Arsenal 2 – Cardiff City nil — Never a Doubt… 😆
Having missed the request to write a match preview, I wrote the following hoping that our fearless leader (on holiday in Scotland) might be available for a late post. Alas, it didn’t happen. But still, some of the questions seemed prescient (if I say so myself, and I do… 😉 )
(Preview Title…) Are We Deep Enough to Cope with Injuries and Illness and Rotation as We Enter 2014?
Arsenal, the best team in England in calendar year 2013, begin the new year top of the table but with question marks. Cardiff City, in our home ground, with only a caretaker manager, and coming off a very disappointing late draw vs Sunderland, would seem an automatic three points, but, in the English Premier League, nothing can be guaranteed.
Our most productive midfielders, Mesut Özil and Aaron Ramsey, are missing, as is our workhorse up front, Olivier Giroud. Many have argued that the only reason we’re still top of the table has been the remarkable production of those three players. Can we cope without them and will our offense create the chances necessary to see off a team which might be compared to a wounded animal?
Late reports suggest Ole Gunnar Solksjaer will be taking the Cardiff job. Will the players selected today be auditioning in a merely technical fashion for the new manager or will they be showing that they’ve got the grit and drive to steal a result from a weakened Arsenal team? Finally, the weather to start the year in London appears on the heavy side. It might not be as bad as it was for the Chelsea match 9 days ago and the Cardiff defense is probably not as tight, but our offense has been known to stutter when conditions aren’t ideal. Can we still make chances and goals with our re-arranged attack or will this one be another close, low scoring affair?
Today’s line-up appears a strong one, given the injuries–plenty of attack with both Poldolski and Walcott (carrying a knock?) in there. The bench offers options as well with Bendtner and Gnabry as well as Rosicky and Ryo Miyachi available if we’re still chasing a result. Still, by opting for both Arteta and Flamini as cover ahead of the back four, it appears that Wenger is thinking “defense first.” Can this be achieved against a Cardiff team with “nothing to lose?” Can the offense click without its spearhead Giroud? And I don’t refer only to his hair…
Bergkampesque welcomes your comments on these questions as the match plays out as well as afterwards. Please join us… 😀
Well, that’s what I was hoping to post, plus the (confirmed) line-ups…Instead we had to continue with only Gerry’s match report from the 1 goal victory at Newcastle… So, what transpired? Did any of the questions (above) get answered?
I could do the minute by minute thing (to remind us of our frustrations) but instead I’ll talk about patterns and try to answer my own questions (comment writers please add yours!…)
The weather WAS heavy and comments on my television feed suggested that there was ample wind to go with the rain. And, similar to the Chelsea match, basic mistakes were on display. An early pattern was set with long (and misplaced) passes to Theo Walcott being the principal area of attack, mostly from deeper lying Santi Cazorla, ostensibly starting from a left wing position. Arsenal appeared happy to cede possession to Cardiff and there was very little pressing from the front, with both front man, Poldolski, and “hole” player, Wilshere, happy to follow Cardiff passes at a trot.
This strategy seemed almost uniquely ill-suited to match conditions but so too did the more intricate passing that seemed on tap as we tired of losing possession with the longer ones. Cardiff time wasting seemed more and more effective with each passing minute and served to subdue the home crowd. That Cardiff were able to draw the only save of the half, albeit a basic one at the near post from Szczesny, did not help to buoy our hopes. As the half drew to a close Poldolski dropped deeper, almost as a midfield outlet while frustrations in basic play from Walcott, Wilshere and Cazorla continued. The dual pivot of Flamini and Arteta were largely untroubled by the Cardiff attack (a single point clearly would have been seen as a huge victory) but we created not a single shot on target in the first period and only 2 corners from which we also didn’t threaten.
I guess I should mention the penalty shout where Wilshere kept his feet as Medel missed the ball and likely got Jack with not one but two swings. The fact that our man kept his feet for the first tackle probably undermined his claim as he fell on the second. I didn’t hear boos as the players left the pitch, but the home support was clearly underwhelmed; 63% possession was the only sign of any sort of dominance. We most certainly didn’t look like league leaders, to my eye at least…
The 2nd period began much as the first: bad weather, bad football from Arsenal. The pitch was taking pace off the ball but it was also lacking in our movement. With little speed (beyond Theo) or size, early calls for the likes of Rosicky and Bendtner seemed obvious.
Wenger, as any oddsmaker would have predicted, allowed the first group to persist until the 65th minute before those subs were made. The supporters, less patient by nature, twisted in the wind (and rain) and tried to create a sense of greater urgency. In the smallest of ways they were rewarded as more of the match was played closer to the Cardiff goal with shots and corners starting to come and fewer balls out of play. Our better play in this part of the match was down our left (Poldolski, Cazorla and Monreal working well together), but still we were constrained to high angled shots. Wilshere also did well from the same side during this period, forcing corners and having a shot hit the post. Still, Cardiff was able to run the clock down whenever they could.
