Arsenal:1 Bayern Munich:3 Champions League First Leg Match Report

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Goals: Kroos (6), Muller (21), Podolski (55), Mandzukic (77)

Arsenal Line-Up (4-3-3). Szczesny (GK), Sagna (RB), Koscielny (CB), Mertesacker (CB), Vermaalen (LB), Wilshere (CM) Arteta (CM), Ramsey (CM), Podolski (LF), Cazorla(RF), Walcott (CF).

Arsenal were brushed aside by an assured and remarkably purposeful Bayern Munich side in the first leg.

Arsenal’s Schoolboy Defending

Arsenal did look promising in the first 5 minutes of the game, yet just like the Chelsea and Manchester City defeats, their defensive soft belly made sure that the Germans took a two goal lead after the first 20 minutes. The first goal came as early as the 6th minute, when Arsenal lost the ball trying to play from the back. Koscielny’s aimless clearance under pressure from Kroos towards the center of the pitch was cut off by Van Buyten. Quite needlessly, Vermaalen pushed forward to win it back, and opened up Arsenal’s left. Vermaalen, of course, could not win the ball back, and Bayern quickly worked the ball to Muller on the far right. While Vermaalen was running back, and Arteta being too late to stop the cross, Muller’s ball found Kroos on the top edge of the box, despite Ramsey sticking a half-hearted leg. The young German midfielder fired on the half volley past Sczesny.

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With Arsene Wenger’s ingenuous selection of Walcott as the central striker, the link between Arsenal’s midfield and attack was easily cut-off with Bayern collectively working hard off the ball and closing any gaps before Arsenal could even sniff them. The team leading Bundesliga by 15 points showed exactly why it is so difficult to have a shot on target, let alone score, against them.  They are indeed a solid, purposeful and highly intelligent outfit, but Arsenal lacking any tactical purpose and game plan also did make it very easy for the visitors. Shortly after the 20th minute mark, when Lahm’s dangerous ball into the 6 yard box was intercepted for a corner by Vermaalen, Kroos’s corner to the near post was headed from point blank range by Van Buyten with Arsenal players mere spectators. Szczesny was able to parry the ball, but no Arsenal player bothered to clear the ball from the 6 yard box. Muller did not decline the invitation and directed the ball to the roof of the net.

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Walcott as the CF against Bayern Munich

I have written so many times (see here and here) on why Walcott is the wrong choice as a center forward, when Arsenal play against opponents who press hard high up the pitch effectively, and especially if the opposition have an excellent central midfield pairing guarding the area in front of their back four. I am sure Wenger must have observed that even against Southampton, playing Walcott as CF stretches the midfield and makes it easier for the opposition to press high up and isolate Arsenal’s attack and midfield. Against Bayern, Arsenal were not able to create a single chance in the first half. Javi Martinez and Schweinsteiger provided a solid base in front of their back four, allowing the forward quartet Kroos, Mandzukic, Riberry and Muller to press Arsenal’s ball circulation from deeper areas.  With Arteta and Ramsey strangled, Wilshere was not able to receive the ball in forward areas to display his trademark bursts. Arsenal were forced wide and had to cross into a box with Walcott as the target man or they were forced to play it long to Walcott who was smashed by the two big Bayern centerbacks. It was spectacular that Wenger waited until the 71st minute to send Giroud as the target man, and switch Walcott wide right, and this move almost immediately paid off. At that time, Arsenal had found a goal when Neuer made a mess out of a corner and Podolski headed home into the empty net. Arsenal had increased the tempo of their pressing and for almost 10 minutes, Bayern looked rattled. Yet, valuable momentum was lost when Wenger delayed sending Giroud until 71st. Immediately after the change, Rosicky (another substitute for Ramsey) found Walcott with a glorious ball. The winger’s cross was met by Giroud on the half volley but it was straight at Neuer who made the save without knowing too much about it.

As Arsenal pushed for an equalizer, they left big gaps behind and were duly punished when Robben found Lahm on the overlap on Arsenal’s left. Lahm had all the time in the world to look up, pick his spot for the low cross and learn English. Mertesacker was ball watching and could not cut the cross, and Mandzukic bundled it home with a lucky touch to finish the tie as a serious contest.

