That’s more like it.
I expected a tough start with the hosts pressing Arsenal into a defensive shape but the Gunners surprised me and probably the Friulani as well when they came out in a very positive, energetic, and confident mode.
Walcott forced Handanovic into a good save in the second minute and that set the pattern for the opening minutes. Arsenal dominated possession and pushed the hosts back. Van Persie was dropping deep often and creating space for Gervinho and Walcott to exploit.
It was clear that this was a tactical move and a new one as the swift wingmen often got in each other’s way and made the same run on occasion. Nevertheless, they were threatening and the half-chances kept coming. Handanovic was a busy man all through the half.
Arsenal did create a couple of gilt edged chances and the strikers hit the target but found the goalkeeper a hard man to beat. Perhaps their shooting angles could have been better and is an area where continuous work will be needed.
At the other end, Udinese were getting the ball to the Arsenal box often enough. They scored a goal but it was correctly chalked off for off-side. Szczesny wasn’t being tested except by shots from outside the box. The Gunners also looked confident while defending the set-pieces.
As the half progressed the hosts felt more comfortable against the pace of Arsenal and started pushing forward. That created more space and Arsenal forced a double save from Handanovic after excellent work by Gervinho. Soon after, Szczesny was beaten at the other end.
The goal was again a result of a number of mistakes. The man on the ball wasn’t under any pressure. The midfield line wasn’t close enough to the defence considering Udinese had three men forward. The central defenders dropped back and allowed the attacker to receive the ball in front of them. He also got enough time to turn and pick out a pass as neither the defenders not the midfielders got tight on him. Worse still, Di Natale was able to get between Djourou and Jenkinson. The Swiss defender was probably covering for a run down the middle or getting in position to block a shot, and Jenkinson paid the price of his inexperience. The youngster should have read the situation and competed for that header against a man who isn’t renowned for his height or aerial prowess.
As things stood at half-time, Arsenal had a lot of the ball but also the deficit on the night and a nervous parity in total. The team looked like it lacked technique and vision in the final third.
Wenger, all credit to him, saw this and introduced Rosicky for the hard working but inexperienced Frimpong. Little Mozart looked lively when he came on and played a crucial part in the goal.
Because of his presence in the middle, Gervinho was able to stay wide when in the first half he was drifting inwards far too often. Rosicky’s shot was blocked and the rebound fell to Gervinho who got the better of his defender as he had done all day long whenever he got a chance to run at the right-back.
The Ivorian went to the by-line and cut it back for Van Persie to tap in. The run from Rosicky did enough to distract the keeper and the defenders. I doubt anyone will be surprised if this pattern is repeated often this season.
In the recent past the Gunners have shown a tendency to relax soon after scoring. The same happened in this game and Udinese had the ball around the Arsenal box within a minute of conceding. It led to a corner that was delivered low and across the face of goal. How it managed to reach the back post is beyond me. With the new zonal marking system, any of three players should have cleared it. As it turned out it fell to Vermaelen at the back post who was adjudged to have handled the ball. I thought it was a harsh decision as the Belgian also got a push in the back.
Udinese would have gained the upper hand had Di Natale converted so soon after the game was levelled. Szczesny came up with a big save. There can be argument that he was off his line before the kick was taken but almost all Keepers do that these days. There is no doubt that was the turning point as the Gunners gained confidence while Udinese must have felt deflated.
Considering the fact that all Arsenal Keepers are good at penalties, the coaching work in that area must be acknowledged.
The key point though, and one that I really loved about this game, was the composure that the Gunners showed after that moment. The midfield played really close to the defence and didn’t lose concentration. We didn’t see the ball being hoofed forward only to come back within seconds. The team was able to maintain a proper defensive shape and slowed the game down considerably.
In February I wrote this piece saying Arsenal need to develop the art of defensive possession. This display was just what I had in mind.
The midfielders didn’t rush forward every time possession was regained. The full-backs stayed at their posts and covered the wings. The players backed their technical abilities and passed the ball around just to frustrate the opponents and tire them. They moved well off the ball to provide more than one passing option to team-mates who were being pressurised. Eventually, they also found ways to convert this defensive possession into attacking opportunities without pushing too many men forward.
The second goal was an absolute delight. Most highlights clips or pundit analysis won’t cover this but it actually started down Arsenal’s right side. Jenkinson was in possession and under pressure. But he had Gervinho and Rosicky in support. Between the three of them they played five or six passes to absorb pressure. Normally, one would see a punt down the line in such a situation but that temptation was palpably avoided.
Jenkinson then played the ball in the space between Veramelen and Sagna. The Belgian got it and pushed it towards Sagna who’d moved wide on the wing. By the time the Udinese players moved from their pressing on the right to the left, Sagna and Walcott were able to play a wonderful one-two that put Theo in behind. There was no catching him after that and his finish was world class.
That really knocked the stuffing out of Udinese. Even the crowd was silenced.
