Montpellier vs. Arsenal: 6 Things We Learned
In their first European fixture of the season, Arsenal nicked a valuable three points from Montpellier at their home ground in France to put themselves in the driver's seat of their group.
Despite an early Younes Belhanda goal from a penalty kick and some rather intense pressing from the home side at various points during the game, goals from Lukas Podolski and Gervinho provided the response that Arsenal needed, and carried the team to a 2-1 win.
While it didn't have the stunning ease of last weekend's 6-1 victory over Southampton, this was nevertheless a fulfilling team victory. And, after all, the result is much more important than how we got there.
Here are six things we can take from this early European triumph.
Arsene's Found His Team
Many, myself included, expected to see a slew of new players come into the squad against Montpellier because some first-teamers could have used the rest ahead of this weekend's fixture against Manchester City and many others have not gotten game time thus far.
However, only a couple of faces were different from the Southampton game, and they featured, in some cases, because of injury.
Vito Mannone replaced Wojciech Szczesny in goal because of the Pole's ankle trouble, while Abou Diaby came in after recovering from a knock of his own. Olivier Giroud also came on against his former club.
There were no changes in the defensive unit that has started every game of the season, and crucial players like Mikel Arteta and Santi Cazorla were not rested. This means that Arsene Wenger has found the starting XI he is most comfortable with and has made the decision to stick with it.
That Might Not Be a Good Thing
The most difficult times for Arsenal generally came when Montpellier was given the liberty to pour forward with little resistance from the midfield. Often, it was up to the defence to make a stand.
And when Arteta, Diaby and Cazorla were run ragged, the attack suffered noticeably, as it almost always does when its main channel of support has stopped providing it with the service it needs.
Perhaps a fresh face or two would have made a difference against a side that was full of energy in front of their home crowd. Despite being rather ineffectual when he came on late in the match, Aaron Ramsey could conceivably have built on strong performances in past matches to relieve Abou Diaby.
Arsenal do have a deep squad, and it will become increasingly necessary to use that to the club's advantage.
Playing with Four Wingers Is a Risky Bet
For much of the match, Arsenal's fullbacks stormed down the flanks to support the wingers and create chances for their teammates.
This strategy usually worked, and, indeed, many of the Gunners' best attacking moments came when Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson were high up the pitch and getting involved going forward, as is their wont.
In fact, it was Jenkinson who provided a superb assist to Gervinho for the goal that would ultimately prove to be the winner in the 18th minute.
But that risky play nearly burned Arsenal on a couple of occasions. While there were no glaring lapses in concentration, Gibbs and Jenkinson were caught out of position more than once, and a balance will have to be found between marauding runs and solid defending.
Montpellier Pulled an Arsenal
Despite taking an early lead and jumping on their opponents, Montpellier were not able to hold out, and their resolve was broken by a couple defensive lapses.
Later, they had a slew of chances, some of which were almost presented to them on a silver platter, and, somehow, every one of them was horribly missed. In the end, they put up an admirable attacking performance, but ended up the loser.
Arsenal usually play this unfortunate role, but they now see the baton being passed to their opponents. That change is critical, and one which has seen the Gunners go unbeaten to start this season.
Steve Bould Can Improve in a Few Areas
I can't really fault a man who was managing his first ever professional football match in the Champions League against the defending French champions, but Steve Bould can improve a bit for the next two UCL games he will manage before Arsene Wenger returns.
In the second half, a few Arsenal players were understandably getting a bit tired, which led to much of the pressure that Montpellier were able to put on the Gunners. Some such passages of play nearly led to goals.
Yet Bould did not make his first substitution until the 76th minute, and hesitated to use his remaining two changes until the 90th minute, when neither Theo Walcott nor Francis Coquelin could have much impact on the game.
Perhaps this was a bit of tentativeness from a first-time skipper, but Wenger would do well to chat with his assistant before the next European game.
The Defence Was Finally Bent, but Didn't Break
In more than any other match Arsenal have played this season, the back four were put under serious pressure for long stretches, partly because of Montpellier's quality and partly because of the aforementioned midfield tiredness.
Yet, despite some near misses from the French side, Thomas Vermaelen and Per Mertesacker held their line well, and soaked up much of the pressure throughout the game. When a ball was lofted into the box, they were usually there to win it. When a tackle needed to be made, it was.
Were it not for one half-mistake from Vermaelen early on, it is perfectly conceivable that Arsenal could have kept a clean sheet, and we could still be hailing Steve Bould's outstanding work.
An even sterner test will come this weekend against Manchester City, and the whole team will have to get better. But the encouraging signs are still there, and Arsenal have three points to show for their improvement.
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