Montpellier 1 – 2 Arsenal
Firstly I should say I got it totally wrong with regards to the team selection tonight. I was convinced that Arsene would prioritise our game against Man City and would give the likes of Podolski, Cazorla, Gibbs and Gervinho a rest, or start them on the bench. He did the opposite by playing his strongest team from the start and with hindsight, despite the fact that most of the aforementioned players appeared to be very tired in the second half – something I was anticipating – Wenger definitely made the right call tonight.
These are the sort of games that can go either way, but I am convinced had we not played our strongest available team tonight we could have easily lost two or even three points, and even then we had to rely on a large dollop of luck to come away from la douce France with maximum points against a very spirited team. Maybe Arsene learned from Man United’s mistakes last year, when they thought they could cruise through their CL group with weakened teams, and ooh how they paid for it! Lol.
In order to qualify in the Champions League, we normally need to win our three home games and get something out of one or more of our away games. It also really helps to start well in order to gain momentum. We managed just about to do that and we should be happy, but our display in the beautifully named Stade de la Masson was far from convincing, and I think we will need to analyse it further properly over the next few days (I have no time tonight to watch the game a second time, so I am afraid you will have to settle for my initial findings and gut-feelings about the game).
I believe that key to it all was our midfield not functioning properly on the night, and especially Diaby, despite no lack of trying, failed to repeat his phenomenal performance against Liverpool two weeks ago. I guess it did not help that he collected a yellow card in just twenty seconds after kick-off, but Abou looked rusty throughout the game: he struggled at times with keeping possession as well as safeguarding the shape of our midfield. Arteta was our rock once again and as usual he put his body and soul on the line. Cazorla had some strong moments, but especially as the game went on, he seemed to disappear for large periods.
As a trio, though, they lacked shape, calmness and composure: we were unable to dominate play in midfield for large parts of the game, and it almost cost us dearly.
Not totally unexpected, Montpellier started the game without any fear and with a clear game plan. From the first minute, they did not allow us to control the game by passing the ball around as we have become so used to again this season. They started with a high line and were keen not to allow us to build up attacks from the back, or even just to pass the ball around towards the midfield. Very often Montpellier committed two players to attack any of our players who were in possession of the ball, and our usually so effective triangles were constantly broken up.
It also did not help at all that our captain, who has been so good at leading by example this season, made an error of judgement after eight minutes, both in terms of taking an unnecessary risk – there was no need to take on Belhanda there and then – and in the execution of his tackle. Diaby’s yellow card and TV’s foul that led to the penalty, which was put away with ooh-la-la cheekiness of the highest order by Belhanda, somehow set the tone for what turned out to be an uncomfortable evening.
Luckily, we were able to convert our first proper chance to level the match, and it only took us eight minutes since we conceded to do so. A beautiful, smooth move through the centre of midfield which had started with Diaby who passed the ball to Cazorla; the Spaniard then found Giroud at the edge of the box, and the ex-Montpellier player managed to put a very good through-ball in to the unmarked and on-site Podolski. The latter had time to pick his spot and fool the keeper in the process, and he showed his experience when he slotted the ball with apparent ease past Jourdren: 1-1, game on!
This appeared to have bamboozled the CL-inexperienced French team, and Arsenal went for the kill once more only two minutes later. And it was another beautifully worked goal. When the opposition is hunting us down and triangles are being suffocated, the only thing that seems to work sometimes, is taking on a player of the opposition and move into the space behind him. Jack Wilshere did this so well against Barcelona in that famous home CL win two years ago, and in Gervinho we have another player who excels in it (and the Ox is not far behind too).
Gervinho made a quick and smooth move to go past a player of the opposition near the right sideline, after which he passed the ball to Giroud. The latter did not manage to reach the ball but it bounced perfectly of the leg of a Montpellier player into the path of Jenkinson. Incredibly, from the moment Gervinho passed the ball to Giroud he sprinted into the box, as you would expect from a typical fox-in-the-box kind of striker. I think it is fair to say that most of us had not pictured him like that! Jenkinson delivered a razor-sharp cross into the box towards Gervinho who, with only a metre between him and the goalkeeper, stayed calm and finished with deadly accuracy: 1-2 to the Mighty Arsenal and it all looks very promising for us again.
However, after going in front we fail to continue controlling the game, even though we don’t give away much either. They simply keep a lot of their players in our half and make it really difficult for us to find our passing game.
The throughout the game very impressive, Cabella, probably had the best chance in the first half for Montpellier with a well-placed, low shot, after a fine run across our box, that just whizzed past Mannone’s left post.
I expected Arsenal to start the game a lot more organised and more capable of holding on to the ball, and to be able to dominate the game again. But we were never able to sustain possession and take control again of the game during the second half, which is a bit worrying.
Just after the restart, Diaby had an unfortunate slip in the box, leaving Cabella with a golden opportunity to equalise, but the 22 year old lacked the composure/experience which is so important at this level, and was demonstrated so incredibly well to him by Gervinho, and especially, Podolski earlier in the game. Although, it is fair to say he was simply unlucky when his lovely, bergkampesque attempt to chip Manone hit the bar rather than the back of the net in the 54th minute. I think we might see more of Cabella in the future.
The same lack of composure was shown by the equally promising talent of Belhanda (also 22 years old) late on in the game: after a rare mistake by Mertesacker in the box – at the end of a fine move by Montpellier – Belhanda was left with space and time to take a first touch and pick his spot – he does not keep his shot low to the ground but shoots right at the arms of Mannone, who does well not to panic and keep hold of it. That could easily have been the deserved equaliser for Montpellier, but luckily we escaped once more.
Other than Diaby’s fantastic, surging run from our own half all the way to the penalty box; where he fed the ball to Cazorla who could have done better with his shot on goal, we had very little to offer in terms of our attacking efforts.
In the end we held out and can now move on to the next game. Suffice to say, Wenger and Bould have some work to do with the team, as we are unlikely to get away with a repeat of tonight performance against Man City on Sunday.
Mannone: I really liked him tonight, even though he did not have to make many big saves. He was calm and oozed confidence: 7.5.
Jenkinson: Tenacious, solid performance and a great cross for the winner: 7.5.
Mertesacker: Really read the game well and was desperate to keep discipline and order in an increasingly becoming disorganised team: 8.
TV: Silly mistake to give the somewhat harsh penalty away, but recovered well after that and worked well with Mertesacker to just about stay in control in defence: 7.
Gibbs: Less dominant and present this game than in previous games. I felt he left TV too often exposed this game: 6.5.
Arteta: Reads the game as well in midfield as Mertesacker does in defence. Another solid, totally committed performance: 8.
Diaby: As per the Match Report comments; below par / too rusty on the night: 6.
Cazorla: Not his best performance this season, but his class still shone through at times. He seemed to disappear a lot in second half: 6.5.
Podolski: He also seemed to disappear a lot in the second half, but took his goal very well when it really mattered: 7.5
Giroud: Great assist for the all important early equaliser and worked very hard all over the pitch. He did not get great service on the night and will feel frustrated not have come close to scoring a goal against his former team: 7.
Gervinho: Instigated and finished fantastically the second goal. Worked hard to help out midfield and defence and was a joy to watch: 8 and my Man of the Match.