Back on Track
After two goalless draws with Sunderland and Stoke in the first games of the season, Arsenal finally found their feet and got back on track with a convincing win at Anfield against Liverpool. I had my doubts prior to kick off – mainly regarding our third-choice keeper Vito Mannone – but also recognizing that something just didn’t quite work in the offensive department in the past couple of games. Something was missing: probably the best way to describe it is that our new players weren’t “clicking”.
You could see it best against Stoke, I suppose. We had our three new gunners in attack – Olivier Giroud took up the Center Forward role, Lukas Podolski played on the left and Spanish wizard Santi Cazorla played in the hole behind the striker. But in that game something wasn’t gelling: they seemed to be confused about movements off the ball, what each other’s position limits were, and who was allowed to float, where, and when.
Combine that with the fact that it was Abou Diaby’s first full game in god knows how long, and that he was understandably fighting rustiness. This situation led to the fact that two thirds of our midfield trio was new, in one sense or another, to this Arsenal side, and the only one who was present before – Mikel Arteta – had to adapt to a more defensive midfield role in the absence of Alex Song.
At Anfield, things started to “click” again. Sure, it was not perfect from the first touch on the ball, but it did become evident later on in the first half. I have three main observations from that game:
- Abou Diaby’s midfield role:
In a game against a team like Liverpool, who are not afraid to come out and attack directly, Abou Diaby was finally able to show us some of his real qualities, qualities that were possibly forgotten during his recent injury-ravaged seasons. While not being a DM enforcer per-se, Diaby certainly has the tackling ability and physique to steal the ball from the opposing team, but not only that – against Liverpool he presented some cunning ball control and off-the-ball movement; this, combined with his bursts of pace and long legs, meant he could retrieve the ball from an Arsenal defender, and within a matter of seconds make way to start an attack on the other side of the pitch.
This happened at least twice on Sunday – the first, when Diaby stole a ball on the Arsenal right-wing defence, burst forward and attempted a cross to Giroud; the second, he received a pass in the Arsenal defensive third of the pitch, used his pre-touch movement to duck the Liverpool pressing player, and then found way to make a run forward, which ended up in a fantastic pass to meet Giroud’s smart change of direction. Sadly the effort ended just wide of Reina’s net.
Last season we’ve seen Arteta or Song play in this role, and while Arteta can obviously tackle and pass, he is slower and weaker; and while Song had some fancy over-the-head passes during the season, he had neither the technical ability nor the pace that Diaby showed on the pitch on Sunday. If Abou can build up on this performance, and most importantly, keep fit for a significant part of this season, we could be looking at a Phoenix reborn.
- Sound defensive display:
Yes, Arsenal had kept two clean sheets against Sunderland and Stoke, but no-one can say we were really tested during those games. We kept most of the possession, and both teams stayed back and defended most of the time. Only a handful of chances were presented during the two games, and Arsenal’s back four didn’t seem to have any trouble dealing with them. But Liverpool was different: they came out more. They had a few shots on goal, forced a couple of saves from Mannone (especially later on in the second half, including a very impressive save to deny Shelvey’s long-range effort), and even hit the post in one case, from Sterling’s left wing try.But all in all, Arsenal’s back four were very solid. Offside trap worked well, marking worked well, and tracking back from both Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lukas Podolski was impressive. The wingbacks were rarely exposed, and it was encouraging to see Podolski extracting balls virtually at the corner flag, then starting a Gunner counter attack from there.One standout, for me, was Carl Jenkinson. Yes, Kieran Gibbs probably had a better game overall, and he has been consistently good on the left since the season started, but Jenkinson was very good against Liverpool, and considering this lad had his first professional football match for Charlton less than two years ago, it was very pleasing to see him deal well with the likes of Raheem Sterling, Luis Suarez and Fabio Borini. He marked well, he tackled well, and was rarely caught off guard. For a lad of his age and experience, he’s starting to put together a string of decent performances in the absence of Sagna, which is highly promising for him. Also, considering that the combination of him and Oxlade-Chamberlain, age-wise, was merely a few weeks over Ryan Giggs’ age, is actually pretty amazing! Kudos to them.
- Link-up play:
You could literally seethe link-ups, the way they should be. Cazorla and Podolski linked up excellently for both goals. Diaby and Arteta found their leveled and correct combination in mid-pitch. The wingbacks knew their limits and the wingers tracked back very well to cover them when needed. And I think most importantly – there was discipline in the team.Podolski in previous games had the tendency to float towards the middle, which created a cluster especially when teams tried to form a defensive fort. It was too crowded, but now he was more strict, and therefore allowed more space for Giroud and Cazorla in the middle, which evidently paid off for him as well – both of Arsenal’s goals came from link up play between Cazorla through the middle and Lukas on the left. This is not rocket science – it’s basic tactics and what for me seems like increased awareness of your team-mates and knowledge of their playing styles and habits. A football squad is like a big complex machine with different parts that have varying qualities and purposes. When some of the parts are not cooperating well with others – although the product may appear at the end, oftentimes it will be broken or non-functional. When you oil the parts a tad, and let them bond more on the training ground… well, I guess you understand where I’m going with this metaphor!
All in all, it was a good show, and I think Gunners around the world can be pleased with what they saw. We shouldn’t delude ourselves, thinking that the fact we have yet to concede in three games is impressive and that the team is in perfect shape. It’s not. The zero stat is just a stat. A combination of nice fixtures, some luck and good work. There are still some areas to be improved. I think this squad needs to improve upon Sunday’s performance, building on top of it and not changing anything drastic. The basics – the things that are important – are there. The team just needs to keep that machine running, oiled, and add on that.
One game at a time.