The Gunners didn’t repeat the mistake they made after the first goal. The midfield dropped really deep and the full-backs maintained their position for large parts. Even Rosicky could be seen chasing and sliding just in front of the defence.
In the remaining period the visitors created more chances but the Handanovic was in top form.
I thought this game showed the perfect way for Arsenal to defend under pressure. They have to use their strengths because Wenger doesn’t have a group that can effectively park the bus. I believe this game highlighted the massive improvements that can be made in defence even without signing many players. This is exactly what I have been talking about for almost a year. Arsenal have problems in defence and not that many with defenders. These can only be solved with a collective effort just like this one.
That doesn’t mean new additions are not needed. Nor does it mean that perfection has been achieved. It’s just a start and a work in progress. The players will have to work hard in training to improve on this. But if they do get it right, Gervinho, Walcott, and the speedy youngsters will rip teams apart on the break.
I must also mention that coming from a goal down in a European tie away from home is no mean feat. It deserves special accolades. The players have shown exceptional mentality in hard times and deserve unconditional support from here on in even if the manager or the board are not appreciated for various reasons.
Szczesny: Superb save from the penalty. Made a couple of other good saves as well. Collection and distribution was consistent.
Jenkinson: Struggled a bit when an opponent was able to run at him but his doggedness helped him out even if he conceded a free-kick or two. Could have done better for the goal, he will have to learn to read danger earlier. Still not a bad game for a youngster who hasn’t been at this level for too long. Showed good composure and passing.
Djourou: Another one who did little wrong even if part of the blame for the goal could be ascribed to him. He should also have done better on the corner that led to the penalty. Maintained a good understanding with Vermaelen and the defensive line.
Vermaelen: I doubt he could have done anything to avoid the penalty as he was in a helpless situation. Did a good covering job behind Sagna. Should close his man down better and sooner.
Sagna: I thought he did better than the Liverpool game. Made a couple of intelligent forward runs including one that took him to the edge of the box. Only a timely interception prevented him from getting in behind. Udinese got some crosses in from the right especially in the first half but in the second Sagna stayed deeper and covered the flank well. Excellent work and assist for the second goal.
I thought the back five were exposed more than necessary in the first half and that led to a number of half-chances. They did well to cut out most situations but as we have seen, sometimes even one failure can look bad for the defence, especially if the attackers fail.
They need to communicate with the others and work on the way the team played in the second half to improve the collective defending.
They need to read the movement of the strikers better and have to get tighter on players who drop off to receive the ball in front of the defensive line.
Song: He was pushing too far forward in the first half and that left gaps for the counter attack. Did a sterling job in the second half. Won a number of physical battles and retained possession under pressure. Also nicked the ball away from the attackers on the edge of the box.
Ramsey: He wasn’t able to offer the kind of creativity we know he can produce. But his work rate was good and deserves credit for trying hard. He looked better under pressure in this game than in the previous ones. Will improve as the players develop a better understanding. Could have had a penalty if the officials had kept a closer eye on the deliberate trip by the defender after getting the ball.
Frimpong: Did a fair job of chasing the ball and breaking up attacks but the team was not balanced enough in the first half. Struggled a bit technically as some of his touches went longer than one would expect which disrupted the flow of the passing.
Rosicky: Looked lively in the attacking and defensive areas. Made some of his trademark sliding interceptions/tackles. He isn’t anywhere close to his best but the attitude in this game was right and he needs to sustain that for ninety minutes.
I thought the midfield lacked imagination in the first half but kept fighting. The change in approach in the second took the creative burden off them to an extent and they were able to retain possession better while covering the back four.
Walcott: Had a number of good shots on target. Finish was as good as it could be. Needs to develop a better understanding with Gervinho and the midfield.
RvP: Dropped deep often in the first half. Looked like the only real creative mind in that period. Some good set-piece deliveries and a couple of decent attempts on target but he can do better with those. His touch hasn’t ripened yet this season. Well taken goal nevertheless.
Gervinho: My MotM. Always looked threatening when he got a chance to run at the defenders. I thought he came in far too often and would have benefitted a lot from staying wide, especially in the first half.
It seemed there was a clear plan to create space for the wide players to run into. It seems like a tactic that will need time to mature but is definitely on the right track. Arsene has to tell the players to pick Van Persie’s runs better. Too many of his runs went unnoticed.
Subs: Traore an Arshavin didn’t have much to do.
Wenger: Boss deserves credit for the tactical adjustments and the key substitution. He should also be applauded for motivating the players under difficult circumstances.
I won’t be surprised if papers tomorrow contain stories of abnormal changes in the atmospheric pressure as millions of Gooners around the world breathed a sigh of relief after watching a pulsating encounter with bated breath. It was a great game of football and goes a long way in countering the negativity around the club. But it’s only a start and this will still be one of the hardest seasons under Wenger. Brace yourselves but with a smile on the face 🙂