Everything is big in football these days. When things are going badly, teams are invariably more than just in trouble; they’re in a “crisis. It’s the position where Arsenal are perpetually at and listening to the commentary before, during and after the game read like a funeral concession. Except that it wasn’t that bad – it was good actually – as Arsenal overcame a nervous period after taking a two-goal lead and in the end, the result was more comfortable than the obituaries in the morning papers read.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s assured début was a brief distraction from The Gunners’ supposed woes, The Independent reporting; “Arsenal’s young Ox in the box masks familiar defensive lapses.” Certainly there was a brief aberration after Chamberlain and Santos had given them a great start but Arsenal, starting without at least ten key players, showed resilience to ride through Olympiacos’ increased pressure. In the second-half, without exactly closing the game out, they simply defended by passing their opponents into submission. It was a valuable lesson before the North-London derby on Sunday because Arsenal will have to show more control against Tottenham and in the second-half, they looked as if they had learned. Here are some thoughts on the 2-1 win over Olympiacos:
1. The ball is Arsenal’s best friend; use it.
Arsenal started the game clinically, scoring with their first two shots and while the rest of the half yielded two more attempts and ended with Olympiacos dominating, the first twenty minutes showed where their strengths lie – and they must do it better, more often. They simply passed the ball better, Tomáš Rosický particularly involved and linking play well early on and it was a good way of easing Chamberlain into the game. Keeping the ball is a form of defence and the fact that they did that so well – perhaps, without lacking the penetration – laid the foundations for the early domination. Granted Olympiacos sat off and only started causing Arsenal problems when they started pressing higher up the pitch but having options when on the ball, allows Arsenal to alleviate any such weaknesses. When Olympiakos pressed, The Gunners tried to push up in the midfield to negate those attempts. It didn’t work and it exposed Emmanuel Frimpong so in the second-half and parts in the first, they dropped Mikel Arteta deeper and that’s when Arsenal looked more comfortable.
When Arteta signed, Arséne Wenger said he gives the team “technical security” and indeed, what his composure on the ball gives to the team is noticeable. Ball retention has always been Arsenal’s strength and in recent seasons, they’ve tried to sacrifice that a bit in favour of more dynamism but how they keep it will decide Arsenal’s season rather than without.
“I think you have to give credit to our defence for keeping the result at 2-1 because they did put pressure on us,” said Wojciech Szczęsny to Sky Sports. “It was a great defensive performance in the second half. We did very well. I think we lost the ball too many times in the middle of the park and that created some problems and they looked dangerous on the break.
“We won the first half, we were 2-1 up, it was all about keeping the result that way and we managed to do that. I think we knew what we had to do. We had to keep the ball as long as we can. I thought we looked the better side in the second half and deserved the win.”
2. The official OX-STED Report on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
The young boy from Southampton Academy was schooled well, showing particular excellence in geometry with well-timed diagonal runs. “He can go inside, he can go outside” was one of his teacher’s, Pat Rice, comments from last night and with a bit of pace also, he has the ingredients to become a high-achieving student. The advantage of being home-tutored was also on display, oozing with maturity on the ball and neat dribbling in tight spaces somewhat reminiscent of his father. His head-teacher, Arséne Wenger, feels Chamberlain has the ability to become more involved and play centrally and allied with a good mix of dynamism and incision, he certainly offers something different to Arsenal’s attack. With slight slackness from Andrey Arshavin on the other side, he had to carry some of the slack from his under-performing class-mate and with the regionals coming up on Sunday, is surely a solid bet to start.
Overall Evaluation of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s debut in the Champions League: Outstanding
(For those who are still a bit confused, OX-STED is a play on words of OFSTED, the official regulators for the standards in education in England. They regularly carry out inspections of schools and at the end of it, compile a report of their performance. This is one of Oxlade-Chamberlain).
3. Collective defending problems still persist
It’s hard not to talk about an Arsenal performance without mention of their defensive game; it seemingly comes naturally. And indeed, it seemed as if it was almost an agenda for the broadcasters to dramatise any chance that Arsenal conceded. There are problems but it remains collective rather than a fault of the back-four who, it must be said, performed well considering their relative unfamiliarity with each other. Alex Song, in particular stood out with his reading of play and calmness while Andre Santos has also adapted well.
Ernesto Valverde tried to exploit Arsenal’s uncertainties in their zonal-marking from set-pieces and that’s where their goal and their other best chance came from. For their first corner, Ibagaza drilled one cross to the edge of the box as Arsenal were busy getting into position at the edge of their six-yard box. As a result, Orbaiz was allowed a short unmarked and in the ensuing scramble, Arteta blocked brilliantly off the line. Ibagaza later tried two short corners, one successful in causing mayhem in the box if nothing else and the other resulting in a goal. Once again, Arsenal allowed a run into the box unmarked and David Fuster headed accurately in. It seems the main benefit of zonal-marking, which was to allow Arsenal to concentrate better on attacking the ball rather than the distractions of marking, is slightly working against them. Now they are more preoccupied with getting correctly into position and that gives opponents an advantage.
The second collective issue that reared it’s head against Olympiacos is the vulnerabilities Arsenal have when they lose the ball. The Greek side tried to take advantage whenever Arsenal lost the ball and particularly benefited from getting shots from around the edge of the box. Like Barcelona, as the Rubin Kazan boss identified when they faced them two years ago, Arsenal’s propensity to push men forward leaves them exposed in front of the back four. From transitions, if teams can commit men forward and make those “Frank Lampard” runs, it gives them an area of opportunity because Arteta and Rosicky are unable to get back quick enough, . Thankfully, Arsenal weren’t punished but it’s always been a problem for them and certainly, Arteta’s presence alongside the holder does give the team more security this season. On the other hand, Arsenal pressed better and it seems watching from a higher vantage point does have it’s benefits. Wenger admitted before the match that from up in the stands “you can detect moments of weakness and bad positioning. It is good for working out coordination in your lines.” The switch back to the 4-2-3-1 seems like an answer to that.