Arsenal have advanced to Champions League proper with another morale boosting performance. A 5-0 aggregate win over a team like Fenerbahce can give the impression that it was never a contest but don’t let it take anything away from the outstanding performances of the Gunners.
As with the first leg, the opening exchanges were always going to be vital and it was important for the hosts to ensure they did not concede. The visitors looked a lot more potent up front with Emenike leading the line in place of Webo, particularly in the opening minutes when the Nigerian was able to drop into space in front of Mertesacker or combine with Sow and others down their right flank.
It wasn’t a very comfortable start for Arsenal but they were getting enough bodies into the box to deal with the crosses. The first real threat to goal came in the 12th minute when Jenkinson was dispossessed when he darted infield with the ball just in front of the penalty box instead of clearing it. To make matters worse the youngster clattered with Wilshere which left the central defenders exposed.
A couple of excellently timed and executed challenges from Mertesacker and Sagna followed by good reactions by Szczesny kept Arsenal’s lead intact but the signs were there. Thankfully, the Gunners heeded those signs and tightened up. As time went by the midfield’s dominance grew and the hosts began to look threatening.
Once Ramsey took his chance in the 25th minute the nerves seemed a lot more settled and it seemed some of the visiting players lost their spirit and reverted to making unforced errors. The goal itself was wonderfully crafted with Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Wilshere, Giroud, and Cazorla playing their parts. Podolski’s through-ball was delicately lethal as, in combination with Walcott’s ever looming threat, it forced the defender into a desperate sliding tackle. The ball fell kindly to Ramsey who scored with a first-time strike.
You might say Ramsey was lucky with the way the ball landed at his feet but watch his run and you’ll have to accept the Welshman made his own luck. He was the deepest of the midfielders when Cazorla had the ball as he hovered around the centre circle. From there he went on a sprint behind the attentions of the visiting players who were watching the ball. Ramsey covered over 40 yards to be there if the opportunity arose. The eye to see that space, the desire to make that run, and the engine to execute it are all worth applauding.
There are a couple of important points related to this goal that I want to discuss.
During the 2011-12 season Ramsey was making many such runs after his return from injury. Unfortunately, that season his teammates were just not prepared for his movement and the ball rarely came to him even when he was completely free in front of goal. After a few weeks the players started finding him a bit more but by then I thought Ramsey was putting too much pressure on himself and lacked in confidence as he started rushing his shots. This led to some excellent chances being squandered and it only made the pressure worse. That’s where I thought the lad lost his confidence and his spell of poor form started.
This year, from pre-season onwards, we’ve seen him play with the same exuberance he once had and now his teammates are combining with him. The physical, technical, and mental qualities he has are absolutely exceptional and these goals early in the season can drive him towards fulfilling his immense potential if he remains fit.
The second point was the chaos that we saw in the Fenerbahce defence. Their backline was often out of shape and the gaps between their lines were too wide and easy to exploit. It was reminiscent of the kind of mistakes that Arsenal used to make in the not too distant past and the freakish moment with the defender putting the ball in Ramsey’s path resulted from that mess as much as it did from Arsenal’s qualities. It was another excellent example of how not to defend.
It’s important to understand this because it helps in differentiating between a good defence and an average one. Sometimes a team could defend terribly and still hold on to a result and on other occasion they might defend resolutely but succumb to an unfortunate goal. Whether it was the defending or a matter of luck can be determined by analyzing such patterns of play.
With that in mind I think it safe to say that Arsenal have improved their collective defence considerably and last season’s good work has not been lost. Sure there were problems. For instance, Emenike was able to find space far too often and easily. He was also able to run past defenders who got too tight to him when it wasn’t needed or advisable (Sagna in the 39th minute being a great example). Szczesny too had some iffy moments when it came to his judgment and tendency to come off his line. Sometimes the players got in each other’s way and, on occasion, Fenerbahce were able to advance from defence to attack with discomforting speed.
However, the team did not collapse completely and made up for the weaknesses through other strengths. The offside line, for instance, did a good job of breaking down a number of the opponents’ moves. Szczesny made some saves when he had to and the defenders made the tackles and clearances when they had to.
Defending is about creating layers of protection so that there is a failsafe in case of an error. I have covered Arsenal’s defensive issues in depth for three years now and, since that run at the end of last season, it finally seems that the Gunners are heading in the right direction. That’s not to say all problems are solved – I can’t see Arsenal play with as much defensive assurance and United and Chelsea did on Monday, for instance – but after a long time it seems the problems are actually solvable and worthwhile progress is being made (That’s another reason why the Villa game was so, so frustrating).
