Arsenal and Cazorla respond to Neville with midfield assault

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.


31 thoughts on “Arsenal and Cazorla respond to Neville with midfield assault

  1. +3 Vote -1 Vote +1Dick Swiveller

    Aye, it’s nice to get these goals from midfield runners, and it’s something we should have been doing for a while now but we do still need a striker as Theo might go in January (unlikely, but possible if a biggish bid comes in) and we all know about the other options there.

    My thought on the way Theo is being used now, is that it’s partly due to Giruod not being able to play every game and with Gervinho being Gervinho Theo is the next best option, but also as an exploration of playing the kind of player Theo is, up top. We already know Wenger thinks it’s a good option with Gervinho trialling it too, maybe an indication of the kind of player we’d be picking up in January? Or thinking about guys like Campbell in the Summer?

    1. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1santori

      We seem to forget that Podolski was equally dangerous, got a goal from the middle.

      The reason likely Walcott was played through the middle up top :

      1) Reading are porous.

      2) Podolski is better supplying out LW where we have other options @RW.

      3) Contract sweetener. Thereafter no guarantee.

  2. +10 Vote -1 Vote +1Bunburyist

    Never have I gone from such hate to such love for another human being as I have with Gary Neville. He’s about the only pundit I actually listen to. He doesn’t always get it right, but he’s so refreshingly honest, and for the most part suggests that he is both knowledgeable and insightful about the game in ways you’d think most ex-player-turned-pundits would be, but just aren’t.

    Also, I’ll never forget how he cheered us on versus Milan last year.

    Anyway, I’m no longer sure where I stand on the striker issue. I suppose when Theo goes we’ll need to buy another striker/winger…plus another winger (as in, a forward who won’t whine about being played wide). I am still desperate for us to sign a midfield monster.

    1. Vote -1 Vote +1Caribkid

      Agreed, the potential is there.

      Bring in a Cavani, Falcao or even Demba Ba type up front and a MF creative-destroyer (Alonzo, Capoue, Mbiwa or Gustavo), and we have the semblance of a scary team. Flavor that with a back up GK and CB and we start to boil.

      Either change the manager or have Arsene re-invent himself and we could compete at the highest level. Unless of course, we let Theo and Sagna go and have to start the cycle all over again.

      1. Vote -1 Vote +1santori

        Have to agree.

        Hated Neville as a player, he was carried by his betters but I do think he is one of the more lucid and fair minded pundits out there.

        There may have been fair justification with regard the lack of movement (maybe not just from Santi) but our midfield as a whole, particularly moving forward in support of the main striker (whoever it is)

        That the midfield is growing in familiarity can be atest bt two good league wins now against WBA and now Reading (poor defense notwithstanding) where the Santi-Arteta-Jack axis have been dynamic covering both attack and defense.

  3. +3 Vote -1 Vote +11NilToTheArsenal

    This is a hint of the kind of team we could be with Theo Walcott up front. Potentially a return to the kind of dynamic attacking football that made us so famous and watchable 10 years ago (albeit with nowhere near the now legendary quality of those days). Still, it is a thing to be wished for, and huge step in a direction I would welcome.

    Walcott has proved he is worthy. It will be a psychological lift to the club and supporters if we actually have a player STAY after a long, drawn out contract process.

    1. +2 Vote -1 Vote +1Bunburyist

      I’d like to see more of Theo up top, because I remain unconvinced he can hack it as a central forward in this league. Most defences in the PL play deep, and/or get so close to strikers that they force the prioritization of hold-up play. I’m not sure Theo’s got the strength for that…

      Thing is, this is a debate that will probably be resolved when he leaves and plays for another team. I really don’t see him signing a new contract with us. It’s too bad.

      1. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1santori


        Think Theo is useful up top in circumstance whereby there is space for him to exploit. Against more disciplined and committed defenses, we are still better off with Girou’d physicality or someone-else (coming in) who can provide speed with technical craft.

        That said, Walcott’s finishing has been good (as has Podolski who also has a case for being played in the middle)

        Other than that, good ploy by Wenger to have him sign.

  4. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1jaymin

    Santi is some player, wow. He and Mata are just so complete in every aspect. I wish he had slotted his third in with his right foot, for the ‘perfect’ hat trick! We looked like Arsenal yesterday, can think of no higher compliment. Hopefully we stop being misers and pay Theo.

    1. Vote -1 Vote +1santori

      Needs a bit of consistency and I think he may be helped with another technical/creative player alongside.

