Last night was the most accomplished Arsenal performance I’ve seen in years. A scintillating first half brought two outstanding goals; a controlled, disciplined second ensured that Napoli were never going to find the breakthrough. The two varying styles were equally effective and for any team to be able to play like that is fantastic – but for a team which has had its struggles at both ends of the pitch in recent seasons, it’s massively encouraging.
Napoli were blown away in the first 15 minutes. We didn’t just come out of the blocks flying, we did it in such a way that we had momentum from the very first whistle. On the live blog I noted that it took until the 6th minute for the visitors to get the ball for any period of time and even then they didn’t have it for very long.
In the 8th minute we were ahead. Giroud’s lovely flick down the line for Ramsey, the Welshman’s cut back to the edge of the box, Ozil’s wonderfully controlled finish past Reina. Wham, bam, thank you mä’äm. It was Arsenal of old. It was Arsenal at their best. What a first goal for the German, and while the focus will naturally be on that, the build-up was just as nice to look at it.
Ozil then turned provider as Napoli squandered possession deep in their own half. He traded passes with Giroud, took it into the box, waited, waited and then with the outside of his foot played the perfect ball between a clutch of defenders for the Frenchman to finish from close range. Composure and awareness in that area of the pitch makes such a difference. Too many players simply hit and hope, he just delayed it until the perfect moment and Giroud’s movement created the space.
At times I was reminded of when Arsenal played Barcelona in the Nou Camp back in 1999. That night, in the first half, we couldn’t get near the ball and when we did we couldn’t hang onto it for any length of time. So it was last night for Napoli. They were chasing shadows most of the time, and although we didn’t score again it took some last ditch defending and blocking to keep us out.
Ozil and Ramsey’s combination play was sensational at times. They seem to be building an understanding very quickly, and such was the fluidity of our play Napoli couldn’t cope. Rosicky and Ramsey were, ostensibly, the wide players, but they popped up all over the pitch, the Czech sometimes in the centre forward position as Giroud dropped off, with Ozil free to roam.
The second half played out differently. Arsenal had no need to go charging after goals, Napoli were clearly bellowed into action during the half-time break and pressed us higher up the pitch. They closed down the centre-halves when they had the ball, but to little effect. Some of the composure we showed playing it out from the back was fantastic, and when Napoli did have the ball we blanketed them out of the danger zones.
I lost count of how many desperate shots from distance went flying increasingly higher over the bar, but that’s what they had to resort to. There was no space in behind, the full backs were rarely beaten, and in front of the back four they had Arteta and Flamini snapping away at their heels.
We just held them off, happy for them to have the ball at times, secure enough in our defensive ability, confident we wouldn’t concede. And when we needed to ease a little bit of pressure we had a real outlet in Olivier Giroud. His goal was lovely but it wasn’t the best thing about him last night.
The work he put in, the way he kept possession, holding off defenders, winning headers and chests in their half was hugely impressive. A full-on centre-forward’s performance and again it highlighted how much he’s improved. Last season the ball wouldn’t have stuck nearly as much and he’d have been complaining about some of the hits he took. Last night he just got on with it, his strength and power doing the talking.
In the end the Italians just had no answer to what we did, either from an attacking or defensive point of view. It was quality, efficient football from us. Straight into 5th gear early on, bang in the goals, then cruise control. I don’t know that too many people expected us to do what we did last night. I was confident of the win but the way we combined those two halves of football was brilliant.
I love the slick passing, attacking with verve and scoring lovely goals, but the defender in me gets just as much of a kick from the way we shut them out in the second half. They had to go for it, we just didn’t let them do anything but blast the ball over the bar from a distance we deemed reasonable. This is why it’s good to play teams like Napoli because this sort of a win over a lesser light, while impressive, wouldn’t be anywhere near as important to the confidence and belief of the team.
This was second in Serie A, unbeaten until last night, beaten to a pulp in the first half and then held at arm’s length for the second. I won’t say ‘with ease’ because we worked extremely hard to do it, but we controlled the game from start to finish and that’s something a bit special against opposition of this calibre.
Afterwards, Arsene said:
I felt that we played at a good pace technically, were direct and finished with great goals. Overall the first half was outstanding. Second half, we played more with more maturity, less drive going forward and a bit more caution. But overall it was an outstanding game.
We clearly have most things on our side right now. Momentum, confidence, players in great form, and an atmosphere that reflects that. It feels fun again, exciting, and it’s different. It’s been a while since it’s been like that. Of course it’s still early days and there’s a lot of football to be played this season, but sometimes it’s just worth stepping back and enjoying these times and moments for what they are.
There’s more to come from this team, I’m sure of that, but taken in isolation the last few weeks have been amazing. The signing of Ozil might well be seen as transformational in terms of the club as a whole, but you now begin to look back at last season and those cup defeats as something of a rock bottom. Since then we’ve changed our ways, our outlook, and that one defeat to Villa aside, it’s paying off.
We’re top of the league, in great shape in our Champions League group, and we’re playing the kind of football we’ve all longed to see from Arsene’s teams again.
It just feels good.