Match Review: Arsenal vs Montpellier – Fire the Cannon Gunners!

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…


On track and forward: Arsenal vs Montpellier preview

After a fabulous game against our neighbors that put them firmly in our shadows we now turn to a game which will determine our qualification into the next round of Europe. Oh hey, look its Olivier Giroud’s old club that we have to beat again. Since the first time we faced them Montpellier have settled down as a team compared to before and look like a threat that can cause problems for us anytime of the week. Let’s take an in depth look at this Montpellier team which is in good form recently:

For Montpellier, there is no way for them to qualify for the next round but there is still a chance that they can get third place and secure a position in the Europa league. How would this be achieved? By beating Arsenal and Olympiacos losing to Schalke, though the chances of something like that occurring are very slim as Arsenal are very tough at home. For obvious reasons we have to look at the previous fixture and think of Montpellier as a formidable opponent as they were able to outplay us for large periods of the 2nd half in the first game we played in France. But looking as to why that happened we have to look at the formation and the players of Montpellier in general. Cabella played on the RW in that game and he ran rings around our first choice Left Back Kieran Gibbs. To do that against our most consistent Left Back was an achievement in itself since Gibbs has covered the left hand side so deftly this year. It was a worry to see and is something that could haunt us in this fixture as well. Apart from Cabella we may now have to deal with Charbonnier on the wings (who was not in the squad vs Arsenal in the first fixture), a tricky winger who can cause trouble for any sides and has a fantastic eye for goal. Also this time Arsenal may have to deal with Herrera from the get go, a player who caused significant problems in our defensive formation last time with his presence in the box.

Montpellier also have been in good form in Ligue 1 this month in general, going 5 games unbeaten in their last 5 (2 wins and 3 draws) which brings up the question are they an easy team to beat? No, they’ve vastly improved their defense from the previous games that they’ve played. They’ve employed a bit more of a defensive style which helps them sit back and counter but in their countering they use the pace of their wingers rather than have everyone push up (which they use to do before). Montpellier are clearly out for some pride at this point with virtually no chance of progressing to the final 16 and this makes any team a dangerous prospect. Montpellier typically setup in a 4-3-3 formation(although this does sometimes switch to a 4-2-3-1 mid-game) with Herrera up top and the dangerous wingers Camara and Charbonnier either side. Their biggest threat however, has to be Younes Belhanda who sits behind the striker in midfield and plays a no.10 role in the team. He likes to get forward often and isn’t afraid to try his luck and is a player that the likes of Mikel Arteta will have to watch closely. In general Montpellier will attempt to keep the ball in midfield, moving the play from side to side before pushing up to the edge of the box to attempt either a through ball or a long shot to hopefully force either a defensive or keeping error.

Now for the good news. Montpellier are quite vulnerable to crosses into the box on counter-attack and they don’t deal with tricky skillful players very well. This means the likes of Gervinho, Gibbs and Giroud should be able to cause some damage to their defense. I would assume that due to their aggressive nature it would benefit Arsenal to play somewhat cautiously and keep possession in midfield and try to expose them if they commit too many bodies forward. Counter-attacking would seem the ideal way to achieve this and if Arsenal can score an early goal I’d love to see this approach taken. I believe our midfield is superior to theirs and should be able to keep possession for decent spells. Patience and using the width of the pitch might be the best way to frustrate Montpellier into losing their defensive shape and hitting them hard when they do. I’d expect Giroud to have decent success vs their Center Backs in the air so the more crosses swung in the better, it’s just a shame Theo Walcott is unavailable to play this one.

Looking at our own lineup for this game we are blessed and cursed at the same time. On the positive side we have Gibbs and Gervinho(err I think that’s positive..) returning to the side and on the negative we have Walcott who’s been in such fine form, nursing his shoulder injury from the match vs that ‘other team in North London’ and Santos unavailable also(probably ate too many burgers or got booked for speeding). Even with Gibbs back and available I would expect Wenger to operate on the side of caution and use him only as a sub in this one, keeping him fresh and fit for the Premier League match this weekend vs Aston Villa. In Walcott’s stead I would expect seniority to rule the vote and therefore Gervinho should start over Oxlade-Chamberlain. The rest will most likely be the victors from last weekend, applying the old adage of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

Montpellier Danger Men: Belhanda, Herrera or Cabella(whichever plays) and Camara.

Result Prediction: This is a must win and Wenger knows it so he won’t be fielding a weak side. If the crowd at the Emirates are anywhere near as loud as they were for the North London Derby the team should play well and we may just get our first clean sheet for awhile. 3-0 Arsenal.

Predicted Lineup: Szczesny, Vermaelen, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Sagna, Arteta, Wilshere, Podolski, Gervinho, Cazorla, Giroud

Conclusion: A game that we are capable of winning and winning well. Montpellier will try not to over-commit forwards and hit us on the counter. Arsenal only need to keep their composure and pass the ball around patiently to invoke Montpellier’s self destructing nature. Should be a tight game unless we score early in which case anything could happen.

Right then, let’s get behind the team and show em what they mean to us! Come On You Gunners!