With a nod to John McClane

With a nod to John McClane

Victory over Spurs. Qualification for the knockout round of the Champions League. A pair of two goal leads that have remained chaste. Without wishing to jinx anything, I think this week is proof positive that our problems are solved forever. I kid of course. The last four or five years have followed a seemingly endless pattern and at the moment, we appear to be on the incline of the trend.

A big defeat leaves us reeling, our confidence deserts us for a few games and we play within ourselves for 3-4 matches. A scrapped out win, a couple of unconvincing draws and possibly another defeat are thrown into the mix. Then we produce a big result, the confidence slowly returns, the team start to show signs of a pleasing synergy until…..well, then another significant defeat hits us and so we begin the cycle again. But let us not be too cynical this week, because there have been some big positives aside from the 6 points collated.

Most pleasing about Saturday were the signs that webs of understanding are being weaved. The front four looked as symbiotic as they have at any point this season. Walcott, Cazorla and Podolski buzzed pleasingly behind queen bee Giroud. To emphasise the point, Walcott, Podolski, Cazorla and Giroud all scored classic “centre forward” goals inside the penalty area. But Podolski, Walcott and Cazorla were also able to conjure up assists with near classical wing play.

For these reasons the likes of Poldi and Theo needn’t obsess too much about how centrally they figure in the formation graphic. So long as the understanding is good between the attacking players, they will all get chances in the centre. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Ljungberg and Pires never allowed their status as wide players to prevent them from foraging for nuts and berries in the penalty area.

The manager spoke about a greater sense of shared responsibility in attack with van Persie having rowed, rowed, rowed his boat cuntily down the stream. This time last year he had scored 13 of our 25 goals in the league. So far this season, no one player has more than four of our 23. Podolski, Cazorla and Giroud have four each, Gervinho and Walcott 3 apiece. That suggests that the manager’s vision is coming to fruition in that area.

With a centre forward like Giroud it makes sense to have a wide option feeding him. Walcott has tossed 31 crosses into the opposition penalty area in the last two Premier League matches. Only 3 have found an Arsenal player, but crossing tends to be a hopeful exercise anyway, and shouldn’t be relied upon as a staple tactic. Crossing success rates are generally low.

The important aspect is that the 3 crosses Theo produced that did hit a teammate have all been dispatched. (Vermaelen’s cross against Montpellier also led to a goal). We shouldn’t be throwing balls into the area all the time, but it shows that, if the delivery is good, we have the players that make it a worthwhile option if required. Arsene seems to pinpoint Giroud’s recent form to him acclimatising to his teammates.

“I always think the guy who is up front has to adjust to the players he plays with. His runs are dictated by what the others behind him are capable of doing. We have players now in midfield, like Wilshere, Cazorla and Arteta, who can find you if you make the right quality of runs.”

But I think his blossoming is just as much to do with his teammates acclimatising to him. I’m minded of the game at Anfield in early September when he cut a frustrated- if hunky- figure; showing early for passes from the centre circle, grappling with a defender and holding play up, only to find no teammate within thirty yards of him. Arsene acknowledged this in part in his post Montpellier press conference,

“Giroud is good when he plays completely on the offside line. Sometimes when he doesn’t get the ball enough he wants to come deep. That is not his game.”

The build-up to Cazorla’s goal against Spurs shows that the penny has dropped and his colleagues have recognised the value in getting closer to him. Wilshere certainly benefited from this with his goal on Wednesday night too. Because Giroud’s teammates now appreciate his hold up play, they are getting closer to him higher up the pitch, where his physicality is more dangerous.

So far as I see it, the main issue upfront is one of depth. To this end, Wenger hasn’t ruled out calling up a sympathetic ex for one last night of passion in the shape of Henry. Putting the romantic appeal of signing Henry to one side, a longer term option surely has to be the priority? Arsene pinpoints the loss of Gervinho and Chamakh as leaving us light upfront. But Gervinho has been a striker by default only and Chamakh hasn’t so much as a solitary minute of league football under his belt this season.

The striker market is likely to be competitive in January. The Manchester clubs look pretty well stocked up there. Other than that, most of our immediate competitors, both on our coat tails and hovering above us, will be looking to add in this area. But we have money. Plenty of it. We need a striker. So let’s buy a Mertesacking striker. Henry should be an absolute last resort. But it is a tough market.

The harsh reality is, we’re left to hoover up the players Madrid, Barca, United, City and Chelsea don’t want / need and that would improve our squad. That’s the position whether people like it or not. But I really would like to think some sort of scouting would take place before settling on Henry. I don’t think that task to be beyond a manager that is paid £7.5m a year. If we do plump for Thierry once more, the suspicion that we’re again prepared to “make do and mend” in a critical area of the pitch will linger.

The midfield is showing growing signs of understanding too I think. This piece from @hazzaboy21 talks about Wilshere’s return and its permutations. The article makes a pertinent point that, at least initially, Wilshere’s return has posed a problem for Arteta. Jack likes to play slightly higher up the pitch than Diaby did early in the season. The upshot has been that Arteta, Arsenal’s umbilical cord, has been cut adrift.

Opposing teams have found joy in sitting a withdrawn striker on Arteta to prevent him from germinating possession from deep. Jack has dovetailed much more effectively with Mikel in the last two games and that understanding will develop further given time. Villas Boas sent Clint Dempsey on at half time to play the withdrawn striker role, but the American was unable to prevent Arteta’s flow with Arsenal sitting deeper, poised like snakes in the grass, waiting to launch counter attacks.

