It’s a rarity these days that an Arsenal game compels me to write a blog post on it in the aftermath. We have so many writers in the Arsenal fanbase, which means that every man and his blog has an opinion and most of the time someone else is saying what you’re saying, but after the Swansea victory I’m not really fussed – there are a lot of things I want to talk about, and Twitter doesn’t quite cut it.
I think more or less every player deserves a paragraph after the match that we had, so I’ll start with Wojciech Szczesny. The Pole has been doubted by just about everyone for a while, but Arsene Wenger’s faith hasn’t wavered enough for Le Boss to sign a new first-choice goalkeeper. He may have dropped Szczesny in favour of Fabianski, but it seemed the kick up the butt that Wojciech needed, and he duly responded with some fantastic form. He wasn’t actually called on much against Swansea, but I thought he was reliable each time – a Nathan Dyer snapshot that he was alert to springs to mind, while every single aerial ball was his. I thought that @gunnerthoughts made a good point about Arsene’s faith in him.
I said the other day that I thought Bacary Sagna deserves more credit this year, and most agreed, but with the compromise that, despite the fact that he’s playing at full capacity right now, his 100% now compared to a few years ago isn’t quite as good. Fair enough – the Frenchman was quite sluggish in his tracking of Ben Davies for Swansea’s goal, but other than that Sagna was solid and reliable, which is exactly what I hope to see in a full-back. It’s worth remembering how badly he played at points last season and comparing it with now. A full pre-season has him looking quite a lot like his old self. Give that man a new contract.
Speaking of new contracts, Per Mertesacker has been linked with one, and based on his form this season alone, he absolutely deserves one. An impeccable reader of the game, which is how he makes up for a lack of pace – although I’d genuinely posit that he’s become quicker/more agile since signing for Arsenal – Per was more or less flawless yesterday, other than getting caught underneath a wonderful Wilfried Bony ball for the goal. 29 today and showing no signs of slowing down in the mind, let’s hope we continue to see Per proving me and others wrong for having doubts over him. Happy birthday big man.
Alongside him, Laurent Koscielny did his usual thing. There weren’t many individual moments from our defence to talk about, since we defended so well as a team – more on that later – that the defenders didn’t really have to perform any miracles to rescue us. Other than that, Koscielny was solid as usual, without making his occasional error. As you can see from Culann’s video compilation of his performance, his distribution was near-impeccable and pretty much everything he did was positive. I particularly liked how well he kept stepping in front of Bony/Michu as Swansea tried to break us down near the end. Great stuff from Koscielny.
Then we have Kieran Gibbs at left back, and, like Sagna, I think his performances this season have been typical of what a full-back should be: solid and reliable at the back, as well as offering a useful presence going forward. The latter part of his game didn’t quite feature so much against Swansea, other than a penalty appeal after linking with Özil and some nice interplay with Jack and Aaron. Still, the attacking players hardly seemed to need much help, so that’s okay. Another no-frills solid performance from a member of the much-vaunted British core.
Since I’m doing this in formation order, I’ve got a decision to make – was it a 4-2-3-1, or was it more of a 4-4-1-1? I’d say in defence it was definitely the latter, while going forward there was so much freedom of movement that there wasn’t really a structure. Given that we spent a lot of time defending, I’m going to call it a 4-4-1-1 and talk about the guy who started on the right of midfield for the third game in a row.
I was really impressed by Serge Gnabry against Stoke last weekend. I thought he slotted in with minimal fuss to the first team, and didn’t look one bit out of place, which is just so encouraging for a young player. If people were dissatisfied with his performance against Stoke because of a perceived lack of confidence, I don’t think that was an issue for anyone yesterday. He was the player to break through the monotony of the first half, making a great chance for Giroud with a superb dribble and pass, and should have been rewarded with an assist. No matter – he consoled himself by capping off a superb team move with a goal. That’s what I mean when I say he didn’t look out of place – he was on the same wave-length as the rest of the players during the move, and finished it off with the quality you’d expect from a seasoned first-teamer. He got into a great position, checked back so he’d be onside, took a composed touch and fired low past Vorm. I couldn’t have asked for any more from Serge.
