Arsenal 3 Partizan Belgrade 1
Arsene spoke earlier in the month about Arsenal playing differently at home, "more direct" were his exact words. It appears after the experiment against Wigan last week and after last night, he thinks 4-4-2 might be the way to achieve that. When we saw the starting line up appear on the screen in the Tavern, I thought to myself that the system smacked of trying to accommodate players more than trying to find a way to play more directly. With Nasri, Arshavin, van Persie and Chamakh in your starting line up, you shouldn`t struggle to create chances. But if they`re all playing an unfamiliar role (which doesn`t really play to any of their strengths either), then you give yourself more problems than solutions in my opinion. Nevertheless, we trudged towards the stadium through the freezing, biting cold cautiously optimistic we could get the desired result against the group whipping boys.
However, Arsenal did not ever really establish a rhythm in the first half. Van Persie looked too far away from the areas in which he inflicts the most damage, Nasri and Arshavin were pretty well glued to the flanks, when both do their best work cutting in and interchanging, all of which left Chamakh completely isolated. The upshot was that Arsenal created very little to warm the cockles in the first half. Samir Nasri jinked on the right hand side and delivered a low cross which Chamakh prodded just wide. A soporific half was given a slightly maudlin feel when Kieran Gibbs hobbled off with a twisted ankle. Of his last seven Arsenal starts, five have resulted in early substitution. Hard not to feel sympathy for the guy, he should be a real challenger to Gael Clichy for that left back slot. The only time Arsenal really opened Belgrade up was when Arshavin delivered a defence slicing ball to Nasri, who had abandoned the rigid shackles of the 4-4-2 to drift to the left, Nasri attempted to stab the ball into the path of Chamakh standing in front of an inviting goal, but Medo just managed to toe end the ball out of the Moroccan`s reach. The Gunners rather laboured in front of a well drilled Partizan back line, until the half hour mark. Song flicked the ball into the path of van Persie in the area and the Dutchman was tripped in the area by a clumsy Jovanovic challenge. Such is his form and confidence that Nasri wanted to take the ball, but van Persie was aching to christen his number 10 shirt with his first goal of the season. Despite some heavy attempts at kidology by Stoijkovic, van Persie buried the penalty to the keeper`s left. That was largely that for the first half, Eboue showed a beguiling shift of feet to evade two Belgrade challenges and send a cross in with the outside of his right foot, only for Krstajic to slice over his own bar.
I was rather hoping that the system would change in the second half. I understand the need for adaptability, and I was all using the Wigan game to trial it. But this was a must win game and it wasn`t working. Much has been made by Wenger`s fiercest critics about his inability to shift in-game emphasis and watching him sit shivering for the whole second half offers him little defence on this occasion. That said, Arsenal did briefly brighten up at the beginning of the half. Arshavin played a through ball to Chamakh, but he was thwarted by Stojkovic. Denilson`s left wing cross then fell to Nasri, who got under the ball and lifted it over. But you know how it goes with Arsenal at home nowadays, the opposition only needs one shot to score. Petrovic found himself in an embarrassment of space in Arsenal`s final third, his lifted through ball found Cleo in a similar vacuum of tranquillity, allowing him to turn and fire a shot goalwards which took a wicked deflection off of Squillaci and ricocheted into the net. Unfortunate deflection you might say, but it was approaching a shambles that Cleo found so much time to turn and shoot on the edge of the area in the first place. Suddenly, nerves gripped the cold night air. Lots of possession, but lack of urgency, concession of soft goal with opponent`s first attempt. Sounding familiar.
The improvement on this occasion, was that Arsenal did not take too long to recover and reassume the initiative. Walcott came on for Arshavin and looked to make an immediate impact when Stefan Savic took Walcott out on the edge of the area, lest he latch onto van Persie`s flick. Stojkovic tipped over van Persie`s fizzing free kick. Nasri`s resulting corner caused anxiety in the Belgrade defence, the ball broke to Song on the back post but he tried to be too cute with his curling shot and got it badly wrong. But the pressure eventually told, Sagna`s right wing cross saw Savic stoop to head clear. He headed only as far as Walcott, who deftly chested the ball down and volleyed it into the corner of the net. The manager`s words pre match around Partizan fading in the latter stages of games proved to be prescient on this occasion. Arsenal soon had the game sown up. Alex Song`s nifty shift of feet saw the ball land at the feet of Nasri in the area, he tried to flick the ball back into Song`s path. The attempted flick did not come off, but when you`re on form, you tend to find serendipity and the ball landed perfectly back at his feet for him to swivel and steer the ball into the bottom corner. Relief.
The goal sees us equal the record with Spurs for the most goals cored in the group stages, with 18. (Real Madrid were the previous record holders with 15). But thoughts of breaking that record and claiming it for ourselves were put on ice when Lazevski found space in behind Sagna, the Frenchman ran to catch him and it looked from where I was sitting to be a tangle of legs. It`s harsh, but under those rules, Sagna has to go for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity, whether or not he meant it. Arsenal were content to play out the result and secure the win they needed to secure progression. It was a night upon which we got the result and not a lot else really. The lack of competition Belgrade face in their own league means that have struggled to maintain for 90 minutes in this group stage, which is where we benefitted. I don`t think this performance would have beaten a Premiership side. The formation made us too predictable and left too many players either stuck in their pigeon holes, or else unsure of what they were supposed to be doing. It was disjointed and a poor display against a poor team. However, the recriminations are essentially worthless, we got through, though we were guilty of meekly surrendering top spot to Shakhtar with our complacency in Ukraine. That said, I am of the opinion that you have to beat the leading lights to win this tournament anyway, so finishing second in the group has never particularly troubled me. In fact, a win against a big team usually gives sides the impetus to go on. Madrid in 2006 gave us the belief to get to the Final, Porto`s victory over Manchester United instilled the belief that they could beat all comers in 2004. That said, I rather hope I`m booking flights to Germany next week and not Spain.LD.
21.FABIANSKI, 3.SAGNA, 18.SQUILLACI, 6.KOSCIELNY, 28.GIBBS (27.Eboue `24), 8.NASRI, 17.SONG, 15.DENILSON, 23.ARSHAVIN (14.Walcott `65), 10.v.PERSIE c, 29.CHAMAKH (52.Bendtner `76). Unused: 7.Rosicky, 11.Vela, 19.Wilshere, 53.Szczesny.