Happy 17th Arsene. That party was fun.
This was supposed to be Arsenal’s toughest game of the seasons thus far but it turned into a lopsided contest straight from the kick-off when the hosts started at a breathtaking pace. The Gunners have done this before to an Italian side when Milan came to the Emirates a couple of years ago. The visitors had no idea what hit them.
It seems safe to say Wenger doesn’t rate Serie A very highly. When there were rumours of Van Persie joining Juventus, the Frenchman inimitably wagered a chocolate bar,
There is no reason why a top player, a big champion would want a move to Serie A in terms of the prestige of the League, the level of play or financial considerations. If he moves there I will buy you a Caramello.
Higuain’s injury weakened the visitors, and it’s hard to be sure how the Gunners would have played had they faced a stronger threat to their goal, but it seems to me Wenger would have wanted his team to go full throttle against the Italians who are more used to the intricate but slow-ish tactical battles of Serie A. After all, he did the same against Milan who had the likes of Ibrahimovic and Robinho in their ranks.
The game was over in the first 15 minutes. Arsenal scored with 2 of their 3 shots in that period. In both instances I thought Özil’s technical perfection was the decisive aspect.
It seemed that Napoli had started the game with an intention to press Arsenal higher up the pitch. Rafa certainly had some success with Liverpool when they pressed with intensity in the opening minutes. But the Italians just didn’t have the cohesion required to press as a unit. They often had three players pressing just inside the Arsenal half and that was indeed the case in the build-up to Arsenal’s first.
The Gunners bypassed that press quite easily as the ball was moved to the right. You could see the difference in speed and the impact it made. Insigne was slow in closing Sagna down. Ramsey had come close to show for a short pass from the full-back and Zuniga had followed him up the pitch. But when Ramsey saw the ball going up and ahead to Giroud he was very quick to react. The Colombian was not.
Arsenal’s ability to interchange positions without dropping a beat also made things tough for the visitors. Rosicky was in the striker’s position and occupying Mesto. Albiol was trying desperately to cover the near post as Giroud’s movement had pulled Britos out wide and opened a big gap between the central defenders. Özil was able to sneak in at the back post without anyone tracking him. This was, in totality, exceptional football from the Gunners as a team.
However, the decisive moment of that move was Özil’s finish with a first-time hit against a bouncing ball. There was practically no follow through as the German simply caressed the ball into the back of the net. The power generated was stupendous but more like a well-timed Tendulkar punch rather than a mighty heave of Dhoni’s bat. Most players would have missed that chance with Reina scrambling across his line and a defender blocking the route to the far post.
The second goal also resulted from Arsenal’s intensity. Flamini’s toe poke to nick the ball and Giroud’s finish were moments to admire but once again the decisive aspect of the goal was the weight and direction of Özil’s pass. The German made it look so easy that many people might not notice it, but from that angle it was easier to hit one of the defenders or put it close to the goalkeeper than to lay it perfectly in Giroud’s stride.
The composure and precision of Arsenal’s marquee signing was highlighted by contrast later in the game on numerous occasions when Ramsey, Giroud, Rosicky, and Flamini all got into promising positions in and around the box but couldn’t quite make the most of it.
A 2-0 lead is a very comfortable score and the goals were like knockout punches that completed derailed any plan or confidence the visitors might have had. Subsequently, Arsenal’s inability to convert threatening moments into worthwhile shots on goal can be excused. But it should not be ignored.
There were times, particularly in the first half after the second goal went in, when the Gunners seemed too frantic for their own good. Ramsey, who is naturally available all over the place, was one of the main sufferers as he was trying too hard. As he and some of other players mature they will hopefully learn to master their adrenaline-fuelled intensity in order to mould the moments of promise into events of impact. There is nothing wrong with a 2-0 of this sort, more so given the expectations of this being a tight encounter, but as the events of the game transpired it’s not unfair to say the Gunners probably should have converted this into a 4 or 5 goal statement of intent.
This should not be taken as a criticism but as a benchmark for the potential of this team.
The second half petered out. There was just that chance for Koscielny from the set-piece.
Napoli, interestingly, had more shots than the Gunners but most of them were hopeful, some might say wasteful, punts from distance. Only one of those made Szczesny work and even that was gentle catching practice.
