And here is the cannon in the form of Podolski’s left boot, what a strike! Arsenal guaranteed qualification to the final 16 of the Champions League thanks to a lovely chipped finish from Wilshere and an emphatic finish from Podolski. However it was not all roses and champagne as once again our players looked slightly hungover for the first 10-15 minutes of the match, misplacing passes and giving away possession very cheaply. They sobered up after this sadly now-characteristic start and started to play with more confidence, asserting their dominance over Montpellier’s midfield by the quarter hour mark. As was outlined in the match preview, Montpellier chose to sit back, stay disciplined and hit us on the counter but all this really did was concede three quarters of the pitch for us to move the ball around in and keep possession. We fired a warning shot early on when Koscielny latched on to Cazorla’s excellent cross and powered a solid header against the crossbar but for the most part, Arsenal looked dominant until the final third in the first half, seeming to lack the key to unlock Montpellier’s solid defensive resolve.
And this is what I love about the new Arsenal compared to the predictable Fabregas-dependant team of old. Montpellier were parking a fairly large-sized bus in their defensive third so what did the lads do? Moved the ball around quickly to create space and then fired dangerous balls into the box for Giroud to win and knock down into the path of our midfielders. This is as good a ‘Plan B’ as we’ve had in years, whereas our old team despite brimming with creative talent, would keep passing the ball around on the edge of the box for 10 minutes at a time, dominating but ultimately not doing a single damn thing to worry their opponent, not even a shot in anger! This new team attempted to create a goal-scoring chance by understanding the weaknesses of their opponent. The shocking stat in this match was that Arsenal enjoyed a whopping 82% success rate on aerial challenges so it would seem the most logical way to force this chance was to ping balls into the box, which ultimately is how we scored both goals. Wilshere’s energy and enthusiasm to get forward into dangerous positions rather than look for the perfect pass and when coupled with Cazorla and Arteta’s vision and Giroud’s ability to win pretty much any ball that comes near him, this is very dangerous. The great thing with Cazorla is he not only understands how to find the space left by opponent’s defenses but doesn’t mind having a go from range either and he nearly scored another thumper for us in this match. Giroud is another player who will do this and it’s these kind of things that make this team a much more potent force despite lacking some of the class of our previous Arsenal players.
While the change in our attacking impetus is great to see it was the defensive side of our game that was the biggest positive to take away from this match and that’s not just because of the clean sheet, it’s because of the way they earned it. It was a return to the well organised defensive system we started the season with and I credit a lot of this to Szczesny being back between the posts. I think the defenders draw a real sense of confidence and familiarity from Tex being there. Mannone was never very impressive in my eyes and although Szczesny had a quiet game, the one time he had to make a decent save he got it right. The partnership between Koscielny and Mertesacker seems to be gaining solidarity again as well, Koscielny in particular was excellent in this match aside for one small brain-snap where he kicked out at one of Montpellier’s players and gave away a dangerous freekick. Montpellier were reduced to long shots by the domination of our midfield and the no-nonsense approach of our defenders, trying their luck wildly at times(including a rather sad effort from 40 yards..) and were seemingly out of ideas. Ramsey’s substitution in particular reinforced our resolve by helping to keep possession in midfield. Montpellier’s tactic of trying to hit us on the counter down the wings was destroyed by a more disciplined Arsenal performance than previous weeks, never over-commiting bodies forward and simply protecting the lead. The long shots never bothered our keeper and once again Koscielny was having none of it as time and again he made the run forward to either shut down the shooting attempt or nip in and intercept the ball forward. Montpellier’s danger man Belhanda, in particular must’ve been mightily frustrated by his efforts and it saw them have about 10 long range efforts that basically all fizzled out.
I do think Montpellier gave us a helping hand in this regard by not starting Herrera who is a more physical presence in the box than Charbonnier and could’ve given the defense a shake up but overall it was a very business-like and unyielding display by our back line and a hugely positive sign of things to come. Even Vermaelen managed to do a decent job at Left Back and my only worry is that with the imminent return of Gibbs to the lineup, Koscielny might again get squeezed out thanks to the Captain’s armband, despite being the more ideal partner to Mertesacker. For my mind though, the positives in this match far outweigh any negatives. Wilshere played far better in his role of the pivot, helping Arteta in defense more than he has in the last few matches and this is a step in the right direction for our midfield. Szczesny has instilled renewed confidence in the back 4 and looks set to stay between the posts for the season, barring injury. Podolski looked great once more and with Gibbs back next match to support him I expect to see an even better performance vs Aston Villa. Hopefully Walcott’s injury isn’t too bad as his pace is another thing we could really use against the Villains.
The only real improvement needed from this match is for the players to be alert and pass crisply from the starting whistle! The passing stats showed almost everyone’s accuracy lower than normal with the exception of, you guessed it.. Arteta. I put most of the blame for this lower accuracy on the first 10 minutes of the match where the passing was as sloppy as a pub team on the weekend. Against bigger teams this could decide the match quite early on so it’s vital we work on this, maybe our next sponsor should be red bull or some other energy drink? Perhaps that would wake the players up quicker.
So Aston Villa next and let’s hope we continue our good form in that one, though I really want to see better focus from the start from our lads. Till then, North London rivals humiliated?-check, Champions League qualification complete with a chance of topping the group?-check, key players returning to the squad and new financial deals about to be negotiated?-check. Not a bad week really…