Saturday, October 1, 2011

That Was an Arsenal Match

Wednesday's Champions League match against Olympiakos was indeed a prototypical Arsenal match. It's funny, every time I make a criticism or give a compliment, it seems that Arsenal evolves or regresses to make that comment a thing of the past. Earlier in the year I had defended Arsenal's slow start to the season because of all the injuries and suspensions. Then the Manchester United debacle occurred. After that I talked about adjusting our expectations for this Arsenal squad. Then the meltdown at Blackburn occurred. And very recently, I spent an entire blog post focusing on the limitations of Arsenal's attack in the wake of the Bolton match where Arsenal needed a Bolton player sent off before they could really take a hold of the match. Then, Olympiakos.

I may be going crazy here, but Arsenal's attack looked good Wednesday at the Emirates. In a match where Robin Van Persie and Aaron Ramsey both started on the bench and Theo Walcott and Gervinho were unavailable due to injury, Arsenal were still firing on all cylinders and putting extreme pressure on the Olympiakos defense. To me, this was shocking. I know Olympiakos isn't world class and is not a favorite to move on to the knockout stages, but they are still a respectable team. With Ramsey and Van Persie not in to provide the quick exchanges through the middle, and Gervinho and Walcott not able to provide the speed and menace on the flanks, I thought this was going to be tough sledding for the Gunners. Instead, we saw perhaps the best attacking game Arsenal has put forward this season.

The passing through the middle was good, but not exceptional. Marouane Chamakh is a poor man's Van Persie at best and more likely a middle class man's Peter Crouch (ouch). He's decent as a target man, but is not good with quick passes and doesn't have those striker instincts for garbage goals and opportunity in general. And please don't get me started on Tomas Rosicky and how much he bothers me with his poor touch and penchant for terrible yellow cards (see: this very match). Mikel Arteta was not working through the middle so much as playing the deep midfielder string-puller position that he does so well, though he did exchange passes at the top of the box. But the wings. Oh my god, the wings.

First of all, let us never play Kieran Gibbs again unless absolutely forced to because Andre Santos is incredibly dangerous coming down the left side. I'm not saying that Santos is going to be an absolute star or anything, but he's such a vast improvement over Gibbs because he can actually, I don't know, cross the ball. He combined very well with an in-form Andrei Arshavin (rather than the lost zombie that we've been seeing lately) and the play down the left was always a danger to Olympiakos. The real story, however, was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and the blistering pace that he brought to the right side. Bacaray Sagna was of course good in coming up the right but with Walcott out, Oxlade-Chamberlain stepped up for Arsenal and then some. His goal was a beautiful job of settling the ball and out-maneuvering the defense to get his shot off. He made run after run and more importantly, actually freed himself up to cross or cut back the ball and distribute to the middle. In other words, he wasn't just running with pace, he was creating dangerous chances as well. I love Walcott, but if Oxlade-Chamberlain plays like this, you can't leave him on the bench. This is a thought in it's nascent stage, but what about moving Walcott up to play off Van Persie as a second striker in a 4-4-2? I love the five player midfield, but Walcott just can't cross well enough to be best used on the wing. Running off of Van Persie in the middle though, he can use his speed and finishing ability and give Arsenal an added threat forward. Somewhat similar to how the Andy Carroll/Luis Suarez pairing works for Liverpool. Then play Gervinho and Oxlade-Chamberlain on the wings, Alex Song and Arteta in the middle. The only problem is, that pushes out Ramsey and Wilshere (when he's healthy), though with European play there should be enough time for all. I don't know, just a thought to start. But the menace displayed on the wings on Wednesday should be encouraged and developed.

Of course it wasn't all good for Arsenal as at times, Olympiakos looked just as dangerous as them. Granted Song was starting at center back due to injury, but the whole team needs to be better at tracking through the middle. There were too many free runs and unmarked or loosely marked players and the inability to deal with the short corner that generated their goal was absolutely inexcusable. Wojiech Szczesny has been amazing this year, but he can't keep bailing out his defense. Eventually, he's going to have a bad game, or a team is just going to bury every chance despite his best efforts, and Arsenal is going to lose. Plain and simple. The defense needs to do a better job of protecting him and limiting the chances so that he can make the big saves, not every save.

Game Notes:

-I know I already went on about Oxlade-Chamberlain, but he was the most important part of this match. If (and I know that this is a big if) he can continue to play like that and improve as well, that transfer signing is going to look like an absolute piece of brilliance by Arsene Wenger. And that's what he's good at: finding these great prospects and investing in them when he should. Granted, I'm getting ahead of myself. That performance might have been an aberration, he could develop injury problems, he might stagnate rather than evolve, etc. But if he actually continues this trajectory... wow.

-This isn't exactly Arsenal related, but Olympiakos looked very dangerous in this game, especially on the counter. I believe it was their captain who kept curling balls in from the right and I swore every time he did it because they were pitch perfect. Credit to them for their play, although thank god they didn't get that second goal.

-More than anything, this was just a fun match to watch. Arsenal played well on offense, as did Olympiakos, so it was back and forth with tons of shots and chances. It may not have been the most well-played game of all time, especially on defense, but it was incredibly enjoyable for the excitement. I hope Arsenal gives us wins more than anything, but hopefully they can get them with this style of play. The Arsenal style of play that draws fans and reminds you of why you like watching soccer. As always, Go Gunners.

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