Sunday, January 5, 2014

Arsenal cruise through with a clinical derby performance

Drawing Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup third round was far from ideal for Arsenal. After a busy Christmas period of matches, a game with a lower league team would have enabled Arsene Wenger to rotate his squad and not have his players go through another intense game, whilst still making it through to the fourth round. It was also far from ideal that Tottenham had found some form over Christmas with the boost of a new manager. Despite beating them earlier in the season, there was some genuine concern from Arsenal fans going into the North London derby that the Gunners could go out of the FA Cup in the 3rd round for the first time under Arsene Wenger.
As it turned out, Gooners shouldn’t have been so worried. Despite a few changes to the starting XI, Arsene Wenger’s men kept their festive momentum rolling by gaining a fourth straight win in all competitions with a 2-0 victory. The performance was professional, clinical and disciplined in the hot derby atmosphere.
There was a concern to see Lukasz Fabianski selected in goal with Wojciech Szczesny now firmly established as the number one at the club, but the Pole did everything that was asked of him. Were it not for Fabianski’s own injury problems and Szczesny’s form, he could have become Arsenal’s regular keeper, but he still makes an excellent back-up to have in he squad. Other fringe players selected as part of squad rotation all performed excellently as well. Even though he only played 45 minutes before going off injured, Thomas Vermaelen was solid again.
The other star performer that was brought into the team was Serge Gnabry. The young German has put in some encouraging appearances in the Premier League this season, but this derby performance could be the game that signals his progression into becoming a useful part of the first team squad. At 18, there’s still plenty of time for him to develop, and the form of the team and competition for places means that he won’t be weighed down by pressure on him.
Starting on the right, Gnabry was direct, skillful and dangerous whenever in possession of the ball. Without a larger focal point to aim for in the middle as the central striker, Gnabry was given license to run direct at the Spurs defence rather than looking to just get to the by-line and cross the ball. This led to his assist for the opening goal for Santi Cazorla. He committed defenders, in tandem with Walcott’s decoy run, before sliding an excellent pass through for Cazorla to smash the ball in with a first time finish.
Considering how impressive he was in his first season in England, Santi Cazorla has had an indifferent second season. He’s picked up recently as he was excellent against West Ham on Boxing Day and looked lively against Cardiff on New Years’ Day, although he saved his best for the derby. Cazorla’s left footed finish for his goal was superb and the link up play with the other midfielders was slick. Arsenal are undoubtedly a better team when the Spaniard is in form, and a big second half to the season from Cazorla will go a long way to helping the club achieve trophy ambitions.
Cazorla was on the left of the three attacking players behind the main striker, which was filled by Theo Walcott. Without Giroud or Bendtner, Arsenal couldn’t play into the central striker as they have done normally this season. Against teams that defend deep against Arsenal and limit space, a larger striker to hold the ball up is usually the better option as they can create space for others by drawing defenders in who try to win the ball. However against a team that doesn’t play a disciplined holding midfielder and have a high defensive line, as Tottenham did on Saturday, the pace of Walcott makes him a good selection in the centre. To make use of the space allowed by the opposition, having Walcott means the defence can often be stuck on the back foot and having to scramble to get back in position.
With a different style of player in the main striker role, there had been questions about whether Arsenal could adapt their style of play. Some of those were emphatically answered on Saturday.
In some ways, it’s a shame that 4-4-2 has generally disappeared from the modern game, so whilst it’s refreshing to see Tim Sherwood try and resurrect it at Tottenham, it was a tactically naive thing to do against Arsenal. Arteta, Wilshere and Rosicky were dominant with the visitors unable to find space in front of Arsenal’s defence. The Gunners were then able to pick their way through and get Walcott, Cazorla and Gnabry attacking the back four.
Arsenal also pressurised Spurs high up the pitch to catch them out when Tim Sherwood’s team committed players forward into attack. The leader of that pressure was Tomas Rosicky, so everyone was delighted to see him score the second goal for the hard work he put in for the team. Following a Spurs corner, Rosicky closed down Danny Rose on the half-way line, won the ball and expertly charged towards goal before lifting it over Hugo Lloris. Rose did dally on the ball, but he was forced into the error by Rosicky, and was clinically punished for it.
4-4-2 works when strikers are able to pull defenders around and have fluid movement to create chances for each other. Adebayor and Soldado just didn’t do that with Koscielny dominating the Tottenham attack as he did earlier in the season, with Vermaelen and Mertesacker doing well in their respective halves alongside the Frenchman. Even at 2-0, Arsenal maintained a good focus in defence and recorded another clean sheet. Since six goals were shipped at Manchester City, Arsenal have only conceded one goal in five games.
It was easy to forget that Arsenal went through to the fourth round, given the enjoyment of just winning the North London derby. In the draw for the next round, Coventry City come to the Emirates, so Arsene Wenger is likely to rotate his squad. Considering that Arsenal have missed the likes of Ozil, Ramsey, Giroud and Gibbs at times over the Christmas period, the squad has looked strong enough that some rotation doesn’t significantly weaken the team.
The win over Tottenham will give more confidence for the league, and after the busy period, Arsenal now have over a week to prepare for Aston Villa. It will be a chance to patch up some of the injuries in the squad and reflect on a job well done over Christmas. If the Gunners keep doing what they’re doing, they can keep fighting for trophies on three fronts. If nothing else, it’s good to always reaffirm that North London is red. If Spurs fans are still unsure of that, I’m sure Theo Walcott could remind them.