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Vermaalen

Arsenal’s defensive problems are systematic and cannot be assigned to one or two individuals, but Vermaalen stood out as a serial offender against Bayern. The Belgian captain was playing out of position at the left back, since Gibbs is injured and Monreal is cup tied. Yet, his tendency to rush into tackles so far away from his zone of responsibility opened up Arsenal’s left time and time again. It is no coincidence that the first and third Bayern goals came from Vermaalen’s side. It is easier to distract Vermaalen and move him out of position than a kitten. When he sees the ball 15-20 yards in front of him, he rushes there to win it back and completely messes up the defensive shape and organization. Today, he was attracted even to Schweinsteiger in the center of the midfield, and more than often Koscielny had to cover for the vast spaces Vermaalen left open. One could understand a marauding left back leaving gaps behind, but Vermaalen is no attacking threat on the ball, and he was leaving those gaps for no reason other than his lack of any positional discipline.

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What now?

Now the team should put this past week behind, ignore the shitstorm the press will try to send their way and really really concentrate on the remaining 12 games in the league.  Arsenal did not have much of a chance in the Champions League anyway given the lack of squad depth and quality gap between the best of Europe. For me, FA Cup was just a distraction to win something (anything), but I would rather Arsenal finish in the top 4 ahead of Spurs instead of winning the FA Cup if it is one or the other. Now Arsenal’s back is really against the wall.

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Arsenal:2 Montpellier:0 Match Report

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 Line-Up

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

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.

Conclusion

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).

Schalke:2 Arsenal:2 Match Report

Goals: Walcott (18), Giroud (26), Huntelaar (45+2), Farfan (67)

Arsenal surrendered a two goal lead at Veltins Arena, but managed to hold on to a useful point in the Champions League.

Arsenal Line-Up

Arsenal had a 4-2-3-1 formation. Vito Mannone started at the goal. Vermaalen was shifted to left back instead of the accident-waiting-to-happen Andre Santos. Koscielny was paired with Mertesacker at the center of the defence. Bacary Sagna started at right back. In central midfield, Jack Wilshere was paired with Mikel Arteta. Podolski was on the left, and Walcott was on the right. Cazorla was behind Giroud who started as the central striker.

The Game

Schalke started the game with menace and found early chances.  A good Schalke counterattack that developed from their left was quickly switched to the right flank by Holtby, but Fuch’s shot was deflected for a corner.  Minutes later, when Podolski lost the ball, Schalke released Afellay on the left. The Dutch winger took the direct route to the goal and his shot was well saved by Mannone at the near post.

In the first 15 minutes, Arsenal found it difficult to retain possession in Schalke’s half. When they took the lead, it was against the run of play. Mertesacker’s aimless clearance was headed by Neustadter towards his own goal, and Giroud found himself facing only Unnerstall to beat. Before the Frenchman could pull the trigger, he was tackled by Howedes, but Walcott scooped the ball over Howedes and the goalie and found the empty net.

The visitors gained more confidence with the goal, and started passing the ball more crisply in the Schalke half. They were also fortunate to see Schalke’s marauding right back Uchida getting injured and replaced by Hoger.  A minute after this substitution, Arsenal extended their lead. Cazorla’s brilliant angled ball found Wilshere on the right channel. The midfielder cut inside to his favorite left foot and tried to play Giroud in. As the move looked intercepted, the French striker was able to take a touch towards Podolski on the left. The German was under the close attention of Hoger, yet he managed to send in a delicious cross into the 6-yard box which was met by Giroud’s diving header. Arsenal were 2-0 up after their tentative start.

After taking a two goal lead, Arsenal started sitting deeper and invited the Schalke pressure which duly arrived. The home team did not allow Arsenal to slow the tempo and continued to attack with width on both flanks. Five minutes before the half time whistle, Farfan skinned Vermaalen on the right and scooted towards the goal, yet his shot missed the the target by a small margin. It looked essential for Arsenal not to concede before half-time, but Schalke’s pressure paid off in the second minute of extra time. Arteta intercepted a ball in front of the box and played it to Cazorla. Facing his own goal and surrounded by 3 Schalke players in the middle of Arsenal’s half, the Spaniard slipped and lost possession. The speed that Schalke worked this ball was impressive. The ball was immediately played to the edge of the box to Holtby who flicked it towards Huntelaar with a single touch. The Dutch striker’s left footed finish found the net at the far post.

