteta and Diaby staying reasonably injury free for the team to succeed. It will be interesting to see where Wilshere will fit in once fit, and indeed Rosicky. Both may have to occasionally play wide or deeper to get games.
Another major talking point has been the impact of Steve Bould on the training ground, in terms of team defence. Apart from being a vaguely terrifying touchline presence, certain tactical innovations have been obvious, such as appealing for offsides and using Mertesacker for near-post flick ons in a carbon copy of Bould’s own roles twenty years ago. Others are more subtle. Certainly, the team seems less inclined to play such a suicidally high defensive line, which obviously suits our giant German, but this has been complemented by Jenkinson playing a more disciplined counterpoint to Gibbs at full-back, resulting in less opportunities for the opposition to isolate our central defenders. There is also a greater emphasis on blocking crosses at source and the wide players supporting the full-backs when the opposition has the ball, which explains why Walcott is on the bench and Gervinho is being utilised up front. It seems, on the whole, a more defensively aware tactical set-up, but it is too early to pass judgement, as the team hasn’t really been tested by an opponent with a real cutting edge.
There are of course still question marks over the squad’s strength in depth, quality at centre forward (even if Giroud overcomes his comparative lack of mobility), and ability to sustain a consistent run of form. There is also the tinge of regret regarding Robin Van Persie’s defection to Manchester United, as a 30 goal striker could see this squad challenge for the title. That said, the immediate impact of the new signings and the willingness to adapt tactically also show how spurious his attempts to justify his decision to the Arsenal faithful (‘you guys’) were.
That said, Manchester United finally remembered how to play without the Dutchman, putting four past Wigan, including one from Paul Scholes on his 700th game for the club. Not bad for a one paced, dirty tackling ginger short-arse from Oldham, who has already retired. It still mystifies me how England managed to misuse him so spectacularly. Chelsea and Man City both dropped points in tough away games, with the former being more about handshakes and accusations than football, and the latter at Stoke City so barely to do with football at all. Liverpool still find themselves locked in the Suarez conundrum. Booed endlessly, booked for diving and barely willing to pass to a team-mate, the Uruguayan is still their only real goal threat, as he proved again with the equaliser against Sunderland today.
Elsewhere in European football, Messi scored twice as a substitute for Barcelona at Getafe, and had an obvious penalty denied, building on a great Cesc assist to Adriano for Los Cules opening goal. So far this season the Argentine genius has a goal every 50 minutes. Real Madrid, on the other hand, are already eight points and nine places behind Barcelona, after losing at Sevilla.
Finally, not everything about the international break is rubbish. Such as Connor Henderson’s goal for Ireland U21’s in their 4-2 win in Italy.
Following goals in successive Under-21 Premier League games, this is a rich vein of form for him after his horrible injury last year, and we may say him against Coventry in the Capital One cup.