It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that Arsenal were so dire against Reading in the the first half since the manager choose a team who were overall short on experience, hasn’t played together much, and those who have played together featured several pairings which historically have not worked. But some times there’s no explaining football, it just ends up working.
The game against Reading was Carl Jenkinson’s 12th start (in all competitions) for Arsenal this season. That would be the most starts for any of the Arsenal players on the pitch yesterday. Coquelin was next in terms of overall starts for Arsenal with just 5, Koscielny 4, and Walcott has had 3 starts and 8 subs. There have been two starts for each of Arshavin, Miquel, Djourou, and Martinez and yesterday was the first start of the season for Fimpong, Chamakh, and Gnabry. As you can see, there were three players who were handed their first Arsenal start this season and a huge handful of players who almost never play together.
The players who have played together almost never do well. Walcott and Jenkinson don’t seem to understand each other and though they didn’t argue last night, as I have seen them in the past, they rarely hooked up in terms of passing. Instead, Walcott was most effective when he came inside and Arshavin could find him with a through ball. Coquelin and Frimpong are another pair that just don’t work together. Both are just too sloppy in possession to have on the field at the same time and they seem to have a problem passing to each other, covering for each other, and generally don’t seem to get along (cue the interview on the official site showing them as best friends forever). Add to that the pre-match interview with Frimpong in which he said that he’s not ready to play for Arsenal and you can see why Arsenal’s midfield allowed Leigertwood to bypass them and score like they were mired in treacle.
On the left, Arsenal played Miquel and Gnabry and it was an even bigger disaster than Coquelin and Frimpong or Walcott and Jenkinson. Miquel couldn’t cover crosses, always drifted into a center half position (though not in a way that helped as the Dread Pirate Roberts got between him and Koz), didn’t get much defensive help from Gnabry, and Gnabry was a terrible outlet up front.
And the center back pairing of Djourou and Koscielny is one I hope to never see again. Koscielny looks to have reverted to the form from his first three games at Arsenal: he was thrown off the ball several times by Roberts (who, to be fair, got away with an extraordinary amount of shirt pulling), he scored an own goal, he couldn’t win a header, he played a man onside for their 5th goal, and he couldn’t clear the ball. Djourou had a better night, though he was also shucked to the ground by Roberts and didn’t really do well in the air despite his size advantage.
Meanwhile, the pairing of Arshavin plus “his prefered central midfield position” looked dangerous all night, both offensively and defensively. Clearly he had a good night offensively. He managed three assists, though there should be a dubious assists panel since at least one of those was a shot, and normally three assists is a great day at the office. But he was also his frustrating flick on, cute pass, wasteful self, who gave away the ball in the Arsenal backfield.
What do you do with Arshavin? Clearly he’s not going to change. He is never going to be a possession first type of player which is exactly what makes him both a genius and a fool. 50% of the time he’s passing a magnificent slide-rule pass to an onrushing Theo Walcott and 50% of the time he’s gifting possession back to the opposition with a Hollywood pass in Arsenal’s half. These stats are 100% true, because 50+50=100.
If there was one pairing that we’ve rarely seen work, however, it’s Chamakh plus Arsenal and to be fair to my criticism, he was horrible for most of the night. Yes, I am saying that a player who scored two goals was horrible. I don’t know how that’s possible, but it happened. Chamakh spent 110 minutes looking like a player who didn’t want the ball and 10 minute like a player who could score 40 goals for the club.
Frankly, I don’t know how 5-7 is at all possible, I can’t find an instance of a score like that in Arsenal’s history, but a 5-7 with Chamakh who scored twice, and both were from distance is simply some sort of surrealist art. Or maybe a 5-7 win with Chamakh scoring two goals from distance is Dada. Like Piero Manzoni’s “Artist’s Shit”.
Preserved on DVR
Shot from distance
in October 2012
And finally, the pairing that no one is talking about but which should be the only thing we are talking about is Theo Walcott and “A New Contract.” The Arsenal man scored a hat trick last night and also managed a hat trick of assists. That is 6 of the 7 goals that Arsenal scored. That alone is proof that he never gave up on this Arsenal team. From the moment of kickoff to Chamakh’s last goal of the game, Walcott was the Alpha and the Omega.
Walcott had Arsenal’s first goal and it was a goal that you could see was coming: Arshavin had been trying to find Theo’s run down the middle for 45 minutes before Reading finally gave up the space that Arsenal needed to exploit Theo’s pace. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to pick up a through ball like that running at pace but I can tell you that it’s a lot harder than it looks and Theo’s first touch was as perfect as the little flick to score the goal. It was more than a goal, Theo rescued Arsenal with that goal and I don’t jusst mean rescued the match, he may have rescued Arsenal’s season. It gave the team just a glimmer of hope in an otherwise very dark first 45 minutes.
He then rescued Arsenal again at what looked to me like Arsenal’s lowest moment of the season, the 18 minutes after the second half kicked off. Arsenal started the second half looking like a team that was going to concede 8 to Reading. But there in the 64th minute, Theo Walcott took a corner and whipped a ball into Giroud. The big Frenchman did especially well to steer that on target but the pace on the ball did just as much work. 4-2 now and the little Englishman was feeling it.
Then in the 94th minute, again when all seemed lost, with the final kick of regulation time Walcott got on the end of a Chamakh header and powered a shot over the line. 4-4 to the Arsenal. Arsenal’s Newcastle moment and as dramatic a comeback as you will ever see without the help of the official awarding the comeback team two dubious penalties and a red card.
Reading would equalize again in extra time after Arsenal took a 5-4 lead from one of those two Chamakh long-distance shots. And then at 5-5 with literally no time left on the clock who would be there to score the sixth and rescue Arsenal from a penalty shootout? Theo.
Arshavin, who to his credit hadn’t stopped running all night, somehow found the energy to get all the way down field and past the entire Reading defense before hammering a shot that was cleared off the line. Fortunately, the Reading defender only got the ball to Walcott who blasted into the top of the net. The score was now 5-6 and Walcott’s subsequent celebration in front of the away fans, whom he seems to love so dearly as he spends a long time after every match applauding them, was pure love and adrenalin.
And then with the penultimate kick of the match, it was again Walcott. It always had to be Walcott. Kevin Friendofreading had added something like 20 minutes of time at the end of the game to give Reading another chance at winning, but Walcott hoofed the clearance up field, Chamakh was there to take it and with an extraordinary moment of lucidity chipped the keeper from distance. 5-7 to the Arsenal.
I know what I’ve been told was the stumbling block over the Walcott contract situation and at this point I’m starting to understand his demands. With yesterday’s hat-trick against Reading and a hat trick of assists, Theo Walcott has scored 7 goals for Arsenal (leads the club) and put in four assists. All of that in just three starts.
I’m not one to be over-reactive from a single game but yesterday’s 6 goals haul by Theo Walcott capped what has been an extraordinary season for any player, much less a player who is in the middle of a contract dispute with his club. What more does Walcott need to do to get an improved deal? Worse, what will the fallout be from Arsenal fans if Theo is let go in January? Even if he is replaced with Falcao, we will always wonder what could have been if Walcott had been played in his favorite pairing: Walcott plus Arsenal.