The aggressive start Schalke had to the second half signaled that Arsenal would have a very hard time holding on to their narrow lead.  Schalke attacked in waves, and Arsenal had to option but to sit deeper except an early sortie into the opposition half when Podolski’s deep cross was volleyed wide by Giroud.  Arsenal tried to absorb the growing pressure, yet Schalke’s width on both flanks allowed the home team to stretch Arsenal. Their constant and purposeful movement created space despite Arsenal defending with every player except Giroud behind the ball.  First, Huntelaar was slipped behind Arsenal’s defence and Mannone prevented a certain equalizer. Minutes later, when Arsenal failed to clear a ball inside the box after a corner, Mertesacker’s block raised appeals for a hand-ball. Holtby was set up for a shot outside the box after another good move, but Mannone managed to parry away his difficult shot.

The goal that the home side scented arrived shortly after the 65th minute, when Afellay sneaked behind Sagna and sent in a deep cross from the left. The excellent Holtby’s header flicked the ball to the unguarded space on Arsenal’s left as Vermaalen had come inside to meet the cross. Farfan controlled the ball completely unmarked, and his low shot was deflected in byVermaalen, although probably it was already going in.

In the remaining 20 minutes, the home side’s pressure considerably eased, Arsenal started to push forward, yet both sides looked happy with a draw. Probably, Schalke was tired after the effort they showed to close the two-goal deficit, and Arsenal did not want to concede another goal by opening up too much. What was somewhat disappointing on the night was Santi Cazorla’s performance as the Spaniard looked quite tired and was not able to orchestrate a quick counterattack to finish off the hosts during the period when they were pushing forward for an equalizer. In the very last minute of the game, Walcott found himself facing only the Schalke goalie to beat after a flick through the center, yet his weak attempt was denied by Unnerstall.

Conclusion

After a string of extremely disappointing performances in recent weeks, this was better from Arsenal, despite the fact that they surrendered a two-goal lead. Arsenal still have a very good chance of reaching the knock-out stages, and given the low confidence level they had coming to this game, this useful point is something that they can hopefully build on.

Arsenal:0 Schalke:2 Match Report

Goals: Huntelaar (76), Afellay (85)

Arsenal lost for the first time at home against continental opposition in the Champions League since 2003 after a toothless, subdued and disjointed performance.

Arsenal Line-Up

Arsenal lined up with a 4-2-3-1 formation. Vito Mannone again started at the goal. Vermaalen was paired with Mertesacker at the center of the defence. Carl Jenkinson started at right back, and Andre Santos continued to replace the injured Kieran Gibbs (at least in name) at left back. In central midfield, Mikel Arteta was paired with Coquelin. Podolski was on the left, and Ramsey was on the right. Cazorla was behind Gervinho who started as the central striker.

The Game

Arsenal started the game with more aggression in the midfield and dominated possession in the very early exchanges. As we have seen against Manchester City, Aaron Ramsey coming narrow from wide right position and joining Arteta and Coquelin gave Arsenal a numerical advantage in the center of the pitch. Around the 10th minute mark, Arsenal created the first chance of the game when Podolski’s low cross from the left was missed by Gervinho at the near post. The visitors, however, soon adjusted their shape with Holtby dropping back on Arteta and helping Hoger and Neustadder to prevent their center from being overrun. Schalke got their attacking game going after the first 10 minutes.  When Arteta lost possession, Farfan’s through ball was chased by Afellay who got to the ball before Mannone and fell over the Italian’s challenge. It could have been a penalty, yet the Swedish referee showed a yellow card to the Dutch winger for simulation.

The crucial and recurring theme of the game was Schalke exploiting time and time again the space on Arsenal’s left hand side, with Farfan and Uchida taking turns to torture Andre Santos. It is safe to say that the only thing Farfan and Uchida did not do on Arsenal’s left flank over the 90 minutes was to grow marijuana and sell it to the frustrated crowd who would appreciate a good joint given the visible toothlessness of the home team. Schalke directed almost all their attacking effort towards the space left exposed by Andre Santos’ forward forays. Santos is a technically gifted player, yet unlike Gibbs, he clearly lacks the athleticism and pace required from a marauding left back. What made the problem worse against Schalke was that due to Podolski’s narrowness and reluctance to track back on that flank, the Japanese right back Atsuto Uchida also found space to bomb forward and overlapped Farfan. In one of many such attacks, Uchida’s cutback to Farfan put the Peruvian winger in a shooting position in the box, yet Mertesacker’s brilliant block prevented an almost certain goal.