Moving across the midfield to the centre, let’s talk about Aaron Ramsey a bit more. Other than a great drilled effort from range, he was pretty much on par with the rest of the team in the first half, in that he wasn’t quite at full capacity. That changed in the second half as he was instrumental in both goals – he set up Serge with an extremely intelligent pass, before capping a thrilling counter-attack with the coolness we’ve come to expect from him. He could’ve had another assist when he laid it onto Özil after the first. He is absolutely on fire right now.
Then we have Mathieu Flamini, the free transfer from Milan that was widely derided by many. The sensible Arsenal fans I know were fine with the move, although it was concerning for lots that he was the only central midfielder brought in (Mesut definitely isn’t a central midfielder). I wasn’t sure he still had it after a few years in Italy, but he seems almost as good as he was when he left. His displays aren’t as all-action – he’s more side-to-side than box-to-box, which is fine as Aaron has the latter role nailed down – but he’s just as useful. A cynical foul and booking after the first goal just summed him up – willing to do anything for the cause, and he demonstrated that with a committed, solid performance in front of the defence. His partnership with Ramsey is such that I’d struggle to break them up if I was the manager. A good headache to have with Arteta returning.
Jack Wilshere lined up on the left again, and I think he deserves a lot of credit. It’s important to recognise that he’s just getting to grips with that position, so he should be given time to overcome the initial shaky form that comes with that territory. Despite that, he played a huge role in both goals. For the first, he was part of the flowing passing that sliced Swansea apart, whereas he was integral throughout the second. Running onto Ramsey’s delightful flick, his desire and skill saw him emerge with the ball and as soon as he leapt to his feet, it was on. A brilliant give-and-go with Giroud before slipping in the Frenchman for the assist, and Arsenal were 2-0 up thanks to the finish from Ramsey. He may not have been brilliant from start to finish, but during that five minute period he had a huge influence on the game.
In front of the midfield was, of course, Mesut Özil, who showed off his skills with a cheeky gum trick in the warm-up. LOOK AT THAT CHEEKY GRIN. All in all, Mesut was a little quiet, although he was involved in both goals early on. Though he was at times peripheral, what’s important is that we didn’t need him to step up, so it was more a case of him stepping aside to let others do the business, and when he did get on the ball, he was excellent. He’ll need time to hit his stride as he gels with the team, and once he does we can expect him to dominate games. Until then, we can enjoy the flashes of brilliance which are definitely a sign of things to come.
Up front, Olivier Giroud toiled in the first half, not getting much joy in any area of his game before wasting a great chance. The key difference in Arsenal in the first and second halves was that we countered as a unit more effectively, and we got players close to Giroud. We were able to create triangles in the second period and that’s how we opened Swansea up, and Giroud deserves a lot of credit for being the attacking pivot, having a hand in both goals. He doesn’t look out of place in a fluid Arsenal side so far this season. Let’s hope he, like the team, continues to play at this higher level.
Focusing on each individual player has, I hope, highlighted that everybody is playing at a high level, but that’s not the point I was hoping to make when I began writing this post. As you can infer from the title, I thought we were solid for just about the full 90 minutes – I’m not sure if we can call Davies’ goal a lapse, given how well-worked it was – but hit our stride in the five minutes between 58 and 63. That’s when our goals came, and also when Mesut spurned a chance to get off the mark for us, and I think it really highlighted our quality.
Excitingly, though I shall try not to get carried away, it reminded me of the Invincibles. Solid and resilient throughout the game, but flicked the switch going forward for a brief period and blew away the opposition. The way we dissected Swansea was magnificent to watch in that time-slot, with the football quite breath-taking. That’s the fluidity that comes with continuity and having a core of quality players remain together for a good period of time. It’s what we lacked in the previous couple of seasons, which explains why our football was often so dull (not that the onlookers seemed to notice).
I think everyone deserves credit for their performances but Arsene also deserves credit for building this team – a team he always maintained faith in, especially a few choice individuals. It’s ridiculous how many important players Arsene has seen taken from other teams in stronger positions than us, and he responded the only way he knew how: by building a new team, and this time he’s not only been able to keep the team together but to add to it with Germany’s best player.
