Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Sunday September 16 2012
The international break came at something of an inopportune time following a masterful performance and result at Anfield. The break is now proceeded by seven games in 21 days across three competitions. If Arsene Wenger could not have picked a better opponent to start that run given the way Southampton set up. With their penchant for counter attacking through the flanks, Arsene sprung a tactical surprise by opting for Gervinho to play as a centre forward, flanked by Oxlade-Chamberlain (already it seems, being groomed to take over from the soon to be departing Walcott) and Podolski. We had seen Gervinho trialled as a central striker in pre season. Podolski picks up nice areas between the full backs and centre halves which made it quite close to a two striker system in effect.
On a balmy late summer`s day (possibly the last one in which I can get away with wearing shades for a while) I was minded of a strikerless system we once piloted in a cup tie against Middlesbrough in the unbeaten season. With Henry rested, Pires and Ljungberg took turns to play in front of Bergkamp and the result was that Boro couldn`t isolate the threat. The Saints opted for a suicidal game plan, with Arsenal only too willing to plunge the knife in. The expanse of space found on the flanks was made plain in the opening seconds when Arteta spun his head and caressed a pass out to Chamberlain on the right, his cross was met by the onrushing Cazorla, but pressure from Steven Davis saw the Spaniard guide the ball over.
But if that was a broad hint, Southampton weren`t getting it. Lukas Podolski fought off three Saints midfielders when the ball looked lost; he bore down on the Southampton back four and slipped a pass into the marauding Gibbs. The Gunners left back put the ball low and hard into the six yard box and the bumbling Kelvin Davis could only claw it onto the leg of Hooiveld who stumbled the ball into his own net. Podolski and Cazorla are striking up a great relationship, but so too are Podolski and Gibbs. With the German preferring to take position slightly in field, it allows Gibbs to overlap and provide the width. There was no letting up from Arsenal with the floodgates open. Davis showed further portent of a poor afternoon in the Southampton goal when he flapped at a Cazorla cross, Coquelin clipped the ball back into the danger area and Mertesacker met with a firm header which was caught by Davis.
But Arsenal`s afternoon was set up to be easy and breezy when Steven Davis senselessly clattered Coquelin on the edge of the box. Lukas Podolski stepped up and curled his free kick over the wall and into the net. Davis will be disappointed with his starting position given that Podolski didn`t even have to find the corner of the net. But that`s Nigel Adkins` problem, Podolski had his first Arsenal goal in front of his home supporters. Adkins made a substitution, with new signing Maya Yoshida replacing Hooiveld. But it didn`t solve the away side`s primary issue, which was lack of pressure from the midfield. Cazorla was able to stroke the ball to Arteta at walking pace and the Spaniard had all the time to stop, wait for Yoshida to step out of position, allowing Gervinho to spin in behind him. Arteta duly provided a chipped through ball and Gervinho applied an emphatic finish.
The scoring for the half wasn`t done there. Podolski and Cazorla have reignited Arsenal`s ability to play one touch football in the final third and after they had toyed with the ball for a moment, Cazorla (whose name I am consciously aware that I am typing a lot) released Gervinho. The Ivorian ran at the beleaguered Southampton defence before then releasing Gibbs on the left, his cross was serendipitously deflected in via the foot of Nathaniel Clyne. I would sooner receive this sort of luck at Eastlands with the scores at 0-0 next week, but beggars can`t be choosers. But with that, Arsenal`s eye, perhaps understandably and in the goalkeeper`s case, literally, came off the ball.
Cazorla rather backed out of a 50-50 with James Ward-Prowse on the edge of the Arsenal area. Had the scores been 0-0 I doubt whether he would have done the same. The ball was worked wide to Nathaniel Clyne. Clyne`s looping cross ought to have been easily collected by Szczesny, but the Pole lost the ball in the sunshine and patted it down to Danny Fox, who made no mistake, rifling the ball into the roof of the net. Along with Szczesny`s shonky distribution, the mistake brought murmurs from the crowd. But if you have a 21 year old goalkeeper you have to accept he will make mistakes and take the short term pain for the long term gain. In the words of Damon Albarn, there`s no other way. If he`s making them in games like this, all the better. I have zero doubts about this affecting him. Let`s also remember that Mannone did a fair bit of fumbling high crosses at Anfield, but he went unpunished.
For the first twenty minutes of the second half, Arsenal dropped off, with Tuesday`s assignment in Montpellier in mind. The Saints dominated possession and the crowd were notably anxious. Especially when half time sub Gaston Ramirez miscued a shot which crept to the back post for Rickie Lambert. Fortunately he put a presentable chance wide. The home side kicked into life again when Gervinho shimmied his way past Yoshida to the by line and looked to cut the ball back, but only Chamberlain was in the area and he didn`t anticipate well enough that the cut back might bounce to him. The drawback of playing without a natural striker I guess.
However, Gervinho showed a fine striker`s instinct for Arsenal`s 5th. Cazorla played a pass to Ramsey on the edge of the area; Ramsey delightfully jinked past Clyne and found his finish clip the base of the post, only for Gervinho to follow in for a close range rebound. He was visibly disappointed to be taken off and not get the chance to complete his hat trick. But by taking him off early, Arsene is likely planning to use him on Tuesday night. By now Chamberlain was desperate to score, as was substitute Olivier Giroud. Chamberlain`s fulminating shot was parried by Davis. Walcott ought to have given Giroud a tap in for his first Gunners goal, after Cazorla (who else?) played a swerving ball through for Walcott on the right.
Giroud was all alone in the centre but Walcott, inexplicably, delayed the pass before chipping a harmless cross to nobody on the back post. That said, Theo did open his account for the season when, well, I probably don`t need to tell you who played the pass for the onrushing Vermaelen. The Belgian`s strike was saved by Davis, but Walcott was on hand to curl home the rebound. His muted celebration out of respect for the club that reared him was cemented when he and Chamberlain jogged over to the Saints fans at the final whistle. A thumping 6-1 win weeks after you`ve sold your best striker can only be an elixir for the confidence. Podolski and Cazorla in particular have brought the panache back into the side and the threat appears to be more multi faceted. Whether we have the squad depth over the season remains to be seen I think (I still regard an injury to Arteta with the same feverish pessimism as a text message from Ashley Cole). Make no mistake, Southampton played exactly how we`d have wanted them to. But it was pleasing to see a clinical display with a varied goal threat. Upcoming engagements against City and Chelsea will show us how positive we can really contemplate being. I'll speak to you upon my return from France on Thursday. LD.
ARSENAL: 1.SZCZESNY, 25.JENKINSON, 4.MERTESACKER, 5.VERMAELEN (c), 28.GIBBS, 8.ARTETA, 22.COQUELIN (16.Ramsey '67), 19.CAZORLA, 15.CHAMBERLAIN, 9.PODOLSKI (12.Giroud '74), 27.GERVINHO (14.Walcott '75). Unused: 6.Koscielny, 11.A.Santos, 23.Arshavin, 24.Mannone.
SOUTHAMPTON: 1.K.DAVIS, 2.CLYNE, 5.HOOIVELD (3.Yoshida '29), 6.FONTE, 13.FOX, 20.LALLANA (c), 8.S.DAVIS (10.Ramirez H/T), 4.SCHNEIDERLIN, 16.WARD-PROWSE, 42.PUNCHEON, 7.LAMBERT (9.Rodriguez '76). Unused: 12.Gazzaniga, 22.Richardson, 24.Mayuka, 27.Chaplow.
Date:Sunday September 16 2012
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