During the first half, the midfield battle looked to be heading for a draw, as the two sides matched each other. What was worrying for Arsenal, though, was their absolute inability to create any clear cut chances. The overall look of Arsenal in attack was a frustrating combination of players playing out of position with Ramsey providing no width on wide right (as he is not a winger), Gervinho making runs to the flanks but looking too lightweight to play the centerforward position and Coquelin being a solid tackler and neat passer in the holding role but not being able to provide much penetration and forward drive from midfield (and hence basically duplicating Arteta’s role).  As the first half drew to a close, Uchida again popped up on the right unattended, yet his ball into the box was blasted wide by Huntelaar when he should have scored.

In the second half, Arsenal continued to look ineffective in attack, and Schalke slowly gained the upper hand in the midfield battle as well.  Early in the half, Farfan again skinned Santos on Arsenal’s left and his cutback found Howedes unmarked in the box, yet the defender smashed the ball over the bar. In the 69th minute, Gervinho summarized what was wrong with Arsenal’s attack as he found space on the left, yet his cross into the box found no Arsenal player despite Ramsey’s best efforts to get there from the opposing flank: False 9s, false right wingers, false (or rather inadequate) left backs were the order of the day for Arsenal.

As Arsenal looked increasingly toothless in attack, it was curious that Steve Bould (note: Wenger was serving the last game of his touchline ban) waited until the 75th minute to send in Giroud, taking off Gervinho, in an attempt to win the game. Yet, when Schalke scored almost immediately after Giroud’s introduction, it surprised nobody as they were well on top in the second half. Uchida’s cross from Schalke’s right was deflected towards the middle of the pitch, but two Schalke players won two headers in a row to put the ball back in the danger zone near Huntelaar. The Dutch striker would have been offside if Andre Santos was not asleep a good two yards behind Mertesacker and Vermaalen, and Huntelaar’s finish was hard and low.

To salvage a point, Steve Bould took off Jenkinson and Podolski and sent in Gnabry and Arshavin. As Arsenal pushed forward desperately for an equalizer, they got  further exposed in the back and Schalke secured all three points in the 85th minute. A flowing Schalke counterattack released Farfan on the right again with Andre Santos nowhere to be seen. The Peruvian’s low cross to the back post was swept in by Afellay as Jenkinson who kept Afellay quite all game long was taken off minutes earlier. In the dying minutes, Arsenal did register their first shot on goal though when Gnabry’s curling effort was saved by the otherwise unemployed Unsteller.

Conclusion

Schalke completely deserved their win given their excellent display. What was surprising was that they did not take the lead until the last 15 minutes. Just like against Norwich on Saturday, Arsenal looked subdued, lacking ideas and any execution ability in attack.  They also looked criminally exposed on their left.  Andre Santos had a total nightmare all game long, yet the defeat was clearly far from his fault alone. It was inexplicable that Steve Bould did not attempt to find a solution to the apparent danger on Arsenal’s left as Schalke targeted this space from the 15th minute on. QPR on Saturday already looks like a very difficult game, and they don’t even have a single win in 8 league games.

Arsenal:3 Olympiakos:1 Match Report

Goals: Gervinho (42),  Mitroglou (45), Podolski (56), Ramsey (90+4)

Arsenal continued with their winning start in the Champions League group stage, despite looking unconvincing against a resilient Olympiakos side.

Arsenal Line-Up

Arsenal lined up with a 4-2-3-1 formation. Vito Mannone started at the goal. Vermaalen was paired with Laurent Koscielny at the center of the defence. Carl Jenkinson started at right back, and Kieran Gibbs was at left back. In central midfield, Mikel Arteta was paired with Francis Coquelin as Diaby was injured. Cazorla occupied the advanced midfield position. Oxlade-Chamberlain was on the right and  Podolski was on the left side of attack. Gervinho played as the central striker.

