As many suspected, Arsene pressed the SOS button and the cavalry was called in. Wilshere and Sagna were both drafted into the starting line-up in order to breathe some life into a struggling unit. It worked, probably not to the extent one would like to see but there was definitely greater thrust to Arsenal’s play, but only time will tell if the cost is exorbitant.
The first half was a cagey affair. Arsenal had bulk of the possession but the visitors were very well organized and diligent in their tracking. The Gunners found it hard to create space in the central areas and most of the possession was in relatively harmless areas. The best chances in that period were limited to a Ramsey header that hit the bar and a couple of shots from the left side by Giroud and Wilshere that looked better than they were due to Julio Cesar’s suspect handling. In total, the Gunners managed 7 shots with 4 on target but I don’t think any of those could be classified as a clear cut chance.
It’s worth noting that Wenger’s team were playing a pretty high line for most of the first half and did a good job of limiting the chances that the visitors could create. The pressing up the pitch was effective and the decision making by the defensive players was largely spot on. The off-side trap worked well but looked more and more a risky tactic as the game went on.
The second half followed the patterns of the first. Arsenal were creating some chances but it just didn’t seen enough. Cesar made a good save from a set-piece early on but was fairly comfortable by the time Wilshere was taken off in the 67th minute as Wenger introduced Walcott in search of something different. In that 20 odd minute period the Gunners only had 4 shots with just one on target.
A few minutes later Gervinho came on the pitch in place of Podolski. Arsenal’s best chance of the game thus far fell to Cazorla in the 77th minute. It resulted from an excellent Walcott cross that was only cleared towards the penalty spot where the Spaniard was unmarked and in acres of space. Not surprisingly though, Santi smashed it over the top.
The turning point came in the 79th minute when M’Bia was sent off for kicking out at Vermaelen. Having won the free-kick, the Cameroonian’s reaction seemed inexplicable. The only reason I could think of was that he thought the ball was still in play and wanted to make a tackle, but even that’s pretty thin. The other aspect to that decision was the theatrical nature of Vermaelen’s fall. I didn’t get a clear look at the replays but it seemed to me there was minimal contact. Nevertheless, the red card was the correct decision even if on a technicality.
In the final 11 minutes plus injury time, the Gunners had 8 shots with four on target including the goal. They created a number of quality openings with the man advantage and really should have scored more.
The goal in itself was a contentious one as the visitors had a genuine shout for off-side against Arteta who bundled it home from close range. This season Arsenal have been very lucky with a number game-changing decisions- Aguero, Cabella, and Affellay were all denied obvious penalties – and it can be argued that they got an undeserved goal. The other argument could be that Arsenal were always likely to score one after M’Bia was sent off.
After the goal we saw the nervous, indecisive side of Arsenal. Wenger called it a ‘psychological’ issue saying the team was lacking confidence and wanted to protect the result. I tend to agree that it was a mental issue but I think it was down to the fact that the players didn’t have tactical clarity at that point in time and lacked faith in their ability to defend as a team even against ten men. This brought some hesitancy into the way they played and gave the visitors a couple of excellent chances to get back in the game.
Granero was able to beat the off-side trap but shot wide. Jamie Mackie was able to run past three players before hitting Mannone from close range. Arsenal panicked but survived.
On the whole, this wasn’t a great game from the Gunners but the result should help. Wilshere and Sagna had good outings and their abilities will help the team in the coming days as they learn to play with their new teammates.
Mannone: Made the saves when called into action, showed improved judgment when coming for the ball, and distribution was assured. Overall a composed and steady game from the Italian.
Sagna: Jenkinson was doing a steady job on the right but Sagna came back and showed just how much was missing. His decision making, link play in attacking areas, and defensive game were all top notch.
Mertesacker: Was more concerned with sweeping in behind and reading the game and wasn’t really engaged in individual duels. Steady game from the German, probably an easier one than he’d have imagined.
Vermaelen: Was strong in his tackles and duels, cleared the danger when he had to. Granero did get in behind him and Mackie was able to go past him in the box, needs to do better.
Santos: Was much maligned coming into this tie and there are undoubtedly some weaknesses in his game but I thought he had a fairly good game. Tackling was good, positioning was better, and he made a useful contribution in the attacking third. Was another defender beaten by Mackie and there were moments when you could see more space on the left than was preferable.
Arsenal’s return to the high line defence was somewhat surprising and we’ll have to see how that tactic works in the coming games. Sagna made the right side stronger and there is hope we’ll see the creative burden shared between the two flanks as he settles into a rhythm.
Arteta: Another typically reliable performance from the Spaniard on and off the ball. Has been showing extreme desire late in the games when the team has struggled and it was that desire which earned him the winner.
Cazorla: Moved all over the pitch and helped push the team forward but could not make the decisive contribution in the final third. Missed a glorious chance. It was interesting to note that set-piece duty was shared in this game and he didn’t take as many as he’d been in the previous games.
Wilshere: Was composed and confident on the ball, passing was accurate almost immaculate, brought his trademark drive with that drop of the shoulder and runs at the defence but couldn’t really create much in terms of genuine chances. Wasn’t as involved in defending as others who’ve partnered Arteta have been.
Wilshere’s return made midfield seem sharper and it did show in terms of the chances created even if they weren’t high quality. However, the youngster does have a tendency to burst forward and it’s going to pose a challenge for the defence as they will miss the two-man shield at times.
Ramsey: Hit the post with a header, got into useful positions in the box, linked well with Sagna on the right, it’s not his natural position but with a good midfield behind him Ramsey can be useful in the attacking areas while providing balance on the right.
Giroud: Had a couple of shots at goal, made some runs into the channel, but on the whole the Frenchman wasn’t able to contribute as much as is needed from an Arsenal striker. Did play a part in the build-up to the goal as his presence in the box was useful.
Podolski: Another attacker who had a disappointing game. His movement was good but he wasn’t effective in the crowded central areas. Put in a good defensive shift with a couple of vital tackles.
The front three remains an area of concern. Arsenal need a lot from the attacking players in terms of movement, combinations, creativity, and precision with incision and goals being the decisive outcome. Wenger needs a system that compensates for the individual weaknesses and brings out their strengths. Thus far we’ve not seen the system work.
Subs: Walcott put in a couple of teasing crosses, Gervinho was unfortunate, Arshavin started the move that led to the goal and worked hard to help the team.
Wenger: Reverted to a high line defence, brought in his big players as soon as they were ready (and hopefully not before), Has to ensure the team shows better confidence and structure at the end.Follow @goonerdesi