The Gunners had to win this game and they did just that. It wasn’t an easy win but I think it’s safe to say Arsenal did more than enough to come out worthy winners.
Montpellier came out with a simple enough plan. They wanted to stop Arsenal from dictating the pace of the game. In order to achieve this they had to push up and press intensely in the central third. The overall tempo of the game was very high in the opening 20 odd minutes where both sides were trying to control the midfield. Arsenal had more possession at the back but weren’t finding a way forward, something we have seen in many other games this season. Montpellier were able to create some openings but didn’t have sufficient quality in the final third to convert the promising moments into goals.
Apart from a Koscielny header that rocked the bar in the 11th minute from a follow up to a corner, neither side really created any clear openings. The frantic pace of the game forced too many mistakes from both sides. For Arsenal, Giroud and Oxlade-Chamberlain really struggled to get into the game in the opening 25-30 minutes. Often their contribution was to lose possession in tight spaces. Wilshere too was having an uncharacteristically sloppy game from a passing point of view.
Podolski was making some useful runs without receiving the ball but he did get a golden opportunity in the 31st minute when Koscielny’s powerful run caught the Montpellier defence out of shape. The German dragged his right-footed shot wide when a pass for Giroud, who was free on the edge of the box, might have been a better option.
It was around this time that Arsenal started controlling the game better as the visitors couldn’t quite sustain the intensity of their pressing. Their transitions were no longer as threatening and the Gunners started looking relatively comfortable at the back. This also had a relieving effect on the midfield who were able to take more risks with the passing and positioning.
Nevertheless, Montpellier remained well-organized at the back and limited clear goal-scoring opportunities. A Podolski shot from a tight angle that went wide is the only other half-chance that comes to mind.
The early goal in the second half was enough to put the Gunners in complete control. It was a neat build-up down the left where Podolski and Vermaelen combined to put the full-back into the final third on the flank. The Arsenal captain was clever on the ball and made space by cutting back and across. His cross went to the back post where Giroud won the aerial duel and had the awareness to knock it into space for Wilshere to pounce. The Englishman’s outside-of-the-boot finish was composed and clinical.
After the goal it seemed the pressure felt by the players was eased considerably. They were able to play with greater assurance and did not make the mistake of backing off completely. Montpellier now had to chase the game and Arsenal started finding more spaces in their half of the pitch.
The second goal was again down to good teamwork. Oxlade-Chamberlain won the ball on the halfway line and brought it forward to the edge of the box. Podolski arrived with him and played a quick one-two with Giroud that culminated in a sensational volley.
After the second goal, I thought the Montpellier heads dropped and they neither defended collectively, nor did they attack with purpose. The Gunners could have won the game with three or four goals but I thought 2-0 seemed a fair score.
On the whole, it wasn’t quite the imperious performance that Arsenal have produced in group phase at home against similar teams in the years gone by, but it was a fighting effort from a team that is working hard to get the confidence and rhythm back.
Szczesny: Made a very vital challenge early in the game when he came out to take the ball away from the feet of an attacker who was through on goal. Didn’t really have to make many saves but his handling was assured.
Sagna: Excellent work up and down the flank. Put in a number of good crosses and was almost always available to receive the ball when his teammates needed an outlet away from the crowded centre. Solid defensive game, made up for the odd error that he made.
Mertesacker: Another steady game from the German. Was composed on the ball and made a number of vital interceptions.
Koscielny: This was the first time this season I saw the Koscielny who so impressed me last year. Calculated aggression, excellent reading of the game, put his body on the line when he had to, and reliable distribution. There was that moment when he overdid things in front of the penalty box and conceded a free-kick but other than that it was a superb effort.
Vermaelen: Probably his best game as left-back for the Gunners. Made numerous valuable contributions at both ends of the pitch. I thought his role was the most vital in the first goal. Defensive positioning and decision making was commendable. MotM in my book.
The defenders had a difficult time in the opening 25 odd minutes when the visitors looked a constant threat on the counter but they did enough to keep Montpellier at bay. It wasn’t pretty at times but it was effective. Got more composed once the midfield started controlling the game better.
Arteta: It’s difficult to write about his performances after every game because it’s always the same, and I mean that as a big compliment, obviously! Played a big part in keeping the team connected in the opening 30 minutes and was a constant shield for the defence.
Cazorla: It seemed to me he worked even harder than usual to get on the ball in this game and popped up all over the pitch. But I also thought he lost the ball more often than he usually does through poor touches or misplaced passes in the tight exchanges. Another player who remains consistently influential in the central and attacking areas.
Wilshere: Was sloppy with his passing and unsure with his positioning early on. Improved noticeably as the game went on. Got into the decisive area and took his goal well. Also had a better defensive shift in the second half as he stayed deeper after scoring. As Wenger said, “he is the kind of player who has to be a complete midfielder not purely an offensive player.”
The midfield wasn’t able to handle the early pressure as well as I’d have liked. They need to reach that level if Arsenal have to become a genuine force. Teams must feel that pushing up and compressing the central third against Arsenal is a risky tactic rather than one that gives them hope. Work rate was excellent and they slowly earned the right to dominate the park.
Oxlade-Chamberlain: Was virtually anonymous in the first 15-20 minutes. Grew into the game after that as he started drifting into useful positions. Had a better time in the second half once spaces opened up in the Montpellier half as they started chasing the game. Played a vital part in the second goal.
Giroud: He’s very efficient in the final third if his teammates can find him there. Picked up two valuable assists. Needs a lot of work on his ability to receive the ball and gain territory for the midfield when they’re under pressure. In the first half hour or so his passing accuracy was less than 40 percent, and that kind of limits the options for the midfield and puts pressure on the defence due to the high number of transitions. I thought Wenger’s assessment of Giroud was spot on but I do believe he’ll have to develop his game in deeper positions, he can’t simply rely on contributions in the final third.
Podolski: Wasn’t on the same wavelength as Wilshere or Giroud in the initial phases but I thought his movement was clever and could have been useful. Goal was well-taken and might have had a second but for a good block by the defender. Saw a lot of the ball and combined well with Vermaelen (and Cazorla), not just for the first goal but in general throughout the game.
The Arsenal front three have changed quite often this season and we haven’t quite seen them hit the right rhythm as a unit. There’s enough final-third quality to make the difference against smaller teams but much more is needed if the Gunners have to become a consistent threat against every team.
Subs: I thought Ramsey had a very good cameo. Was reliable in possession, worked hard to win the ball back, and moved into useful areas all over the pitch. Coquelin and Gervinho didn’t get much time to make an impact.
Wenger: I really love the specific and insightful comments he made after the game that show he’s completely aware of what’s going on and knows the individual strengths and weaknesses of key players in the squad at the moment. When Arsene talks about the performance and players in a matter-of-fact manner without unnecessary praise and without deflecting the conversation away from the negatives, it gives me the impression that he’s in control and can see this squad developing. It’s much, much more comforting than interviews or media briefings where Le Boss is trying to wriggle out of the tough questions without giving much away.Follow @goonerdesi