I was surprised Benitez didn’t play a more compact defensive game. Surely, he knew what his side’s limitations were. Maybe he just didn’t expect such an onslaught from the Gunners after their tendency to start the recent matches on a more cautious note because he tried pressurizing the Arsenal players in the central third. I don’t know if Hamsik’s comments reflect his manager’s strategy or if they’re just his throwaway opinion.
We knew of Arsenal’s quality, how they enjoy to control possession and you can only beat them if you play in the same way.
The visitors certainly had the technique to keep the ball if they’d succeeded in disrupting Arsenal’s rhythm by pressing the defenders and the first ball into midfield. But the Gunners were too fast and too good for them. I do think we will see a very different return leg.
It will also be worth watching in future games if Arsenal can repeat this explosive start in League and other Cup competitions. That might give us some clue on whether it’s a Serie A related tactic or the general future template for Wenger’s wards.
Given the fragmented nature of the game it’s tough to judge individual performances. It’s also harsh to criticize players after such a game. Some of my following comments are based on their own potential to be even more impressive so don’t read them as condemnation.
Szczesny: Best view of the spectacle and got paid handsomely to enjoy it.
Sagna: Excellent controlled chip to Giroud, another lovely cross for Ramsey at the far post, good attacking contribution on the whole. There were a couple of moments when I felt the opponents did run past him rather easily.
Mertesacker: Spotless first half. Passing was composed, quick, and facilitated forward play. Was busier defensively in the second period but never truly tested.
Koscielny: I enjoyed the way he pounced on the chance, shame it went straight towards Reina. Made a couple of important blocks on the edge of or just inside the box. I’ll have to check the numbers but it seems to me his passing reliability has improved from last season.
Gibbs: Most of Arsenal’s attack was down the right and the Englishman didn’t see as much of the ball as Sagna on the other flank. Had a steady defensive game – got into the right positions, made the safe choices – without the need for anything spectacular.
The defenders were never really under pressure as Napoli hardly ever clicked as a unit in offence. There were times when it seemed a little easy for Hamsik, Insigne, and Co. to dribble past a couple of players but there was almost always a third defensive player ready to step up to the plate.
Ramsey: Excellent run and useful assist for the first goal. Didn’t really look out of place on the right did he? Kind of tells us there really is no point in boxing quality players into rigid roles. Doesn’t mean he should always play more on the right but it’s always good to have an open mind about possibilities. Did feel as though his exuberance got the better of his composure on a number of occasions which limited the actual impact he was able to have.
Özil: That first half performance and the two decisive moments are enough to get him the MotM in my opinion. Faded away in the second once the chemistry of the side wasn’t quite the same. I like the fact that he is taking on more responsibility. For instance, moments before the first goal he was around the centre circle trying to recycle the ball. In fact, his run was from quite a deep position and also showed his eye for an opportunity even when the ball was being played a long way from him.
Arteta: A steady conservative game from the Spaniard as he often stayed the deepest. Did a good job of linking defence with other midfielders and transitioning the ball to attack. Still felt a little rusty as there were a couple of uncharacteristic misplaced passes and was slow to react on an occasion or two. Clever header to put the ball in Koscielny’s path assuming he meant it.
Flamini: Joined with the attack on a number of occasions in the first half and even had a couple of ambitious efforts of his own. Passing was, in contrast, much restrained as 32 of his 75 passes went backwards. Did show a bit of bite in some of his defensive moments, not sure it was needed but it certainly gets the crowd going.
Rosicky: Another player who looked a bit rusty on the ball. Movement off it and game intelligence were top notch. I would have enjoyed the game more if he’d been able to impose his guile and experience on it after the second goal in order to channel the energy and spirit of guys like Flamini, Giroud, and Ramsey.
The midfield must have seemed otherworldly to the visitors. And such performances are noticed by other teams as well. Glad to see Özil’s first goal out of the way and in a memorable fashion. As mentioned earlier, I do want to see how repeatable this performance was and whether they can garnish it with a hint composure and control in the future.
Giroud: Well-taken goal, quality contribution in the build-up to the first, enjoyed the way he moved all over the attacking half and pulled the defence apart. Physicality was impressive. Room for improving precision and touch in the final third with his passes and shots. I might get tired of saying this and you of reading but he never stops working for the team.
Wenger: Did you see his expression after the first goal? I think that move and finish was beyond something he expected. There was genuine pleasure mixed with an element of awe in that. That’s the kind of football his team can produce when everything falls into place. But they have to keep on doing it till May. Consistency is the final frontier where many of his recent teams have failed.Follow @goonerdesi