Goals: Wishere (49), Podolski (63)
Arsenal secured qualification to the knock-out stages of the Champions League for the 13th consecutive season after a comfortable win against Montpellier.
Arsenal had a 4-2-3-1 formation. Szczesny started at the goal. Vermaalen was again at left back. Koscielny was paired with Mertesacker at the center of the defence. Bacary Sagna started at right back. In central midfield, Wilshere was paired with Mikel Arteta. Podolski was on the left, and Oxlade-Chamberlain started on the right as Walcott was injured. Cazorla was behind Giroud who started as the central striker.
The game started in an extremely dull fashion, and almost nothing of any significance happened in the first 10 minutes. Shortly after the 10th minute mark, the crowd were reassured that they have come to watch a football game, when Koscielny’s header from a Vermaalen cross crashed at the bar. Montpellier responded when Mbia’s defence-splitting pass was chased by Mounier, but Szczesny got to the ball before the French winger.
The rest of the half was quite scrappy with both sides displaying their skills in playing overhit and wayward passes. Around the 30th minute, Koscielny stormed out of his own half with the ball. When he was tackled finally at the edge of the Montpellier box, the ball was deflected to Podolski who fired just wide off the post. Minutes later, Podolski exchanged passes with Cazorla on the wide left channel and was played in by the Spaniard, but the German again missed the target from a narrow angle.
After a mostly eventless first half, Arsenal took the lead three minutes into the second half. Vermaalen exchanged passes with Podolski to go beyond the Montpellier right back, cut inside and send in a cross into the box. Giroud expertly flicked the ball onto the path of Wilshere who was arriving late into the box and the midfielder coolly dinked the ball past the goalkeeper.
After the goal, Arsenal continued to control the tempo of the game, and the sporadic French sorties into the Arsenal half looked toothless. During a period of possession when Arsenal tried to force their way through the center and the left, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s frustration for not receiving the ball when completely free on the right was visible. When the young winger finally got his feet to the ball after stealing possession in the midfield, he made a trademark anarchic and surging run inside and played the ball to Podolski. The German assassin executed a brilliant one-two with Giroud (the French striker’s return ball was top class) and thundered the ball into the net with an exquisite volley.
My reluctance to go into much detail in this match report is because the game had the feeling of a rather easy win for Arsenal written all over it. In the remaining 25 minutes, Arsenal controlled the game without breaking too much sweat and cruised into an easy victory. The overall look of the game was as one-sided as the Fox News coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the last minutes, Coquelin, Ramsey and Gervinho made cameo appearances. Other than that, Giroud missed a big chance when played through by Cazorla (have you seen that before?).
One tactical point worth going over is the performance of Giroud in this match (for a more detailed take on this, see Arsenal Column’s piece). What Giroud adds to the side is his hard work, physical presence and movement across the forward line. His goal against Schalke came when he did not give up possession in front of the box and played it to Podolski to get to the end of the German’s cross. Likewise his similar goal against West Ham, his flick to Walcott in the build up for Arsenal’s fourth goal against Spurs, his assist to Podolski in the first Montpellier game, his brilliant diversionary run in Podolski’s goal against Liverpool are all examples. Giroud becomes less effective when he drops back to the midfield to build play a la Van Persie, like he did against Montpellier in the first half. He is not good at this. His touch fails him too often. And most importantly, it is not even needed with a midfield trio of Cazorla, Wilshere and Arteta. When Giroud drops deep, the opposition centerbacks push forward to squeeze the space in front of their box. Giroud needs to dislocate the centerbacks and put them under pressure with his movement in and around the box. When he did not do this in the first half against Montpellier, the team struggled to create openings. In the second half, he performed like he should, stayed high up the pitch as the target man and produced two assists, and Arsenal looked more fluid.
Arsenal did not play particularly well, but they scored two excellent goals and secured an easy victory against last year’s French champions who did not look like champions at all (they have won only four times this season in all competitions). This victory made the trip to Athens for the last group game a formality. Arsenal will probably finish the group second behind Schalke, but hopefully will not end up playing Barca again (as if they do, it will be the third time in last four seasons).