Finally, keeper Marshall finally got a yellow card in the 60th minute for his time-wasting. A talking point was an uncalled handball by Monreal (in the 54th) very close if not in our own 18 yard box. Little Gary Medel, charged with marking the center of our attack got his yellow card in the 58th and was soon after withdrawn, which perhaps was a key. Wilshere certainly looked better immediately. One thing I will say is that the time wasting (very well executed by Cardiff) only served to antagonize the home support. Perhaps it’s a hardier bunch who brave the bad weather after the midnight merry-making (and against the lowly, and lower priced, C-ticket class opponent)?…
When the subs did come the urgency notched up just that little bit more and the increase in size up front and pace in MF made our attack more familiar looking. A clearance from Monreal which Bentdner got an awkward (Giroud-esque?) head to was well cheered as it kept our forward move alive. Frustration, however, continued, with not one but two Mertesacker headers put wide of the left post. Overall, however, there was extra bite in our counters and the threat from the 10 2nd half corners we earned was increasing. Merely having an extra big target (Bendtner in addition to Mertesacker) seemed to stress the Cardiff back line.
Nonetheless, we were still having trouble of our own and as the match moved past the 70th and then the 80th, it seemed we might leave frustrated. Mistakes in midfield didn’t help, even if Cardiff were not very potent when they did occur. Koscielny made a couple of key blocks after Arteta couldn’t get to a loose pass, though the 2nd one lead to a corner and a sequence where Arteta again mis-controlled. Luckily, Caulker’s shot was blasted well over.
The definitive spell of pressure began in the 83rd minute. A cross from Theo to Bendtner looked a sure goal but there was a hint he might have left it for a phantom teammate just behind him. Just before that, the big guy had delivered one himself to Sagna whose looping header was cleared off the line. Overall, Bendtner’s presence up front and solid ball work coming back was having a positive effect. Still, frustration seemed the order of the day as individual runs from Rosicky and Cazorla created danger but only lead to blocked efforts. When Theo blasted over from a difficult angle in the 86th some air went out of the crowd.
Fortunately, there was no giving up in the side and the knowledge that there had to be plenty of injury time wouldn’t have hurt. FINALLY, in the 88th the goal came. An intricate move featuring great control from Cazorla, a layoff from Walcott, a cross from Monreal to the head of Sagna (forcing a save) and a tightly angled first time smash from, of all people, Nicklas Bendtner, and the match was ours!
The irony is that it cost the man who used to wear his weekly salary upon his shirt. Replays showed the Marshall landed on Bendtner’s standing foot, causing what looks like ankle ligament damage. Finally Arsene’s huge gamble on the much maligned forward gave a bit of payback. Such a shame that he won’t get a warm welcome for the FA cup match against Spurs, on Saturday…
One-nil is nice, but two-nil is nicer. In injury time, a long ball from Szczesny (contested well again by Sagna) fell to Rosicky. A controlling pass and quick (and perfect) pass allowed Wilshere to flick onto Walcott, who chipped Marshall. The keeper got a finger to it but only caused the ball to hover for a moment before dropping into goal. A late save by our keeper, the only one seemingly aware that Cardiff were sending in a free kick, preserved the clean sheet. Relief AND reward for 95 minutes of hard work…
So, questions answered or do they remain?
Much depends on the injury situation. Poldolski, unfortunately doesn’t present the commanding (if somewhat technically lacking) figure that Giroud does. Wilshere and Cazorla though industrious seem to lack that little bit of acceleration and physicality which Ozil and Ramsey bring. With Bendtner supplying the winning goal, but then going down injured, our issues in attack remain in the spotlight. He likely benefited from coming on with Cardiff defenders already tired (much as Poldolski did at West Ham 6 days ago) but he may not be available even for late cameos. Clearly, we have nobody to offer us an hour or more as a lone striking option. I probably don’t need to point out that at least the timing is right given that the transfer window opened today. ..
Regardless, we’ll have one more: a cup match against the ancient enemy on Saturday. They will be lifted from their victory at Manchester United but perhaps also content and happy to drop out of the competition. Remember, they still have home and away games to play in the Europa league, as well as teams to catch if they hope to get back onto the bigger European stage. My thought is that Sherwood will have to rotate to see which (if any) of AVB’s purchases might come good. I wouldn’t expect as smooth or spirited a performance as they put on today at Old Trafford. Still, like Cardiff today they’ll come with nothing to lose. We’ll need even more spirit (if not bandages, duct tape and baling wire) to subdue them.
It should be noted however, that all 4 of our “questionable” players played today (3 of them for all 95 minutes). Perhaps the others nursing “injuries” might be a presence on the bench at least. After that one we have another 9 day mini-break for getting bodies healthy before matches that become increasingly more daunting as January passes into February.
All told, while today’s match (and other recent ones…) may not have been easy on the eyes, we got the result without a few of the players who carried us through the early season. The bodies may be weary but the spirit was (and IS) not lacking. If that’s our low-mark, 2014 offers a measure of promise…
Written by: 17highburyterrace