In the pre-match article I was talking about Reading’s ability to score goals and also touched upon the gaps they leave at the back that have cost them goals. The final line of the post was, “All-in-all this should be a riveting game with plenty of action in the final third.”
In all honesty though, the events of that game were beyond my wildest imagination.
With the such changed line-up featuring a number of youngsters who don’t get to taste high-level competitive football on a weekly basis, there were always going to be a few questions about the patterns of play. The first one I’d posed was, “Will the Gunners be able to dominate the midfield as they usually do?”
In the initial exchanges, the answer to that was a resounding “No!” As is typical of a Wenger side, the players tried to build from the back but Reading were able to disrupt the rhythm through the heavy pressure they applied. The midfield just couldn’t handle it. Youngsters like Coquelin and Frimpong can sometimes hide on the pitch when playing alongside experienced and technically accomplished Pros but in this game they were the key players who buckled under pressure. Too many Arsenal players were struggling to receive, hold, and pass the ball consistently under pressure and you could visibly see the hosts gaining confidence with each technical error.
Reading won a couple of corners in the first two or three minutes itself but it took them till the 12th minute to open the scoring. By the 20th minute they were 3 up. Struggling to build from the back was the initial weakness but the nature of turnovers exposed a bigger underlying vulnerability – the lack of structure, technique, and composure in defence.
The amount of space that Robson-Kanu had because Walcott didn’t track his run after giving the ball away, or the acreage in the penalty box for Roberts to run into was a symptom of that vulnerability. The ease with which Norwich went past Arsenal’s wide players in the build-up to the second, Koscielny’s uncanny knack of directing the ball towards his own goal, Chamakh giving the ball away in the build-up to the third with many Gunners running forward blindly, and Martinez’s flailing attempt to save can all be chalked down as individual errors but the high price paid in the form of goals was a result of the system’s deficiency.
The easiest way to understand it is by observing the impact of similar errors after the patterns of play had changed. Later in the game, there were still mistakes being made at the back but the Gunners had pushed Reading sufficiently away from their goal and thus were in better positions to recover from those mistakes. The problems in defence didn’t just simply vanish but their impact was suppressed by the structure of the side and resulting patterns were threatening but not harmful.
After their third goal, Reading took their foot off the gas. This would prove to be their biggest mistake but it wasn’t evident till much later in the game. From this point on the Gunners were able to build from the back and saw a lot of the ball in central areas where they weren’t challenged. The hosts were willing to sit back in a shape and keep the play in front of them.
In this phase Arsenal’s possession looked harmless with too many misplaced passes or poor touches in the final third. Indeed, it was McDermott’s side who picked up another goal on a foray forward. Once again it was lax tracking on Arsenal’s right flank and an inability to attack the ball in the box.
The Gunners had hit rock bottom. The performance was embarrassing and there is just no way to sugar-coat it. This was my thought at that moment,
The rest of the first half followed similar patterns with Arsenal having a lot of the ball without really testing Federici in goal.
A glimmer of hope came in injury time when a weak header from Gorkss came straight to Arshavin who was able to slide Walcott through. Theo scored with the last kick of the half. His technique and composure were commendable.
The second half was an entirely different affair but it wasn’t until two astute substitutions from Wenger that we started seeing decisive contributions in the final third. Frimpong and Gnabry, arguably the two least effective players in the starting eleven, were taken off for Giroud and Eisfeld.
In the preview I’d also mentioned the point about Arsenal needing reinforcements from the bench in order to make a comeback. Fair play to Arsene for picking Giroud in the squad. The Frenchman made a near-instant impact as he guided a fizzing Walcott corner into the net.
As Wenger said after the 4-4 against Newcastle and indeed after this game as well, “At 4-2 the panic sets in.” You could see Reading were now unsure. They didn’t know whether to stay deep and hold on to the lead or push forward and attempt the same tactics that got them the goals in the first place.
The momentum was with the Gunners and the Royals were often getting caught in a no man’s land. Some of their players were trying to push up while the others were staying deeper. Arsenal chased every ball, showed intense desire to make something happen, and pushed forward in numbers.
As time went on the Royals were pinned deeper and deeper into their own half but they were hanging on. Federici was forced into some fine saves while on other occasions the finish or the final ball didn’t match the build-up play. Nevertheless, it was a thrill-a-minute game with constant edge of the seat action that must have made both sets of fans tense; some in anticipation, the others in anxiety.
The third goal for the Gunners didn’t come till as late as the 89th minute when hopes of a dramatic comeback had began fading. It was another sizzling corner, this time it was Koscielny on the end of it.
