Well, that was the best Arsenal performance I’ve seen since we beat Barcelona two and a half years ago. I’ve just spent 10 minutes looking through previous results to find the last time I was so impressed and I got as far back as that memorable night in February 2011 when Arshavin’s cooly taken winner defeated the mighty Catalans.
Funnily enough, Mesut Ozil’s opening goal tonight reminded me of the little Russian’s famous strike. For Nasri pulling the ball back across the area for Arshavin to calmly slot into the net, read Ramsey bursting clear to play the same pass for Ozil, whose expertly executed sidefoot finish went in at the near post after just eight minutes for a dream start.
Giroud’s part in the goal shouldn’t be overlooked as he held the ball up well before releasing Ramsey down the right with a clever flick. The Frenchman had a good game and got a deserved goal on 15 minutes when he laid the ball off to Ozil, sprinted into the six yard box and tucked away a perfect pass from ze assist-meister.
For the rest of the half we continued to terrorise a much fancied Napoli side, making them look very ordinary as they struggled to cope with the movement and intelligence of Ramsey, Ozil and Giroud. Every player looked motivated, we played at a very high tempo and worked hard all over the pitch to win the ball back on the few occasions Napoli had a spell of possession.
On a side note, it brought into focus just how important the signing of Ozil was. Of course it has added his class to the side, but it’s also raised the performance levels of the other players. You can see they are buzzing to be playing alongside a world class player and it has given the squad’s confidence and morale levels a massive lift. This kind of marquee signing has been long overdue (especially as money has been available to spend for a couple of years now) and played a big part in the disappointing campaigns of the last few seasons. But hopefully there are more such signings to come and we can really kick on from here.
So a highly impressive opening period came to an end and even though 2-0 was a scoreline many fans would’ve gladly taken, the truth is we could and should have scored more. I was, therefore, wary of a Napoli backlash in the second half, but it never came.
It’s fair to say Higuain was a big miss for Napoli, but the main reason they didn’t threaten a comeback was because Arsenal didn’t let them. I was impressed by our first half attacking display, but not surprised as I know we can turn it on on our day. But the way we comfortably contained a side as strong as Napoli in the second half was more pleasing because protecting a winning position is a part of our game that’s been lacking in previous seasons.
Wenger picked Arteta and Flamini to sit in front of the back four and take turns joining the attack whenever possible. Playing two disciplined midfielders gave our defence much more protection and had the added benefit of allowing Ramsey more freedom to get forward, which he did to great effect. I hope Wenger plays two ‘holding’ players in the midfield for future tough matches like this because it gives us a more solid look and in truth Szczesny didn’t have a save of note to make. We were professional and disciplined throughout and in the second half we sacrificed the opportunity to score more in order to protect what we had. We still had chances of course, but less so than in the first half as we slowly killed the game off.
Wenger must take great credit for this improvement. We look up for every match now, are happy to take our foot off the gas and see out a winning position instead of attacking at all times, and the players work hard when not in possession, pressing the ball high up the pitch.
This has been epitomised by Flamini, who has been as important a signing as Ozil in his own way. The Frenchman is disciplined, hard working and aggressive, always looking to break up the opposition’s attacks with a crunching tackle or a clever interception. We’ve needed him since Song left, although for me he’s a much better player who plays more for the team than himself — something that couldn’t always be said about Song.
So it’s the perfect start to the Group of Death and 10 victories in a row since the Villa debacle — what a long time ago that seems now! I feel the fixture list has been kind to Arsenal thus far and wasn’t getting too excited by victories over mediocre sides like Fulham, Sunderland, Fenerbahce and even Marseille. But Swansea was a test we passed well and Napoli are a real step up in class for whom Arsenal raised their game accordingly. To put it into context Benitez’s team are second in Serie A, unbeaten before tonight and they beat last year’s runners up Borussia Dortmund in Matchday 1 — but they were completely outplayed by Arsenal.
I don’t want to end on a negative note, but I’m still concerned about this side’s achilles heel — relaxing after receiving praise and therefore underestimating ‘weaker’ sides. We have West Brom, Norwich and Crystal Palace next in the league and I would hate to see us lower the effort levels for these matches as we did on many occasions last year. Wenger seems to have fixed most of our faults though, so hopefully this is no longer a problem and we can go on to enjoy more performances and results like this one.
This could be a very good season.
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