I suspect many post-game analyses this morning will focus on the fact that Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla got off the mark in English football. The two new signings scored the goals that won us the three points, and both played very, very well, it has to be said. More on them anon, but for me the most notable thing about yesterday’s win was how much more solid this Arsenal team looks defensively.
Two clean sheets against Sunderland and Stoke hinted at improvement in this area but against two sides who showed little attacking ambition it was a bit premature to make any real judgement. This morning I think we can safely say that there’s an increased focus on that side of our game and, you know, it turns out we’re quite good at it when we put our minds to it.
Many will point to the influence of Steve Bould and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that since his appointment we’ve looked like a team that has a much clearer understanding of what it has to do from a defensive point of view. Yesterday, as much as I enjoyed the goals and the way we created them, seeing a group of players who were completely switched on when we didn’t have the ball was just as exciting to me.
Seeing Lukas Podolski chase back to provide cover, tackle strongly and then play his way out of trouble from deep in our own half. Oh yeah, gimme gimme. In the second half, Kieran Gibbs found himself out of position having chased a player infield from around half-way, but Mikel Arteta saw this, dropped into the left back spot and when the ball was fed out there, he made a solid tackle and snuffed out the danger. Om nom nom. Vermaelen being first on the scene when Mannone parried a shot. Slurp. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain made a few wrong decisions when on the ball, but without it he covered his full back very well and again didn’t shirk the dirty work when he needed to get back and defend.
For those of us watching this Arsenal team down the years the difference is obvious. Too many times we’ve conceded goals which could have been prevented because players simply didn’t realise where the danger was or just let play pass them by looking for their back four to save the day. There was none of that yesterday and against a side which did try and make things happen it’s a really positive sign.
The other positive was the fact that the new signings are beginning to click, not just with each, but with the team. Diaby’s storming run to set up the first half chance for Olivier Giroud displayed the strengths of both players. The former’s display was among his very best for Arsenal, showcasing the talent that Arsene Wenger was so loathe to let go despite the injuries, while Giroud’s movement is intelligent when he’s involved and when he’s not. The finishing, well, that’ll come but there’s much to be encouraged about.
The first goal showed that this new edition Arsenal has speed on the break but also the quality to find the final ball and the finish. Gerrard’s misplaced pass came to Podolski, he fired in a ball to Cazorla in midfield and kept running, Giroud pulled wide to drag the other centre-half out of position, Cazorla took it on, played it back into the path of Podolski who outpaced Glen Johnson, and his low finish was clinical to make it 1-0 to the Arsenal. There was so much about that goal to enjoy, the final pass from Cazorla was perfect, but the German’s pure effort to get into the box to get on the end of the move he started was fantastic.
The second goal had a touch of fortune to it at the finish, Pepe Reina’s propensity to allow balls to squirm underneath him must be a real worry for Mugsmashers, but the build-up, again, was excellent. Cazorla combined with Podolski to get into the box to shoot low and hard, but as he moved to take the return pass look at 33 (Shelvey, I think). He switched off completely, allowing the Spaniard to collect the ball and get his shot away. It’s an illustration of how just one small lapse in concentration can prove costly at this level and gives further credit to the way Arsenal defended throughout.
Liverpool had a couple of moments. Sterling hit the outside of the post in the first half, Mannone made a couple of decent stops when they shot from distance, and Luis Suarez claimed a penalty for everything that happened in the box ever, but in general they looked a team very short of attacking options. Although the price they paid for him was ridiculous, it’s hard to understand why they let Andy Carroll go out on loan when clearly they have no depth in this area. Still, that’s a problem for Brendan Rodgers, not us.
Afterwards, Arsene said:
I am pleased with the quality of our display, offensively and defensively. We were more composed today, and dominated in midfield. I still feel Liverpool is a good team. I am confident we have good potential. It is down to us to build on that and improve.
And we have given ourselves a good platform to do just that. The decision not to replace Alex Song before the deadline irked many, understandably so, but the midfield trio of Diaby, Arteta and Cazorla were outstanding yesterday and maybe it’s no coincidence that out goals against tally is 0. The smaller Spaniard we’ve touched on above but his lego-haired compatriot has proven to be one of Wenger’s canniest signings, even if it did come so late in last summer’s window. He was brilliant again, working in tandem with Diaby, and his defensive work was as good as any full on DM (argh) you want to mention.
And then there was the Frenchman. Like many I had serious doubts about his ability to perform at this level again, but you can see why the manager kept faith with him. It was something of a masterclass, defensively solid but providing the link between midfield and attack. His ball retention, movement and passing were brilliant and for me he was our man of the match by a distance. The manager has expressed some fears about him going away with France, suggesting after so long out a rest would do him good, but playing like that means no international manager is going to refuse his selection. Let’s just hope there’s some understanding about what he’s been through injury-wise and he’s not run into the ground.
Add to that a back four which looks organised and, a few misplaced passes aside, as much a unit as any we’ve seen in recent seasons, the building blocks are in place for the season ahead. Worries about squad depth remain, no question, but with the manager talking about Wilshere being back in a month, Sagna’s imminent return and Rosicky on the way too, it looks promising.
As it is we go into the Interlull in a much better place than we did going into the game at Anfield. The performance from individuals and the team itself was convincing. And by that I mean players we had real doubts about have shown they’re more than capable and deserving of a little faith. When Sagna’s out we have a young right back growing in stature, Vito Mannone’s performances in the absence of Szczesny have done enough for people to be more calm about him as back-up, and after three games we’re unbeaten, yet to concede a goal and we look like a group of players that really wants to do something this season.
The mood is surely lifted, confidence will build within the team and on the terraces, and if we can maintain this level of performance throughout then it looks very promising indeed.