When I saw the starting line-ups, my initial reaction was that this was going to be a very tough game that will demand a special performance from the Gunners if they were to qualify. After the final whistle, I doubt anyone will argue that it wasn’t an exceptional effort from an interesting collection of young and experienced footballers in red and white.
Arsenal had Yennaris and Miquel in full back positions while Coquelin and Frimpong manned the centre of midfield. Oxlade-Chamberlain was the right sided winger. The other six players in the side were an experienced lot but most of them haven’t had enough games this season.
I thought the first half was a cagey affair as both sides were intent on keeping it safe. As we have seen in some of the recent games, the Gunners kept the midfield deeper and closer to the defence. This made the team fairly solid at the back. Rarely was a defender exposed. But it meant a shortage of numbers and runs in the attacking areas.
Bolton had similar tactics and dropped back when the Gunners were in possession. I must say that was a real surprise and is probably a reflection on their abysmal confidence at the moment. A more positive start from the visitors would have tested the mix-n-match selection that Arsene had to put out.
If memory serves, the opening period was just about shots from distance. Pratley was the first to test Fabianski with a blistering strike. That was Bolton’s first real attacking move after 20 minutes of Arsenal’s dominance. The Gunners though, weren’t really able to make the possession count till that time.
A couple of minutes later Park tested the Keeper from 25+ yards. Soon after, Kakuta beat Miquel with a stepover but then hit it straight at Fabianski. In the 33rd minute Benayoun fashioned a half-chance from a difficult angle on the left edge of the box but couldn’t get enough curve on the ball. Vermaelen then forced a big save from a set-piece that was rolled to him by Arshavin. Finally, shortly before half-time, Arshavin and Park combined to create an opening for the Korean skipper. His strike from the edge of the box was well directed but Bogdan was able to parry it for a corner.
There wasn’t much in it as the youngsters were working really hard. Bolton weren’t playing a dirty game and that helped.
Coyle, after sensing an opportunity, must have instructed his players to press higher up the pitch. Within a couple of minutes of the restart, Muamba caught Frimpong in possession halfway inside the Arsenal area and then went on to finish after exchanging passes with the impressive Pratley.
The visitors were able to pin Arsenal back but were caught on the break twice in quick succession. Less than five minutes after scoring, Bolton were camped in the Arsenal half and were threatening the goal from a corner situation. Fabianski was able to make the save and launched it forward towards Benayoun for a quick break. For a moment the throw appeared ill-advised as the Israeli was dispossessed. But Benayoun and Alex did well to win the ball back. The youngster lobbed it into space wide on the right for his senior teammate. Benayoun sensibly held the ball and waited for support. Arshavin accepted a pass and ambled into the box looking for options. With no real passing options available, the Russian placed his strike beautifully into the far corner.
A couple of minutes later Ju-Young Park scored the winner from another fast break. Coquelin did brilliantly to win the ball inside the Arsenal half and play it forward to the Russian with one touch. Park had strayed off-side but Arshavin held the ball long enough to give his striker a chance to adjust as the Bolton defenders backtracked. The Russian captain’s ball was perfectly weighted and the Korean skipper planted it into the far side with one touch.
Subsequently, Bolton tried hard and created a number of chances. Fabianski was a bit shaky but did enough to keep the ball out. At the other end Arsenal too had some opportunities on the break but couldn’t get the extra goal cushion.
Towards the end, worryingly, Frimpong and Vermaelen came off with injuries. Hopefully, it won’t be serious.
It wasn’t a sublime performance but the diligence and determination of the players was commendable. It was a physical and mental challenge, and one that the youngsters have passed with flying colours. And as Arsene said, credit to the experienced players for taking charge and making their quality count.
Fabianksi: Made a number of vital saves but had one or two iffy moments where Bolton fans would say he got lucky. Looked fairly confident and that is important.
Yennaris: Superb. Just loved his positioning, tackling, and tenacity. Best of the five youngsters on the pitch. A very pleasant surprise.
Squillaci: Looked better than Cahill to me! Definitely a more assured performance reminiscent of his good period with Djourou in defence. Won a number of headers, was present in the right areas, fairly composed on the ball.
Vermaelen: Very dominant at the back. Read the game well, made a number of vital tackles, great strike at goal. Did make a mistake of leaving a cross for Fabianski once when Klasnic got in behind. Overall a very satisfying return. More is definitely expected.
Miquel: Struggled a bit in one-v-one situations but did well when he got tight to his man. Looks like he’s grown in confidence and physically. Has to improve his contribution in the attacking areas but that’s for a later date.
I thought the defenders did very, very well. The full backs didn’t bomb forward as often as their first team counterparts do. It was a safe approach and a shrewd one. Bolton still created some chances late in the game and there are gaps in the collective defending but individually it was fairly good.
Coquelin: A touch erratic with his touch and passing but looked technically better than some of the Bolton first-team players. Very energetic performance with appreciable defensive tracking and tackling.
Benayoun: Swapped positions with Arshavin and moved over the pitch seamlessly. Wasn’t as influential on the ball as I’d have liked but clearly it’s a matter of having the right understanding with others. That takes time and regular games. Also worked hard defensively, especially providing good cover on the left.
Frimpong: Was a beast physically and won a number of individual battles. Made some excellent tackles as well. But there was a lackadaisical part of his game that saw him caught in possession a few times and led to trouble. Needs more urgency even if just playing the ball out from the back. It’s a mental issue as he certainly has the ability to do better.
The midfield wasn’t as dominant as Arsenal’s usually is but that was to be expected. They still outperformed and, more importantly, outworked their experienced opponents. Must have been a great experience for the young duo.
Oxlade-Chamberlain: Probably the most erratic Arsenal player on the pitch. Has bags of talent but also a long learning curve ahead. Kakuta is an excellent example of how a talented player could struggle to make a big impact. Needs to listen to Arsene and continue working hard without paying any attention to unnecessary hype.
Park: Wasn’t in the game for the first twenty minutes despite Arsenal’s possession dominance. Got some confidence after his first strike on goal. Impressed with his shooting technique and movement. Good work rate.
Arshavin: Better physical effort than usual. Excellent finish, wonderful assist. His class was apparent and did well to guide the younger players constantly. MotM in my opinion.
The attackers were isolated for large parts of the game but delivered when they got a chance to combine. Their vision, passing, and finishing was a couple of notches above the visitors’ strikers.
Subs: Miyaichi showed exciting pace, determination, and footwork but needs to develop physically or he will be brushed off the ball far too easily. Ozyakup filled in efficiently for Frimpong. Boateng wasn’t really tested in the final five minutes as the Gunners had bodies back when needed and Bolton missed their half-chances.
Wenger: Hats off to the manager for getting a result with such a young side. He’s clearly taken a very conservative tactical approach in the last few games to rebuild the side’s confidence and it’s paying dividends even if at the short-term cost of flamboyance. In a way it was amusing to recall some people actually suggested last season that Coyle should replace Wenger at Arsenal.