Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Fluid Gunners provide ode to consistency
Miguel Delaney, Emirates Stadium
For Arsenal, for once, there were no qualifications or caveats to this performance other than the one that mattered most: they've reached the last 16 of the Champions League for the 13th consecutive season.
Just as impressively, they did so with what was probably their smoothest display of the campaign so far: a clean-sheet, a convincing win, two fine goals, increased understanding and cohesion between their frontmen and some heartening moments from some core players. For a club that has suffered a lot of anxiety over the past two months, this win over Montpellier offered a lot of comfort.
And there is that hugely respectable Champions League record. "I'm very proud of it," Arsene Wenger said afterwards. "It's not the most glamorous thing but it is the most difficult to be consistent at that level. If you look over Europe, it's not that easy. Not many teams do it."
Not that Wenger will stop there either. The Arsenal manager confirmed that he would play his full team in the final game against Olympiakos in order to try to overtake Schalke in first.
"We play to finish top of the group," he added. "If you look at some of the groups, like Dortmund and Real Madrid, you don't know whether it's better to finish first or second. But, statistically, it's better to finish first."
As convincing as the performance was by the end though, it did take Arsenal a while to get out of first gear. In fact, the opening period saw some odd passages in which the home side dominated but never looked like scoring, while Montpellier broke well but also did not threaten. There was an odd sense of complacency despite the fact, at that point, the group was very tight.
"We didn't find our way in the first half," Wenger said. "I was worried we would be caught on the counter-attack... we had problems in the transition going from defence to attack. In the second half we were better. We were quicker and made more incisive runs, scoring two good goals."
And how. Both strikes involved very different, but equally dynamic, flowing moves.
The most notable thing about the first other than Thomas Vermaelen's fine full-back surge, though, was the identity of the scorer: Jack Wilshere got his first goal in almost exactly two years. Afterwards, his face was almost as bright as his lofted finish.
"I was pleased with that one," Wenger said. "After such a long time out, it's great to see. He had a difficult start in the game today but, after that, he got stronger and stronger. I don't worry too much about his confidence because that is one of his qualities. I believe he is the kind of player that has to be the complete midfielder, not just offensive. I was pleased with his performance. The goals will come naturally."
The second goal was only just short of supernatural. Whereas many players would have struggled to keep such a volley down, Lukas Podolski struck it magnificently into the roof of the net.
While the identity of the first scorer and excellence of the second will dominate much of the attention, perhaps the most important aspect of all was the manner in which they were manufactured.
For the first, Olivier Giroud headed down expertly. For the second, the French striker clipped the ball over divinely in the manner of Eric Cantona or even Dennis Bergkamp. After five goals in five previous games, it was evidence of a striker starting to find form and confidence.
Interestingly, despite such a magnificent show of technique, Wenger said it was "technically, not one of his best games". It sounded a touch harsh.
"With Olivier we know you get a guy that fights for the team," Wenger added. "But, after the game, you measure his performance, he has two assists.
"Giroud is good when he plays completely on the offside line. Sometimes, when he doesn't get the ball enough he wants to come deep and that is not so much his game. When he is a target man, he is fantastic. He is the complete striker. He has work to do but he is getting better."
Giroud certainly showed that, maybe, there might be life after Robin van Persie. Intriguingly, Wenger acknowledged the forward may have felt some pressure at the start:
"Who wouldn't?! Life is great for that though. You can only make your life with your qualities. He has different qualities [to Van Persie] and he must use them."
His old boss, Rene Girard, felt Giroud had certainly done that. "He didn't score a goal but he was someone who is very much in the game physically," said the Montpellier manager. "He played a very good game. This is the sort of player we know. He's very good in the air, always hassling the defence. Whenever he gets the ball we knew there was danger."
After a difficult first few games, Giroud has grown in confidence. For Arsenal, though, that was also the story of the night. Not all of the team's problems are solved by any means. But, at the least, they can start to tackle them with a little less anxiety.
There may be no trophy for it, but one of the season's key objectives has at least been met.