A decent away win for Arsenal, though a clean sheet was carelessly thrown away. We were once again guilty of not firing straight out of the blocks, causing some early shaky defensive moments before settling into our rhythm and dominating possession and the match. Reading made this easier for us by producing what was probably their worst 45 minutes this season in the first half and I’m sure United’s players are wishing this was the Reading they played the week before when they escaped with a 4-3 win. One has to wonder if that 7-5 defeat in the League Cup was maybe preying on their mind as Reading showed Arsenal far too much respect, allowing our midfield trio of Arteta, Wilshere and Cazorla far too much space to move and pass the ball and in return they rightfully ripped Reading’s defense apart.
Wenger sprung a bit of a suprise in his team selection, starting Oxlade Chamberlain on the right wing and placing Walcott as the Center Forward. In my Match Preview I mentioned that Reading’s defense had conceded more goals from counter-attacking and thru balls than any other and what better way to exploit that than with the fastest player in the Premier League? Add to this the fact Giroud had a minor injury and Gervinho is in the naughty corner after his efforts against Bradford and it’s easy to see why Wenger would select Walcott in this role. Nevertheless I can see the headlines forming about “Arsenal bending to Walcott’s contract demands” and all the other conspiratorial Bullshit. The combined pace of Walcott, Podolski and Oxlade Chamberlain proved deadly against Reading however so full credit to Wenger for this change in tactics.
Playing Walcott in this role also had an effect on our formation. Instead of our usual 4-4-1-1, Arsenal played a 4-5-1 but I was quite impressed with the fact Walcott continually dropped deep to help build the attack. The trio of Arteta, Wilshere and Cazorla that we waited so long to see is starting to build nicely with a significant increase in passes between the three of them, suggesting they are starting to get on the same wavelength. The buildup for Cazorla’s third goal was a perfect highlight of this understanding with all of them involved and Podolski providing a good assist also. That goal to me was classic Arsenal, a quick incisive pass from midfield, good buildup play with runners on the edge of the box before a perfectly placed low cross was tapped in at the far post. It was also really good to see Podolski getting far more involved than he has been in previous weeks, making me wonder if perhaps he’s been playing with a niggling muscle injury or similar. While Cazorla will rightly get Man of the Match for his hattrick and great attacking play. he owes a lot of this to Podolski’s great movement. Time and again as Arsenal broke forwards, Podolski drew 2 or more defenders before either releasing Gibbs or passing back inside to our unmarked players, of which Cazorla was the man who best understood how to exploit the space. Looking at the stats, Podolski and Cazorla combined for 10 key passes, 4 goals and 3 assists between them, truly a magnificent performance and partnership by them and the best I can remember since our 2-0 win when we made Liverpool our bitch.
The other reason for Podolski’s resurgence might be Wilshere, who has given this side what it has lacked since Diaby hobbled off against Chelsea and went back to banging the nurses in our hospital ward. Wilshere’s taken it on himself to drive the ball forwards out of midfield, something he shouldn’t really have to do all the time but has managed to do anyway. Rosicky did this last season from a more advanced position and it’s what Cazorla needs to start doing also. The man is magic with the ball at his feet but he needs to stop dropping so deep and be available as a diagonal pass for Arteta or Wilshere, in order to bring the ball forward with Wilshere running off him and giving the opposing defense too much to deal with. In this game, Cazorla performed this better but in previous matches I believe this has been a factor of Podolski’s limited influence on matches by drawing Cazorla further away from him, making those exquisite tika taka style passes we saw at the start of the season from them, much harder.
You can see how this brings Cazorla and Podolski closer together and it’s this factor that is crucial to Arsenal’s success of late. Every match that they have linked up in, Arsenal have been impressive. Essentially we should be trying to play a sort of 4-1-4-1 when attacking, with either Arteta or Wilshere staying back as an anchor and the other 2 mids(usually Cazorla and Wilshere) pushing forwards, becoming left and right attacking mids and running into the channels in and around the box, overloading the opposition’s defense like the Arsenal of old. You’ll notice that this isolates Chamberlain somewhat but in this match it didn’t matter as he was able to single-handedly rip up Reading’s defense regardless and if not for some poor finishing, would’ve certainly bagged a goal.
So on to the bad bits. We were not as defensively solid as we have been in our past few matches, for the first 10 minutes of the match Reading looked dangerous and we were slow to close them down and deny space. We also conceded two more rubbish goals to add to the collection, one from a terribly lax pass from Gibbs, who was caught out several times in this match playing Reading onside. And a second from Podolski tracking a runner back past the offside trap which I put down to inexperience. He’s not a defender so he’s less familiar with staying in line with the last defender than any of our back 4. Two technical errors, two rubbish goals and not good enough for Arsenal. The renewed fight in Reading during the second half had a lot to do with McDermott changing their formation from 4-4-2, to a 4-5-1 in order to put an extra man in midfield to try and cope with our wonderful trio. Wenger bringing on Ramsey for Chamberlain ended this revolt by having Ramsey drift inwards towards Wilshere and once more stacking the midfield numbers in our favour. It also forced Reading to come further forward to try and win the ball and resulted in the inevitable counter-attack for Walcott’s goal. Walcott was reasonably impressive playing as a striker sitting on the last defender but he lacked finishing quality for his chances. He could’ve had a hattrick in this match and while he’s a great plan B in the absence of a real striker, I think I still prefer him on the wing at this point.
On a final note, the stats from both this game and the one against West Brom reveal a very interesting fact. The average Arsenal player has managed a passing accuracy of about 86-88% this season with Arteta, Mertesacker topping the charts with 92.6% each. As these two are the men who pass the ball out from the back and start our attacks this is unsuprising but what does stand out is that in the last 2 matches, with the exception of these two that passing accuracy has dropped to about an average of 83%. Yet Arsenal have managed more possession, created more key passes and looked far more dangerous in these two matches, which suggests to me that we’re trying to be more incisive with our passing and taking more risks in order to create chances. This is really good news as nobody wants to see a toothless Arsenal knock the ball around for 90 minutes with hardly a shot in anger and I’d put a lot of it down to the increasing chemistry of our midfield trio, who have the ability to be one of the best midfield combinations in the Premier League.
We travel to Wigan next so there’ll be more rousing choruses from our incredible away fans. Let’s hope this is the start of something good heading into Christmas. Let’s do what we did to Reading and leave Wigan feeling like they’ve been kicked in the balls…
And of course the goals.