Goal: Walcott (1),
Arsenal Line-Up (4-3-3). Szczesny (GK), Sagna (RB), Koscielny (CB), Mertesacker (CB), Monreal (LB), Ramsey (CM) Arteta (CM), Rosicky (CM), Walcott (RF), Cazorla (LF), Podolski (CF).
Walcott’s goal inside the first 30 seconds of the game was enough for Arsenal to grind out another victory against an already relegated QPR side.
This was perhaps the most boring Arsenal game of the season. Arsenal failed to build up to a great start and played with the handbrakes on for 89 minutes. Their cautious approach was perhaps natural. With Spurs winning earlier yet again with a Bale wonder goal, the Gunners were fully aware that there was no room for error. This awareness reflected itself in the defensively solid yet overall uninspiring performance. But at this stage of the season, the team should be solely concerned with taking all the three points, and nothing else, and that’s what they are doing.
It feels strange to many of us that the current Arsenal team is able to hang on to a narrow lead and excel in a defensive team effort. Creative players like Rosicky and Cazorla start defending high up the pitch allowing the deeper central midfielders Arteta and Ramsey and the two full backs the time to get into a good defensive shape.
Clearly playing against a meek QPR side helps, but it is impossible not to sense the new-found interest in Arsenal for keeping clean sheets. Since losing to Spurs 8 games ago with incredible defensive errors, Arsenal conceded 4 goals in 8 games. Two of those were penalties (against Manchester United and WBA), one of them came from a poorly defended set piece against Norwich, and the other one was scored by Reading from open play when the scoreline was already 3-0 for Arsenal. Koscielny and Mertesacker have formed a good understanding and do not sell each other short, and Arteta anchoring so well in front of them allows Ramsey to help the high press. Defensively, Arsenal did not look better than this for so many seasons. Against QPR, one problematic issue was the youngster Townsend’s direct running at Monreal through QPR’s right flank that created some problems, but other than this, Arsenal were able to cope with relative ease. Szczesny was called into action 7 minutes from time when Loic Remy curled a shot towards the bottom left corner, but the Pole made a great save.
Of course, this defensive solidity comes at the cost of a much toothless display in attack. I believe, the defensive solidity is a response to the reduced attacking firepower upfront. This is not an Arsenal team whose philosophy and belief is to try and score one more goal than the opposition. The Arsene Wenger teams of the last few seasons, especially the team in 2007-2008 attacked with an insane hunger and their inability not to win anything was due to their tactical negligence at the back. What we have this season is a team that is much more self-conscious about its attacking inadequacies and one that has adjusted its game accordingly. Even Jack Wilshere sitting on the bench and the more street wise, tactically mature and defensively responsible Rosicky starting ahead of him is an indication of this adjustment. Arsenal know that especially now with Giroud suspended and a half-fit and immobile Podolski leading the line, they cannot rip teams apart.
The upcoming fixture against Wigan will be a big test as Wigan manager Roberto Martinez uses very flexible and hybrid formations. I will talk about how Arsenal’s current defensive discipline might actually allow the Gunners a straightforward win against Wigan in my preview over the weekend. The idea is to replicate the off the ball performances against Swansea and Bayern Munich. More on this in the Wigan preview.