Now we’re in the position of power. Top of the table, on a fantastic winning streak, playing great football, with arguably the league’s most talented player yet to fully gel with his team-mates. Not to mention the absentees – Theo Walcott, Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky, Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain would all add massive strength in depth to this side, which is a ridiculous thing to say for players of their quality. People talked about our bench yesterday but given our injuries, a bench of Fabianski, Jenkinson, Vermaelen, Monreal, Arteta, Ryo and Bendtner is still quite strong.
It’s amazing how things change in football. Sitting slumped in my seat as thousands around me jeered the team and the manager off against Aston Villa was one of the lowest points of my time supporting Arsenal, and now, just over a month later, I’m more satisfied with the team than I have been in years, genuinely. The key now is to kick on and try to keep our lead at the top. Extending it would be even better. We’ll need some luck with injuries in certain positions. That was always clear. But with that luck, we can go places. Up the Arsenal.
It is slightly fitting that the previous post on this site was about Andre Villas-Boas, Jose Mourinho’s former protegé, with this post centring around another of Mourinho’s apprentices at Chelsea. Brendan Rodgers, like Villas-Boas (as mentioned in the last post), has seemed reluctant to entertain the idea of setting up like his one-time boss at Chelsea, preferring a continental tiki-taka style of football to Mourinho’s pragmatism.
Rodgers has come in for much praise for the free-flowing, attacking brand of football he’s had Swansea playing, especially seeing as they’re punching above their weight for a promoted team – indeed, one that only came up through the play-offs. After an uncertain start to the season in front of goal, Scott Sinclair and co. found their feet, and the Swans managed comfortable wins over the likes of Fulham, Aston Villa and Stoke, not to mention a draw with Liverpool at Anfield.
Instead of the defensive 4-5-1 which many promoted teams favour, Rodgers plays an open 4-3-3, with the emphasis on his three midfielders Joe Allen, Mark Gower and Leon Britton. Gower holds, while Britton and Allen roam around, exchanging passes freely. In fact, you could compare them to Barcelona’s midfield trio; Gower being Busquets, while Britton and Allen are Swansea’s Xavi and Iniesta.
The lively Sinclair and Nathan Dyer usually flank Danny Graham, a summer purchase from Watford, and ensure that Swansea retain width and guile. But Britton and Allen are the main men – they should both be commended for their appreciation of space and their excellent passing. Both have pass accuracies over 90%, and are the main reason behind Swansea topping the table for passes completed in the Premier League.
Despite this openness on the ball Swansea have managed to concede the joint-least amount of goals at home, maintaining a solidity to go with their fluidity. Rodgers deserves credit for sticking to his guns in the Premier League, and it appears that integrity is paying off. Swansea are a breath of fresh air compared to teams that just try to survive by packing men behind the ball. The adventurous style of Rodgers’ side is a joy to watch, and they’ve shown that it can be done to good effect when having just been promoted.
Hopefully this refreshing Swansea side will show future promoted sides that passing football is the way forward, as opposed to Stoke’s hoofball – also effective to an extent but not often entertaining. They will face a tough test against Arsenal though – this season, the Swans have arguably been Arsenal Lite, and when the student comes up against the master it’s usually the latter that comes out on top.
In the reverse fixture at the Emirates, the remarkable Michel Vorm made a rare error to gift Andrey Arshavin a goal – although it was a tidy finish from a difficult angle – but Danny Graham missed a glaring chance in the dying embers of the game and the Gunners were a bit fortunate to come away with all three points. In fairness it was quite a new-look Arsenal; Per Mertesacker and Mikel Arteta made their debuts, and Emmanuel Frimpong was still being integrated into the midfield.
It seems likely that matchwinner Arshavin will start at the Liberty Stadium. He showed signs of improvement against Leeds, and Arsene Wenger agreed that he needs consistent games to play at his full capacity. With Gervinho at the African Cup of Nations, Arsenal have little choice but to give Arshavin more game-time, so we may see improvement from Arshavin in the coming couple of months. Seeing as Swansea play an open game, it might be a match in which he thrives.
A player who has been in fine form lately is Mikel Arteta, who, like Swansea’s midfield dynamos, is trained in the art of tiki-taka. His time at Barcelona as a youth player saw him develop a superb reading of the game and his passing against Leeds was almost faultless. This impeccable passing is currently a big part of Arsenal’s game, and he’ll hope to put Swansea’s expansive passing in the shadows with his masterful poise and vision.