Arsenal 2 Bolton Wanderers 1
With Arsenal slowly but surely chugging along into something resembling momentum, a plum Carling Cup home tie against struggling Bolton seemed like a good opportunity to both refresh and replenish the squad with some timely rotation and progress in a competition that has some ghosts fastened to its underbelly for the club. With Thomas Vermaelen back in the starting line up and Yossi Benayoun, Sebastien Squillaci and Andrey Arshavin on hand to give a guiding hand to the likes of debutant Nico Yennaris and teenagers Francis Coquelin, Ignasi Miquel, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Emmanuel Frimpong.
In the espirits de change of the competition, I slightly altered my pre match routine, eschewing the Tavern for a pre match drink in the Tollington Arms with many a familiar face. It may be that having rushed my 4th pint and not eaten dinner made the head a little fuzzy; but I experienced a quite genuine excitement as I entered the ground a little before kick off. But the fare on offer did not match that pre match buzz in the first half. The opening twenty minutes looked very much like a team struggling at the bottom of the table playing a team not quite familiar with one another in a new system. (4-4-1-1 as it turned out).
As is tediously typical with any young English player, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain has been hyped out of this stratosphere. But last night showed why he`s not quite ready for regular first team action yet. He struggled to make an impression on the right of midfield with Wanderers marking him tightly. This isn`t a criticism of The Ox at all. It`s to be expected at the age of 18. But I`m still astounded that football fans fall into this same ball ache of a cycle time and again; hyperbolising a young English player`s contribution and setting expectations way off the Richter scale, then using that unreasonable expectation as a stick to beat the poor young lad with a year or so down the line.
The Gunners did threaten to eke out an opening courtesy of The Ox inside the first 20; Frimpong`s cross field pass found him on the right hand side, but his heavy touch took him to the by-line and the result was a floating cross to the back post that wasn`t attacked. Bolton had settled into the game well and began to threaten themselves. Darren Pratley hit a 25 yard pile driver that stung the palms of Fabianski. The Chelsea loanee Gael Kakuta- playing on the right, twisted an angle when faced with Ignasi Miquel and hit a low shot which Fabianski got down smartly to save.
Arsenal`s only real chance of note came when Benayoun teed up skipper Thomas Vermaelen from a free kick and his powerful strike from 25 yards was beaten out by Bogdan. But at half time one was distinctly underwhelmed with the game and it was difficult to see where Arsenal would find a breakthrough. But the first ten minutes of the second half managed to compress more goalmouth incident into it than the first 45 had managed. Frimpong was caught in possession on the edge of the area by his academy predecessor Fabrice Muamba. He fed Ivan Klasnic in the left channel, who in turn cut the ball back for Muamba to elongate a lanky limb and toe the ball into the roof of the net. The virginity of Arsenal`s home Carling Cup record since the stadium move was under serious threat.
But then Arshavin- playing in his favoured role off the central striker- took the game by the scuff of the neck. He collected Chamberlain`s pass from the right, bore down on Zat Knight in the area, before surprising Bogdan with a snapshot that glided into the bottom corner. One of the most threatening things about Arshavin from a defender`s point of view is the lack of back lift when he shoots. He barely seems to draw his foot back at all. He has a subtlety that foxes goalkeepers time and again. It would be another Arshavin contribution a few minutes later which would turn the game completely on its head. This time he drifted through the centre, with Park Ju-Young powering on ahead of him. The Korean had strayed offside originally, but Arshavin had the presence of mind to delay his pass, whilst Park knowingly bent his run, allowing Arshavin to split Bolton`s back line. Park dutifully followed the path of the ball before opening his body out and bending a sublime finish past Bogdan.
Park had a rather quiet game I thought, though he was full of running. But you have to ask yourself, presented with the same opportunity, would Marouane Chamakh have provided an assured and successful finish? I have my doubts. There again, I`ve yet to decipher how much of an aerial threat Park provides compared to Chamakh. The result was far from sealed however. Many of Arsenal`s starting line up were unaccustomed to 90 minutes of this intensity- either through inexperience or the fact that they are used to being squad players. Kakuta gave Fabianski cause to worry with a low free kick, which the Pole managed to claw away.
Then Tuncay latched onto Pratley`s pass and found himself through on goal, but Fabianski was out to block smartly with his legs. Fabianski`s next save wasn`t quite so assured however. Chris Eagles let fly from long range with a shot that moved in the air and Fabianski fumbled embarrassingly. Fortunately for him, his flap drifted onto the roof of the net and not into the net. Ryo Miyachi`s last ditch tackle on Eagles in injury time drew a worthy acknowledgment from the crowd. I`ve watched Ryo in the Reserves a few times and the defensive side of his game looked very weak. Pleasing to see some work has been done there.
In the end, two pieces of class from the most talented player on the pitch made the ultimate difference. Essentially, Arshavin didn`t do an awful lot else. But if the wiliness of the likes of Benayoun, Vermaelen and Squillaci kept us in the game, Arshavin`s x factor won us the game. He`s never going to win Player of the Year, Player of the Month, probably rarely even Man of the Match. But you keep him around and last night showed why. It`s like having an Alsatian. Loveable, useless much of the time. But when someone tries to break into your house you get down on your knees and thank the Lord Dennis you have his deterring bark. I don`t think and have never thought the deployment of the 4-4-1-1 on a full time basis to be the panacea to all our ills. But it`s be nice to see us able to move to it in-game if things were going a shape of the pear. Food for thought as we contemplate our Quarter Final opponents. LD.
NB- I shall be attending Arsenal's AGM tomorrow at 11am GMT. I will be providing updates on my twitter feed and will try and do a write up here on Thursday evening.
21.FABIANSKI, 56.YENNARIS, 18.SQUILLACI, 5.VERMAELEN c (37.Boateng `84), 49.MIQUEL, 15.CHAMBERLAIN (31.Ryo `73), 26.FRIMPONG (53.Ozyakup `76), 39.COQUELIN, 30.BENAYOUN, 23.ARSHAVIN, 9.J-Y.PARK. Unused; 24.Mannone, 34.Aneke, 47.Meade, 48.Watt.