The earlier pre-season friendlies didn’t quite excite me as much. Maybe it was the fact that many first choice players were missing that necessitated the inclusion of many youngsters who clearly weren’t going to play a major part in Arsenal’s season. These issues also made is pointless to look at the tactics of the team or indulge in any sort of detailed discussion of the events of the games.
The friendly against Cologne was different. We saw most of the players who will form an integral part of the squad and the first team. And they looked sharper and faster than the players had done on the Asia tour.
Before talking about the details of the game it’s important to note that the level of the opposition, with respect, wasn’t very high. This was a team that got relegated from the Bundesliga last season and then lost its talisman. Obviously, it wasn’t going to be a gripping contest. Nevertheless, the Germans were at least as strong, if not better, than the sides Arsenal faced in Asia. The fact that the Gunners could dominate the game to such an extent when they’d struggled on the tour to the far east had to do with two factors – The presence of many first choice players, and improved fitness/sharpness. It seems safe to say the short camp in Deutschland has been helpful.
Coming to the game itself, Arsene started with a mixed line-up by spreading first XI players into the two sides that were going to play either half. Some Gooners thought it would have been better to play the side that is likely to start against Sunderland so they can further develop their on-field chemistry, especially with some new players being integrated into the squad, but Wenger has enough experience to make the right calls on such matters.
The three big signings of the summer all started in the first half. I shared some of my thoughts about the play on twitter during the interval.
Those were my thoughts in a nutshell as it’s tough to get into details with the twitter character limit. So now I’d like to build on some of those points.
Last season, regular readers might have noticed I often talked about the lack of combination play from the Gunners. Often it was just a cross from the right and a goal, or a chip followed by a phenomenal finish from RvP. There were a fair number of through-balls as well. But we didn’t see 3,4, or 5 players combining in the final third, moving around dragging defenders all over the place, runs from deep exploiting the spaces created, and so on.
In the first half, albeit against modest opposition, the Gunners showed admirable understanding in the attacking half and the final third. This led to decisive and meaningful contributions from a number of players in the build up to high quality chances and goals.
For instance, the second goal came from a penalty that was won following a corner which resulted from a shot by Cazorla. The Spaniard was set-up by a deft headed lay-off by Giroud who received a wonderfully weighted cross from Walcott after the winger took his time to make the choice. Not only was this an exciting combination, there was so much here that Arsenal fans have been dying to see.
Firstly, Theo didn’t rush his cross and make a right hash of it. Secondly, he delivered it perfectly instead of sending it high and wide. Then Giroud didn’t simply aim his header towards goal but showed his awareness though a clever choice and technique through its execution. Finally, Cazorla arrived late in the box and got a good shot away.
Of course, this is just one instance, and while you don’t want to bet your house on Giroud picking a dozen headed assists next season or Cazorla scoring ten goals inside the box, a number of such moves (those involving 3 or more players in the final third) during the game show there is every reason to believe the attacking combinations can add greater flexibility and variety to Arsenal’s goal scoring threat. That should go a long way towards countering some weaknesses from last season and in replacing Van Persie if he leaves.
Good link play also makes individuals look impressive. I enjoyed Walcott’s movement as he popped up all over the final third. His decision making and execution wasn’t shabby either. The Englishman will have to perform in this manner against tougher opponents over a period of time to convince many of the fans but the foundation is there.
Giroud’s movement was superb. This is directly linked with his awareness of space and I believe that’s a natural skill that’s difficult to teach. The way he peeled of his markers in the box is not something everyone can learn through coaching. I also loved the fact that he hit the target with four (all?) of his shots although he probably should have scored at least one having been on the end of so many opportunities. The Frenchman also moved into the channels well and looked like he could be a good target man for out-balls when the team is under pressure. I found that was one of the few weaknesses RvP had so it’s good to have a player who adds something different even if the Dutchman stays.
That said, I still think of Grioud as a prodigious talent rather than a proven player. Being a late bloomer, he’s not played many games against big sides and few at Premier League intensity. The rate at which he adapts can have an impact on the way Arsenal’s season shapes up. I am also keen to see how he plays with his back to goal in front of a well-organized defence that gets tight on him.
Podolski wasn’t always in the game but his finishing was composed and that of a confident player. His tendency to drift inside will open angles for the Gunners when they are trying to build from the back but it will also leave the flanks exposed at times. This will be a tricky balance that he’ll have to learn over time. We also got a chance to see the German internationals opportunistic instincts in and around the box along with his lethal left foot. This can be a source of over a dozen goals for the Gunners. I also enjoyed his penchant for playing some quick one-touch passes in tight spaces.
Cazorla might also have had good fun with that and these two can develop a nimble and crafty partnership to create and finish chances around the edge of the box. Parked buses beware.
The Spaniard looks like he’s fitting in at Arsenal effortlessly. We saw his deft flicks, penetrating vision, and delightfully measured passes. More will surely come. The only area of slight concern I have is his ability to chase back. With Podolski or Gervinho on the left and Cazorla in the middle, Arsenal will put a great deal of defensive pressure on the two midfielders behind them. But I want to see how far, how fast, and how often can the Spaniard chase back before forming any opinions on this.
Coquelin and the Ox formed a relatively inexperienced pair in the middle but they were rarely challenged, nor was the defence.
In the second half Arsenal seemed to take the foot off the gas. They had fewer combinations in the final third. The finishing wasn’t as clinical either. But it seemed alright for a game where gaining match fitness was the primary concern.
Van Persie ran around and tried linking with his teammates but his heart didn’t seem in it. Maybe I’m reading too much into this but it told me he was on his way out.
Gervinho was his typical “exciting and frustrating at the same time” self. His runs, tenacity, and the goal were a delight. But he also messed up a gilt-edged chance created by Arshavin and failed to pick Podolski who was open in front of an empty net. Expect a mixed bag from him all through the season with the dominant side depending on his fitness and confidence levels.
There wasn’t much to say about the defenders but I did notice a number of gaps in the defence that Cologne failed to utilize. I don’t think there’s any cause to condemn anyone for defensive lapses after such a game but it’s safe to say we didn’t see any marked signs of improvements on that front either and it remains a concern.
Overall it was an enjoyable game and has definitely brought the buzz back. Can’t wait for the season to begin.Follow @goonerdesi