The way Arsenal controlled the game after taking the lead was commendable. There were one or two scary moments but those will always be there at this level. The key was that the team found a way to deal with them and minimize the clear cut opportunities.
The second half was mostly all Arsenal. It was again a half of football that will be easily forgotten but that ability to take the life out of the game when you’re in control and not giving your opponent any sniff is, in itself, immensely enjoyable and vital to long term success at the highest level. And many fans will of course remember Ramsey’s second goal which was another beautifully orchestrated move with a matching top class finish.
This time it was the other full-back, Monreal, who won the ball back. Sanogo and Ramsey shared passes before the young striker found Wilshere. Jack played an excellent first-time ball to Gibbs who was in a striker’s position. Ramsey was around the centre line when the move started but he put himself in the box and finished with aplomb.
Podolski’s injury, and possibly Ramsey’s too, were the big negatives on the night. The fact that Arsenal could have done better with some chances and some of the defence related observations mentioned above show plenty of room for improvement as well.
Szczesny: Made two very good saves – first from that rebound off Meireles in the 12th minute and then from Emenike. Had some iffy moments as well – when he came out and fluffed his punch, the way he came off his line and was in a no-man’s land against a header (which was ruled offside and only hit the bar anyway), and the Emenike booking where it was inches away from being a penalty. Did a good job of handling the shots and crosses that made their way to him.
Jenkinson: Was guilty of making the wrong choice in the 12th minute that put the team in trouble. Other than that it was a decent game from the youngster. Almost scored at the end with another excellent strike.
Sagna: Made some useful interventions in the box and I liked the way he attacked the ball even near the centre line. Of course, that tendency to attack the ball was used by Emenike to turn past him and that’s where defensive know-how – when to use your skills and when to hold – shows through. He got it right more often than not so it should go down as another impressive game in an unfamiliar role.
Mertesacker: Excellent tackle in the 12th minute and many other useful clearances/interventions in and around the box. He did struggle a bit in the opening minutes when Emenike was dropping into space in front of him or running into the left channel. Distribution and composure at the back were commendable, as usual.
Monreal: I thought he tucked in a bit too narrow at times and was a bit high up the pitch in the opening minutes. Made some useful forward forays and Giroud should really have scored from one of his square passes in the box. Steady defensive game but he can do better.
The back five were a bit more exposed in this game, partly due to mistakes/tendencies of their own and partly due to the midfield being farther away than recommended. But they played for each other and kept things relatively tight. The goalkeeper didn’t have too many big saves to make and he made them when called upon.
Ramsey: Easily the MotM. Was there to make clearances in the box and to score goals at the other end. Showed everything to be a complete midfielder.
Cazorla: Would have been the MotM if Ramsey hadn’t been that decisive. Simply sensational on the ball with a top notch work rate to boot. Good time and way to get towards his peak.
Wilshere: I thought he was playing within himself, i.e. holding himself back for tactical and possibly fitness reasons. There are still some mistakes in his game from a defensive point of view but he’s another player not close to his best yet and not playing in a system that’s best for him. From that point of view it was a good utilitarian performance which showed glimpses of his ability.
Arsenal’s midfield was the main difference between the two sides over the two legs. The Gunners were able to keep the ball for longer periods, they were able to dictate the tempo and shape of the game, and the midfielders made and finished more chances going forward while also helping the defence admirably.
Walcott: Didn’t get a goal or assist but his presence was always a threat and contributed to the goal.
Giroud: Had some chances where he could have done better – When Ramsey played him in on the left, the shot he took from outside the box instead of finding Wilshere’s run, and Monreal’s square pass – but it’d be harsh to focus only on that. Work rate was again excellent and he brought others into play regularly through his movement and link play.
Podolski: Excellent work for Ramsey’s first goal. Could probably have done more to help Monreal early in the game. Unfortunate to pick up that injury when he looked in good form.
The Arsenal forwards were able to combine with their teammates in a way that Emenike or Sow weren’t able to. There were many Arsenal moves that involved four or more players with the strikers playing selflessly.
Subs: Sanogo played his part in the second goal but he still looks very, very raw. Gibbs picked up a good assist. Miyaichi just got a few minutes.
Wenger: The first major early season task is over and it looks like his players are working hard to minimize their defensive mistakes. We haven’t seen the handbrake come into play, nor have the players struggled in the opening minutes to give the opponents major advantages. The next big test comes as soon as this weekend and we’ll know if the quest for balance has truly taken some forward steps.Follow @goonerdesi