Trio of returning Arsenal stars lead Gunners to victory
He’s back. Simple, to the point, and oh so Fab-tastic. The captain has returned from injury in style, setting up both goals with perfect deliveries to Adebayor for composed finishes. It’s unfair, but gunners fans will undoubtedly compare the coolness of Ade’s finishing today with the futility we’ve seen from Nicklas Bendtner for the past few months. Regardless, it was a good performance from the Arsenal today and a deserved win. In some ways, this match lacked the panache that we’ve seen recently. We didn’t have the glut of clear chances like in the Newcastle match. But we did something even more important. We scored early and killed the game off with plenty of time to spare. There were long stretches of the second half that looked like a testimonial match. Citeh threw in the towel when the second goal was tucked away.
With Fabregas, Walcott and Adebayor returning, it was always going to be interesting to see the starting XI. I was desperately alone in my belief that Cesc wouldn’t start and I’m happy that I was wrong. He started, and played well. He even went a little deeper into the match than I suspected he would. Wenger played essentially a 4-2-3-1 with Song and Denilson backing up Arshavin, Cesc and Theo in midfield. Adebayor was deployed as a lone striker. In my opinion, it’s not a lineup we should expect to see often. When Van Persie is healthy he’s undoubtedly going to start, and Nasri should be in the starting XI regularly as well. For league games, it’s probable that we’ll see a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 when Nasri and Van Persie are healthy.
I actually wasn’t too impressed with today’s formation. Arshavin didn’t seem to be able to get into the match from the start and I was concerned that there wouldn’t be enough attacking options. Ultimately, my fears proved unfounded, but I think we could have gotten at Citeh more effectively playing four across the middle with Arshavin right behind Adebayor. (I suppose Wenger didn’t want to put Denilson out on the wing where he has struggled before this season.)
Denilson gets off easy from Arsenal supporters, but he was playing the role of weak link today. Citeh should have scored from Gelsen Fernandez when he split Gallas and Toure and was left alone by Denilson who failed to track back. While Gallas and Toure were certainly caught out of position, Denilson simply failed to follow the play. His passing was suspect at times and he simply fouls far too often for a holding midfielder. Clichy also had his dicey moments in this match which is worrying because it’s becoming more and more common. He seems tentative one-on-one and gives attacking players too much space on the wing to deliver crosses into the box. Other than Denilson and Clichy, however, the rest of the team played well. Even Ramsey and Eboue had decent cameos off the bench.
The quiet star of the game today was Alex Song. His development has been spectacular over the past few months. He got forward well today, tracked back to make some critical tackles and managed to get the ball forward on several occassions. He even had a chance to score from a corner but his header went disappointingly over the bar. It was further evidence that he may be the first choice midfield partner for Cesc, while Denilson might be slipping behind Diaby and Song for that honor.
For Cesc today, there seemed to be only the slightest bit of rust on his game. He proved he can still pick a pass from any angle. His first supply was from a set piece just outside the box on the right wing. He put the ball right on Adebayor’s forehead leaving the simplest of headers for the Togolese to put away. He obliged without even leaving his feet. The second pass was more clever and delicate. Cesc chipped the ball over the Citeh defense meeting Adebayor on the other side. (In an interesting twist, Adebayor was onside.) Ade showed great composure to round Given and roll the ball into the net. More than anything it was a joy to watch Cesc run around the pitch, hungry for the ball, looking to make that killer pass.
Poor Theo Walcott probably wishes he had taken another day to recover from his knee injury. From the look of things, Citeh were trying to send him right back to the training table. He was kicked quite a bit and suffered a few collisions right on his knee. The punishment was enough for Wenger to say after the match that we would have to see if we’ve lost Theo for the Villareal match. (He did go on to say that he didn’t think so.)
Adebayor wasn’t perfect today, but he did what Bendtner and even Van Persie have failed to do recently, and that’s put away his chances. He had two clear opportunities and scored two goals. He could have had his hat trick if Howard Webb understood the concept of playing the advantage. At one point, Webb played the advantage for Arsenal, and at the moment that Adebayor received the ball alone in the box, he blew the whistle for the preceeding foul. Inexplicable. There were a few near misses for Ade, but all in all he was active and scored the goals which is all you can really ask from your first choice striker. He also demonstrated his flagrant disregard for the offside rule on more than one occasion.
I was desperate to see what Arshavin could do with Cesc in midfield, but as I indicated before, I’m not sure that this formation suited him. He didn’t have the same free role in the midfield that has worked so well in recent weeks. Mostly, he stayed out wide on the left. It took him some time early on to find his place in the match, but once he did start to come into the game he looked dangerous. Only Given’s strong hand on a low curler kept Andrei off the score sheet after a beautiful one-two with Song. Song’s backheel to Arshavin was truly sublime. Eboue missed Arshavin wide open on the left during a counter attack late in the match which would have seen Andrei have a clear one-on-one with the Shay Given.
There were some memorable moves in the match and we really dominated Citeh in the second half. It wasn’t that we created loads of scoring opportunities, we just simply killed off their spirit and kept the ball for long stretches of the half. It must have been demoralizing for Mark Hughes and his team watching the ball ping around their half of the pitch without being able to do much about it. I was loving every minute.
Other than getting kicked around, Theo was active and got the ball into good positions, ultimately making a few bad choices at the crucial moment when he might have found a teammate. In one stretch of play, two opportunities presented themselves in quick succession and Theo shot somewhat wildly both times. The first was a good shooting chance, the second showed a lack of awareness of the open gunners around him. Considering his stop-start season, however, it was good to see Theo running at the defense, getting up from his rough treatment and getting among the chances.
Because I’ve had a hellish work day and three hours of sleep, I’m skipping the links and quotes today. I can always insert them tomorrow. But the takeaway from this match is simple; Cesc is back and still fantastic. He will undoubtedly bring more creativity and spirit to the team as we march towards season’s end. I’d rather see a 4-4-2 on a regular basis, and we’ll probably see a 4-5-1 in Spain this week (Wenger’s preferred Champions League formation), but the 4-2-3-1 served it’s purpose today given the personnel available for the match. Most importantly, it’s four wins from four in the league and a six point cushion on fourth place pending Villa’s game with United tomorrow.
While it would be easy to think that we have fourth place in the bag, it’s important to remember that we have the other members of the “big four” still on our fixture list. In the unlikely event that we take zero points from those three matches, we’ll need all the cushion we can build to protect our fourth place status. (I think we are capable of taking all nine points from those matches, but we need to stay focused.) As much as I hate to say it, we must root for United to take all three points tomorrow.
It’s hard for me to write this blog becaue I’m struggling for objectivity. There were stong points and weak points to Arsenals game today. Mostly strong in the second half. But the only really lasting impression from this game is that teams that have to face us during the next two months will have a very difficult task on their hands. We are coming good at the right time and we have the players to challenge for silverware this season. As I said yesterday, I’m frightened by how excited I’m allowing myself to be.
For tonight, I’ll dream of perfectly placed Cesc passes and composed finishing. Tomorrow, we can watch the Villa match and start thinking about our trip to Spain. And if you have any good flu remedies, please send them to Samir Nasri.