How many teams can miss that many first choice players and eke out a fairly comfortable win in the Champions League? I think that is the big question and one that many might have missed when entangled in observations pertaining to Arsenal’s defence, which undoubtedly needs a lot more work.
As expected, Wenger rested a number of key players. Being at home helped. It’s good to see that the manager can rely on the youngsters and some of the out of form players in such a game. It helps the others get a much needed breather.
On the whole this was an open game with both teams looking for goals. Olympiacos must have felt they could get something from this one as they pushed higher up the pitch and played with belief. That meant the attacking Gunners found more space in the forward areas.
After scoring his first competitive goal for the club in the Carling Cup, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain took just eight minutes to become the youngest English goal-scorer in the competition. Arsenal were camped in the Olympiacos half with Song, playing at centre-back, just inside the half-way line. Sagna had pushed really high up and had taken over space normally marked for a wide attacker. Against Shrewsbury AOC struggled when Jenkinson took up such positions. In this game he made an intelligent run from a deep-ish position on the inside right channel. Song picked it out with a wonderfully floated pass. The youngster was bit lucky as the ball came back to him after his touch took it towards a backtracking defender but such luck is created by good movement and passing.
I really enjoyed the finish, especially the placement, with his weaker foot. This move also showed the lad is learning at an exponential rate. Of course, there is a long way to go before he becomes one of the world’s best but the potential is there.
The Gunners doubled the lead in the 20th minute when another player scored his first Arsenal goal. This time it was Brazilian full-back Santos who finished with his weaker foot after latching on to a loose ball from a desperate defensive lunge that resulted from his run down the left and a delightful exchange of passes that also involved Rosicky and Arshavin.
Thus far I have focused only on Arsenal’s goals but there were a number of chances at the other end in the first half. There was a great deal of space in front of Arsenal’s defence and in the wide areas that was exploited well by the visitors. They also came up with intelligent variations on the set-pieces.
One such resulted in a goal in the 27th minute when Arsenal were caught completely unawares. The corner was played short and a simple one-two put Ibagaza free down Arsenal’s right. He had time to pick the run from Fuster who arrived unmarked into the box and scored without a challenge. Looking at the surprise on the face of most of the Gunners it was clear they had no clue. The coaches have to do a much better job of getting the organization right. And it’s not limited to organization alone. The change has to start from the way the manager, coaches, and the players think about defending. This is an area that worries me no end but I don’t want to dwell on it in this post.
Both teams created a number of half-chances. It would be fair to say the visitors shaded it in that regard. Having been there as a Gooner, I sympathize with every Olympiacos fan who thinks his team deserved more. But it’s hard to take anything away from the Gunners, especially after a much improved second half performance. By now most of you must have seen the match and the highlights so I am not getting into the details of other events in the game.
On a side note, I was wondering if the visitors have a specialist set-piece coach. Following on from the earlier discussion on the topic, I believe this is an area where most teams can make an immediate improvement because variations on set-plays shouldn’t necessarily lead to a philosophical conflict with the manager’s approach or the requirements of other coaches, say the defensive ones. With the technical quality that Arsenal have, I expect a lot more from free-kicks of all sorts. Even if it doesn’t lead to a dramatic increase in goals, the opposition should at least feel pressurized and threatened. It can lead to errors at the back as we see from time to time in Arsenal’s penalty box. And it should make the opposing defenders think twice before knocking a ball out. This topic deserves a separate discussion so I don’t want to extend it in this article.
Szczesny: I don’t blame the keeper for the number of times the ball flashed across his area (just as I have not done with other keepers in the past). Wojciech made decent saves, his positioning and handling of the ball was good, couldn’t have done anything for the goal, and looked comfortable even when the ball was played back to him in tight spaces.
Sagna: It was a typically hard working effort from the Frenchman but it wasn’t as solid as it is when he gets better cover from Song in midfield and the wide attacker on the right. Made a few mistakes like getting caught in possession or up the field, but also averted danger by chasing back on numerous occasions. Put in a couple of good crosses.
Mertesacker: Very impressive with his reading of the game and got a fair few vital touches at moments that could have been decisive. As I have said before, one big defender cannot cover the whole box so it’s hard to blame him for the structural issues at the back.
Song: Immense. Absolutely loved his confidence. It was as if he just knew he was much better than the opposition and it reflected in his individual battles which he rarely, if ever, lost. His positioning wasn’t bad at all despite this being a role he doesn’t play often. Played a number of eye-catching passes. MotM in my opinion.
Santos: Congratulations to the Brazilian for opening his account. Would be interesting to know when was the last time two different left-backs scored for the club in quick succession. I thought he looked defensively competent, controlled the ball well and has quick feet, showed a good burst of pace, and I really liked the way he applauded his team-mates even when their passes were over hit and forced him to chase a lost cause.
In continuance of the running theme on this blog, I don’t think the defenders were at fault even though the defence wasn’t at a level one expects from a side that wants to win the Premiership or the Champions League.
For now I want to reserve judgment and watch. Clearly, a lot of work is being done. The results will not come overnight.
Frimpong: Another powerful, energetic performance from the youngster. Got back into the defensive line quite often and helped out at the back just like Song does in that role. Still needs technical improvement as his passing and touch aren’t as consistent as Arsenal need.
Arteta: Movement was impressive, linked up well with Rosicky and Arshavin, took a few pops at goal, worked hard at the back, taking rapid strides towards becoming a feared Arsenal midfielder.
Rosicky: Little Mozart made some delightful turns and some of his touches/passes were at a level higher than anyone else on the pitch bar Arshavin. Unfortunately, he lacked a bit of pace when he did get past his man. Good versatility as he did a fair job on the right once Ramsey came on.
The midfield has been showing signs of better co-ordination in the last couple of games. The cutting edge in congested areas is still not quite there but things are improving.
Oxlade-Chamberlain: Well-taken goal, made some quick, powerful runs down the right and put in a few good crosses. Will offer a lot more as he learns to use space better. Also needs better defensive awareness.
Chamakh: Exceptional work rate, some touches looked good, needs to develop his instincts inside the box.
Arshavin: Looked threatening in patches. Speed of thought and related touches were matched only by Rosicky. Might have offered a lot more with a more experienced winger and a better finisher alongside.
Subs: Ramsey and Robin provided work rate and bodies in the right areas. Gibbs was effective on the flank and his pace was useful.
Wenger/Rice: Fairly balanced team despite the rotations. Good adjustment in the second half. Substitutions were handy.
I thought the wide players didn’t offer enough support in the wider areas and the midfield wasn’t set up to account for that. This made the job of the full-backs much tougher and almost all the moves from the visitors originated down the flanks.
Nevertheless, in such a game it’s important to see key players getting some time on the pitch and youngsters showing they can learn. A satisfying win with some encouraging signs.