That was an enjoyable performance and a useful result. It was an eminently winnable game so the result wasn’t the main attraction, even though it was vital, but the quality of the performance certainly was.
It was, as expected, a very open game. Reading tend to drop deep without really having the discipline and attention to detail needed for parking the bus. They’ve conceded the most shots and, after this game, the most goals as well. Even by their standards the first half was dreadful. Arsenal can be lethal when allowed to play and that was the cardinal mistake McDermott’s side made.
Starting early on, when Oxlade-Chamberlain forced a save just after a minute had passed, the Gunners established a comfortable presence on the ball. The hosts often had 9 or 10 bodies back in their defensive third but were getting nowhere near the ball. It was only a matter of time before Arsenal scored.
Although, having seen the Gunners struggle to find the winner against Bradford despite complete dominance late in the game, it was understandable that the period before the first goal had a touch of anxiety about it. Reading did create two very good opportunities early on. In the 8th minute Pogrebnyak played a neat one-two and got into a great position in the box after Cazorla was caught ball-watching. His square ball was missed by one teammate while the other couldn’t hit the target. In the 11th minute a simple long ball and flick-on routine resulted in a corner that was headed just over.
In a game where both sides were going to get plenty of chances to score, those misses were always going to prove costly. Considering the fragile nature of the Gunners’ confidence at the moment, an early goal for the Royals would have made this more of a contest.
Podolski scored the opener just before the quarter-hour mark. The German’s first touch with his weaker foot was superb, the finish that of a natural goalscorer. Same can be said for the run into the box. To me the most important part of that move was Arteta’s tackle on the right flank just inside the Arsenal half. Sagna was up the pitch and that ball had to be won. After that it was just too easy, Reading players never got anywhere near the ball.
There were still some vulnerabilities in the Arsenal defence. Vermaelen’s desperate but timely clearance in the 28th minute prevented a tap in.
The second goal cushion came from a long spell of possession. By my count, Arsenal had the ball for 44 seconds and made 15 passes in the build-up. Only Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain didn’t touch the ball in that period. The key moment was again from Arteta as his raking cross-field pass found Podolski in acres of space. Usually, the Arsenal wingers are double-teamed by opponents sitting deep but this time the German had ample space to find a cross. Cazorla’s diving header was excellent. It could easily have gone off target.
The third was even better . It was close to a minute of possession and had 16 passes. While the previous one saw most of the possession in the Arsenal half, this one was created right in front of the deep-lying defence. And thus, it was Szczesny, Mertesacker, and Vermaelen who didn’t touch the ball in the build-up. Once again Cazorla’s finish was impressive.
It could easily have been 2-5 in the first half itself but 0-3 seemed a fair reflection of the game. Federici deserves some credit for preventing his side from being embarrassed.
Reading’s defending against Arsenal’s stronger left flank was probably the worst I’ve seen this season from any team in any league. But in general, as the spells of possession before the second and third goals show, the Royals just tamely surrendered possession and territory.
Reading came out with greater purpose in the second half, or at least tried to. In the opening 10 minutes they had 58 percent possession as the Gunners seemed to take their foot off the gas. Neither side created much in that period.
Cazorla completed his hat-trick with another well taken goal. Podolski’s awareness and selflessness was commendable as he squared the ball when he could have taken a shot. Again a vital part of the goal came early on in the move when Sagna won an aerial duel from a long punt by the Keeper.
If the Gunners were in the cruise mode at the start of the second half they almost went to sleep after the fourth. Two goals were gifted through multiple avoidable individual errors.
Thankfully, Reading just didn’t have the quality to capitalize on the momentum or to keep their goal secure. Walcott scored the fifth and settled the tie. Again the build-up had 16 passes and about 46 seconds of possession.
On the whole it was a comfortable win against a weak team that was having one of its worst days. The way Arsenal were able to patiently build their moves with long spells of passing and possession is a good indication of that. They try the same in every game but most teams don’t allow this amount of time or space on or off the ball. Same can be said for the manner in which crosses found unmarked bodies in the box.
I don’t see any reason to draw too many conclusions from this one. We know this team has attacking quality. Big wins against Southampton, Coventry, and Spurs have shown that in the past. But we’ve to see whether they can play to their potential on a consistent basis when the opponents don’t roll over. This game didn’t tell us anything about that.
I’m not even sure if this will be a good confidence boost for the squad because, as mentioned earlier, we’ve been here before. In the preview I mentioned the run of games during the holiday period. They’re perfect for building the momentum after such a win. Let’s see…
Szczesny: Decent game on the whole. Dealt with a couple of tricky aerial balls and showed composure when receiving back passes. Could he have done better for either goal? Difficult to blame the Keeper when he’s left one-v-one but the top class ones do make a difference. Also added to the tension with a nervous flap just after the second went in.