Indeed, when asked about Jack’s goal on Wednesday night, Wenger was keen to emphasise his defensive responsibilities as Arsenal’s pivot, or ‘go between’ midfielder betwixt Arteta and Cazorla, “He should not be too obsessed by that (scoring goals). He defended well, he is the kind of player who has to be a complete midfielder not purely an offensive player.”

We’re in a stage where we play every three or four days now with a seemingly endless cavalcade of tough away matches on the horizon. Rotation will be required and we’re about to see just how much the manager trusts his squad. Hopefully the next time I write to you, another six points will have been greedily gobbled up, the remnants dribbling down our chins. Until then, yippi ki yay Mertesackers. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

Arsenal 2-0 Montpellier: minimum fuss

Arsenal 2-0 Montpellier: minimum fuss

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What we were looking for post-Sp*rs was a solid, professional performance, a building block, and there’s no doubt we got that last night.

There was just one change from the team that started last Saturday and that was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in for the injured Theo Walcott, pretty much as expected. What was unusual was Arsenal’s sloppiness in possession, particularly in the first 10 minutes or so. Passes were over-hit, under-hit, hit straight into touch and perhaps against better opposition that might have proved more costly. As it was, Montpellier never really looked that threatening and we got away with what was a careless opening to the game.

Although the first half remained scoreless, I thought we grew into the game. Koscielny’s header which crashed back off the bar in the 11th minute was probably the best chance, but Lukas Podolski had a couple of moments where he threatened, a taste of things to come. There was also a wonderful moment when Mertesacker shimmied his way into the box, like a gigantic Lionel Messi, only to have the ball taken from his toes. Boooo!

Montpellier tried to expose us on the break but the one time they did get in behind Wojciech Szczesny was alert and timed his intervention to perfection. We needed an early goal in the second half and that’s exactly what we got. Olivier Giroud headed down Thomas Vermaelen’s cross and Jack Wilshere, ever alert, was there to run on and dink it over the keeper for his first goal in nearly two years. His joy was unconstrained and it was obvious that as much as coming back was a great thing, his first goal since then was something he’d been waiting for.

I thought the goal would settle us down and help us really get on top but we went into our shell for a few minutes. The visitors were restricted to speculative long range efforts (one from about 40 yards out was as ridiculous as it it gets) but really posed no threat at all. And then, well, we saw one of the goals of the season.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain cut inside from the right hand side. The ball came to Podolski, he played it to Giroud who clipped a Bergkampesque pass over the Montpellier defence. The weight, the loft, the delicacy of the pass were all perfect, and Podolski continued his run before thundering a first time volley past Jourdren to make it 2-0. Watching replays you can’t help but be enthused by the finish, particularly the fact that he caught the ball when it was still quite high, but the more you see the pass you more realise how brilliant it was.

What’s interesting is the understanding that’s clearly growing between the two. Podolski later spotted Giroud’s clever run inside the Montpellier defence and picked him out beautifully, only for the keeper to spoil things by making a good save. The rotter. But they’re producing, 13 goals and 8 assists between them in all competitions this season is a very decent return, and the more the play together and get used to to each others games then the better they’ll be.

The match was pretty much done and dusted from there. There were run-outs for Ramsey (who did well), Coquelin and Gervinho, and with Schalke winning at home to Olympiacos it meant that qualification for the knock-out stages was assured for the 13th season in a row. It’s a stat worth noting as those with deeper pockets fall short. Again. Topping the group means going to Greece and getting a win while hoping Schalke drop points to Montpellier, but that’s a bridge we can cross when we come to it.

Afterwards, Arsene said:

We didn’t find our way in the first half, and Montpellier won many 50-50s. Technically we were not completely clean and accurate and I was worried we could be caught on the counter attack. In the end it went well.

Thirteen times in a row we qualified. I’m very proud because it’s not the most glamorous thing, but it’s most difficult to be consistent at our level. It is a credit to the Club, because it is not as easy as it looks. If you look all over Europe, there are not many teams who do it.

From what he said as well it looks as if we’ll take a full squad to Greece to try and finish top, but qualification was the most important thing. The vagaries of the group stages mean you could just as easily draw a top team by finishing second, but for that’s what the Champions League is all about. There aren’t any easy games at this point really, so que sera sera.

Overall, I thought it was just what we needed last night. Although it probably didn’t feel like it, this was a game in which the stakes were very high and we dealt with Montpellier well throughout. Szczesny was, one moment apart, more or less untroubled and did what he had to do with a minimum of fuss. Seeing us keep a clean sheet for only the second time in 16 games was very welcome too.

And I know he’s the player that everybody’s going to talk about this morning but I have to give props to Olivier Giroud. He’s never going to be the kind of striker with lightning pace who streaks in behind, nor is he flashy in and around the box, but he is becoming extremely effective and is a real team player. He might not have scored last night but he got two assists, held the ball up well, and when it was required he got back and put in a shift defensively too.

As Arsene Wenger said, ‘he fights for the team’, and after some difficulties in the first few weeks of his Arsenal career – exacerbated by the ludicrousness of modern football/fans where a player is written off after just a few games – he’s shown why Arsene Wenger splashed out and, frankly, £12.5m looks money very well spent when you see what he brings to the side. The manager says he’ll get better too, I like that.

So, three points, qualification assured, clean sheet, a Jack Wilshere goal and a wonder-strike from Podolski. No complaints.

Next up, Villa.