Arsenal make their luck to put one foot into the Champions League group stage
It wasn’t a swashbuckling performance at Celtic Park on Tuesday night, but it was effective. In previous seasons, this was the sort of result that we didn’t often secure. On a night when we didn’t have perhaps our best attacking edge, we held the ball, defended impressively, and earned a little luck along the way. The usual suspects are calling the scoreline lucky, but few would argue that we were the better team on the night and deserved to emerge victorious.
Much of the emphasis leading up to the match revolved around injuries and the intimidating atmosphere are Celtic Park. Ironically, neither were a factor in the slightest. Arsenal were able to start an unchanged side from Saturday’s demolition of Everton, and the crowd at Parkhead, while certainly passionate, never produced the overwhelming environment that was promised. Some of that probably had to do with our overwhelming advantage in possession, but to those of us watching on television, Celtic Park didn’t appear to provide any sterner a test than a variety of Premier League grounds. It’s not meant as a disrespect to the Celtic supporters, just an observation about the hype created by the media.
There were some brilliant moments in the match but for the most part it was an efficient and pragmatic performance by the Gunners. The goals came from a Gallas deflection and a Celtic own-goal, but it should be pointed out to those that would credit “good fortune,” in each instance, there was the distinct possiblity that we were going to score anyway. Cesc’s first-half shot from the free kick was a belter that would have, at the very least, troubled Boruc in Celtic’s goal. And on the second goal, while the final touch was applied by Gary Caldwell, Nicklas Bendtner looked well positioned to finish off a fine, flowing move.
After the match, Arsene Wenger was humble and respectful of Celtic’s effort. In his post-match interview he said of the performance,
“I believe we have a fantastic attitude, a great togetherness and we put relentless pressure on Celtic. We never let them establish a flow and we always disturbed their game very well. … Celtic, for me, were well organised and I couldn’t see them ever give up, even at 2-0. It was always difficult for us to get the game going. … what was very good on Celtic’s side was their defence played very well.”
Wenger did take the opportunity to point out that he felt there were some unnecessary challenges, and praised his side for the response to a physical contest.
“I think there were some bad fouls. The referee took some time to intervene but
afterwards he did it. We got sometimes some harsh treatment today. I’m very happy with the commitment of my team despite the physical approach of some
Celtic players. I can understand that from Celtic’s point of view but what is more interesting for me is how we respond to that. I believe we did that well.”
Admittedly, while I watched the match, I couldn’t help but notice that we dealt with the physical play much more comfortably than we have in the past. If this Arsenal side are going to win trophies, then showing mettle in more physical matches will serve us well. A lot of the credit belongs to Vermaelen, Gallas and Song. Arsene praised them in his post-match remarks and, rather than including all of his comments, you can simply enjoy them here.
So it’s job done in the first leg, and without being overly arrogant, the tie has probably been decided as well. Celtic would require at least at 2-0 scoreline next week at the Emirates to have a chance of qualification and I don’t think many pundits or members of Celtic will be holding out much hope for that result. Goodplaya, from goodplaya.com, observed that there’s nothing great about a qualifier and he’s absolutely right. Had we lost it would have been all doom and gloom. But winning the match is merely what we were expected to do.
But really, that’s the pessimist’s viewpoint to some extent. Players need encouragement and this result will give them more of it early in the season. We were able to achieve a result at Celtic Park that mighty Manchester United was not, along with several other massive clubs. So while some might say we were supposed to win, and some might say we were lucky, we still accomplished something that no other English team had done for decades.
I think there are several positive, and a few negative takeaways from Tuesday’s game. Once again, Denilson and Song deserve huge praise. They played a crucial role in helping us keep possession and grab it back when it was lost. Many journalists have written that Celtic hurt themselves with too many unforced errors. While that’s somewhat accurate, I think the cruching and decisive tackling in the midfield from the first whistle pressured Celtic’s players into making poor passes because they knew they had little time on the ball. Whenever Celtic looked like they might threaten the back four, Song or Denilson arrived to dismantle their attack. Song deserves additional praise for the cleveness he showed on the ball. Some defensive-minded midfielders are happy just to distrupt an opponents attack, but Song showed the composure and quality to make some elusive moves and incisive passes once he gained possession.
Again there’s heavy praise for our back four and it’s such a welcome change from last season to be celebrating our defense in consecutive games. Vermaelen’s inclusion seems to have had a massive impact on Gallas who is playing defense better than he has since arriving at Arsenal. And as for Vermaelen himself, if he keeps up this level of play, he will be an instant hero to the Emirates faithful. I have a feeling that he will received quite a reception at Ashburton Grove this weekend. His energy, heading and awareness were flawless against Celtic. There were two really threatening moves by Celtic all game. The second was broken up by Gallas’ masterful intervention in the box. But the first was stopped by Vermaelen. After Celtic broke-up an Arsenal set-piece, they charged out on the counter attack. We looked horribly exposed, but Vermaelen’s gut-busting, length-of-the-pitch run saw him get back just in time to clear a cross that Samaras would surely have put in the back of our net. It was a play that showed Vermaelen’s strength but also his commitment. And that kind of commitment to the often-ignored art of defending gets the whole team to work harder.
While the midfield and defense were again steller in Glasgow, it’s worth expressing just a touch of concern about the front three. Eduardo was a late omission from the bench with a mystery injury and so it was down to Arshavin, Van Persie and Bendtner to do the work up front. After our two goals on Tuesday, we have now scored 8 without a single tally from the starting front three. But somewhat more worryingly is the form of Arshavin. Hopefully he’s just playing his way into regular season form, but if he’s struggling in his role within the 4-3-3 formation, then that could be a problem down the road. It’s great to get goals from deflections, oppositng defenders, our own defenders, and midfield, but to be successful long-term we’ll need the front three to get on the score sheet. Bendtner has played well, but I still don’t see him as a natural wide player. He has craft and works hard, but doesn’t pose nearly the threat that Theo does on the wing. Van Persie still looks just a little isolated on his own in the middle, and Arshavin, as mentioned, has yet to hit the high notes.
These are some issues that we could worry about, but after two good results at difficult grounds, it’s silly to complain about anything except that Ashley Cole still doesn’t seem to have Swine Flu. In fact, I could argue that the lack of top-form from our front three makes these first two results even more impressive. Just think how potent we will be when they start scoring for fun.
Now comes the interesting time of the month. We have our first home game at the weekend against Pompey. It’s a game we should win, although that’s another area of weakness from least season where we’ll have to show we’ve improve. But now that we look certain to progress to the group stage of the Champions League, Wenger might be given the green light to make a signing or two. We’re all feeling great about the squad at the moment, but with our injury history, we’ll feel even better when we get a little deeper. I won’t bother with the transfer rumors at the moment. Instead, let’s enjoy where we sit at the moment. We’ve played two key away games, achieved two great results, and shown massive improvement in areas that were real problems for us during last season. All in all, it’s a great moment to support our great club. Since there will undoubtedly be a few bumps along the way this season, be sure to enjoy this time.