Goals: Podolski (14), Cazorla (32), Cazorla (34), Cazorla (60), LeFondre (66), Kebe (71), Walcott (80)
Arsenal Line-Up (4-3-3). Szczesny (GK), Sagna (RB), Vermaalen (CB), Mertesacker (CB), Gibbs (LB), Wilshere (CM) Arteta (CM), Cazorla (CM), Podolski (LF), Oxlade-Chamberlain (RF), Walcott (CF).
Led by the majestic Cazorla, Arsenal swept aside a helpless Reading side that offered less resistance than feta cheese especially in the first half. After the midweek debacle in Capital One Cup at Bradford (which was not covered here out of sheer pain), this was exactly what Arsenal needed to regroup when they are under attack from everyone and their mothers.
From a tactical point of view, the surprising aspect of Arsenal’s line-up was Theo Walcott starting as the central striker, flanked by Podolski on the left and Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right. His threat of pace and lateral movement staying high up the pitch did provide a big contrast to Giroud who cannot help but drop deep to get involved in build-up play. As such, Reading centerbacks faced something different as they were not able to push higher to squeeze the space Cazorla thrives. As a result, the Spanish playmaker had his most devastating performance so far this season.
On the right flank, Oxlade was excellent in the first half, showing remarkable directness and pace whenever he got the ball. It was him creating the first chance following a good run and shot from outside the box which was parried away by Federici with difficulty. Reading also threatened early in the game with Pogrebnyak going behind Gibbs, but his cutback was missed by Kebe in the 6 yard box.
Arsenal were playing with a speed and quality of movement which was completely missing since the away game at West Ham, and Reading were not able to cope with their attacking intent. The remarkable ease that Arsenal built up attacks was mainly because none of the two Reading strikers (Hunt and Pogrebnyak) were putting any pressure on Arteta (who completed 93 of his attempted 102 passes), and their two wide midfielders were not tracking Sagna and especially Gibbs properly. Arsenal took the lead shortly before the 15th minute mark when Gibbs took on Kebe who gave him a lot of room and did nothing to prevent his low cross into the box. Podolski cushioned down the cross with his right foot and blasted it home with his left in the same movement with Reading defenders barely visible.
Walcott’s good movement and his staying high up the pitch indeed allowed Arsenal midfield a lot of room to build attacks, but Reading neither pressing nor keeping a solid defensive shape also helped Arsenal as the visitors carved open Reading almost every time they attacked. It should have been 2-0 soon after as Walcott raced behind to Cazorla’s quick ball but could not beat Federici one on one.
A difference from recent games was Cazorla and Wilshere being able to run with the ball with menace and taking on opposition to turn attacks into dangerous situations quickly. Wilshere had 4 (out of 6) succesful dribblings, Cazorla had 7 (out of 8). With Arteta providing all the cover needed (3 succesful tackles and 4 interceptions) and Walcott stretching Reading, Wilshere and Cazorla ran the attacking show in midfield.
It was 3-0 before the half with two Cazorla goals in quick succession. First, Arteta switched play to the left with a diagonal under no pressure, and Podolski attacked the hapless Cummings to deliver a peach of a cross in between the two centerbacks, which Cazorla finished with a diving header. Minutes later, Walcott had all the time in the world inside the box to look up and chip a ball to the far post. When Gibbs headed it back into the 6 yard box, Cazorla controlled the ball with his back to the goal and swiveled to ram it home.
The second half started with the same Arsenal menace. First, Wilshere played Walcott through but his shot was cleared off the line by Mariappa just before Cazorla tapped in. But the Spaniard claimed his first hat-trick for Arsenal after a brilliant move started on the right by Oxlade found Wilshere who played Podolski in behind Reading defenders. The German’s cut back was tapped in by Cazorla for the most Arsenalesque goal of the season yet.
Having gone 4-0 up, Arsenal did show some signs of complaceny as two more easy chances were wasted by Walcott who really wanted a goal. The complacency soon caused damage: Gibbs played a lazy ball to Wilshere, it was intercepted by Tabb, who quickly released LeFondre. The substitute striker rounded up Szczesny before scoring. Five minutes later, it was 4-2: Robson-Kanu threaded a ball to Kebe. Podolski played the Reading midfielder onside as he was unable to stop his run when he tracked back Cummings’ overlap on the far right and Kebe finished cooly past Szczesny.
The ease Reading scored two goals when they were dead and buried clearly raises question marks on an otherwise excellent performance, but Arsenal put the gloss back into the scoreline 10 minutes from time when the masterful Cazorla ran away with the ball from two Reading players in the blink of an eye and played a reverse ball to Walcott in the box. The contract rebel took a touch inside and drilled a left-footed shot past Federici.
After the painful results of the past few weeks, this was a reassuring display from Arsenal, especially attacking wise. Finally, the midfield and attack moved with cohesion and fluidity. Yet, Reading’s abject defensive display also helped. It is too early to judge whether Walcott can play the central striker role effectively before seeing him against much better defenses that will test his ability to hold the ball under physical pressure, but his performance on the day was promising. I am extremely suspicious about Walcott’s ability to play that role as I do not believe he has the necessary tenacity to lead the line, but he might prove me wrong. Time will tell.