The Game

In the early stages, Olympiakos quickly settled into a disciplined defensive shape, and Arsenal found it quite difficult to pose any threat going forward. In Arsenal’s midfield, while Arteta did his anchoring job with the usual excellence, Coquelin was not able to perform the required penetrating role effectively. The slow ball circulation in Arsenal’s center forced Cazorla to drop deeper to facilitate the moves forward, which allowed the Greek side to easily tighten up the area in front of their box. The visitors’ confidence in their narrow shape increased throughout the first half. This narrow shape invited the two Arsenal full backs Gibbs and Jenkinson to push forward, but time and time again the crosses they delivered into the box yearned for a real target man, who Gervinho was not. Past the half hour mark, Arsenal had not carved out any real chances except Cazorla’s free-kick from the right edge of the box, which was tipped over by Megyeri. Despite their defensive focus, it was Olympiakos who created the best chance of the first half after a neat move on their right. Maniatis’ inviting cross was incredibly missed in the six yard box by Machado.

Arsenal were desperately looking out of ideas, but they took the lead three minutes from half time. Cazorla linked up with Podolski on the left, and the German’s low cross found Arteta at the edge of the penalty box. A defensive challenge put the loose ball in front of Gervinho who fired a rather tame shot. Megyeri should have done better as the ball went into the net under his late dive.

As if to prove that they did not deserve to take the lead, Arsenal continued to look sluggish as Vermaalen gave the ball away in front of his box under no pressure, but Olympiakos could not capitalize. They did, however, equalize in the extra time of the first half, when Kostas Mitroglou got in between Koscielny and Vermaalen to glance a great header inside the far post after Jenkinson allowed Greco to send in a measured cross from Arsenal’s right.

Arsenal started the second half with more dynamism. First, Gervinho’s cutback from the left was missed by Cazorla. Soon after, Gervinho again found space on the left. His initial cross was blocked, but when the ball came back to the Ivorian, his neat cutback was picked up by Podolski in the box who smashed the ball under Megyeri with a fierce shot on the turn.

Arsenal were in control after taking the lead, as Olympiakos started pressing higher up the pitch and gave up their vigilant and compact shape.  The home side also looked more composed defensively in this second half, restricting Olympiakos to mainly shots from distance, and found a string of chances to extend their lead themselves. First, Koscielny could not direct his header into the net inside the six yard box after Arteta’s wonderful delivery from a set piece. The late substitute Giroud, who looked very lively during his 10 minutes in the game, got at the end of a cross by Walcott (another energetic substitute), but the Frenchman’s attempt was well saved by Megyeri.  Moments later, Ramsey (also a late substitute) combined brilliantly with Cazorla on the left,  but Giroud’s one time shot from the Spaniard’s cutback was blocked by Siovas on its way into the net.  In the dying minutes of the game, Giroud’s headed flick was collected by Ramsey, who burst into the box and dinked the ball past Megyeri to add some gloss to the scoreline.

Conclusion

In the first half, Arsenal lacked ideas in attack and looked fragile and uncertain at the back. Yet, they were able to raise their tempo in the second half to get the job done.  The Vermaalen-Koscielny partnership again looked unconvincing, especially because of Vermaalen’s lack of positional discipline.  The Belgian’s attacking urge sometimes borders on pure madness. Coquelin and Arteta pairing did not seem to work well in the first half either, mainly due to the French midfielder’s reluctance to push forward with the ball, which slowed down Arsenal’s tempo. The second half was much better, especially because Olympiakos started taking risks after Podolski’s early goal, and Cazorla started influencing the game with more ease. Overall, it was a pleasing result, yet worrying signs at the defense continued to emerge.

Montpellier:1 Arsenal:2 Match Report

Arsenal managed to hold on to a first half lead in the opening game of their Champions League campaign in Southern France despite coming under immense pressure in the second half.

Arsenal Line-Up

Vito Mannone started at the goal due to Szczesny’s injury. The defense was the same as the one against Southampton: Carl Jenkinson at right back, Per Mertesacker and Thomas Vermaalen as the two centerbacks and Kieran Gibbs at left back. In central midfield, Mikel Arteta was paired with Abou Diaby and Santi Cazorla occupied the most advanced midfield position. The front three had Gervinho on the right, Podolski on the left and Giroud as the central striker against his former team.