Soon after, the Royals had a genuine shout for a second yellow against Koscielny. The ref had been lenient all through the game and let the defender get away with it in injury time. Not only would that have had an impact on Arsenal’s chances of scoring the equalizer, Arsenal would have been down to 10 for the duration of extra time if they did score the fourth.
The equalizer came deep in injury time. On a less dramatic day we might have heard more complaints about the time added on but perhaps Reading only have themselves to blame as their late substitution might have prompted the ref to go well beyond the four added minutes. When Walcott’s shot crossed the line the time on my screen showed 95:01. Don’t think many Gooners would have been happy if Reading had equalized with extra extra-time but I doubt anyone will complain now.
Once again it was the last kick of the half and this time, the comeback was complete. Now it was time for a turnaround.
Chamakh’s first goal of the night was a memorable one and not just for the fact that the Moroccan scored from outside the box. The build-up play was exquisite. It was a 41 second spell of possession in which 9 of the 10 outfield players passed the ball at least once. Starting with Coquelin’s sliding tackle wide on the right, and culminating in a strike that wasn’t a typical blast from distance like the angry, hopeful swing of an amateur’s arm, but a measured and well-placed blow from a professional who knew just how to strike the knockout punch. Walcott was the only guy who didn’t touch the ball which is ironical considering he scored three and set up the other three, playing a big part in all the other six goals.
Oddly enough, although it wasn’t really surprising, the momentum swung again. The Royals had nothing to lose anymore while the Gunners were catching their collective breath after an intense fight back.
Arsenal’s lead lasted 12 minutes or so when another ball played across the face of goal from Reading’s right resulted in a headed goal.
Thankfully for the Gunners, their momentum had not subsided completely and they were able to regain the extra gear. Arshavin’s run and shot was cleared off the line but Walcott was at hand to smash it in. Chamakh’s second was a tad cruel on the Royals but it was a neat finish. In fairness to the ref, he did go over the two minutes added on in extra-time giving Reading a chance to hit back.
We saw everything in this game. There were momentum swings, depths of despair, hope, glory, heart-break, defensive blunders, clinical finishing, and refereeing controversy. It was magical, maybe not so much for the Reading players, coaches, and fans at the end, but at least they know they won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
For Arsenal we saw the best and worst in the same game. We can’t infer much from individual performances after such a game because we are not likely to see a repeat in the near future. The spirit of the side was laudable. I’d certainly love to know who the “leaders” were on the pitch. So often, we hear Arsenal lacked leadership. This team was largely composed of fringe players and youngsters. Was there a leader on the pitch? Were they all leaders? Or is the lack of leadership just a lame, imprudent argument put forward when people can’t explain a flat performance?
As far as individuals go we saw a lot of quality and numerous weaknesses as well. I doubt many would have given Walcott or Arshavin high marks at the end of the first half, and few would dare berate them after the end of the game. There wasn’t anyone who was consistently outstanding and impeccable but the desire and spirit in the second half was top notch. It would have been easy to give up by the 89th minute. They didn’t. It would have been easy to start blaming each other for missed opportunities. They didn’t. Things just clicked for Arsenal and it was truly magical.
With the senior players we got what we’ve come to expect, and it was a real pleasure to see Chamakh back on the score-sheet. Among the youngsters, Eisfeld was the one who impressed me the most. He did have his share of mistakes, particularly in the final third, but on the whole he showed excellent technical quality and tactical awareness. Gnabry looked a little overawed and his touch deserted him at times, but he also played at a time when Reading had control of the game.
Coquelin didn’t do enough in the first half to show he’s ready to challenge for a first-team spot on a consistent basis. The Frenchman was rushed into many mistakes, the kind of which would be unacceptable in bigger, more important games. In fairness, he did an excellent job of sweeping in front of the defence and spreading play once Reading retreated. Frimpong seemed rusty and a touch too casual. Martinez made a couple of big saves but he could have done better for the second and third goals. His distribution will also have to improve. He showed promise for a youngster but I’d not be comfortable with the thought of him in goal for a first-team game.
All-in-all it was riveting game with a lot of action in the final third (Pardon the redundancy but I just had to say that again). It’s a shame one side had to bow out of the competition because you don’t have losers on such a night (unless you’re someone who gave up and stopped watching at point!)
In an era of short memories, this one might just last a lifetime. More importantly though, let’s hope it has a positive impact on the vital upcoming fixtures. There’s a comeback to be made on other, more prestigious fronts as well.Follow @goonerdesi