Goals: Gervinho (11), Cazorla (48), Giroud (67), Robson-Kanu (68), Arteta (77, pen)
Arsenal Line-Up (4-3-3). Fabianski (GK), Sagna (RB), Koscielny (CB), Mertesacker (CB), Monreal (LB), Ramsey (CM) Arteta (CM), Rosicky (CM), Gervinho (RF), Cazorla (LF), Giroud (CF).
Arsenal battered Reading in a one-sided affair at the Emirates.
Reading Line-Up and Pogrebynak Leading the Line
Let me start with a little bit of gloating. In my weekly tactical preview for the Arsenal blog 7amkickoff, I had argued that one key dilemma for the newly appointed Reading manager Nigel Adkins was the choice between a 5-man midfield to match Arsenal in the center of the pitch or alternatively starting with a 2-striker system which would fit Reading’s wing play better and pose a more serious attacking threat to Arsenal. I had also emphasized that the lumbering Russian striker Pogrebynak would be the wrong choice to play the lone striker role if Reading were to line-up with a 4-5-1, as Arsenal back four would be pushing up, squeezing the space, rendering the extremely slow Russian all but useless in a 4-5-1. Accordingly, I predicted that given his attacking reputation, Adkins would line-up with a more daring 4-4-2.
Adkins, however, did start with a 4-5-1, with Pogrebnyak leading the line as the lone striker. As also mentioned in the preview, he sticked Guthrie as an additional central midfielder (along with Karacan and Leigertwood) to match Arsenal’s dominance in the center of the pitch. Here is Pogrebnyak’s attacking chalkboard which says it all. The big Russian, who possesses a speed of less than 5mph, was substituted in the 60th minute, but the damage was already done.
Reading Leave Arteta Alone and He Directs from the Deep
A straightforward way to disrupt Arsenal’s fluidity of passing and movement is to press hard their deep source of ball circulation, also known as Arteta. Despite having three central midfielders, Reading rarely pressed the triangle between the two Arsenal centerbacks and Arteta. In the rare occasions they tried, Ramsey was alert to drop deep to help Arteta in the build-up. As a result, Arteta was able to direct Arsenal’s game given the constant movement in front of him. The chalkboard below illustrates how comfortable he was in orchestrating Arsenal attacks from deeper areas and linking up with Cazorla and Ramsey’s scheming action in front of him. Arteta completed 99 of his attempted 107 passes, with 38 out of 40 in the attacking third. It was a cake walk for him, which illustrated that matching Arsenal with 3 central midfielders is futile unless these central midfielders do press Arteta to disrupt the build-up. Instead, Reading’s central midfield trio dropped too deep and allowed Arsenal to settle down to a passing rhytm. Another problem with sitting too deep was that with an outlet like Pogrenbyak who cannot run behind defenders, Arsenal were able to win the ball back easily in Reading’s half.
Cazorla Again Wasted (!) on The Left Wing
One “not so uncommon” point of view among some Arsenal fans is that lining up with Cazorla on the wing wastes the talents of the most creative Arsenal player. “Cazorla is not a winger”, the argument goes and thus “should always start in the central #10 position behind the striker to do what he does.”
The crucial point missing in this argument is that the line-up is not the same thing as the tactic. In particular, lining up with Cazorla on the wide left position does not mean that Cazorla will stay wide on the left all game long to work up and down the wing, and keep away from areas where he is the most dangerous. A quick look at Cazorla’s attacking action in the last two home games against Aston Villa and Reading clearly illustrates this point. In both of those games, Cazorla started at the wide left position, but he played nothing like a wide player. As can be seen in the chalkboards below, Cazorla (just like David Silva does for Manchester City) does drop centrally from the wide left position and roams all around the attacking third to create.
Placing Cazorla on wide left means that he will use that position as a launching pad to move inside to central areas and even onto the opposite right flank. I argued in this piece a long time ago that Cazorla is hardest to contain and mark out of the game when he starts his inside moves from the flanks, just like he did when he played for Villareal and Malaga. Placing Cazorla wide clearly requires some tactical discipline from the whole team. When he goes inside, Arsenal left back stays wide and high up the pitch, which leaves the team exposed to counterattacks from their left (just like what happened in the Villa home game), unless one of the central midfielders cover that area. Today against Reading, Ramsey did this covering job brilliantly and Arsenal were not caught on the break.
Against Reading, Cazorla was again at his creative best. He effortlessly combined with Rosicky to poke holes in Reading’s midfield cover. It should also be noted that Arsenal’s pressing high up the pitch is most effective when Rosicky is in the central advanced midfield role, and Cazorla starts on the wide left. Arsenal’s pressing caused Reading centerbacks and the deepest central midfielder Leigertwood misplace pass after pass especially in the first half. Arsenal did not make Reading pay a higher price in the first half, which is another matter, but the early urgency and seriousness of attitude displayed here was encouraging.
The Predictable Unpredictability of Gervinho
After his encouraging substitute displays against Swansea and Bayern Munich, and with Walcott sidelined with a minor injury, it was no surprise that Gervinho started on the right wing today. The Ivorian is indeed a weird footballer whose most frequent action is to put himself in a promising attacking position through a brilliant run or dribble only to deliver a remarkably frustrating end product. Yet, today against Reading, he had one of his most effective displays. He did frustrate frequently especially with his attempts to head two brilliant Sagna crosses in the second half, but he finished the game with two assists and a goal.
Gervinho opened the scoring early in the game after a move he started on wide right found Cazorla on the left edge of the box. The Spaniard master fired a low diagonal shot/cross across the face of goal for Gervinho to tap in. Arsenal should have put the game in bed in the first half yet their incessant pressure only produced a second goal early in the second half when Cazorla sweetly curled Gervinho’s cutback to the bottom corner. The Ivorian was in action again after a Reading attack broke down on Arsenal’s right following a corner and the counterattack quickly released Gervinho on the right. Instead of driving to the byline to produce nothing, the winger brilliantly waited for Giroud’s run and played the ball to the French striker for the ex-Montpeliere hitman to fire low and hard to the bottom corner. Reading did reduce the deficit a minute later when left winger McAnuff’s delightful cross to the far post was turned in by Robson-Kanu with Monreal getting injured by crashing to the post while trying to stop the finish.
In the last 15 minutes, Wenger took off Monreal and Gibbs replaced the injured left back. Podolski was introduced in the central striker role with Giroud off, and Gervinho taken off with a standing ovation for Oxlade-Chamberlain. The youngster made an immediate impact after intercepting a misplaced Mariappa pass, bursting into the area only to be brought down by Mariappa. Arteta did not make a mistake from the penalty spot. In the last 10 minutes with the game effectively won, Arsenal looked for a 5th, but given their tendency to score the perfect goal, they failed to add to the scoreline. A mesmerizing move on Arsenal’s right saw Cazorla chipping the ball to Rosicky, but the Czech tried to lay it off for Podolski instead of finishing the move himself.
In the end, it was all to easy for Arsenal thanks to their earlier ultra-serious attitude. For me, tactically the real man of the match was Ramsey. He dropped back to help Arteta when needed and covered for Santi cutting inside left, two key functions allowing Arsenal to operate like a well oiled machine.