Steve Bould was in charge of the team as Arsene Wenger served the first game of his 3-game touchline ban by the UEFA.

The Game

Montpellier had a nervous start to their first ever Champions League game, but they were ahead after only 10 minutes. Belhanda chased a hopeful through ball inside the right channel under Vermaalen’s close attention. Montpellier’s playmaker was running away from the goal, yet Arsenal’s captain made a needless challenge to get the ball and clipped Belhanda, who made the most of it. The Spanish referee gave the penalty after some hesitation, and Belhanda coolly chipped Mannone from the spot.

Despite falling behind for the first time this season, Arsenal settled down into a passing rhythm quickly and soon equalized with a sumptuous move through the center. Abou Diaby started the move and linked with Cazorla in between the Montpellier lines. As usual, Cazorla took one delicious touch, raised his eyebrow and found Giroud making an angled run towards the box. Giroud’s one time touch released Podolski, who slotted it home from 10 yards for his third goal in the last three starts. Two minutes later, Arsenal gained the lead this time with a move from their right. Gervinho had a run with the ball through a cluster of Montpellier players on the wide right position, cut inside and found Giroud who released the overlapping Jenkinson. The young right-back’s one time cross was clinical and Gervinho, who had continued his run into the box after starting the move, finished from point blank range.

During the rest of the second half, the two teams failed to create many clear-cut chances.  Arsenal looked comfortable in the center of the pitch and did not come under any sustained pressure. Montpellier threatened usually from their right with the lively and skilful Cabella causing Gibbs problems by cutting inside with his left foot.  In one such move, Mannone had to be alert to parry away Cabella’s shot from outside the box for a corner.  It was Arsenal that finished the half on stronger foot.  Gervinho drove inside from the left and set himself up for a shot on goal, but his attempt was blocked. Few minutes later, Cazorla released Gibbs on the left whose early cross was volleyed wide by Giroud.  Just before the half time whistle, Diaby’s over the top ball was kept alive by Giroud who found Podolski in the box, but he was crowded out before pulling the trigger.

We may never know what the Montpellier coach Rene Girard told his players during the half time talk, but the last year’s Ligue 1 champions started the second half with the determination of a father who is trying to save his kidnapped daughter from sex traffickers.  The French onslaught quickly turned into a siege. Arsenal were denied any long possession of the ball with a relentless press. Montpellier attacked in waves with their passing crisp, slick and to the feet and with Mounier’s and Cabella’s trickery especially eye-catching on the two flanks. When Arsenal tried to break with Cazorla, Podolski and Gervinho, they were quickly mowed down by the buzzing men from Languedoc-Roussillon in navy-blue and orange jerseys.  Every lost ball was quickly turned into a Montpellier attack with Diaby and Arteta having immense difficulty in guarding the Arsenal back four. Early in the second half, Diaby lost the ball to Cabella in the Arsenal box after inexplicably holding onto the ball too long, but the young Corsican midfielder’s wild shot missed the target. In another dangerous Montpellier attack, Cabella’s delicate chip from outside the box bounced off the crossbar.

As the half wore on, Arsenal’s hold on their lead looked increasingly unconvincing, especially Cazorla, Gervinho and Podolski looking knackered.  Diaby also looked off-the-pace defensively and lazy in the tackle, perhaps due to his early yellow card. In the last 15 minutes, Steve Bould sent in Ramsey taking off Giroud in an attempt to ease the home side’s suffocating pressure in midfield. A likely French equalizer looked almost certain 10 minutes from time when Belhanda controlled a ball in the box, turned away from Mertesacker’s desperate dive and looked up to shoot from 8 yards. With many Arsenal fans closing their eyes at that moment, the Moroccan international blasted the ball straight at Mannone.

In the dying minutes of the match,  Montpellier continued to look on top, yet their threat somewhat softened up and Arsenal hung on to their lead.

Conclusion

Arsenal relied on their experience and luck in the second half and came out unscathed from Montpellier’s impressive onslaught. It was curious that Steve Bould delayed his substitutions, despite seeing Arsenal midfield being overrun in whole of the second half.  But in the end, it was a useful victory away from home and that’s the most important thing. Arsenal’s defensive qualities will face another and perhaps more demanding test on Sunday at the Etihad Stadium.