By Shane Thomas
ARSENAL 3-1 OLYMPIACOS
Arsenal secured their second successive win in this season's group stage of the Champions League, and once again, it was a hard fought victory, with many nervous moments for the home support.
With Per Mertesacker and Abou Diaby missing due to illness and injury, Laurent Koscielny kept his place at centre-half, while Francis Coquelin was rewarded for his strong display against Coventry seven days ago with a start along Mikel Arteta in centre-midfield.
Lethargy & Sloppiness
I've always been of the opinion that the speed and intent of how Arsenal pass the ball is a strong indication to how well they function when attacking. Any more than two touches before delivering a pass should always set the alarm bells ringing.
And this was a major reason to why Arsenal were so flat in the first-half. Players often dwelt on the ball, allowing the Olympiacos rearguard to comfortably cover any spaces around the penalty box.
This was exacerbated by the usually reliable engine room being slack in their passing. While Coquelin gives a solid defensive presence to the midfield - which was probably why he was selected in the starting XI over Aaron Ramsey - his distribution was careless, often causing attacking moves to fizzle out before they had a chance to gain momentum.
The same could be said about Mikel Arteta. The Spaniard is deservedly one of the first names on the team sheet, but he only started after passing a late fitness test. You wonder what effect his level of fitness had on his display, as Arteta also conceded the ball more than one would expect in the opening 45 minutes. You have to wonder with only two days rest before the encounter against West Ham, if it might have been prudent to keep his powder dry until Saturday evening's outing at Upton Park.
Another reason for the lacklustre first-half display was Gervinho's (initial) ineffectiveness in leading the line. While some have compared his new advanced position to the "false 9" role that Lionel Messi plays for Barcelona, it is actually closer to the "central winger" - a phrase coined by Michael Cox of Zonal Marking fame, a position oft occupied by Iker Munian in Athletic Bilbao's run to the Europa League final last season.
This is a role where the player starts centrally, but is constantly moving laterally, generally receiving the ball in wide areas. The perpetual motion of the "central winger" makes him hard to mark. This suits Gervinho's high energy style of play, but he wasn't active enough before half-time, meaning Arsenal had no out-ball, which is a necessity when Plan A isn't functioning.
That said, he deserves credit for giving Arsenal the lead. And his display in the second-half was much improved. The Ivorian operated mainly down the inside-left channel (reminiscent of a Frenchman who used to ply his trade for the Gunners), and was a constant menace to the Olympiacos back-line, evinced by his assist for Lukas Podolski's goal.
On The Counter
Once Podolski had given Arsenal the lead, Olympiacos knew that a defeat would leave them adrift at the bottom of Group B, so manager Leonardo Jardim had little choice but to throw attackers Ariel Ibagaza and Marko Pantelic off the bench to try and salvage a point.
Arsenal meanwhile, summoned Ramsey, Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud, and the final 20 minutes was a mini-match of thrust and counter-thrust. Arteta and Coquelin both operated deep in front of the back four, with Arsenal having a defensive block of 6 players, with the plan to try and win possession and use the attacking block of four on the break, particularly the pace of Walcott.
Eventually it bore fruit, with Giroud and Ramsey combining well for the Welshman to seal the match in injury time.
Even with their absentees, Arsenal are a more accomplished team than the Greek outfit, and as long as they operated at a competent level of their potential, a win was certain. However, for a significant portion of the game, it was a moribund display, giving Olympiacos an opening to get something from the match. Eventually Arsenal's individual quality was enough to get them over the line, but they can't rely on the same occurring on Saturday against West Ham.
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