Arsenal 3-1 Partizan Belgrade: Functional Arsenal invigorated by Theo Walcott
Arsenal’s defenders can do nothing right. Never mind the weak cover given by the two holding midfielders and the lack of pressure on the left midfielder, Sasa Ilic; for the goal, Laurent Kosicleny and Sebastien Squilacci were left exposed to one through ball down the centre. Granted Squillaci was bamboozled by Almani Moreira’s run before Cléo shot to equalise, but the pair were untroubled before then yet still find themselves to blame for a labouring Arsenal performance.
Andrey Arshavin, before the game, indicated the work being done by his attacking team-mates has not been of a satisfactory level to provide protection to his defenders but this time round, it was their lack of penetration that was the issue. Arsene Wenger’s romantic ideals mean the defence is likely to be exposed more than their credibility deserves so this time he was compelled to start Denilson ahead of Jack Wilshere. The key reason, with Arsenal needing a win, was because of the return of Robin van Persie to the starting line-up playing just behind Marouanne Chamakh. A balancing job was required and the youthful thrust of Wilshere was sacrificed for the stability of Denilson – thereby allowing van Persie to play with the freedom to inspire Arsenal through. However, the selection didn’t have the desired effect as play was stale and the interchange too slow.
“It was a bit of a low-key game because we didn’t find our pace in the game,” said Wenger. “We couldn’t find openings in their defence. They defended very well, they were focused on closing us down everywhere. We were just below our normal pace. You have to give them credit, they defended very well and on every single ball they closed us down. I felt our speed of passing was not incisive enough and it was a bit nervous as well.”
Robin van Persie had a key role to play as the link-man between midfield and attack but all too often sought a compromise between the two. Whether pressing as a third midfielder or a second striker, he was unable too find the correct balance and found himself drifting between the two. As a result, the two holding midfielders of Arsenal were forced to drop back rather than press as Wenger wanted to in home Champions League matches. As an attacking element, Arsenal as a whole were stifled by Partizan’s two holding midfielders – the rangy and uncomplicated Radoslav Petrovic was particularly impressive. Van Persie himself would have himself been disappointed by his impact. It seems the geometry in his passing is more suited higher up the pitch but with match sharpness always improving, it is obvious his quality brings an edge to Arsenal’s game. “I was not completely happy with our offensive game tonight,” said Wenger. “But I will have to watch that again. Maybe it was down to the quality of Partizan’s defending because I felt they defended in a very intelligent way and very well. I will have to analyse that a bit better.”
Indeed, Partizan did defend well although Arsenal did contrive to making it easier for them. Chamakh was unable to get in behind the Belgrade defence while Arshavin found himself surrounded by three black shirts every time he received the ball. The combination of Samir Nasri and Bakary Sagna seemed most likely to be where the two goals would come from in the first-half. In the end, it was Theo Walcott’s substitution which invigorated Arsenal. Suddenly there was a direct threat for Partizan to contend with and someone who stretched Arsenal’s play from the narrow to the wide. His goal was taken with great composure as Sagna’s cross was headed foolishly to his path by Marko Jovanovic. Nasri finally tied things up with a neat finish as good work between Song and the Frenchman opened up space for him to shoot. The attacking impetus provided from the two central midfielders is often understated this season and Song’s drive was what Arsenal were lacking in the first-half. Jack Wilshere’s contribution in that part of the pitch was perhaps a bigger miss than it would have seemed when the line-ups where announced as Arsenal understandably went for a top heavy approach.
The construction of a great football team takes into equal consideration every facet of the team’s dynamics and Arsenal has found, it must function as a unit to be most effective.
<Figure 1>Arsenal’s average positioning shows how Walcott’s introduction helped stretch the game. The main striker, Marouanne Chamakh’s touches occurred too deep to pull Partizan’s defence around. Walcott gave much needed penetration although Nasri was lively and his pace gave the left-back and left-midfielder a different proposition altogether. (Note; this formation is not a 4-4-2, rather containing features of the system but more closer to a 4-2-3-1). Graphic courtesy of ESPN Soccernet.
Numbers: 21. Lukasz Fabianski, 2. Bacary Sagna, 28. Kieran Gibbs (27. Emmanuel Eboue, 24), 6. Laurent Koscielny, 18. Sebastien Squillaci; 17. Alexandre Song, 15. Denilson; 8.Samir Nasri, 10. Robin van Persie, 23. Andrey Arshavin (14. Theo Walcott, 67); 23. Marouane Chamakh (52. Nicklas Bendtner, 76),
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