      Rosicky could fill the spot in the middle next to Jack and Santi (on occasion) played wide (ala Ribbery)

      This is another option we can use that could add a bit more invention to direct speed (which we employed with Walcott/Chambo against a more open/porous team)

  5. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1goonamerica

    I thought it was obvious from the kickoff that Theo was being given the forward slot on the day. He asked for it. He said it was not about money (if he stayed) but playing the role he really wanted. And Wenger was either giving him the rope to hang himself or simply showing him good faith that he would in deed play TW there.
    Analysis of his play. 1. I liked his movement off the ball and it made space for the midfield attack and a wee bit more space wide surprisingly which Ox took advantage of. Note however the first 3 goals came from attacks down the left or a play ball wide left and straight back in again down the left. 2. TW had 2 clear breakaways which he did not take advantage of. I would like to think the more he got into that situation the more advantage and time he would find to punish, sell a dummy, chip the keeper i.e., a bit more creativity in the situation.
    The money could come in at about 85k pnds a week with more striker time and I think that could be good for the club.
    The extremely large BUT on this was — Reading gave AFC way too much space. We better punish clubs that do that at our level. Reading failed to close down anyone on the ball and no one got into Cazorlas grill as other teams have discovered about him since the first few games of the season. If you allow him to control he is very difficult to take the ball away from him; if you close his space at or before the ball comes he is not able to get at teams. Which begs the point Arsenal must develop multiple ways of playing the game in attack. Horses for courses and in closing is my biggest concern. We have again become too predictable. This showing is the beginning of another optional way of attacking and I am excited about how we march on from here.

    1. +2 Vote -1 Vote +1Caribkid

      That’s why we should go out and get another Cazorla/Rosicky type so they can interchange and reduce the effect of man marking.

      1. Vote -1 Vote +1santori

        Yeah we need someone who is creative and has good technical skills.

        I favour someone who can play across midfield (like Santi)

  6. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1gunnerdoc

    Zest and spontaneity were the twin factors that accounted for our blistering first 60 minutes yesterday.Early doors,you could see players queueing up to “show” for the ball.Nobody hid or was overly eager to pass on responsibility to a team mate.In short.they played with personality.Diaby’s ability to tackle and turn defence into attack with swift lung-bursting runs is sorely missed.What is evident right now is that Wilshere and Rosicky are the only current Arsenal players with the ability to impart the quick-passing tempo that is crucial to Arsene’s concept of football(the so-called Wengerball).Without both players,our players lack “a little bit the sharpness”/”play with the handbrakes on”.How Wenger rotates these two unfortunately injury-prone pace-makers will have a major bearing on our season.

  7. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1Ankush

    For once we played without handbrake on and it was exhilarting to watch. I would still like us to be more organized without the ball because better teams will punish us. Also, the balance was quite right last night without Gervinho’s tomfoolery and Ramsey’s extra touch football.

    1. Vote -1 Vote +1santori

      Well, lets not get too ahead of ourselves. It was Reading albeit we could say the same about the Bantams.

      As I mentioned, I feel the midfield is coming together (since the WBA game), if we carry on in such vein, we will be able to close the gap to third further by New Year.

  8. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1Cazorla is a Munchkin

    In that picture you posted, Cazorla looks like a little kid who just learned he got what he wanted for Christmas.

  9. +4 Vote -1 Vote +1dy

    is it too much to ask if Arsenal plays Podi, Walcott and the Ox as front three and they exchange positions throughout the game. Just say 3 forwards and never mind who’s left, center and right. Same situation in midfield, where Arteta, Wilshere and Santi can go forward and back.

    1. Vote -1 Vote +1santori

      This is the ideal that I am sure Wenger would prefer if the players are fully familiar with their roles (and teammates)

      Our midfield is nominally also quite fluid with Arteta being perhaps the most shackled to a strict position but not totally locked into it either.

      This is also the reason why it is so difficult to get it right but when we do, it is difficult to live with.

      Baby steps.

      1. Vote -1 Vote +1santori

        No surprise that Wenger favours players who can take multiple positions.

        Santi (across midfield), Podolski (LW and the middle), Rosicky (middle and LW), Arsharvin (LW and middle) Arteta (DM and AM) etc.

        Its a form of total football but because we continuously lose our institutional experience through the sales of our top players, we are in recent seasons consistently work in progress.

  10. Vote -1 Vote +1Cliffy

    Hah…Tim..you got the chance to write of the fluid Arsenal midfield after all…I was thinking you would have rolled the draft, tied a stone and flushed it..

    1. +2 Vote -1 Vote +1santori

      I think he retrieved it.:D

      Midfield is critical at the moment. We have been unbalanced there in recent games which has affected both our attacking threat and defensive solidity.

      As I said, we are culpable to silly mistakes (gibbs had plenty of options to play a simple pass) but we are not as mythically abject as the media would like to portray us.

      13 GD would suggest we have been relatively solid (bar Reading Capital One game but that was a different team composition)

      Where we have lacked is with some invention going forward and that starts with midfield.

      1. Vote -1 Vote +1Los Polandos

        Well I thought shots that a defender deflects into his own net are ususally counted as assists. Just the way winning a penalty is considered an assist. On second thoughts the latter is slightly ambigous, since it gives one a chance to score after his or her own assist (a trick I’ve been trying to pull ever since being a kid, just never managed to reach my own cross in the box…)

  11. Vote -1 Vote +1Ras Dam

    Am I wrong in thinking that Ramsey, when playing in the hole, regularly makes those runs that Neville critiqued our midfield for not doing? What he does when he gets the ball in those situations is another thing entirely, but he does seem to get into the right places consistently. To my eye at least.

    1. Vote -1 Vote +1goonamerica

      I wish I liked Ramsey but find him not just not up to the standard. Quick enough mostly. very predictable.

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