Sagna: Standard Sagna game, steady and efficient. Nothing really stood out in a positive or negative way.
Mertesacker: Kept things simple at the back, made the clearances when he had to. His slow reaction speed is visible when a threat appears out of nowhere. Was caught on his heels for both the goals although neither was directly his fault. It’s just one of those things you notice … the opponents are cutting through the defence with ease while a central defender is quite a way away from the play. This is not exactly a criticism, just an observation about a natural weakness he has. All players have their flaws.
Vermaelen: Made a big clearance in the 28th minute and other useful ones throughout the game. Was at least partially at fault for the second goal. Should have done a better job of tackling Robson-Kanu.
Gibbs: He’s been getting into useful attacking positions throughout the season. In this game he had good end product in the form of two assists, just like he had two against Southampton (don’t know if technically shots that lead to own goals are considered as assists.) Needs to make a decisive contribution in tougher games as well. Defensively he remains a tad weaker than the rest. The two moves in the 8th and 11th minutes came down his flank, played Pogrebnyak onside in the 28th minute, and gave the ball away for Reading’s first.
The defenders didn’t have a great challenge as the weak opponents were having one of their worst days. Still there were some gaps apparent and Reading could have scored more. Many of the old problems are resurfacing as the Gunners go in search of greater bite in attack.
Arteta: Another massive game from the Spaniard. Was a big help to the defence with numerous interceptions, tackles, and clearances. Also did a good job of spreading play and was involved in the build-up of all the goals. Should have done better to stop Robson-Kanu to prevent Reading’s second.
Cazorla: Easily the MotM. Took his goals really well, also created quite a few chances for his teammates, and was involved in play all over the pitch. Clearly, the best player on the park. But the big question is, can he prove decisive on a week in, week out basis?
Wilshere: Another one who was involved in the build-up of many goals and often played high up the pitch after interchanging positions with Cazorla. Another one who has to make this sort of an impact on a consistent basis. Was partly at fault for Reading’s first goal as he wasn’t alert to the possibility of a mistake. Has to learn that playing that deep brings unique defensive challenges, particularly in moments when he’s the only midfielder protecting the central defence. Must also control turnovers and other avenues for losing possession.
The midfield did a decent job of protecting the defence but Arteta and Wilshere will probably agree they could have done better for the two goals. It was a stroll in the park for them as far as circulating possession and creating chances goes.
Oxlade-Chamberlain: Had a couple of shots on target and put in some balls into dangerous areas but on the whole he’ll have to learn to make his presence count in a more meaningful way as his experienced teammates showed. Against such an opponent he should be picking up goals and/or assists. Wasn’t a bad game by any means but it was too easy.
Walcott: Hmmm… Theo in a central role? Well, if anything, this game should show him that in an Arsenal team goals and assists can come from anywhere! Just look at Podolski’s contribution. Took his chance well late in the game but it was an average outing from the Englishman. Passing and touch was surprisingly good but he missed a glorious one-v-one early in the game, also had numerous shots that were either off target or straight at an opponent. I have a feeling he’d have made a bigger impact if he’d started on the right. But if there was any game where Arsene could have afforded the experiment of starting him through the middle, this was it. Has a lot to do before he can convince me he deserves a consistent run through the middle but that performance should earn him another chance somewhere down the line, maybe even in the next game.
Podolski: Excellent work for the first goal, good assists for the second and fourth. He looks a different player when he gets a chance to run at opponents or finds some space in the final third. Another one who has to produce more often. Decent defensive shift but his lack of awareness played Kebe onside for the second goal. Should have stopped his tracking run earlier. It seemed like a case of good intentions and effort but bad understanding with other players and awareness of the game situation.
The attacking players had an enjoyable day. However, the fact that so many of Arsenal’s chances came via crosses from wide areas tells me that this was as much down to the opponent’s weaknesses as it was down to the strength of Arsenal’s attack.
Subs: Ramsey had a decent outing, Coquelin didn’t get much time, Giroud should have scored when put through.
Wenger: I still have a feeling Arsene doesn’t quite know what his best attacking combination is. This game would have told him some things but not much. The Walcott experiment is interesting, particularly considering no one’s really made the role their own. Must be gutted by the manner of the goals conceded but does he have the answers?! Perhaps the better question is, can he find the answers that have eluded him despite numerous efforts?Follow @goonerdesi