Saturday’s frustration-fest ended well, but will opposition with more ambition be better or worse for Arsenal?
I find myself torn when thinking about Southampton FC. I like the club, I loved Le Tissier and the brothers Wallace, and I like their willingness to sell their young English talent to us. But I hate Arsenal playing against them.
Once again our south coast visitors showed a pretty effective mixture of hard-work, discipline, counter-attacking, niggling, time-wasting and general cynicism.
To be fair, they started well and the mercurial Tadic enjoyed one of his half-hour bursts of excellence culminating in the brilliant free kick that found the net via the crossbar and Cech’s back. But as falling behind awoke Arsenal from their torpor, Southampton pulled out all the cards from the deck of visiting teams to north London, and in the first half at least enjoyed the compliance of the referee.
However, it seems even Bobby Madley got fed up somewhere around the hour mark, as he gave the earliest booking for time-wasting I’ve ever seen to a visiting team at the Emirates. Indeed, he seemed to get more annoyed with them as the game went on, actually telling people off for rotational fouling and crucially allowing Arsenal to play on while ignoring the prone Koscielny, whose presence clearly unsettled the Southampton defence, ultimately leading to the penalty.
Which despite the schizophrenic pendulum bias of the commentator I discovered on Saturday and the complaints of Mr. Fonte, was a clear foul, possibly twice. Needless to say despite the BBC newsfeed saying it was a double foul, the ‘unbiased’ hired guns Clive Allen and Chris Sutton both thought it wasn’t. Given that one played for and coached Spurs and the other was a childhood Spurs fan who turned down Arsenal as a player, hiring them to do the Arsenal games is some epic trolling by the Beeb.
Anyway, the ref’s general irritation with the Southampton players continued when they tried to delay the penalty and also damage the penalty spot, with a little flurry of yellow cards. Of course, the more time passed between awarding and taking of the penalty, the more my Forster fear grew, but our man-of-the-match sent him the wrong way, and relief replaced frustration.
And despite Koscielny’s continued solidity and wonder goal, it was Cazorla who ran the game. Despite an early booking for less dissent than is seen fifty times a match, and a period of early frustration at the referee and opposition leaving their foot in, he regained his composure to dictate the tempo and be the starting point for everything good the team did. With a 94% pass accuracy and four chances created, he was very much the man. Despite his new dental braces.
Ultimately though, Arsenal were lucky, particularly as a striker more focused on taking chances than fouling defenders than Shane Long would have got a second for the visitors, with two good chances going to waste. That said, I particularly enjoyed Monreal getting away with clipping his heels in what was ultimately the start of the period of possession that led to the penalty. Given his skullduggery in our stuffing at St. Mary’s last season, t’was a dish served with deliciously frosty timing.
It has to be said, we were also rather fortunate that the ref didn’t realise that Koscielny had been kicked square in the face at the end, or he would have to stopped things before we got the penalty.
This good fortune is also a reflection of things not working so well elsewhere. We all like the Coq-zorla axis, and there were times in the first half and early in the second where Coquelin’s aggression and pace were important, but since being paired with Elneny, Xhaka and others while Cazorla was recovering from injury, the Frenchman seems to have forgotten how to sit deeper supporting a more creative partner. In the other pairings, him performing a more box-to-box role makes sense, but for all the little Spaniard’s genius, he is just that, little, and sometimes needs a bit of more muscular support nearer to him when he is being pressed in deep areas.
I like Coquelin and think he’s a valuable part of the squad, but the suspicion is that he was playing because Xhaka will be starting in Paris, and possibly Elneny as well. Where they lack his mobility and tackling, both offer rather more control. I guess we should be grateful that at least this year the alternatives aren’t Flamini and Arteta.
Mustafi slotted in well, but there are two concerns. Size and style. Like Koscielny and Gabriel he is an aggressive front foot defender who likes to nick the ball ahead of the striker, and getting the right balance between roles back there will be important. And of course, while having great pace, he’s a bit short, which may raise questions against the likes of West Ham and Man Utd, who seem to want as many big blokes in the team as possible.
Lucas was a little less impressive, but I was surprised he started the game, rather than being introduced off the bench. He seems inventive, a hard worker and has decent movement, but there were no ‘wow’ moments at yet. He wasn’t helped by the fact that the magisterial Ozil we saw against Watford seemed to be replaced by the uncertain version circa February 2014 until the last 15 minutes. Let’s hope this was a one off. Elsewhere Theo did ok without getting much service and The Ox continued his one step forwards two steps back routine by following up a couple of good bits of play with a couple bad bits, and then spent the rest of his time on the pitch visibly beating himself up about it. A shame Bellerin attempted to pull the ball back when free on the right shortly after half time, because for once Oxlade-Chamberlain made the run inside the full-back for a Pires-esque tap in for a cross that never came. He needs a change of luck badly.
So on to PSG.
Post Zlatan and post Laurent Blanc, they have had a stuttering start, with the same points total from four games as us, despite the weakness of Ligue 1. Their top scorer so far is their left back with two goals. But they have a squad similar in quality to our own and likewise are used to dominating games.
The tactical battle will be hard to call. Both teams normally set up quite similarly, and both have question marks at the sharp ends of the pitch. Will each try to dominate the other? Or will either adopt a more counter-attacking stance? Certainly with Thiago Silva injured, Olivier Giroud will fancy his chances at dominating the physical battle with the classy but not particularly big Marquinos. Edinson Cavani might feel the same way about our back line.
With the quality of Matuidi, Di Maria, Lucas Moura et al, they will be dangerous throughout, but I think a more expansive opponent will suit Walcott and the likely returning Sanchez, so I’m confident we’ll get a point.
At least it’s not bloody Bayern, Dortmund, Barca or Olympiakos again!