Arsenal answered critics and ran out emphatic 5-2 winners over Reading at Madejski stadium last night taking the London team to fifth place in the League table and just two points off third place Chelsea. The win was courtesy of some refreshing midfield play and a subsequent hat-trick from the Premier League’s best all around player, Santi Cazorla.
The warnings from midfield came in the first minute as Podolski and Walcott took up wide positions and created space for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Santi Cazorla to steam through the Reading midfield. After a quick exchange of passes, the Ox let rip with a venomous low shot from 30 yards. Federici reacted quickly and made Reading’s first great save of the night.
Pundits were still trying to figure out who was playing as center forward for Arsenal when Podolski scored the first. Gibbs, who had been electric all night and who got his first two Premier League assists (By the Numbers), gave Kebe a little head fake and crossed into the box. Podolski was there and stole the ball out of the air from Theo, took one touch and lashed in the goal with his favored left foot.
Arsenal, and especially Santi Cazorla, were heavily criticized by Gary Neville before the match for (the midfield) not making enough runs at goal into spaces that the forwards create with their movement. Cazorla was singled out several times and Neville even characterized the Spaniard as someone who was uncomfortable making that kind of incisive run saying that he would prefer the ball to feet rather than space. Watching the analysis before kickoff, you would have to give credit to Neville for another insightful segment.
Neville’s analysis is something that I have been hitting around (but never quite striking the target) with my insistence that Arsenal aren’t as needy in the striker department as everyone thinks. Everything I’ve criticized about Arsenal’s play this season from the fact that Arsenal dominate possession with no real end product, that they park the ball in the opposition final third, that Cazorla is the dominant player on the ball in that area, that Cazorla takes the most shots, that all of the wide players at Arsenal want to play centrally, that Arsenal are taking more shots from outside the box than last season, and that Cazorla is actually quite profligate when it comes to shooting was all crystallized in one three minute Gary Neville segment: Arsenal’s midfielders aren’t running the channels, aren’t running behind the defenders, and aren’t getting direct penetration into spaces created by the forwards.
But then in the 31st minute, Podolski broke down the left, beat his man with a nice little dribble and put in a technically perfect cross to the space vacated when Theo moved to the near post. Cazorla had been running in the whole time since Podolski started his move and planted an awkward header home. If Arsenal are playing a 4-4-1-1 with Cazorla as the 1, then Neville is exactly right that the Spaniard should be driving at the heart of opposition defenses, running the channels, and being more direct with his attacking, rather than content to collect the ball at the top of the box and recycle. That goal was proof of concept.
Cazorla’s second goal came just a few seconds later and from the exact same type of move, this time from the right. Ox played a pass to Theo and Cazorla made the run into space. Theo’s cross ballooned over the Reading box but partially because of Cazorla’s run, Gibbs was there all alone and nodded back into the box. Cazorla collected and with his body all akimbo slashed the ball into the net. Another forward run by Caz and another goal. Arsenal’s midfield was making the Reading defense look far worse than it actually was.
10 minutes later, it was a similar story but this time Ox was the midfield runner. Theo held up play, dribbled across and passed to Sanga, and there was Ox bursting into the box, so Sagna played a teasing cross to him and the Englishman tried a header of his own only to have it palmed away by Federici.
Before the match, Gary Neville compared this current Arsenal side to the greats that have come before, the Henrys and Vieiras of yore and found them wanting in their midfield play. And as if to put the cherry on top of the emphatic “fuck you Sundae” that Arsenal served up as a response to the defeat at Bradford, Cazorla’s hat-trick goal was straight out of the Invincibles’ playbook. Gary Neville couldn’t have drawn it up better and Arsenal couldn’t have included more midfielders: Arteta wins the ball at the half-way line and plays to Chamberlain; Ox drives straight at the Reading defense but lays off to Wilshere; Wilshere fakes a shot and passes to Podolski who is getting behind the defenders; Podolski sees the space and plays the ball across to Cazorla who had made the run into the perfect area; Cazorla scores with a cool side-footer.
It’s telling that Arsenal’s first four goals came from midfielders and that Walcott only had two clear-cut chances in the first 50 minutes. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Arsenal watched the same tapes that Neville watched and decided that it’s important for this team to have some midfielders making runs. They were all running the channels and as a result Walcott was the last Arsenal player to score a goal on the night.
Theo had done well in the center forward role, showing why he probably should at least be considered an option over Gervinho as his control and shots from through balls was excellent. As was his touch for the goal. It was a bit difficult to control but Theo took a hard pass from Cazorla on a funny angle and took a delicate touch to create that yard of space between him and the defender. Then one more touch to set himself and a left-footed shot past the keeper. Watch the goal again in slow motion, that touch is so beautiful. Great stuff from Theo and the least he deserved for the work on the night.
Theo’s performance gives Arsenal another center forward to consider but the question is at what cost? Walcott answered questions after the game about his contract situation saying that “these things take time” but clearly they don’t take time because Arsenal offered other players contracts this week and they all just signed them. If a player wants to sign a contract they just sign it. Clearly Walcott has had his head turned by someone else, Chelsea perhaps, and is not going to sign with Arsenal. Meanwhile Arsenal are in a catch-22: normally you don’t play a contract rebel, but Arsenal need him so they have to play him. As a fan the only thing you can do at this point is hope that both sides remain professional, that Theo plays well, and we all say our goodbyes this summer.
As great as Arsenal were on offense, Arsenal showed some familiar frailties on defense. The first came in the 11th minute when Pavel Pogrebnyak held the ball up well and played a nice one-two with a Reading midfielder. Free in the box, the Russian dribbled straight at the Arsenal defense and played a cross into the 6 yard box that took some Gervinho-esque clodfootery for the Reading man to miss, but miss he did.
Later, Arsenal fully switched off, and Gibbs was left on an island with no one moving in front of him or presenting themselves to receive the pass. He made a poor pass into a dangerous area and Tabb snapped up the ball as Wilshere collapsed having turned his ankle. The Arsenal defense was caught out and a simple through ball to La Fonzie left Vermaelen looking foolish as he gambled for the interception.
If Arsenal switched off just once it might be understandable, but again Arsenal would switch off, which is probably one of the most frustrating things in the world to watch. Arsenal had kept a great shape, with two banks of four on defense for 70 minutes when suddenly they all decided to collapse on a single dribbler who took three Arsenal defenders with him. Podolski did well to track his runner but then stood stock still so that by the time Mertesacker saw the threat from Kebe and stepped up to draw the offside call, Poldi was playing Kebe on and the Reading man scored easily.
Still, it would be a bit harsh to have a go at the defense too much on the night, except to say that given how emphatically they responded to criticism from the Bradford debacle, I suspect Arsenal’s defense will be watching the tape from last night’s match and working on a few things ahead of next week’s trip to Wigan. In the end, that’s all we can ask from our sports team, that they give their all both on game day and in training. Clearly Arsenal have heard the critics and if they keep this attitude for the rest of the season there’s no telling how far this club could go.